When Anna Maria came to see me in Wolfville in the fall, I did not know the visit would be our last. I was in Nova Scotia writing my Master’s thesis, and she was back in Montréal. It was the final ebbing of the friendship, which had begun in Europe in 1995 when we were still children, really, with too much energy to have so much freedom. It was a pan-Canadian relationship with an Italian connection. We were both from Toronto, but we met in London in front of Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. She had given a presentation on Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time earlier that morning. Her enthusiasm cut through the jetlag and sharpened my experience of that high school survey course: Italian Renaissance Art with Studio Component.
We were eighteen: the age when full disclosure and unashamed details are compulsory in the conversations of adolescent girls. We were roommates that summer in Siena, and we travelled together among the other sixteen girls to Florence, San Gimignano, Rome and first to London. She was happy and guileless and alive back then. We roamed medieval Siena at night, returning in the early morning to the little hotel in the Contrada of the Wave – la Contrada dell’Onda as we loved to say rolling the ‘r’s of our fake Italian accents. We talked to everyone and ate everything and we drank and we drank, and during the day we painted and talked about important ideas and also the Italian boys who whistled at every North American girl they saw.
The next year I studied at McGill and she went to the University of King’s College in Halifax. I eventually failed out but stayed in Montréal for another year for a boyfriend. She dropped out of King’s to go to NSCAD and then from NSCAD to go to Concordia. Our lives intersected periodically as we revolved through the wobbly orbits of our early twenties, using universities to justify our lifestyles, never getting anything out of them we didn’t already know except where the good parties were and how to score.
That evening in Nova Scotia she was dynamic. It was November, and the snow was heavy and wet, pulling down trees and power lines. We drank Guinness in the Library Pub on Main Street until it closed. Just down Elm Avenue were the dykes the Acadians built to keep out the huge tides of that great Bay of Fundy that lay in the darkness just beyond us, churning.
We talked with the wisdom of years, we thought, having recently exceeded that age beyond which we’d never imagined ourselves being. Our topics were now more concrete than they had been in Italy: how do you manage to write a respectable thesis in only one year? Maybe a law degree is not such bad a idea. What can you do when you’re in love with your professor, and you could swear by the trace of a glint in his eye that he also loves you? What about going to India to find God? We uneasily avoided dwelling too long on how much our paths had diverged. I was settling down in a way that she found unsettling, and her restless roving made me weary. That night she talked about a professor she had been seeing in Montréal. She was a great entertainer, and her oratory was absorbing.
“So over drinks he suddenly says, ‘You’d like to draw me naked, wouldn’t you?’ So I ask myself the question, and the answer is unexpected. You’re a fucking lunatic, I think. ‘But I’m a photographer’ I say.” She leaned forward to urge me into the story. “His name is Marc, and I was taking his critical theory class over the summer. I handed in a series of photographs in place of a written paper without discussing it first – a risky move I know - but we knew each other a little bit, and I wanted to get his attention. He says the fact I need to explain myself demonstrates that I have failed to achieve my objective. I think I should be able to get away with it, so I invite him out to persuade him.” She always told a good story this way, as if it was happening right that very moment.
“His gaze keeps drifting down to my breasts. My nipples are thick and hard because there is a cool draft in the room, and I am wearing a very thin shirt. Around that time I started to wear this very sheer, pale blue shirt after I had my nipple pierced. You could see where the ring entered and exited my flesh and the stainless steel spike on it. First I just wore the shirt upstairs to watch a movie with my neighbours. One said he thought it looked painted on. I thought that was an interesting idea: to get away with being naked in a sense.” She paused to check my reaction. “I know you don’t believe me, but this is what third-wave feminism means to me.” She sometimes called me The Suffragette because she said I thought feminism was still about representation and the right to vote. I took a deep sip of beer to suck back my response; it stung my throat. She continued.
“This is intriguing, I think” her eyebrow flicked up slyly. “I look at the dark, shiny patch of course hair under his wet, pink lips. They glisten with moisture and foam from his beer. ‘Do you mean right now?’ I ask to see if he squirms. I wondered if he was serious or just being obscurely analytical.” I wondered what she meant by that, and my attention drifted to the bartender. He caught my eye across the empty room. I held up two fingers and nodded yes to him.
“So, I wasn’t totally sure what to do about Marc here. He’s not physically attractive, you know? It’s his attitude. He said, ‘Well, I don’t live far from here. Maybe you’d like to come back to my apartment for coffee?’
“‘I can have coffee here.’ I said coyly. He has an English accent.
“‘Well, for ice cream then.’ He always sounds bitchy and exasperated. The look in his eyes though, and the way they slide down my body, draws me in.
“I spar with him a little bit, ‘Do you think it’s appropriate for me to come to your house, especially when I still have a grade pending?’” Her eyes flashed with scandal. “Irritated, he says ‘I have something else pending that’s a bit more urgent.’” She rolled her eyes and nodded to me, “I know.” I sucked air, about to speak, but she went on. “But then he gave me this piercing look and licked his lips, and I was in. I said, ‘Don’t you think you’re a little too old for me?’
