Anna and I were driving to Dante’s, a new pizza restaurant she’d heard about from a friend. We hadn’t been dating long, and we were both aware we didn’t really know each other. Something lit up on the dashboard, and I noticed I was almost out of petrol, so I pulled up at a gas station on the sea front. It was August and we were in Tuscany. The air was scorching and damp, and only the whims of a capricious sea breeze made it bearable to be outdoors.
I parked at the gas station and made my way to the self-service machine. I searched my pockets for bank notes and found one. However, I realised that if I used it, I would get no change, and I would have no money for dinner. I thought about asking Anna if she had any change, but I remembered she’d forgotten her wallet at home; we were supposed to go by her house to pick it up later.
I knew I didn’t have enough gas to drive on to the next station, and I didn’t fancy getting stranded in some rural back-road with little or no traffic. There were no cash machines anywhere, and neither of us had credit cards. There were no customers. It was beginning to look bad. God knows how long Anna and I would have to wait until someone showed up. We were stuck. But then I saw someone. Someone who I thought may just save me.
A little beyond the pump, at the edge of the pool of light from the gas station, was a slim black woman in a T-shirt, skin-tight jeans, and white cowboy boots. She had a pink handbag with a large yellow starfish on it. She was a working girl, who was waiting for customers; lonely men and boys, who were willing to pay for sex. She saw me looking at her and smiled. She was eating pistachio nuts and spitting the shells on the ground next to her. I looked back at my girlfriend, sitting in the car, and she seemed busy reading something on her mobile phone. I remember thinking: this will only take a minute.
The black girl reminded me of a school friend I had back in England. A girl called Clara, who could smile like no other. I figured she was Nigerian like Clara and I spoke to her in English.
“Hi!" I said.
"Hi, Lover boy! What's your name? My name is Aisha and that over there is Major Tom." Said the girl, pointing to a large white cat that was peering from behind her with its tail curled round her boots."
"My name is Alex, I...I wonder if you can help me?” I stuttered.
“That depends, Alex.” She said smiling.
“No, look, you don’t understand. I just want to change some money. Do you have two fifties for a hundred?” I asked, showing her my bank note.
“I can get you change”, she said, handing me two fifties and taking my note, “but your girl, I think she’s gone.” She said, exploding into a loud laugh.
I turned round to see Anna at the wheel of my car, giving me the finger through the car window. I didn’t hear what she shouted, as she sped past, but I could guess. I ran after her but she didn’t stop. I stopped to catch my breath and sent her a text message to explain what had happened. As I walked on in the dark, I could still hear Aisha laughing. I saw a shooting star but was too slow to make a wish, and half-seriously thought that was the story of my life.
“Come back lover boy!” I heard her shout in jest.
Since leaving the gas station, I had been followed by Major Tom. I tried to get the cat to turn back and return to Aisha, but it was all in vain. I don’t know how long I walked before I found my car on the side of the road but it must have been bloody miles. When I opened the car door, Major Tom lept in, and I was too tired to pull it out. I saw the keys were inside, and I figured Anna must have called a taxi to take her home.
That night, as I pushed the car to the next gas station, I thought about how I had messed up what could have been a great evening. When I got to the pump, I was sweating and my arms, for some odd reason, would lift by their own accord. However much I tried to keep them to my side, they would rise above my head, defying gravity. And it was then I saw Anna. She was leaning on a gas pump, with her hands on her hips, and she was smirking.
“You came back.” I said.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“I thought…you know…back there…I thought you thought that I…” I gave up trying to explain.
“I thought I saw something but I was wrong. I’m sorry. Well? Are you going to take me to dinner or are we going to stand here all night?” This time she was only pretending to be angry, I could see it.
It was so late, the only place we found open was a hot dog stand on the beach. I was so hungry and so thirsty everything tasted amazing. Anna looked and smelled so good I strained to keep my hands and eyes off her. She had Major Tom in her arms, and she was stroking him, while sitting opposite me.
Sitting at a table next to us was a dark, good-looking man with a mustache. He looked like a policeman from the South. On the table, in front of him, was a mountain of pistachio shells. As I noticed this, Aisha came out of the toilet and headed for his table.
"Looks like lover boy got his girl." said Aisha turning towards me.
"I think this is yours." said Anna, handing Major Tom to Aisha.
That night, I took Anna back home. We stayed in the car for a long time, and she spoke to me about her ex-boyfriend. She needed to talk, and I listened, as I watched star after star shoot across the sky. Anna's words brought me back to earth, and I realised she was still in love with her ex. I took my cue to step out of her life. She cried. I held back the tears. Just. We hugged, and I waved goodbye to her before driving away. There was nothing else to do.
I took the long way back home, I went past the gas station, and under its bright floodlights, I saw Aisha and her policeman dancing a tango. I turned off the headlights and switched off the engine, parking it far away enough not to be spotted. I could hear Piazzola playing in the background, and the air smelled of the sea.
All the restaurants had long closed and the rose sellers had finished their rounds for the night. A group of them stood in a circle around Aisha and her man. They were smoking, and drinking from a bottle they passed round. At the end of each song, they would throw roses at the dancers and clap in appreciation. Major Tom looked on. I saw it pick up a rose in its mouth and turn round to move towards me. I opened the car door and it climbed on my lap. I took the rose and stroked him before letting him down on the tarmac.
"Good Night, Major Tom." I said as the cat turned to look at me, and I put the car in gear.
That was the night the stars fell.
And I'll never forget it.