Amber Valentino

John Holton

Some people, you forget even before they leave your sight. Other people, you're bound to remember forever.

The vaporetti left a foamy, cappuccino wake in the murky water of the Grand Canal. The air was thick with the scent of espresso wafting from outdoor cafes. Venice might have been a series of islands in a sea of caffe latte. I cupped my hands and yelled over the engine noise into Rich's ear. "Why are we going to the station?"

"A friend of mine is arriving from Salzburg. She's coming to Crete with us."

"A girlfriend?"

"No, just a friend. She's split up with her fiance. I met them when I was skiing in the Tyrol, then stayed at their place back in Salzburg. Amber's great--you'll love her."

Rich was from South Dakota. I met him in the restaurant car on the train from Nice to Venice. I'd wandered down from economy looking for sustenance and ended up drinking stubbies of Stella Artois for three hours courtesy of my newfound friend. It came as no surprise when he extended his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Rich." He'd had to be at thirty-five francs a pop.

South Dakota. It sounded like wagon trains and Indian ambushes. But I was from South Sydney and the change of hemispheres was playing havoc with my sensibilities. Rich showed me a photograph of his parents' house--columned portico, bowling-green lawn, fancy letterbox, his old man's Pontiac in the driveway--the wild frontier! Amber Valentino was Californian. Her father was Rudolph Valentino. Not the Rudolph Valentino but Rudy Valentino, the building contractor from Venice Beach. She didn't seem to find any of it remarkable--the surname, or the fact that she'd arrived in the thousand-year old city that provided the name of her birthplace. Despite her famous surname, she had never seen a Valentino flick, though she joked that her family albums were full of Valentino pictures.

We were sitting in the foyer of the sprawling Venice Youth Hostel on the Giudecca. Eight hundred beds stacked three high in dormitories of Gothic proportion. Famous at the time for its unisex bathrooms and lack of curfew, it was the cutting edge of backpacker accommodation. Rich and Amber were drinking Heineken from stubbies the size of fire extinguishers. I was sipping chocolate milk through a straw. La Via Lattea-Cioccolata. The Milky Way. Aah, those Italians could make Big M sound like an operetta.

Amber Valentino was drop-dead, take-your-breath-away gorgeous. The kind of woman you watched from a distance and marveled at the ease with which she carried herself. Something more ethereal than mere poise--like time slowed down when she entered a room or stepped from a train.

Call me romantic, but there's something magical about a beautiful woman stepping from a train. If I were a film director I would always portray women alighting trains in slow motion.

It was her legs I noticed first, as she swung her pack onto the platform. Effortlessly tanned. Smooth as Bondi sand. Unattainably gorgeous was Amber Valentino.

I'd already begun to paint a picture of her naked. Sounds devious, but it's what men do. All men. Even the ones you'd least expect. It's genetic, I think. Programmed into us at birth. When you see the Prime Minister congratulating the Australian Netball team on their latest success, exchanging casual banter, what he's really thinking is: Jeez, look at those legs. I wonder what she looks like in the shower.

So there I was, picturing the graduation of thigh to buttock. That irresistibly sexy depression at the small of the back. The physics of her breasts. The gentle curve of her abdomen down to a manicured mohawk. All this in the time it took her to walk the five steps from the train to where Rich and I waited on the platform.

But sitting across the table from Amber Valentino, seeing her catch the last drips of cold beer on the end of her tongue, she seemed blissfully unaware of her beauty. She laughed raucously at my lame jokes and chewed peanuts with her mouth open. She had it. That inexplicable something that made Amber Valentino irresistible. And I was a goner. A skinny, smitten streak of Australian manhood.

Amber Valentino spotted me across the TV room. I was engrossed in an episode of The Flying Doctors (dubbed in Italian and retitled bluntly Aereo Di Medico). She called out from the doorway, "Hey, Aussie, you didn't fly twenty thousand kilometers to watch bad television, did you?" The edge had been taken off her Californian accent by three years living in Austria. It was a strange hybrid thing, vaguely European. Every male head turned in unison. She could have read the label from a bean tin and still captured the attention of the room. "Are you going to show me Venice or not?" A question which required little thought on my part.

I told Amber Valentino I would show her the other side of Venice, so we walked the back streets of the Giudecca where the narrow lanes are home to a thousand and one cats. Cats warming every doorstep. Cats perched on rooftops like clumsy, mewing birds of prey. Cats spilling from rubbish skips like the garbage they are.

"I don't like cats," I said.

"Neither do I," she said. "They're users. You can never get close to a cat."

But we fed them just the same. Snacks from the youth hostel vending machine that had a bull on the packet but tasted suspiciously like chicken-flavored Twisties.

"I always thought cat hating was a bloke thing," I said, throwing a handful at a mangy-looking tortoiseshell.

"Blowke! Gidday maate." Amber Valentino did a bad imitation of my Australian accent and spat on the ground. A spit that was intoxicatingly sexy--in a vulgar kind of way.

"You're in no position to make fun of accents," I said. "It's like you stepped from an L.A. production of The Sound Of Music."

