Renato would have followed me a thousand miles back to my apartment. At least that’s how it felt in the beginning.
The truth is that there were only 45 steps between my apartment and the wine bar around the corner where we both worked. I got paid in tips and dinner, and all the wine I could drink. No one ever asked me if I was legal to work. Everyone paid in cash. All they cared about was that I lived nearby and that I could help translate for tourists.
I always finished first and waited for him, anointed and anxious at the window. I would listen for his footsteps on the cobblestones outside. The later it was, the louder they would echo. I would spray my hair with perfume and act surprised when he knocked on the door without calling first. When the bar was busy he would return as late as five or six in the morning. He would rap on the window until I woke up, and he would collapse into bed next to me. It never occurred to me that these nightly visits could be as perfunctory as taking off your shoes at the end of a long day. Everything about him and this place and this feeling was new to me, which could only mean it was extraordinary.
Then one night it all just stopped. I squinted at my phone in the weak light until my head hurt. I listened for the tap-tapping outside and hated anyone who walked by that wasn’t him. Two weeks later, when the bar closed for several months, and he had no other reason to come to my neighborhood, the first pangs of truth started knocking around my stomach. I spent hours walking and worrying. I lost five pounds and produced pages of tragic poetry.
Finally a friend of his who owned the restaurant across the street was kind enough to tell me where Renato went at night. Carlo nurtured my dignity back to life the only way he knew how: first smiles over coffee in the morning and plates of spaghetti alla matriciana and tall glasses of Montepulciano at night. Together we waited out the last clang of the aluminum shutters up and down the block. Night after night we smoked cigarettes and drank his uncle’s homemade limoncello until my legs became wobbly. When he knew that I would finally fall sleep, he would walk me home.
This is how I recovered from my first Italian heartbreak. At the table. Not in the way you see in movies, sobbing over pints of ice cream, or passing out with your face in a pizza box. It wasn’t the food that filled me up when I felt empty. It was the company and the ritual that restored me. In many ways, eating in Italy isn’t about the food at all. Maybe it’s true that everything tastes better here, at least everything that sprouts from the stratified earth to be nourished by the Mediterranean sun and a salty sea breeze. But when someone cooks for you, even when part of it comes out of a can, there is a giving and receiving of pleasure, and that exchange, even between two strangers, is another kind of love.
Annie B. Shapero is a wine sommelier and writer living between Rome, Italy and New York. She has published with travel and lifestyle publications including: WHERE Rome, Time Out, Insight Guides, Haute Life, American Express Essentials, and is currently working on her first novel, a memoir set in Rome. “Renato (45 Steps)” is an excerpt.