"Did you think about me today?" Gabriella would purr on the phone. The telephone was one of her favorite weapons. Flirting with Gabriella was dangerous, and an unbelievable turn-on. You never knew how far she would take it and neither, you suspected, did she. She was always talking about sex; talking and laughing. About how sexy it is to have sex with someone who looks like you. Or how sexy it is when men are shy. Being with her was like watching a spider show you the web she was weaving, knowing it was only a matter of time before you found you were the one being snagged.
Until I met Gabriella, I was never really very interested in what was sexy. What I was interested in was sex. I would spend most of my waking hours thinking about sex, craving sex, sex with anyone, sex with everyone, if not individually, then in groups of two or three. Whether they were sexy or not didn't really matter. Even the sex didn’t have to be sexy. It just had to be happening. Just getting to have sex seemed complicated enough without expecting it to be sexy.
And then along came a woman who approached sex with the innocence and curiosity of a child (a wicked child). Gabriella acted on instinct, on her wild imagination, and she did away with all the fantasies I'd thought sex was about, the sort of secondhand fantasies boys get from porn films and Hollywood, from the playground and Penthouse. She told me she didn't see the point of handcuffs, because a handcuffed partner couldn't hold you or hurt you as they came. Handcuffs were unnatural, nothing but a prop. Having a blindfold at the ready next to the bed was contrived. She would just as soon smother me, cover my face, and send me spinning, somersaulting into black.
And gradually I began to see the light.
The first time I met her was in winter. I was standing talking to a friend of hers when I noticed her walking toward us across the square. A sexy walk is such a great start and Gabriella didn't so much walk as glide arms swinging, eyes dancing, smiling like the cat who had got the cream. The sound of pennies dropping could be heard, clattering inside my mind. I resolved to think about the way I walked. She asked her friend for a cigarette and, when he said he didn't have any, took the one he had in his mouth. While she was talking, a sly, crooked smile tugged at the corner of her lips, as if she'd just thought of something particularly funny or filthy. Everything she said sounded like she was flirting, even the way she said my full name, James, as if she were whispering in my ear. It was like a game she was playing. With me. This became so infectious that I found myself playing it too.
"So what are you going to write about in New York?" she said with a bright smile when we were introduced. "Er, I dunno” I mumbled "You probably”.
She loved that she thought I was flirting. In fact, I was just petrified. She said goodbye to her friend and took me with her.
It took a while to understand what made Gabriella so alluring. She didn't have what men think of as a great body, but she was comfortable with herself, which was much sexier than someone who has remolded herself into the shape or size of someone else's body. (Trust men to come up with the concept of being a "legs man" or a "breast man, "Ass man" is probably a lot more accurate than we'd like to think.) Gabriella carried herself in a style that made tiny, insignificant details sensual: the way she stood there with her coat falling halfway down her shoulder, or the way she'd flounce into a room and sit on the floor rather than a chair. It was a natural awareness.
She couldn't lie on the couch or read a magazine in a way that didn't seem alluring. Part of me didn't even want to sleep with her. It was like the chance of sleeping with Uma Thurman: You felt you couldn't cope, couldn't compete. But most of me wanted nothing else. In bed, she was something men can hardly ever be: curious without embarrassment. She was innocently fearless. Once she'd thought of something, she would just try it, like a child always putting things in her mouth. She was always going off to get things to use on me or in me: honey, ice cubes, candles (not lit, luckily). She loved to make me come. It just thrilled her. She would watch my face, her eyes alight like a kid on Christmas Day. She asked so many questions, it was torture, like a kid pestering her dad. She wanted to know what I liked, how I liked it whether
I liked one thing that she had done more than another. I of course, was tongue-tied. Men can't even ask their friends what they do with girls - how they make a girl come - let alone ask the girl herself what she wants. If they had any sense, this would be all they ever talked about. But men don't know how to talk about sex. All we can do is boast about it. And go on fantasizing.
Like a lot of men, when I thought of great sex, the sexiest sex, I thought of clichéd games: video cameras and suspenders; sex outdoors and baby oil; more positions than Twister. Gabriella, though, was playing a different game, more daring, more dangerous and complex. A game with real risks. Chess to my checkers. The biggest risk you can take is kissing someone for the first time. You'll never be able to recapture the tension of that moment, especially if you've made each other wait, as we did, for days. Finding the right moment for the first kiss is the first sexy guess in the game. Asking someone "Can I kiss you?” is cheating.