“‘Listen darling,’ he said, ‘you wouldn’t be the first.’ I found him so appealing.” The bartender put the round down on coasters in front of us. I watched the bubbling foam cascade through the black beer. I sipped deeply and let the bitter quench fill my mouth.
“In the bathroom stall I fantasize about the possibilities. I could invite him to come and sit next to me on the banquet and guide his hand under my skirt. I could pull him into an alley on the way home. I could stay in here long enough for him to understand that it’s an invitation. I put my underwear in my pocket and stopped at the bar on my way back to the table. I bend over a barstool just enough to inch my skirt higher. I imagine that Marc, who is right behind me, can see that I’m not wearing underwear. I am really interested in situations of furtive sexuality. I like the idea of the private unfolding in public, still private for the most part but sort of not. I might write my thesis on it.
“I ask for a glass of water. ‘Can I have extra lemon?’ I come back to the table and start explaining my pictures to him, sucking the sour fruit.
“‘I don’t suppose there’s also an earing in that mouth that I haven’t noticed before?’ He asks, interrupting me. I stick out my tongue and flash him the small stainless steel sphere hooked into my tongue.
“’Maybe I’ll also show you my tattoo.’ He gestures for the cheque. At this point I know he’s serious and that he’s probably going to take my pictures in place of the paper. As we get up to leave, our waiter nods to Marc in that conspiratorial way that men always seem to have that I never understand. He puts his hand low on my waist. It is commanding and possessive, and I like that. He reaches under my skirt as we cross to the door. As we walk awkwardly along Ste. Catherine Street, his hand travels more deeply underneath. An exploratory finger is burrowing into the slippery folds between my legs. It rubs me and tries to push inside.” Part of me wanted her to stop because I was worried the bartender was listening, but I was completely absorbed in her story. “For a moment I was distracted because I could hear people behind us. I heard a woman laugh, and I was afraid that his arm was pulling my skirt up too high and that she was laughing at me. ‘Hold on a sec.’ I tried to push his hand away.
“‘I don’t think so, darling.’ He says almost whispering. It was really hot. So I pulled him between two buildings where we were hidden by a recycling bin.
“All I could think about was the fact that I was seducing my professor. And he’s not just a professor, you know. He writes for the Globe and Mail.
“‘This is so sleazy of you Marc.’ I whisper in his ear, but he doesn’t answer me. He’s pushed up against me, against the wall. While I’m undoing his pants, I feel his hand on the back of my neck, trying to push my head down. I resist, and he pushes down harder, so I pull his hips toward me and he is inside me with a rough jab. I was not going to give him a blowjob in an alley beside a dumpster. Obviously. Anyway, by the third or fourth thrust he has given up on getting any oral, and he’s started to make that sound, you know? So then we just fuck in the alley.”
I didn’t say anything. “What?” She looked at me defiantly. Years ago I responded enthusiastically to her wild stories because I didn’t want her to think I was a prude and because I envied her experience and her freedom. Now I was uncomfortable with the way she regaled me with such raw details.
“Did I tell you that I started stripping?” Her face was still smiling, but her eyes were not. “I like being on stage and being watched.” She recited. “Mostly I like that it’s such easy money – not that I really need money – because these stupid men just give it away. I love that I can take whatever I want from them if I just flash my ass and cock an eyebrow.”
I knew she was hurt by my silence, but I was annoyed because she always set me up this way: she would try to shock me, dare me to judge her and then sulk when I didn’t congratulate her behaviour. I was angry that she misunderstood my concern for her safety as moral disapproval. I told myself I did not judge her.
She had the face of an Italian Madonna, like the ones painted by Duccio and Simone Martini in the style of the Sienese School: the early ones with long noses and deep, dark, almond shaped eyes; their bodies set against gold leaf, their circumstances always somewhat mystical. I remember we laughed about the idea of a virgin sky in Siena and how our teacher hated it when we called it that. At twilight, the deep blue sky makes the rusty brown of the ancient city look intensely orange, and that orange makes the sky intensely blue like lapis lazuli: the colour of the robes of the Virgin Mary.
The year we were in Siena, the horse from our contrada won the Palio. It was the first time in a long time that a horse was not killed on the San Martino bend. Anna Maria and I were there in the square, penned in and carried on the wave of the vigorous, angry crowd as the horses flew around the Piazza del Campo. The race ended suddenly, the gates of the square opened, and the pressure of the bodies holding us off our feet in the air released and we splashed into the streets. I folded over in relief of panic that gripped me for the first time in my life, but Anna Maria was exultant, brought to life by the passion of the crowd and the extreme emotion with which the Sienese attend this ancient race.
That night we attended the parties that filled our part of the city. Her pleasure from the win was as earnest and joyfully celebrated as by the revelers who’d watched the race for their whole lives. She danced with old men and kissed children and eyed teenaged boys lecherously. She spoke more and more Italian as the night wore on. She sang their songs, and we drank until morning.
Ashley Coe is a multidisciplinary writer and erstwhile medievalist who has studied English literature at the University of Waterloo, Acadia University and the University of Western Ontario. She left academia to focus on writing fiction. Her work has also recently been published in Existere. She lives in Kitchener, ON. Her blog -