I know this might be hard to believe, but before Henry, there was another old man on the receiving end of my affections.
It was the summer of 1996 and I was on a Trafalgar tour of Italy with my aunt Sharon. She was the worst traveling companion because she always had to be the center of attention and would get snotty anytime someone on the tour had the gall to speak to me. Mostly, she would answer questions for me, which would make me rampant with teenage temper-flares and pout sessions. But on this trip, which would end up being our last trip together since I was soon to become a disgrace to the family (i.e. a high school drop out), I decided to branch out on my own.
In previous years, my grandparents used to come with us and after day two, I’d be clinging to my Pappap, scowling when I would have to sit next to Sharon on the tour bus. When Sharon and I started to take these trips without them, it was hell for me. I would spend a lot of time crying on the bus because she was just so mean to me sometimes, and would put me down in front of the other travelers. She’d go off and make new friends with the other adults while I would have to be content with being the silent tag-a-long. And the thing with Sharon is that she lived for flaunting the fact that she was a “seasoned pro” at these European vacations, and would butt into people’s conversations to tell them where to get the best pasta in Rome or the best leather deals in Florence. And she would do this thing, whenever the tour guide would share something that Sharon was already planning on including in her own tour book, she would close her eyes and nod her head knowingly, making her stupid fucking chandelier earrings tinkle with pretentiousness.
Oh my god, this is making me hate Sharon so bad.
My grandma’s brother Eddie and sister Donna were also on this particular trip with their respective spouses, which was awesome because I never really got to spend much time with them since my grandma got all weird a few years earlier about, oh I don’t know, having familial relations. The four of them had already booked the trip when Sharon found out and decided it would be fun to surprise them. It was great for me to have them along because it allowed me to have allies in the very certain case that Sharon would try and ostracize me as usual.
Since I was 17 this time around, I was a little more secure in myself, had less complacency when it came to Sharon running the show. So I branched out. (I had tried this, mostly without success, on the trip prior to this one. Sharon caused a few scenes, but that’s another chapter involving a guy named Udo from Austria.) While she would be taking naps in the room, I’d wander down to the lobby in hopes of stumbling into some other people from our tour. In Lugano, I ran into Anahit, an Armenian lady from our group who Sharon hated. Probably because she was wild, extremely well-preserved for her age, and loved to drink the vino in excess every night at dinner. Since she was a single traveler, she was paired up with another single, Jackie. Jackie was in her 50s, wore fanny packs, and bore an uncanny resemblance to Nathan Lane. Sharon didn’t think very highly of Jackie either (“She gets on my fucking nerves” is what she’d hiss every time Jackie would breeze past us to her seat on the bus),
Our evening stroll took us down to Lake Como, where vendors were in abundance and the atmosphere was pregnant with romance and drunk laughter. I know, writing those words is extremely cheesy and out-of-character for me; but the truth is that I remember it so vividly, wishing I was older and there with a man. Not my mom’s possessive older sister and busful of retirees.
While there, we ran into more people from our tour, one of whom was Stefan—a very handsome Australian with well-coiffed prematurely white hair. He was there with his two (less attractive) friends, David and Ted, who were absent from this lovely nighttime stroll. It was the first time on the trip that I had really been around him, and we wound up walking back to the hotel together, as everyone else had found themselves paired up. I was in a panic. What could I possibly say to this older man that wouldn’t make him think (nay, believe) that I was just an immature kid. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I’m sure at some point I said, “OMG I play tennis and love rap music! My bedroom has purple carpet!”
From that moment on, I had big plans for Stefan. I only wore my tightest shirts for the rest of the trip. During walking tours, I would try to weasel my way near him, find some excuse to talk to him. Stupid shit like, “Look what I bought today!” and the chance of it being something that didn’t reflect my age was about 1 in 1,000,000.
