In June of 1984, I flew to Milan to attend a summer course at the Academy of Fine Arts. My college professor had suggested the Academy after spending a semester voicing his frustration over my lifeless portraits. “Tessa,“ he had pleaded. “Stop painting with your eyes and learn to paint with emotion.”
At nineteen, I took that to mean I lacked passion.
I blamed my Southern California upbringing, where a homogenized world of tract homes, strip malls and predictable boys had numbed my senses. I thought I needed a muse. A man whose stunning physical attributes would shatter the domestic lethargy holding me back. Italy seemed like the perfect place to find one.
Once acclimated to my new surroundings at the Academy, I dabbed on my shiniest lip-gloss and dressed in flowing skirts matched with lacy blouses that fell off one shoulder in a tantalizing invitation. I was ready to meet my inspiration.
Sunday seemed like the perfect day to tuck my sketchpad and charcoal pencils inside my shoulder bag and venture into the city. It didn’t take long for the men on the street to show their appreciation by stealthily pinching my derriere and grinning at me under narrowed eyes.
I ran back to the campus, deciding to take a closer look at my fellow students and several middle-aged professors. Their gazes did not seek mine. They were clearly preoccupied with their own goals.
By the end of another week, my quest had reached a critical level. I could barely muster the energy to paint in class. And then one morning, I noticed Salvatore. He was leaning against a stone arch in the courtyard, reading a textbook on Chagall. Tall and thin, he wore stylish glasses and a tailored jacket over jeans. Even though I considered his face more interesting than handsome, when he looked up and smiled, my stomach fluttered with excitement. Had I discovered my muse?
Our initial conversation led to daily meetings at a local café. Salvatore and I liked to drink espresso and talk about the techniques we had learned in class. This often led to opposing opinions that sparked heated debates. I liked Monet’s emphasis on bright colors to represent light. Salvatore preferred Manet’s style of using dark tones for contrast. Invigorated by our discussions and determined to prove our respective points, we spent evenings at his studio, layering oil paint on tightly stretched canvases. During these sessions, we laughed and teased each other with words and playful nudges. I liked spending time with Salvatore and missed his deep chuckle when we parted ways for the night.
My instructors began commenting on the improvement in my work. They were right. I was becoming a skilled painter, but I sensed my art still lacked… passion. A Swedish student assured me that wine, not beauty, was the missing ingredient when it came to unleashing the fevered impulses artists needed to master their craft.
That night I invited Salvatore to a restaurant across the street from Parco Sempione. We talked about Duchamp and Dadism until a young waiter placed a bottle of Pinot Grigio and menus on our table. I drank half the glass and waited. The Swedish student was right. It didn’t take long for the white wine to awaken my appetite for romance. I tossed a handful of lire on the table and pulled Salvatore to his feet. We dashed into the street and entered the park, stopping at a circular fountain. We sat on the edge near a water-jet and listened to a sweet melody playing somewhere in the distance while catching our breath.
“You crazy American girl,” Salvatore finally managed to say. “Why you bring me here?”
I could not see his expression in the moonless night, so I gathered all the courage I could muster and drew him into my arms for a kiss. His initial resistance surprised me. Weren’t muses supposed to be as enamored as the artist? Or did two artists cancel each other out when it came to unleashing desire?
I held on tighter to Salvatore, anticipating a release of pheromones that would arouse my body into further action. What I felt was the back of my dress soaking up mist from the fountain’s spray. Something wasn’t right. I remembered the specks of burnt sienna paint I saw wedged under the groves of Salvatore’s nails at the dinner table. I lowered my head to his shoulder and smelled a trace of paint thinner on his shirt. I had specks of cadmium red under my nails. My clothes smelled of turpenoid. The haze of wine induced euphoria evaporated. I opened my eyes and pulled back.
“Cosa fai?” Salvatore whispered.
I didn’t know what to say, so I dipped my hand in the water and splashed him. After a slight hesitation, Salvatore splashed me back. We ended the evening, walking under the streetlights in our drenched clothes. We continued to talk and laugh, but our relationship felt different. Loaded questions hung in the air between us. There were no more playful nudges.
