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“Will you tell other women stories about me when we are over?” she asked Alexander.
He wanted to be truthful and say no, but already she knew him too well. He was who he was, and aware that the temptation would be too strong not to talk about her, to improvise tales of beauty and fury, of lust and longing, songs of adoration and missing.
This self-referential quotation encapsulates Maxim Jakubowski's latest novel – a book of tales about women, lust, love, and loss. Although ostensibly focused on the relationship between Alexander, an introspective British author, and Ekaterina, a wild-hearted Italian journalist decades his junior, Ekaterina and the Night spends at least half its time tracing these two characters' travels through the lives of other lovers and sex partners, before and after their brief, intense connection.
"An unholy mixture of Jim Thompson and American
Psycho” Time Out
Ekaterina was only sixteen when she slept with a man for the first time.
Gian Paolo had been her tennis instructor for just over a year and she had talked her parents into paying for extra private lessons on Saturday mornings throughout the summer, at the municipal club where she played.
He felt that Ekaterina had great potential talent but was too impulsive, rushed to the net after a good serve without enough thought as to how her opponent would respond or the direction the return ball might be taking, hoping that her natural athleticism would compensate for any positioning mistake.
“You have to be calmer, more detached, less emotional,” he kept on saying. “Think more, analyze the game.”
“But I am hot-blooded,” Ekaterina would answer as an excuse. “I’m Italian.”
She was born in Rome in a hospital on the banks of the Tiber where her uncle also worked as a cardiologist. Her father was a pilot with Alitalia and her mother had once been an air hostess. Ekaterina guessed her parents had first seriously come together on the occasion of a stop-over in Moscow, where they had both been lodged overnight between flights in the same hotel. As a pre-teen, she had often speculated about their first meeting and, red-faced, tried to evoke it in her imagination with the clarity of a Technicolor movie. She had seen photographs of her mother when she was still in her early twenties, and she had been a true beauty then, with long curling hair dark as coal and eyes piercing enough to seduce the very devil (that’s how her father had once described her to Ekaterina and her brother Tommaso when in a reflective mood on a summer beach somewhere). Now, following two children and the burdens of a decade and a half as a mere housewife, she had put on substantial weight, her hair was turning grey and her waist had disappeared. Ekaterina was terrified that, as she grew older, she would also put on weight and her svelte body would disappear. It was a terrible thought.
Her parents had always told her she was named after the heroine in a Russian opera, though. Which Ekaterina didn’t believe as neither of her progenitors had ever seemed the least interested in opera. Unlike her best friend, Eleonora, who was a walking encyclopaedia on the works of Verdi and Rossini, but disdained all foreign composers except for Mozart, whose Marriage of Figaro she just about tolerated, and actively detested Berlioz and Wagner for reasons she was never very adept at formulating, and could get very agitated about. Two years following Ekaterina’s night with Gian Paolo, Eleonora would suffer a nervous breakdown and spend nearly eight months in a rest home; she married her long-time boyfriend Ruggiero shortly after her release and they lived unhappily ever after, but that’s another story.
But, regardless of opera connections, Ekaterina was inordinately fond of her name. It made her feel different, exotic even. Mysterious.
* * *
Although Ekaterina slept with Gian Paolo and spent almost a whole night in the same bed with him, they did not have sex.
For months, the necessary closeness of the tennis lessons at the municipal club had been troubling Ekaterina. The way her instructor shadowed her in tantalizing proximity when he held her serving arm in the required position, and she could feel the warmth of his breath caressing her bare shoulder, the characteristic odour of the sweat rising from his body, a curious blend of wild animal fragrances and earthy musk that triggered a curious sensation inside her chest and down near her sex. There was also something about his voice that disturbed her, the soft but domineering tone of his instructions and recriminations. Gian Paolo was in his early thirties and lived outside the city, close to Fiumicino airport, and had two small children with his elementary-school-teacher wife whom Ekaterina had once seen outside the club, waiting to pick him up in their small sky-blue Fiat. She had seemed unremarkable, a slight blonde woman in her mid-twenties with dark circles beneath her pale eyes.
“No, Ekaterina, you are still in the wrong position, come on, straighten your back, extend that arm just that little more …”
And his warm hand would glide over her skin, correcting her posture and Ekaterina would tingle all over.
She had no wish to become a champion tennis player. She just loved to play socially. Wasn’t even particularly competitive. She enjoyed the way the game, unlike other sports she had attempted, pushed her body towards new limits, toughened her. Kept her slim.
Often, in the shower after a lesson or a game, if blissfully alone, listening to the hiss of the water rushing down across her shoulders and breasts, Ekaterina would furtively touch herself. Feel the hardness of her pale nipples, slide a finger through her pubic curls and enjoy the new sensations coursing through her mind and her body.
