The spring air in Valletta was damp, cool and unabashedly Mediterranean. There was a turquoise sea in the distance blowing breezes and feelings. The entire city center beamed with centuries old white limestone buildings and slippery pavement, medieval façades so perfectly manicured that I couldn’t discern reality from a movie set. Some time late in the afternoon, after a day of sightseeing and marvelment, I followed the bubbly sounds of animated chatter, the clinking of glasses, the pouring of aperol spritz cocktails ornamenting outdoor tables in their orange-gold liveliness. I found an empty table under a canopy and ordered some treats: olives, bread, sun dried tomatoes. My happy hour special came with two drinks, leaving me with a mild problem to solve: what to do with my extra glass? That’s when I noticed the woman in the gray blazer sitting across from me.
Stunning, elegant, enigmatic. A Jerry Hall look alike with a Grace Kelly flair. It was hard not to notice her sitting with poise, her shoulders tall, her face stoic. We’re drawn to beauty in whatever form and shape it comes, that’s our human nature. She was in her mid to late 50s, 60s even, it’s hard to tell these days. Her straw-blond hair was pulled up in a casual yet polished updo that increased her sophistication. Her long slender arms morphed into elongated fingers holding a cocktail. My mental stories told me that she was wrapping up a business trip.
She noticed me noticing her and made an effort not to make eye contact. Was my gaze so blatant? I could feel the embarrassment boiling in my cheeks. I then waited until her eyes would cross mine and found the courage to ask: “I know this may sound weird, but I have an extra drink. Would you take it, from one solo traveler woman to another?” It caught her by surprise. She smiled nervously, three seconds of almost uttering a no, then an opening: “I probably shouldn’t have it, but yes, thank you.” What came next shattered all of my preconceptions.
My first shock
She asked me to join her at her table and bring my appetizers along. I was getting comfortable on my seat when she disclosed that she had already consumed seven drinks. I froze momentarily then requested her to forego the cocktail I just offered her. She laughed nervously, accentuating the perfectly carved age lines around her big and round blue eyes, frantically devouring the olives as if she hadn’t eaten in days. We live in a world that values youth, but I’ve learned to find beauty in the crevices that tell a thousand stories.
My second shock
Despite the alcohol content in her bloodstream, she wasn’t causing a scene. Her movements were contained, discreet. After a few moments of small talk, she grabbed her new drink and confessed her relief for realizing that I wasn’t hitting on her. This time I laughed hard, for her initial reactions now made perfect sense. She stood up to stretch her legs and that’s when I noticed that her dress was minuscule, barely covering her butt. I was shocked and astounded in equal parts. That was not a business attire, at least not the types of businesses I was envisioning earlier.
Born in Alabama and raised in Austria, her name was musical and long, like her limbs: Clementine. She hated her European small town (“so boring!”) and went to Malta just a few months prior to start a new chapter cleaning houses for a living. Thankfully I didn’t bet money on trying to guess the life of strangers, for I would be financially ruined by now. “I’ve had a really hard life, I’ve…well…” The blue in her eyes moved from glow to matte in seconds, words imprisoned in her mouth. She wanted to spit them out, but a powerful lid kept her silent. “Do you want to talk about it?” I offered. She shook her head negatively. Then silence. Her energy shifted. She seemed broken, in acute need of human connection.
My third shock, though not the last
She asked me about my husband and I gave her some glimpses of him. While devouring the last pieces of bread and tomato, she opened up: “I’ve been in love with a man for two years. He lives in Berlin.” When asked why she wasn’t with her man, she told me that they’ve only seen each other through video. And only twice. I gasped, but offered her encouragement to schedule an in-person visit. Soon her words and facial expressions seemed to regress to those of a teenager in torment, mumbling reasons why she should or shouldn’t see him.
She inquired about visiting my apartment, alluding that she needed a roommate. I sensed she saw in me the possibility of being that person. Her energy had now switched to needy with small peaks of desperation. I reminded her I didn’t live on the island and lied about having friends arriving later that evening. By that time my initial amusement had turned into discomfort. I knew it was time to wrap up and leave. I had to set limits, know when to say no, know when to walk away with confidence, grace and no guilt. Setting boundaries has been a recurrent theme in my life and more often than not I’ve failed miserably.
Deliberations of my own torments
Why hadn’t I left by then? I felt I needed to help her, her suffering resonating with my own humanity and experiences even if they were different in shape and degree. I was aware of my judgement of her platonic love illusions, her absurdly small dress, the broken parts of her that shattered my preconceptions of who that statuesque woman was. Was it compassion or veiled arrogance that made me think she wanted to be saved? Perhaps both. I wanted to empower her, restore her to wholeness, and yet my inner guidance told me to walk away. I couldn’t be her savior if salvation is what she was after, but again, perhaps I just misunderstood it all.
Sensing that I had an exit plan, she requested we take a selfie and wrote down her number on my phone. I silently panicked, my personal boundary alarm bells going off like it was D-Day. Would I have to share my number with her, too? I agreed to photograph her, but explained that I wouldn’t be in the shot, offering some excuse about not feeling in my game. She seemed confused and insisted on a joint photo declaring that this was the most fun she’s had in a long time.
I aimed my smartphone at her and instead of opening up a charming smile, she stuck her tongue out making a lewd face, morphing from Grace-Kelliesque first impressions into full-blown Madonna on the Vogue tour impersonation. I asked her to try it again and she chose the same pose. Perhaps that was her way of giving me the middle finger for my insistence to leave. For perhaps breaking her heart. As soon as my bill arrived, I paid it and kindly said goodbye, never to hear from Clementine again, never to forget her.
Personal information changed for privacy.