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The Potion

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Johanna Gohmann is an American writer whose essays and articles have appeared on Salon.com, the Chicago Sun-Times, Elle, Red magazine, Babble.com, YourTango.com and the Dubliner. She is a frequent contributor to Bust magazine and the Irish Independent, and two of her essays were recently anthologised in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 and The Best Sex Writing 2010. She lives with her husband in Dublin

Despite the early hour, we rose and showered, and packed our things. My friends’ faces shone with the excitement of heading home. I nervously smiled back at them as I tucked postcards of the Uffizi and Louvre into pockets of my suitcase, trying to quell the odd feeling that was roiling through my stomach.

None of the professors or other students was up and about yet, and the hostel was quiet. Hungry, the three of us headed downstairs to forage for some food. We made our way into the tiny, cramped quarters of the lobby, which allowed only for the clerk’s desk. The clerk himself lazed behind it on a stool, like he was on a gondola, coasting through the city on a spring breeze. He had a rolled-up paperback in one hand, and he gave us a nod. He was maybe in his mid-twenties, and like so many of the Italian men I had seen, he was attractive in a way that seemed to say, ‘Why would I be anything else, foolish girl?’ His head was covered with shiny black curls, and his lips were almost embarrassing in their suggestive thickness. He looked like he had stepped from a Raphael canvas, like he didn’t belong in the garish and bawdy world of the 1990s.

‘The cafes will not yet be open,’ he explained to us with a frown, ‘but you may wait if you like.’ He gestured to the stairs behind us like he was offering us a leather banquette to perch upon. We thanked him and, giggling nervously, shy under his handsome gaze, sat like ducks in a row, one behind the other on the steps. He put his book down and observed us, his brow furrowed.

‘So. You are Americans, yes?’ His accent no doubt made every female tourist he checked in have an inward, mini-swoon onto an imaginary fainting couch.

‘Yes,’ we echoed back in a chorus, as if our backpacks and JanSport raincoats didn’t already answer the question for us.

‘We actually return to America today,’ my friend explained.

‘Oh, that is too bad. The weather …’ he gestured out to the swirling grey, ‘it has not been good.’

We laughed in agreement, and for a moment we all stared out at the cold dawn light. There was a long pause, and to break the silence my friend, who was sitting behind me, clapped a hand on my shoulder. ‘Today is her birthday!’

‘Ah! It is?’ And at this, his face finally melted into a smile. ‘That is very nice, yes? How old are you?’

‘I’m twenty,’ I smiled back.

‘Ahhh … twenty. That is a very good age.’ His delicious mouth seemed to curl into a knowing smirk at this. ‘Well, a happy birthday to you!’

‘Thank you.’ I could barely stand to stare into his black eyes, fearful they would make my cheeks blaze into a blush.

‘Wait. I will return …’ He smiled again, and disappeared behind a door. The second it clicked shut, my friend leaned forward to whisper hotly into my ear: ‘Oh my God, he is freaking gorgeous!’

‘I know …’ I mouthed back. Our shoulders shuddered as we tried to suppress our laughter.

Suddenly the door opened, and there he stood again. He strode towards us, proudly holding something aloft.

‘This is for you. For your birthday.’ He grinned at me.

There in his hand wasn’t a single rose plucked from a vase, or a tiny chocolate wrapped in gold foil, or even a shiny marble of Venetian glass. Rather, what he held out to me like a prize was a slender tumbler filled to the brim with orange juice.

‘I’m afraid it is all I have.’ He raised an eyebrow in apology.

I reached out and took the glass from him, our fingers brushing slightly. Both he and my friends watched as I raised the drink to my mouth. The first sip hit my lips, and I drank through a smile. I knew it to be, without a doubt, the best glass of orange juice I had ever had, or ever would have.

I stared at this stranger’s old-world good looks, at his encouraging eyes. The cold sweetness tickled my throat, and I felt as though I had been handed some sort of magic potion. I would never tell my friends any of this, of course. To them, it was simply a glass of juice, probably from concentrate, at that. But to my mind, this clerk had become some sort of fairy-tale prince. I somehow felt he knew the dark thoughts clouding my eyes, and had slipped out of the Venetian shadows to specially hand me this potion – a potion that would buoy me, and see me out of my troubled teens and into my twenties.

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