The first time she wanted to kiss me, Gabriella just reached up and pressed her hand tight against my eyes. Imagine it. Imagine that sudden darkness so suddenly filled with lips. With Gabriella, there was none of this sentiment about kissing with your eyes closed. She would stare at me the whole time, watching me watching her, as if she were trying to convey what she wanted me to do by telepathy. I began to realize that telling someone what you want is strong, but it's not as risky or as sexy as guessing. The first time Gabriella slept with me, she lay there, stripped, leaving me fully clothed. She stared up at me, daring me to match her openness. It was like something she could not express any other way, something she knew I could not do. It was like a revelation of her raw self. Her real self. I entered into my time with Gabriella sure that we were both confident sexual people. She made me understand that all that was just another pose, one that covered up our vulnerabilities and neuroses. With her, the vulnerability and neuroses were laid bare. It was so moving. It was better than moving, it was sexy.
"Have you ever seen a man cry?” Gabriela once asked me. "It is the most beautiful, horny sight in the world.” I didn't know what she was talking about.
But now - although it's not the sort of thing that I like to admit - when a lover has tears running down her face, whether it's because I've made her come or made her cry, it just kills me. It turns me on. Its trust and weakness. I get the same feeling watching a lover sleep. That's when the games have stopped. That's when you see someone in their natural state. So intimate. No clothes, no makeup, none of the ways people have of presenting themselves to the world. All the defenses have fallen away. I would watch Gabriella so soft and peaceful and tempting. It was as if she couldn't help flirting, even when she was asleep.
Everyone has their favorite thing they like to do in bed. Gabriella's was having it both ways. Some days she would just kiss me for hours, uninterested in doing anything else. Other times she'd take me without any kissing, without any warning. A vicious game. She could take absolute control - "Come here” “Turn around” "Don't move"- and then the next time she might lie there, taking everything without reacting, allowing herself to be absolutely abused. As long as it was extreme, she could make being passive just as sexy as being forceful. When she was passive, she would never move, never speak, so that I'd have to read her mind. Surrendering or taking power makes sex so much more emotional, vulnerable, intense. You have to be willing to let someone hurt you, hurt you with their love, or hate. You have to be able to make the shame of failing sexually into something romantic, something sexy, because it's real. It only makes you closer. Gabriella's secret was that she knew sex isn't about what people do with their bodies. It's about what's going on in their minds.
Gabriela told me about a woman who’d given her an oral-sex tip: Drink hot mint tea before going down on him. She turned oral sex into an act of worship, sheer devotion. (Devotion is very, very sexy.) Kissing after oral sex was even more powerful. It was dirty (dirty love is the best); it was like being openly degraded, but it was equal. It was intimate. This was one of the most painful lessons of my life: the realization that sex is better if it's personal, if it means something. When I think of all the years I spent avoiding intimacy - ail the years I spent thinking that sex with strangers was sexier or more dangerous than sex with someone who understood me, loved me, knew what my name was, I cringe. I used to believe there was something sexy about skulking away in the middle of the night after the sex was over. I used to believe there was nothing sexier than anonymity. Anonymity can be sexy (it's secret, and secrecy in itself is sexy), but not as sexy (or risky) as loyalty, as romance, as commitment, fucking someone with love or hate, with total violent contempt or hopeless devotion, is much easier if you know them.
There is a level of intimacy, of love, where you leave all reason behind, where the only thing you think of is proving something to each other. The closest Gabriella and I ever got. And were ever going to get, was when we trusted each other enough to stop having safe sex. I thought it was something strong, a confirmation. Obviously it wasn't sensible (that's why risk is exciting), and no, I don't recommend it or ask you to condone it. But I thought it said something I couldn't say in any other way. It was the ultimate combination of trust and vulnerability. It was equal. Just my flesh in hers. Our lives in each other's hands. I wanted her to feel that whatever she had done, I accepted her. Or maybe I just wanted to be inside her. Either way, the danger far outweighed the intimacy. Some risks simply are not worth running.
This was the sexiest thing about Gabriela: She made me feel that sex was for expressing what I could not express, or what cannot be expressed. It's like you can never explain what it feels like the morning after, or the hour after, when you're going home in a taxi and can still smell the soft scent of sex, her sex, on your hair or your clothes or your hands. Nothing is like that. Gabriela knew that that feeling of softly exhausted contentment was the sexiest thing there is. It was what made her happiest. And that's all she was looking for. Of course, people like Gabriella are too passionate, too licentious for their own good. As soon as you start wanting anything more, they start resisting. They can't wait to spin another web. I always knew I could never hold on to her. But then that's part of what makes some people sexy, too.
Jim Shelley lives in London. Gabriela lives in Italy with her son, Alessandro.