A few weeks ago, she had been particularly unreceptive to his instructions and had repeatedly made a mess of her serve, and Gian Paolo had displayed a brief petulance at her lack of attention and obedience and scolded her briefly, allowing himself a rare swear word, before calming down and suggesting they try that particular stance again.
“You’ve done it well before, young lady, so surely, you can master this, no?”
He had placed himself by her side, his thigh grazing hers and had gripped her right lower arm in his hand, extending it to the skies and stretched her into the right angle of attack, her racket raised like a shield against the sun. It was a day in July and the Roman heat was oppressive.
Again his distinctive smell rose in the stillness of the afternoon and assaulted her senses. Stronger than usual.
For a second or so, Ekaterina was distracted, almost dizzy and when the ball fell failed to connect.
“Damn!” Gian Paolo shouted.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Did you do that on purpose?”
“No, not at all,”
“Absolutely, it’s just that something crossed my mind,” Ekaterina confessed.
“You just have to concentrate,” Gian Paolo insisted.
He was still standing close to her, his body pressed against her flank, a couple of fingers grazing her waist.
“Your parents are paying for these lessons and you’re just mindlessly wasting it all,” he continued. “So, what were you thinking of?” he asked.
Ekaterina turned her face towards him, her body still rigid, her skin uncomfortably wet and almost symbiotically adhering to his where they met. He was so close she could see every single pore in his face, the small patch on his chin where his razor had not done its job properly, the uneven zigzagging line of his dark sideburns. She breathed deep. The smell of man.
“You,” she said.
For a few second he was silent, the two of them like frozen statues on the baseline of the court, trees on either side similarly rigid for lack of any breeze.
“Cheeky,” he remarked and playfully moved his fingers from her waist and patted her rump.
It felt to Ekaterina like an electric shock as his nails slid across the thin fabric of her white shorts.
“I’m your instructor,” Gian Paolo reminded her.
“I know. But you’re also a man,” she said.
She looked in his eyes.
He looked back. Seeing her in a totally different light for the first time.
With an imperceptible movement of his leg, he mashed his thigh against hers. Briefly but deliberately. Ekaterina stood her ground, welcoming the increased contact. Then Gian Paolo took a step back behind the chalk line, moving away from her but leaving his invisible mark on her skin.
Glanced at his watch. A second-hand Tissot he’d been given by his father on his confirmation.
“Time,” he said. “Lesson over.”
“Oh,” Ekaterina said. “Already?”
“I think you are not in the right mood today, young lady, anyway. Next time, we will keep on working on that serve posture and try and improve it.”
“OK,” she agreed.
She walked to the side of the court to pick up her bag and a few stray balls that had landed there.
“Once you’ve cleaned up,” he shouted out at her, already moving towards the club house, ‘maybe you want a coffee?”
“I’d like that,” Ekaterina said.
It became the slowest shower she had ever taken. As if she already knew that this was the first step toward a personal Rubicon, a curious buzz deep down in the pit of her stomach.
She had never found herself attracted to boys of her own age. They appeared so … boy-ish, immature, incomplete.
Sex, on the other hand, was something she had spent many hours thinking of, researching even, in books, magazines, on the internet. In theory, she knew all about it, from the indispensable physical aspects to the alleged psychological ones. She had always been a good student, a fast learner, and a fount of curiosity. Sex had lived in the back of her mind for almost two years now, working away, teasing her, attracting her, like a spider weaving a slow web; and she was the fly who knew that one day she would be caught, a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. Ekaterina was not scared, nervous maybe, but unafraid to take that jump of no return. She craved adventure.
When she was just thirteen, a much older man, who was a friend of her family, had inappropriately touched her one summer week-end at her parents’ country house. She couldn’t recall his exact status, or whether he was actually distantly related to her on her father’s side of the family, although all the children had been in the familiar habit of calling him ‘uncle’.
There was a small pool at the back of the property’s main building, with an unrestricted view of the dense nearby woods. Most of the others had returned to their bedrooms for a nap, but Ekaterina had preferred to stay sitting on the edge of the pool, with her toes splashing against the tepid surface of the pool’s water, reading a book. It was by Italo Calvino, she remembered.
There was the quiet sound of steps behind her.
She had looked up, attempting to shield her eyes from the sun and saw him standing above her. Ruggiero. Framed by a halo of brightness, he had smiled at her.
“Hello,” Ekaterina had said.
Crickets chirped endlessly in the background.
She was wearing a loose T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
From his vantage point, he could see all the way down her front.
“My, my,” he said. “You haven’t grown much up front.”