She laughed her raucous laugh and unexpectedly slipped an arm through mine. "Carn, mate. Let's go an'get pissed."

It was Amber Valentino's idea to travel to Athens via Yugoslavia. She wanted an adventure, she said, after twelve months of selling tickets in a Viennese cinema. The normal backpacker route was the train south through Italy to Brindisi then a ferry to Patras via Corfu. Instead, the three of us were squatting in a packed economy-class carriage, relegated to a passageway for lack of space, watching the last of Italy slide by through smeared windows.

I was too preoccupied to feel uncomfortable, Amber Valentino pressing into me with every sway of the carriage. I would have stayed there until my joints seized, but Rich was whingeing. He had a Gold Star Eurail Pass and reminded us that he could have been lounging on the red velour of first-class instead of crouching with his pack on the sticky linoleum floor.

"Come on, guys," he pleaded. "Let's check out first class. If they see my ticket we might be able to wing it."

"Wing it? You've been hangin' with the Aussie too long," said Amber Valentino. "Let's do it, blowkes. Too right." She pushed on my leg to help herself up, and gave it an unseen squeeze. I would have followed her over broken glass.

From the bleak gray of economy we crossed the threshold into the vivid reds of first class. The corridor was empty, as were most of the compartments, apart from a smattering of well-groomed men in business suits and middle-aged women who looked down their heavily-powdered noses at our backpacks as we walked past their windows.

Halfway along the carriage we found an empty compartment and drew the curtains to shield us from the corridor. Rich took a bandana from his pack and tied one end to the door handle, the other to the bottom of the luggage rack on the nearest wall. It was a trick he'd learned travelling first class around Europe. A way to get a good night's sleep without the extra expense of a sleeper compartment. The seats in first class folded down so that the entire compartment became a single expanse of seat, like a giant mattress.

So that was how we farewelled Italy. Three virtual strangers, safe in our comfy first-class cocoon, sharing cheese and bread, toasting our health with cheap Italian red from plastic cups. "To nude bathing in Crete," Amber Valentino said with conviction, holding her cup aloft. Rich and I extended our cups in a toast, sharing a furtive sideways glance, knowing full well that Amber Valentino was not one to waste words.

The train crawled on into the night, stopping frequently for no apparent reason. Though we were technically still in Italy, we were now bound by Yugoslav Time, a strange twilight zone between the civilized worlds of Italy and Greece. A world where peasants on bicycles somehow traveled faster than diesel-powered trains.

We sprawled on our red velour life raft, backs propped against our packs, and talked and drank into the night, the alcohol gradually extracting details of the lives we'd left behind. Rich whittled away at a piece of wood he'd been working on since I'd met him on the train from Nice. It still looked just like a piece of wood, only smaller. He was preoccupied with blaming his old man for everything from his parents' divorce to the U.S. economy and the Cuban missile crisis.

"Thinks he can buy me off with a round-the-world flight and a Gold Star Eurail ticket. After how he treated my mom..."

"Yeah, that must be awful for you, Rich," Amber Valentino said, rolling her eyes at me in mock horror. "What a selfish asshole of a father you've got."

"I know. It's been his answer for everything, since I was in elementary school. New bikes, the most expensive gym shoes. My first day of college he hands me the keys to a Mustang convertible."

"Maybe you should cancel your Asian stopover on the way home. That'd show him who's boss."

At that point I burst out laughing. Rich looked up from his whittling and turned red with embarrassment. "Don't be so insensitive, Aussie," Amber Valentino scolded before joining in the laughter. Even Rich laughed then. It was impossible to take offense. She had a way of taking the piss that made it seem like a compliment. The moment she smiled you were a goner.

After the second bottle of cheap vino, she started to spill her guts about her man, Don, in Vienna. "Men are all cowards. Too scared to commit." With all the wine in me I'd have committed armed robbery for Amber Valentino. "Five years, and all of a sudden he needs space. Well, let him run home to Mommy. I'm not going to fall at his feet and beg."

"Good for you!" I said feebly, raising my plastic cup.

Amber Valentino rested her drunken head on my shoulder. "Yeah... but he's such a fantastic fuck." At the same moment the door of the compartment burst open, tearing Rich's bandana in two like cheap toilet paper.

The man in the generic gray uniform filled the entire doorway and had to bend his neck for his melon head and hat to enter the compartment. We hadn't noticed the train pull into the unnamed station that was the Yugoslavian border post. It was unclear whether the gray mountain gesturing for our tickets was from the railways, the military, or the border police, though the image of him standing in the doorway gave me an eerie feeling of deja vu.

We handed over the three tickets with Rich's on top, as if by the grace of God all three would miraculously become first class. He peeled open Rich's Eurail pass with a fat thumb and leered at him disbelievingly. When he opened my pass, then looked at Amber Valentino's ticket an evil grin spread across his face. "Klasa drugi!" he yelled, thrusting the tickets in our faces. "Economija! Pasos, odmah!"

