Monday, September 21, 2020

Overnight by Wilson Koewing

Wilson Koewing's story of a doomed American couple touring Europe.

Two weeks into a six-week jaunt around Europe, I grew concerned about my relationship with Rae when we spent a weekend in Tuscany and didn't have sex.

I wrecked the rented moped with her on the back. That could have been part of it. The idyllic setting convinced me I could operate machinery I'd never operated. To my credit, I got us to the ninth-generation family vineyard, with only a slight topple, where we learned the finer points of tasting wine.

I almost returned us unscathed, but after stopping at a petrol station outside the walled city of San Gimignano, I tried to enter a steady stream of traffic, over-throttled and drove straight across the street into the stone wall. Three old Italian men sitting in foldout chairs watched with expressions unchanging.

The moped was mangled. Rae's feet were cut up. I was ego-bruised and embarrassed.

"You really are stupid, aren't you?" Rae said.

"Yeah, maybe," I replied. "But you're the one who stood in line for an hour to take a photo of the Mona Lisa."

The look on her face confirmed I'd won and lost.

"I've never met anyone who dwells on more meaningless details," she said.

We argued about the moped. She wanted to walk it back to the rental place. I wanted to leave it and come up with a story. The three old Italian guys wouldn't have corroborated the story. Or maybe they would have. I'm sure it was hilarious to witness, and they'd proven difficult to read.

Rae walked back to our rented villa, and I wandered through the walled town drinking from one of the chipped wine bottles we purchased from the vineyard.

It was strange walking through that town. Tourist shops and restaurants gave way to neighborhoods with pocket parks and squares that didn't seem like passers-through should be exploring them. I wandered until I reached the edge, climbed stairs to an overlook and watched the sunset paint the Tuscan countryside blood-orange, fuzzy-topped and baffling.

It reminded me of our Louvre visit, and the rant I went on about hating paintings that resembled reality. Didn't photography render those obsolete?

"They didn't have photography then," Rae said.

"Sure, I get that," I said. "But why is it relevant now?"

She didn't have an answer, but it didn't mean she was wrong.

I staggered back to the villa. Rae passed out, and I drank another bottle listening to whatever bugs they have in Italy. The last kiss of the summer sun lingered, and views held late into the evening of San Gimignano and the tight, thick trees that only exist in Tuscany.



In the morning we decided to take our licks and went to the gas station to retrieve the moped, but it was gone, so we skipped town, leaving Tuscany on a bus to Florence. From Florence, a fast train to Milan. From Milan, an hour bus ride to the airport. We didn't see Milan. I didn't care. Fashion and bullshit, I said.

The best thing about the Milan airport was it was an hour from Milan. No one there except Italian soldiers with rifles and an easy pass through security. We boarded the plane to Bilbao, which would lead us to Basque country.

Rae went to sleep or acted asleep, and I observed the people on the plane. There was a beautiful Spanish couple. The man had sun-kissed skin covering muscles. His wife was stunning perfection in skin-tight workout clothes. They spent the flight wrangling three toddlers. The kids were monsters, but the couple weren't embarrassed. I envied their dispositions. The husband ordered two beers and two liquor drinks and so did I.

In Bilbao, we hopped a shuttle to San Sebastian. The Spanish couple sat at an airport bar and drank more as we dragged our luggage by. Two of the kids climbed on a table, the other occupied himself digging up a fake plant. None of them had a care in the world.



The first night in San Sebastian, I was overwhelmed by the screaming crowds and dog eat dog nature of the pintxo scene - where if you want anything the kitchen actually makes you have to be aggressive.

"This is the one place you demanded to visit so you could eat this food," Rae said. "Because you saw a Bourdain episode, and now you're too gutless to order?"

I could have used her support, but I couldn't argue. We walked around Old Town passing all the pintxo bars, but my courage never rose, and we settled for a paella place.

"Oh, yum," Rae said. "You know paella is a Southern Spanish thing, right?"

It was atrocious. It stuck to the pan. It was overly crispy. The seafood smelled. I've never been more embarrassed eating a meal.

After the paella, we bought beers at a corner store and walked to the house we'd rented a room in. San Sebastian has fancy outdoor escalators that rise to the houses on the hills overlooking the bay where most people live. Rae climbed the escalator stairs and I stood still. Before long she was an escalator above me, gazing down at the moon bathed beach.