If you were to read my vacation journal, you would notice a suspicious lack of Stefan entries. This is mostly because that journal was passed around between Sharon and my aunts and uncles every day on the bus, wherein they would laugh at my exaggerations, which to me were fairly accurate depictions of my surroundings and the subsequent events of the trip. (Events like: “August 15th, Milan: Sharon pointed out a zit on my chin in front of a group of people from our tour; I found a seat in the back of the bus and cried.”) The thing with my family, any family really, is the moment they catch a whiff of some blossoming crush, you better go out and buy the biggest Lady Gaga-approved hat to die beneath. However, my journal does learn me that at dinner that night, my Uncle Eddie withdrew a stack of Steelers trading cards from his shirt pocket and tried to exchange them with the waiter for bigger portions.
Near the very end of the vacation, we were on a day trip in Siena, during which Sharon and I had one of our signature rows. I used this as an excuse to ditch her and I sought out Stefan, who was with David and Ted. In my very dramatic nature, I filled them in on the horrors that is traveling with Sharon, told them how she was always trying to keep me down when all I wanted to do was make friends with everyone on the tour. I remember, all these years later, that I was wearing a sheer white tank, under which the slightest hint of my bra could be detected. I hoped Stefan would notice.
(I hadn’t yet learned the definition of “tacky.”)
(Or “SLUTTY,” apparently. Don’t worry—Henry is a ticketing slut patrolman; he makes sure I don’t leave the house with my vagina hanging out nowaways.)
Stefan and his friends took great delight in hearing my woes of Sharon and suggested that I fight her. We all laughed at this and I thought it was so amazing that I was just a kid, sharing an inside joke with these three men. Later, on the bus, Stefan made his way back to where Sharon and I were sitting to see if we were fighting yet. I laughed at this, probably with more gusto than it warranted, just to make Sharon question what was going on.
“Nothing,” I said, when I was able to talk again. “Just an inside joke.” My ego practically did a pole dance, it was so turned on to see Sharon feeling left out.
Later, on the bus, my Aunt Donna asked in her I’m-Going-Yell-Since-I’m-On-A-Submarine voice, “What’s that Australian’s name who had a birthday?”
“Ted,” I answered.
Sharon, unable to take anymore of this, hissed, “TED.”
“Oh!” Aunt Donna exclaimed. “Theodore! Now what about that handsome one up there with the white hair? That’s the one I like.”
Knowing the shade of my face was quickly on its way to matching the heat of a rolling boil, I mumbled, “Stefan.”
Loudly, real loud, she said, “Oh, STEFAN! I like the name, too!”
Meanwhile, Ted and David were sitting diagonally from us and were probably asking each other, “Why the fuck are these Yankee broads throwing our names around?”
This is why I never wanted anyone to know I was practically drawing up blueprints to find a way inside Stefan’s suitcase so I could go home with him and live a glorious life in Brisbane as his American concubine. Their mouths, they are loud. Every night at dinner, my Uncle Eddie would get all Heidi Fleiss and try to pawn me off on any waiter he deemed cute enough. This would send the rest of them into giddy histrionics, making them shout things like, “Oh, Erin, he’s a cute one! Look at his butt!” and drawing everyone’s attention to the young blond girl with the lobster-hued cheeks who was just trying to enjoy her caprese salad in peace.
The last day of the trip, everyone congregated in the lobby of the hotel in Rome, crying and hugging, promising to keep in touch. (No one ever does.) Some of the people had later flights, like Stefan, and didn’t make it down in time to say goodbye.
But Stefan did. He found me in the lobby, waiting for the airport shuttle, and came over to hug me goodbye. The tears were on their marks, getting ready and set to go, but I postponed the race in favor of allowing my hormones to throw a party against my pelvis because oh my GOD, I was in the arms of an older man.
I left Italy positive that I was in love with him.
When I found this photo, I was quick to point out to Henry that he wasn’t my first old man crush, and then proceeded to tell him all about Stefan.
“I think Sharon must have liked him too, because any time Stefan and I were together, Sharon would rush over with a reason to pull me away,” I said angrily, holding the picture of him adoringly.
“Or! Maybe she was pulling you away because you were only seventeen?” Henry hypothesized in that tone he uses when he thinks I’m stupid and that he knows everything.
“Oh, yeah. Or that.”