I stopped drinking wine after that night and reigned my extracurricular activates with Salvatore back to espressos and discussions on the boardwalk. Salvatore didn’t push for more, but I saw a longing in his eyes that had not been there before.
When the summer semester ended, Salvatore invited me to join him and two friends on his vacation to Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Africa. I thought about the reactions I would face if I returned home with the same dismal emotions limiting my artwork. My professor would be disappointed. My friends would feel sorry for me. Determination to continue my quest set in. “When do we leave?”
We departed the next morning with Claudio and his girlfriend Gia. I could tell from the encouraging looks they gave Salvatore and I, crammed together in the back seat of the faded green Renault, that they assumed we were also a couple, or on our way to becoming one. That night, after Salvatore shut the door to the pension room we would be sharing, we stood in front of the double bed and stared at it.
“Where are you going to sleep?” I asked.
Salvatore reached for the phone. “I call for another bed.”
After a second day of driving past green hillsides dotted with vineyards and ancient cities, we took a twenty minute ferry to Sicily where we boarded another ferry for the ten hour trip to the island. Unable to sleep inside the stuffy cabin, I walked out to the deck and curled up in a chair. By sunrise, my desire to find a muse was stronger than ever. Encouraged by thoughts of Gauguin, I imagined myself painting a young man in a lush tropical setting. And then I saw a giant rock appear across the churning waves.
The harbor at Lampedusa smelled of dead fish and cigarettes. Stray dogs stood chest deep in the sea to offset the mercilessly hot sun. Children played under the dock while locals rested in the shadows.
An hour after our arrival, Claudio and Gia set up an umbrella on the beach and Salvatore placed rented chairs underneath it. While they ate store-bought sandwiches, I took to the sea and paddled toward small rowboats bobbing and tugging at their moorings. I hid behind one of the metal buoys, and sighed. Surrounded by azure water so clear I could see the sandy bottom, I decided to give up my foolish search for a muse. A moment later, I sensed another shade of blue and turned to stare into eyes the color of Cerulean, looking at me from a few feet away.
I guessed my observer to be in his early twenties. He had the chiseled features of a Roman statue and curly black hair. I had never seen a more beautiful individual in my life. The perfection of his face left me transfixed until a wave splashed into my open mouth.
I smiled back, already anxious to paint his portrait. I needed to capture that face for eternity. That’s when it hit me. Here at last, was my inspiration.
I watched him let go of a a rope securing another rowboat in place and swim toward me in a leisurely manner, lifting bronze and toned muscles out of the water.
“I am called Luciano.” He placed his hand on the buoy, inches from my fingertips.
It didn’t take long to figure out this was the only English Luciano knew. Trying to close the language barrier, I made several feeble attempts to converse in Italian and then gave up and pointed out a school of fish below. I tried to touch one with my toe. My foot accidentally brushed against Luciano’s arch. He must have felt the same tingling sensation I did because the intensity of his gaze locked me into a world where nothing mattered in that moment, but us. Suspended in the sea, content to breath in his presence, I understood nirvana.
I heard Salvatore call my name and peeked around the buoy to see him standing on the shore with a concerned expression, searching for me in the water.
“Dieche,” I said. Ten. “Esta notche.” Tonight.
Luciano nodded and dove under the water, heading back to the other rowboat.
Having my own room in the rented house made it easy to beg off on dinner plans and retire early. Salvatore attempted to stay in as well, but his friends yanked him out the front door. I exited out the back, and careful not to trip on the uneven road, hurried down the narrow street to the beach. I saw Luciano waiting in the shadows, leaning against his Vespa. I joined him on the motorbike and we sped through the tiny village, bouncing over cobblestones until we stopped at a pizzeria.
An older woman approached, wringing her hands. She studied me with a tight expression, and then smiled in welcome.
“Mi madre,” Luciano announced.