I woke up motivated not to let the previous night's failings define me. I gathered beach supplies and stopped in a crummy pintxo bar on the way. I refused to take what sat out on the bar even though they had nothing good to make behind it. Regardless, they sensed my moxie and made me fresh versions of what was already out, bagged it warm and handed it over. I felt I'd achieved something.

"We'll see how you do tonight," Rae said.

I hated her, but also thought her perfect.

On the beach the women were topless, young and old. A sight to a Southern boy bred of puritan American modesty. Rae unsnapped her top and tossed her shorts aside. She sunned as I wandered where the water met the shore.

I was 35.

I'd had several long-term relationships with women who taught me my shortcomings. I'd committed adultery. I'd been with women who gave me the benefit of the doubt and eventually saw me for what I was. I'd never been a good man. I had no idea how to love. I was selfish, walking down the beach feeling the soft lap of the waves against my ankles, fantasizing about every woman who walked by. I was America incarnate. Billboards. I was Maxim magazine. I was reality shows where the meathead got the girl. I was the product of thinking Hugh Hefner was a genius. I didn't have a clue.

I walked up the beach one way then back the other and waded out toward the cliffside, where you could go out hundreds of yards and only be knee-deep. Through a chute and beyond an ancient rock with a lighthouse atop, you could see the rough waters of the Bay of Biscay where some of the best fishing in the world exists. The white caps stood in stark contrast to the azure waters off Concha beach where sailboats anchored and the vibrant colors of thousands dotted the sand shoreline.

I sat in the water and watched Rae talk to a tanned surfer more fit and appealing in the endless rays of the sun than I could ever be. He must have wandered over from the beach on the other side of the cliffs to observe the tourist offerings because you couldn't surf fuck all on La Concha. He held his surfboard by his side and while they talked, Rae lifted her leg to wipe the sand off in a way that was so sexy it pained me.



I approached the second night with a gusto bred of jealousy, inadequacy and malaise. With confidence I ordered fried foie gras, cod presented on a tray with a burning ember underneath and served with a tube of green liquid that tasted like the water from which it came, crab leg burnt so black you pulled the juicy meat out right before the shell disintegrated. We made the rounds, like you do there; one beer, a pintxo or two, on to the next place. I'd been nobody before, but by our second time through that beautiful maze of delectable food, I was, "Happy to see you again my friend!"

Rae was mildly impressed.

When we returned to our rented room, we made stifled love. Passionate, but distant. Some combination of believing in a moment and knowing it couldn't last.



In the morning, we trudged through the streets of San Sebastian for the overnight train to Lisbon. I was close to calling the relationship over when Rae detoured into a bar, ordered shots and yanked me into the bathroom. The space was unfit for two and I couldn't escape my reflection in the mirror.

On the train we had sleepers, but the cars were male/female only. Rae found hers and we agreed to meet in the bar later. I found mine, but the bed was too small for sleeping.

When I reached the bar car it was still light outside the windows. Basque country slid by like a melting postcard. It was me and Borg, the Lithuanian bartender in there. Borg refused to talk tennis. He drank sweet wine and ate candy when there were no customers.

"How do you like this gig?" I asked.

"It fucking goes back and forth, man," Borg replied, lighting a cigarette.

He had a story, but drawing it out would have taken more effort than it was worth. We drank in silence after that, waiting for another passenger to glide through and interrupt the serenity our mutual disinterest had afforded us.

Which they did, and either as a result of what had wholly numbed us, or that had wholly set us free, we watched them arrive and leave with a caustic indifference. Laughing when they were gone, carrying away one of the menu's few pitiful offerings.

Rae never showed up to the bar car and I never left. She claimed the following morning she'd fallen asleep.

We were on the overnight train to nowhere. It wasn't that anything ended when that train docked. It was that we spent three weeks together after that, wasting Europe, knowing it was over the second we stepped foot back in the States.

2 comments:

  1. For me, a story about a very shallow narcissistic character. Intriguing in its own way, just to read the character's perceptions. He likes his food.

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  2. A bit of a depressing vibe to this one. The MC might be on the verge of a mid-life crisis...if he cared enough to feel it. I thought the tiny paragraph where he states his age conveyed a lot of meaning.

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