They had been sipping apéritifs on a rooftop café since a little past eight, when the sun dropped behind the mountains surrounding Lake Lugano, and the large looping letters of a Campari sign flashed pink at their feet. As the darkening sky flaunted star after star, Vic regaled Zoe with tales of business duels, quoting lines from feisty emails he had sent, gripping her thigh with relish when recalling a line he thought particularly well-rendered. Zoe chose to find it all endearing. She laughed and gasped in appropriate places, and at intervals, surreptitiously raised her arms to air her nervous, clammy pits. It was winter in Cape Town and by comparison Switzerland’s heat was disorientating. All day felt as though she were leaning against a pizza oven, but as the evening drew on the alpine air lifted the squelch of the mid-August heat.
‘Vic, please, promise me it’s a loan.’
He grinned, squeezed her knee under the café table. Even when angry, his mouth slanted towards a smile, a crooked lure in the stubble of his salt and pepper jaw.
She was on the verge of urging him again when he turned to summon the waiter, who arrived with Swiss efficiency, to order a third round of Aperol Spritz.
‘Prego,’ replied the waiter, slipping away.
Vic beamed, as if for a second they had all engaged in an Italian conversation.
Looking at him – at ease in his sailing loafers, side-parting more silver beside his suntan – she wondered if over their three-week separation Vic had grown more handsome. He ran a hand through his hair. Although cut back as he got older, Zoe had an old photo of him, circa’78, as a tanned shirtless hippie with dark shoulder-length waves, wearing the smouldering look of a young man of ideals. With his good sharp nose and lanky frame, he reminded her of Jesus. She teased that he was a version of how the Messiah might have aged. If a fifty year old Jesus had renounced poverty, worn linen shirts, taken up yoga, and used face masks every other Sunday.
‘So, considering it is a loan, we’ll obviously draw up a contract?’
Appearing not to hear, Vic traced the waiter swooping between tables. ‘Signor takes his job very seriously doesn’t he? Hasn’t cracked a smile once.’
‘He’s too busy to smile. There’s one guy serving this whole place.’
‘I don’t know. He looks rather dour. Reminds me of a Puritan.’
‘He’s probably just feeling short-changed. Placed at the wrong point in history and all. It’s a pretty wicked point for a Puritan.’
‘Ah, yes,’ he slid his hand up her thigh, ‘I better give him a big tip. Can’t be cheap getting back to the sixteenth century. What should we call the miserable fellow? Who’s a famous Puritan? You’ll know.’
‘I don’t know. I can’t think of anyone.’ She tried to refocus: ‘Um, Vic.’
‘Can we – ’
With frustrating speed the waiter returned with their drinks: two goblets of tangerine bubbles, ice tinkling in the glass between blood orange slices. He placed a plate of warm focaccia bread, crisp onion and thyme flecking the crust. ‘Complimentary,’ he said.
Complimentary? Zoe thought. At this café, nothing was complimentary; the giveaways were built into the price.
‘Prego,’ the waiter repeated.
Prego, prego, prego. One day in Lugano and she had heard the word so often she was growing uncertain as to what it meant. It was like love, or fair-trade, or terrorist.
‘Mille grah-see-eh!’ Vic smiled at the waiter whose expression remained deadpan as he picked up bits of broken tissue paper, shredded beside Zoe’s butter knife. Vic slipped a note into the waiter’s shirt pocket. He looked up at Vic, and with a smile tucked beneath his frown, nodded once, before walking away.
‘See, a test. Not such a Puritan after all.’
‘He didn’t take it, you gave it to him.’
‘A real Puritan would have resisted.’ He leant in, his out-of-office stubble grazing her jaw. ‘Zoe, he’s a phoney,’ he whispered, biting her earlobe.
‘You know for someone your age…’ She turned and kissed him scantily.
Zoe liked the attention Vic paid to waiting staff. It only occasionally edged on patronising; mostly she appreciated the way he never failed to look them in the eye, ask questions, toss in a joke, treat them like they were more than an extension of the kitchen utensils. She had waitressed for nearly a decade – through high-school, university and the previous two years of part-time teaching – and believed you could tell a lot about a person by their restaurant manner.
‘Okay.’ She looked at him directly. ‘Assuming all goes to plan, I should be able to pay you back within a year, maybe two. Perhaps we should go over the numbers again, what do you – ’
‘Zoe, do you really want to talk about that now? Look at where we are.’
As though conducting a calming concerto, he gestured around the café: the rooftop graced with lithe, tanned women, and men in finely-cut suits, cat-walking between the bustling bar and the wrought-iron railing that she and Vic sat beside. In twos or threes, patrons would come over to the quiet, and in harems of secrets and cigarettes, admire the blue-blood lake below.
She ran her hands over the skirt of her dress, trying to smooth out its creases. ‘Yes, it’s all very beautiful. I’m honestly so grateful to be here, thank you Vic. It’s –’
‘No, no, Zoe, thank you. It’s all my pleasure to have you here.’
‘Still, if we’re going to do this, I’d really like to clarify a few things, you know, interest rates, procedures if repayments fall behind, little things like that.’
