All Roads Lead To You
Successful British model Sam was making a big name for himself on the catwalks of Rome when he met and fell head over heels in love with Lauro, a waiter in a pizza restaurant. Lauro, charming and naïve, returned all Sam's affection, and they enjoyed one passionate summer in the vibrant city and the wild campagna countryside beyond. But Sam had big dreams. He accepted a modelling assignment in New York and left his pizza boy behind.
Now Sam is back, older and wiser. But Lauro is older and wiser too. Can the city of eternal romance work its magic on these two star-crossed lovers?
The city was a distant heap of jewels, her lights warped by the updraughts. Sam leaned on the parapet and watched her glittering dance. Beside him, honeysuckle half-obscured the sign which warned, in a stark Italian even he could understand, that it was dangerous to climb among the watchtower ruins. Pericolo di morte.
As if in direct contradiction, the honeysuckle stirred in the breeze, caressing Sam's bare arm. “Lauro,” he whispered, night-cooled scents of wild campagna grasslands blending with the blossoms' sweet musk. But the air remained empty beside him. The moonlit ribbon of the Appian Way unspooled towards the city, ancient flagstones empty too. What had he expected?
He had come out here three years ago, single and heartwhole, only wanting to escape the summer heat and catch his breath between assignments. He'd done well enough as a model in London, but one chance photo shoot in Rome had launched his career on a skyrocket. The Italians had loved his fair hair, his easy way of taking haute couture down a catwalk. He'd been the man of the hour, dark-eyed city matrons turning to stare after him and match his face to the billboards. Hot, tired and dazzled by his own lights, he'd made his way one Sunday to the green park that lined the Via Appia. He'd gone unnoticed there, until...
Sam climbed down through the tumble of moss-covered rocks until he found the place, the exact spot, where he'd taken shelter on that blazing afternoon. Nothing here had changed. The ferns and the lilacs still shaded the stone bench, casting their shadows out of moonlight now. Here he'd sat, idly watching the arrival of a huge Italian family in the meadow below. Patriarch, matriarch, the juniors running to set out the elders' deckchairs as if they had been thrones. Aunts, uncles, in-laws, a small horde of sable-haired children. And, in the rearguard, keeping an eye on the kids with smiling distraction, the most beautiful young man Sam had ever seen.
The moment had been strange. It had felt like an eclipse, when birds stop singing and a breathless quiet comes down over the world. The kids and the murmuring olive leaves had faded out. The young man, dark as his nieces and nephews but with startling deep-blue eyes, had looked up.
Sam had smiled at him. He'd been told it was an irresistible smile, and he'd started to manipulate its power. It hadn't failed: his young man, after settling grandma down with her sunglasses and parasol, had disappeared from the family group. And five minutes later, the ferns had rustled, and a fresh-scented presence like bread and sunlight had warmed the air beside him on the bench.
Lauro – mi chiamo Lauro, he had said, before working out from Sam's stumbling reply that Italian was not one of his gifts and swapping to a hesitant, charmingly accented English – Lauro was here with his family. He could only take a minute. He worked as a waiter in his father's pizza restaurant, and he had never – ever – talked to a strange boy in the park. Sam, who by then had talked to plenty, had been at a complete loss. It had been awful. He had given the stranger his card, and Lauro had gone pale beneath his tan, as if confronted by some chilly assignation. No, Sam had told him. No. If Lauro would call him sometime, they could meet up for coffee. That was all. And Lauro had smiled again: reached out and clasped Sam's hand.
He had called the next day. Sam had met him among the orange trees of the Piazza Santa Maria, and coffee had turned into a long walk by the Tiber, and a sweet, awkward kiss outside Sam's apartment. It had taken them a fortnight to get further than that – to go out to the campagna again and return, exhausted and grass-stained, as lovers.
Sam had fallen hard, though it had felt like flight. He'd flown all that summer, through shimmering Roman skies, buoyed up by love and success. Whenever he had stepped down off the catwalk, emerged from yet another popping galaxy of paparazzi flash, Lauro had been there – always smiling, always holding out his hand.
There had only been one shadow on their shared days – their rambles through the city, their hot nights entwined in Sam's bed. Lauro wouldn't take Sam home. He had refused outright, almost sharply, when Sam had asked to meet his family. He wouldn't even talk about them, and Sam had filled the vacuum with assumptions. The Battistas would be Catholics, of course. Maybe Lauro wasn't out to them. Perhaps he was ashamed.
Sam's pride had been hurt. By then he had been universally adored, or so it had felt: fashionistas falling over themselves to get him into their clothes, an entourage of society boys and girls equally keen to get him back out of them. He had resisted all the offers – for Lauro, who should have recognised the privilege of Sam's fidelity. Sam had told his own family all about Lauro. Why couldn't he visit old man Battista's restaurant, or even be told where it was?
Sam had pushed, and the result had been their first and only fight. Lauro, so shy, good-natured and obliging, had turned into a tiger. He had frightened Sam breathless. No, there would be no pizzas, no cosy visits with the in-laws. They were not that kind of family, and Lauro had given him everything else. If Sam didn't like it he could go...
The campagna night was chilling, an ache sinking into Sam's bones. Soon the moon would set, and he supposed he had better make his way back to the main road while he could still see. He remembered, as sharply as if some brutal soul had filmed it and played him back the tape, the morning after the quarrel. For the first time that summer he'd woken alone. His phone had rung, and an excited voice from across the Atlantic had told him that the contract he’d been waiting for all of his life, the deal that would make him, was waiting for him in New York.
The timing had been perfect. Really catastrophically good. Ambition had met with resentment in Sam’s heart – for a short, deadly time, killing love. He couldn’t shake the echoes of Lauro’s rage from his mind. What the hell had been so wrong with Sam’s desire to know more about him? Sam had packed up his portfolio and passport: stood on the kerb for a moment, shivering in the sun. Then he'd hailed a taxi for the airport.
His insanity had lasted for a month. Its cessation had been abrupt and total. He had crawled back to his hotel one sweltering East Coast night, longing for Lauro's voice, ready for surrender. He'd paused before dialling. It would be eight AM in Rome, and Lauro would be getting ready for a morning shift in the trattoria. Old man Battista was strict, and didn't allow phone calls during work hours. But Sam's timing had been good. Lauro had picked up on the third ring.
He was engaged to be married, he had said, in a voice more distant than the chasm of night between them. He should have told Sam about Aurelia. He would have done eventually, of course, but Sam had left, and that had turned out best for everyone.
The moon was gone. Only a coppery dusk touched the watchtower now, and Sam was alone with the muggers and mosquitoes who would hold sway here till dawn. He and Lauro had made a pact, in those first heady weeks of their love. On a certain night in May, they both would return to this magical spot in the campagna, so that if time or distance ever separated them – if ever they lost each other – this would be the place that called them home.
Sam had missed the rendezvous for two years in a row. He was not sure why he had come tonight. He knew that Lauro – married with kids now, a solid family man – would not be prowling the old ruins in memory of a likely forgotten love affair. He watched the track for half an hour more. Its dust and dry leaves lay undisturbed. Sam pushed his hands into his pockets, and slowly made his way back to the road.