It was true, compared to friends and relatives, her breasts had not enjoyed an opulent growth so far, and were still mere hillocks. They would not grow much larger in the years that followed and would always remain of modest size. Which would suit her fine. Made her feel less self-conscious.
At first, Ekaterina was unsure what he was referring to.
Then she followed his gaze and realised how exposed she was.
She had no thought to pull the T-shirt’s material in. There was still an innocence about her, a feeling that nudity was nothing to be ashamed of. Her younger brother Tommaso often referred to her as ‘la nudista’ as she so often trouped stark naked past the door to his bedroom in the morning on her way to the communal bathroom to wash her teeth or take a leak.
Ruggiero held his gaze.
Ekaterina put her book down on the edge of the pool.
“Maybe they will grow more, I am still young,” she explained.
He stood his ground.
The cheek of the man.
“And, below, is it growing too?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
But she did. And it was. Thick, dark curls.
Ruggiero grinned, sensing her growing discomfort.
He kept on watching her and Ekaterina’s feverish imagination mentally pictured how his eyes were drilling through the jeans and enjoying the sight of the pubic topiary she knew was there.
“Not a little girl any more, eh, Ekaterina?” he remarked.
A wave of disgust ran through Ekaterina, as she associated the demeaning ‘little girl’ epithet with the way her genitals used to be, smooth, hairless, her slit totally exposed. Just a few weeks before, she had spied in a boy’s bedroom at a party she had attended and where she had gone to pick up her coat, a skin magazine in which the curiously pneumatic female models mostly displayed naked cunts, shaved clean, obscenely gaping in some instances. The sight had horrified her. She had, right then and there, decided that she would never shave her pubic hair, ever. A woman should be proud of her genital vegetation. Not deny it. She would never be a little girl again. The thought horrified her.
At this very moment, she knew, Ruggiero’s inquisitive eyes and imagination were picturing the geography of her privates. She blushed. His feet shifted and there was a distinct bump to be seen at the front of his trousers.
Remembered her book and bent over to pick it up from the edge of the swimming pool.
His hand moved like lightning to her rump and fondled her.
The contact was like an electric shock and she instantly drew back, shifting away from him.
The heat in her cheeks was unbearable.
She ran to the house.
For weeks, she hesitated as to whether she should tell her parents or anyone close what had happened that day, but decided not to. After all, she had been the one who had been a touch wanton and involuntarily exposed her breasts to the older man, wearing that silly T-shirt that hid nothing.
She didn’t want to be blamed for the incident.
Not coincidentally, Ruggiero never made an appearance at the country house or their apartment in the city that summer again. In fact, she never saw or spoke to him again after that day. Either he now deliberately avoided visiting her family or maybe Ekaterina was never at home on those adult social occasions.
Although she would never know it, Ruggiero just two weeks before had sat at a able in a Genova restaurant called Da Vittorio’s on the same day Alexander Ballard was dining there with a friend who lived locally. Ruggiero had the fish soup and Alexander the lobster linguine. Alexander’s companion’s glass of prosecco almost toppled over as Ruggiero departed the next table and slightly jogged theirs in the doing, but her reflexes were fast enough to catch the wine glass and avoid any lasting damage. Ruggiero nodded as a way of excusing himself, and Alexander nodded back. Words had been unnecessary and neither of them would retain any memory of the quasi-incident.
The municipal tennis club’s cafeteria was small and there were no free tables, so Ekaterina and Gian Paolo crossed the road and made their way to the nearest café. They found seats in a badly-lit corner.
She could still smell his animal scent, or was it a man’s natural fragrance, rising beneath the soap and shampoo notes from when he had showered. For a brief moment, Ekaterina wondered whether he could, similarly, smell her: smell the sweat from the lesson and the tennis they had played, tempered with the nervousness and sexual arousal she had later savoured with a deep sigh of satisfaction as she had cleaned herself. She had imagined his hands sweeping over her, as the water cascaded down her skin all the way down to her large feet, and shamefully banished any intruding thoughts about the shape of the penis under the water of his shower’s cascade just on the other side of the white wall separating the men’s facilities from the women’s.
“What are you having?” Gian Paolo asked.
“Single or double?”
He walked over to the counter to pay and then, with the small receipt in hand, moved to the barista at the other end, handed over the thin slip of paper and gave his order.
They sipped at their coffees. He had brought a capuccino over for himself. He disturbed the white layer of foam with his spoon, slowly swirling it around in the large cup. Ekaterina watched his movement. The miniature version of a whirlpool held her attention, incongruously reminding her of an Edgar Allan Poe story she had recently read.
Every sound around the bar was amplified, words, the tinkling of glasses, a radio behind the barista’s counter playing an old Domenico Modugno song. But neither Ekaterina nor Gian Paolo could find the right words to begin a conversation. The silence between them weighed heavily on their minds.