Hearing the pop of a prosecco bottle, Vic’s brows shot up with a grin, his eyes drifted to the railing where two women lit each other’s thin cigarettes.
‘Seriously, Vic, can we please –’
‘Zoe, what’s the problem exactly?’
‘Nothing, I just –’
‘Love, we’re on holiday.’
‘I know, I’m sorry to bring it up but – ’
‘I don’t see what the urgency is about. Really Zoe, you need to trust me. And you do, don’t you?’ He let go of her hand and leaned back in his chair.
The waiter came by with a wooden board of pizza, trailing a heady twirl of oregano and garlic ribbons. Vic closed his eyes, tilted his head skywards.
‘It’s not that. I know this is an amazing opportunity and I can’t thank you enough but I, I don’t know, don’t want to owe anybody anything. Or at least, I want to know what I owe them. And not that I think that you would use it.’ Then almost into her lap, she said, ‘I suppose we’re all just trying to protect ourselves.’
When his gaze returned to her face, she felt as if he were tracing her bone structure, considering her nose, weighing up her flaws, deciding if he could stand them. In the few months they had been together, she had quickly learned that he not only had a way with words but also with silence, an ability to shell out moment after moment with a hollow quiet, gathering a power so thorough that when he finally spoke, she was so grateful for the words, she cared less about what they were saying.
With some hesitation, she put her hand on his knee, hoping he would take it. ‘Of course I trust you. I just want to avoid anything going wrong. So if we put all the information on the table, in a contract, then we’ll both know what we’re getting ourselves into.’
‘Zoe, I’m giving you a gift for Christ’s sake. And here you are tearing out the insides before you’ve even unwrapped the wrapping. You know I’m not trying to generalise but I really don’t understand why women are always analysing a situation before even trying it out. Lauren was the same. Always taking things apart while we were still bloody in them. Honestly, it’s like prying nails from a rowboat while you’re still sailing down the stream – just to see how it’s made.’
She hated being compared to his ex-wife, or being put in categories in general: ‘women’, ‘white girls’, ‘the youth’. It was their first night in Lugano. Perhaps it would be best to keep the peace, to swallow her questions and try to buoy up the moment: down her drink, praise his children, suggest a blowjob in the bathroom.
Reclaiming her untaken hand from his lap, she looked out at the now near-black lake, promenade lamplights treading the water’s edge. Despite the breeze she felt feverish. She lifted an icy glass, rolled it over a collarbone inevitably blotchy with nerves, scalded by the sun after a day at the lido. She felt an urge to say something childish. Announce that she wouldn’t have sex with him until they had signed a contract, but she knew he couldn’t be bargained with. She suspected there was nothing she could give which he couldn’t get from somebody else.
She felt her chest jump, surprised by his hand on her shoulder, taking and twirling a tuft of her honey-blond hair. ‘My love, I’m sorry. But I promise you have nothing to worry about. We’ll talk business tomorrow.’ He cupped her neck and with the surprising weight of two thumbs massaged her collarbone in small rotations. ‘Come on, let’s get the bill, looks like you could use a good night’s sleep. We’ll get you a gelato on the way.’
As they ambled along the lake, Zoe licked the smooth salt-sweet of the hazelnut gelato. The promenade funnelled into an arc of greenery, so the light around their footsteps turned mottled through the bramble.
‘Smells like spring under here.’
Vic hummed in agreement.
‘Wonder what kind of blossoms these are.’
He pulled out his phone, no need to wonder with these new smart cells. He began to thumb the touch screen. Zoe thought the whole concept was a bit weird. Why would anyone want to carry their office with them? She didn’t see the fad really taking off.
‘Okay, so it says: “Lake Lugano is a blah blah blah. Ah, here, trees. “Lugano or Ceresio derives from the Latin cerasus, meaning cherry, refers to the abundance of cherry trees which one time adorned the shores of the lake.” There we go – cherry.’
‘It says one time, that doesn’t mean still.’
He sighed and shook his head. He slung his arm over her shoulder, his gold watch loose on his wrist where the grey hair was beginning to show.
She hoped they were cherry trees. She didn’t think she had seen one before, although the idea of them occasionally came to mind, alongside Rachel’s words. Rachel was a jazz student and Zoe’s housemate in second year. One night, drinking wine, they’d sat cross-legged on floor cushions in her bedroom, reciting poetry – in a play of pretension they both seemed to love. As the evening grew late, Rachel read Pablo Neruda aloud, said softly, ‘I want to do with you, what spring does to the cherry trees,’ as she, to Zoe’s surprise, leant forward and kissed her red wine-chapped lips. And she continued to kiss her, and Zoe must have been kissing back. Then to the sound of whatever Cuban music they were likely to have been playing, they took off each others’ clothes and she remembers Rachel climbing on top of her, moving slowly down her body with her open mouth. Zoe had kicked over a glass when she came. Remnants of the stain confessed on the carpet for months.
She thought about sharing the story with Vic but decided against it. He called her his little lamb, looking over her small pale body stripped down in bed, he said, yes, approvingly, quite the little lamb. Having only a trace of innocence to offer, she thought it best to maintain the illusion.