I tried to interpret his mother’s initial reaction while she served us squid stuffed with seafood and spices, and then let it go when Luciano and I jumped back on his Vespa.
I thought we were headed to his place, but we ended up at an outdoor disco where men, women and children danced as one large pulsating beat of humanity. We joined in and held onto each other, our bodies swaying to an ancient rhythm, and then kissed. I was deliriously worn out by the time I wrapped my thighs around his hips on the motorbike once again. He parked at the end of my street and helped me off the bike.
“Domani.” Luciano motioned to the spot where I stood. “Al la dieche.”
“Yes.” I nodded. “I’ll be here.”
The next day Salvatore and his friends went on a boat ride without me. I told them I didn’t feel well. It was the truth. My need for Luciano made me lovesick.
Luciano and I rode on the Vespa to a shelf of smooth rocks jutting out from cliffs located on the other side of the island. I removed my sketchpad and drew him lounging with his hands behind his head. Frustration set in. No matter how hard I tried, I could not capture the magnetism that held me spellbound. I had copied my muse’s image perfectly, but it seemed… flat and lifeless.
Luciano heard my sigh. He sat up and scraped sand from the cliffs into his palm and mixed it with seawater. He applied the white mud to his face, creating a mask that accentuated his light blue eyes, and then applied the mixture to my cheeks and forehead. When his fingertips gently raised my chin, I leaned into his touch. We kissed until the mud dried, and then laughed at our frozen expressions, cracking the masks.
Luciano took my hand. “Ven.”
We jumped into the sea, emerging with clean faces. I slipped my arms around his waist. His muscles tensed as he tried to stabilize our embrace in the lapping waves. I slid my tongue across his lower lip and tasted salt water. We drifted closer to shore, and dug our toes into the sand. The persistent tug of the tide threatened to pull us apart. Luciano held on tighter.
The sound of his accent caressing my name, and the sensation of his hands easing my swimsuit down my thighs made me forget about my comfortable life back home, Salvatore’s concerned expression, and my love of art. I craved a new existence filled with obsession and infatuation. I felt more alive than ever. I wanted to stay on that island with my muse forever.
Hours later, lying on the shelf, my eyes closed to the sky, fingers intertwined with Luciano’s, I didn’t want our day to end. When Luciano withdrew his hand and sat up, he took in my alarmed expression, and quickly assured me, “Domini. A la dieche.”
I waited the next day at the beach and the next, but Luciano never showed up. On the third day, I hiked to the pizzeria and saw his Vespa parked outside. The older woman saw me through the window and came out, wringing her hands. “Luciano go back to mainland.”
I spent the next few days swimming, snorkeling, playing cards with Salvatore, and drinking too much wine. I tried to forget Luciano and enjoy my time with the others, but couldn’t. I realized I had left the insipid artist I was behind, and replaced her with a tortured one.
In an effort to improve my mood, Salvatore borrowed a motorbike and drove us to a secluded cove. He handed me paper and pastels, but my anguish ran too deep. I rolled the orange chalk in my hand and then broke it in half.
On my last day in Lampedusa, I packed my suitcase, feeling dejected. Without true talent as an artist, I decided to work at a gallery, selling art instead of painting it.
A short stoyr
Salvatore entered and picked up my sketchpad. He turned several sheets and then stopped on the page with my drawing of Luciano.
“Who is this?”
I shrugged. “A boy I saw on the island.”
Salvatore closed the pad. “I am sorry you did not find what you want in Italy.”
He left me staring at the empty doorway and then returned to hand me his sketchpad. I opened it and flipped through the pages. Every drawing was of me. Laughing, smiling, curious, amused, and then pensive, sad and disappointed. Salvatore had not only captured my image, but he captured the depth of my essence with a few strokes of his hand.
I turned to him. Sunshine slanting through the window cast half of his face in shadow. I saw Monet’s palate of light colors on one side, and Manet’s contrasting shadows on the other. And then I took a closer look at the man standing in front of me and saw kindness and a silent strength that I had not noticed before.
I picked up a pencil and my sketchbook and began to draw.