The tennis instructor finally summoned up enough resolve and broke the ice.
“Do you have a boyfriend, Ekaterina?”
“The boys I see or am friendly with somehow don’t interest me. They have nothing to say. Either they’re loudmouthed and ignorant, or they are boring …”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I suspect it’s because they are too young, and I’ve read that boys mature later than girls,” Ekaterina replied.
There was a pause in the conversation as both reflected on the opening gambit. More slow sips of coffee.
“But you’re interested in men?” he asked.
Ekaterina smiled. Aware of all the things unsaid neither of them were saying. Yet.
“If you mean am I interested in other girls, no, I am not.”
“You’re married, aren’t you?”
He avoided her gaze.
“You know that already.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“So why did you ask?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, as you are well aware, I am married. But, things happen in marriages, things change. I love Graziella very much, and the children, of course, but – I shouldn’t be telling you this – we have both become different people over these years of being together. It’s just not the same.”
“Have you been unfaithful to her?”
“Once. Only once.”
“With another of your tennis students?”
“No, absolutely not.”
“A friend of Graziella’s. Last year, when she went away to her parents at the coast in Pescara for the summer vacation.”
“Was it good?”
“Yes,” he admitted. Lowered his eyes, surprised by the firmness of her curiosity, realizing she was no longer a kid.
He took a deep breath.
She kept on looking at him with an intense expression on her face that he found difficult to fathom.
“Are you going to ask me what I want to do when I grow up?” Ekaterina finally asked him.
Gian Paolo smiled. “I had no intention of doing so.”
“I just like you.”
“You’re bright, you’re feisty …”
“Is that a compliment?”
“But you’re also much too young …”
“Is anyone too young?”
“I meant you’re also my student. Your parents pay for me to teach you …”
“It’s difficult …”
Ekaterina pushed her empty espresso cup aside.
“On the court, earlier, you touched me.”
“We have accidental contact all the time, it’s part and parcel of tennis lessons, Ekaterina.”
“Not that way, Gian Paolo. You know it and I know it. This was different.”
“You’re young, Ekaterina …” he protested.
“And when you touched me, it was not an accident …”
“But …” he interrupted her.
“And it made me, how can I put it, vibrate inside. There, I’ve said it.” She swallowed hard.
There was a moment’s deep silence as the words settled.
Gian Paolo kept on staring at her.
“You said you liked me,” Ekaterina continued. “How?”
“Hmmm … you’re attractive, intelligent, sensual, there’s something wild and earthy about you, Ekaterina. One day, you will attract men by just batting an eyelid, or moving your hips. Something … animal. And I say that in a good way … Nothing pejorative about it.”
“I see …”
“No,” she didn’t want him to deflect the conversation in another direction. “And if I weren’t that young?” she queried.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“How can I learn?”
He looked away, surreptitiously checking if any other customers in the bar could overhear their conversation. Then turned back to her.
“What have you already done? What do you know?”
She knew almost everything. But on paper only. She was a voracious reader with a terrible curiosity but books, magazines were just the theory and few of her friends had taught her much about the actual practice of sex. She had kissed and been kissed but had not found it pleasant. Uncertain fingers had slid under her corsage and touched her small breasts at a couple of parties, although she had not allowed them to venture further down. She had felt the hardness of a cock on one occasion through the coarse material of Simone’s jeans as they danced together.
She told Gian Paolo all this.
“Teach me,” she asked him.
“I’m just a tennis instructor,” he said, grinning.
“Don’t be silly. You’re a man. I don’t want a boy for my first time. It can be you.”
“You’re a determined young lady, aren’t you?” he remarked.
“And obstinate and pig-headed …”
“So I’ve noticed on the court.”
Gian Paolo took a deep breath.
They began to plot, make arrangements, almost as if this was a mere business transaction.
It took them a couple of days of telephone calls and text messages to set things up properly.
He had a friend who owned a one-bedroom apartment in the Trastevere and was spending the following week-end at the beach in Ostia with his current woman. He was confident he could borrow the keys. He would have to imagine some excuse to give Graziella to be away for the night. Maybe he could invent some out of town tennis course to renew his coaching certificates.
Ekaterina would pretend she was spending Saturday night at Eleonora’s. She had regularly enjoyed sleepovers there, as night transport back to her house in the hills by the Stadio Olimpico was patchy and Eleonora would be willing to provide an alibi if questioned. Eleonora’s parents were away at a congress in Switzerland anyway, so would be unable, in case of a possible mix-up, to confirm or not whether Ekaterina had actually spent the night at their place. She had to promise to be back home for Sunday lunch as her family had invited both sets of her grandparents, who were coming over around midday.
Saturday night it would be.