We were restless, only a minute left until lunch. The teacher’s voice accelerated over the din of whispers and backpack zippers, like a stereo with a broken volume-control dial. Finally, the bell rang and everyone rushed for the door. My new boyfriend and I gazed at each other across the room, eager to take each other’s hand. I was both giddy and nervous, and finally part of the 9th grade elite, now that I had a boyfriend.
Rick was tall, funny, cute, and liked by all. When he put his arm around me, my heart sped up. I’m pretty sure there were butterflies living in my stomach. This was cool, right? All the cool girls had boyfriends. My new boyfriend had surely elevated my geek status to solid nerd.
We sat on the planters in the quad, our faces snuggled close. Wow, we’re really close. Seriously, are those butterflies or elephants? And then he leaned in, his lips nervously edging towards mine. My heart raced faster. This is it, my first kiss, here we go…
Oh! I pulled away. My head and body wriggled back in a very awkward movement. How embarrassing for both of us–a highly coordinated dodge, yet terribly unattractive.
Flash forward 20 years. Cue distant accordion music and the smell of fresh basil….
“Signora, you are still here! I thought you were just a tourist,” he said to me, in Italian.
“No,” I explained, “I live here now. And thank you, one again, for cutting my baby boy’s hair for free. I see your barbershop when I walk to the preschool.”
Thus began my relationship with Antonio.
Always eager to practice my Italian and to be accepted by the villagers in our small town just outside of Tuscany, I talked to Antonio every day. We had coffee together at least once a week. I’d pass his shop each morning with a “buon giorno” and an air kiss on each cheek–the typical Italian greeting for friends and acquaintances.
So, at first I thought nothing of the kissing.
Antonio knew I was married. In addition to the ring on the tell-tale finger, whenever anyone asks me why I’m living in Italy, my first response is because my husband has a job here. Also, the adorable baby at my side is a very good indicator that I am most likely spoken for.
It happened in his shop. He was chatting on about something, and I could barely keep up with the ever-running translation in my head. I smiled and nodded, smiled and nodded, half lost. And suddenly, his hands were on both sides of my cheeks, his face barreling toward mine. I was either about to be headbutted or violently kissed. I saw pursed lips. Uh-oh, it’s the latter.
My 9th-grade instincts kicked in, and I wiggled away. “I’m married,” I protested politely, trying to be sensitive of the possible cultural misconception that was happening.
I think now is a good time to tell you that Antonio is not what you would call your fantasy Italian lover. He’s nearing 60, a little taller than me, slightly squat, not ugly, but someone you’re not eager to make out with either. I’m just not amazingly attracted to the men here, and that’s not only because I have a hot husband. Hey, I’m alive and I like to look. However, since I started dating my husband, I guess I’ve always hoped that should I ever be presented with the opportunity to turn down a kiss, I would be spurning Brad Pitt’s hotter brother.
The aftermath of both situations played out almost exactly the same (save the language). There was a quick and awkward goodbye after my jiu-jitsu lean-back-and-dodge maneuver.
A phone call a few hours later….
“I hope I didn’t offend you,” the apology of the 60-year-old Italian was frightening reminiscent of the 9th-grade Rick.
“I’m just not comfortable doing that. I hope we can still be friends.”
And thus continued my friendships with Rick and Antonio. Oh, I dumped Rick–and for the record, I would definitely like to say it was not him, it was me. My problem, and definitely my loss. Our un-kiss was not one of my prouder moments. Luckily for me, we kept in touch through high school and into college, until time and distance let the bonds of friendship fade. I just found him via Facebook, and he immediately responded, “how could I forget the only girl to dump me after five days for trying to kiss her.” If I wasn’t married and he wasn’t significantly attached, I would totally make out with him to make amends.
As for Antonio, I still see him every day, we still have coffee a few times a week together (he buys, even though I always offer). He gives me cooking tips and he even bought me an Italian cookbook for Christmas. He is now my husband’s as well as my son’s barber.
I set a boundary, and it had been respected both in the 9th grade and in Italy. Yes, it was uncomfortable, but making my feelings known in a polite but firm way ended up strengthening my friendship with both men. Often, by not being aware of our own comfort levels, or being fearful of setting limits (because they could be perceived poorly) we make situations worse for ourselves and those around us. If we are uncomfortable, why are we afraid to set boundaries that would make ourselves and others happier?
That being said, not two days ago I went to Antonio’s shop to give him a sample of a Tuscan soup I had made from his recipe. However, before I could say, “ciao,” his hands were on my cheeks, and he planted one right on me. So it seems I must ponder, am I dating the barber?