The number-one rule for backpackers traveling in eastern bloc countries back then was: never become separated from your passport. Foolishly, we handed them over, trying to avoid a confrontation. As he snatched the passport from my hand I got a good look at his ugly dial. A cross between Boris Karloff and the evil prison guard in "Midnight Express." At that point the red wine started a rinse cycle in my guts.

He lingered over Amber Valentino's passport, looking from the photograph back to her. Not her face, but her legs and thighs. I grabbed a jacket I'd been using as a pillow and threw it across her legs. Then, in an act of pure lunacy, or perhaps chivalry, though I'd never been guilty of the latter, I heard myself say, "Seen enough, have you Boris?" Rich raised his eyebrows at me in a desperate you'll-get-us-all-shot kind of look. Amber Valentino gave me a smile that in spite of the nausea gave me an instant erection.

"Down, boy," she said with such perfect timing that I glanced in the direction of my crotch just to check the inference.

Boris stared at me with eyes that could split firewood then rubbed his thumb and index fingers together grubbily. "Platiti... novac!" he barked, as I fumbled in my pocket and produced a sad collection of thousand lira notes. He threw them over his shoulder and said, "No, Americanac!" I shrugged my shoulders theatrically. No way was I going near my money belt or travelers' checks. Amber Valentino came to the rescue, thrusting a couple of low denomination greenbacks into his filthy mitts. Then, without a word, he turned and walked down the corridor with our tickets and passports in the pocket of his jacket.

We watched through the window in disbelief as Boris strode across the station platform in the direction of a large wooden building.

"Shit," said Rich, turning white.

"Fuck," said Amber Valentino.

"Jesus Christ, what do we do now?" I said.

"One of us has got to go and get those fucking passports." Rich was looking paler by the second and nervously cracking his knuckles. "And since you've built up such a rapport with the man..."

"But what if the train leaves? Besides, you're the U.S. dollar man. That's the only language the guy understands." Rich stuffed a bundle of greenbacks into my sweaty palm.

"Look, if I don't stay with Amber and something happens, Don will kill me." Amber Valentino shot him a stinging look.

"What're you talking about, Rich? You've spoken to Don? What gives you the right to talk to Don behind my back?"

"Look, it's not the time to talk about it now."

"Of course it is. What the hell's going on?"

I left the two of them tearing strips off one another and moved quickly down the corridor, feeling nauseous enough to throw up on the first person who gave me trouble, wondering how I came to be stranded on the Yugoslav border with a couple of neurotic, half-drunk Americanacs. As I headed across the platform I looked in the direction of our compartment and could see Amber Valentino still unleashing a torrent of abuse. She was incredible; poking her finger into Rich's chest, pushing him against the window with the flat of her hand, giving him a serve the likes of which, it was obvious, he'd never experienced. For a fraction of a second we made eye contact and, without missing a beat, she gave me a wink. It was just the encouragement I needed.

The station building was a strange, makeshift affair. A jumble of trestle tables and canvas partitions that served as ticket office, passport control and station cafeteria. Leaning against a table in the center of the room were a couple of gangly, acne-faced youths in gray uniforms and hats that sat way too low on their heads, so that when I entered building they had to tilt their heads back to make eye contact. I wondered if maybe they'd been last in line to collect their uniforms or if indeed their heads had shrunk. Either way, they were the least threatening border police I could have hoped for--apart from the lugerish pistols that gleaned in their holsters and made the two of them look like extras from an episode of Hogan's Heroes. The tallest of the two was holding three passports; two U.S. and one Australian, and from the leering and gesturing going on it was clear whose they were looking at.

In the corner of the building, a large, ugly woman in a grubby apron and sporting a moustache that either of the pimply border police would have killed for, was busy sorting three miserable apples into a display of sorts. She gave the impression that she had been born with a worried look on her face and would take it to her grave. She motioned for me to cross the room, and without saying a word, nodded her head in the direction of an adjoining room where I could hear the familiar, dulcet tones of Boris. The only word I could understand was Americanac, and then he laughed, a wicked, guttural laugh that sounded like an old man vomiting.

The woman spoke to me in a low mumble, as if I were her son and could understand every word she said. She gestured several times in the direction of the pimply youths who were still engrossed in Amber Valentino's passport, then pointed to a clock on the wall that was missing its hour hand. "Train. Zurba!" She reached under the counter and produced what appeared to be two Mars bars (the wrappers were the usual color, only the writing was unreadable) and stuffed them into my shirt pocket. "Pasos!" she said in an urgent whisper. "Zurba!"

The train whistle sounded twice and I heard the diesel engine groan to life. The tickets were history. I turned and ran, plucking the passports from the hand of the gangliest youth as I passed, making a beeline for the train. Amber Valentino and Rich were hanging out of the window yelling... something. I was too busy waiting for the volley of gunfire to hear what it was. I think I was saved by the hats.

It was Amber Valentino who dragged me through the window. She plucked me from the platform like a mother lifting a toddler. God, she was strong. Rich had already snatched the passports from my hand and was quizzing me about the tickets. I lay on top of Amber Valentino where we'd landed, my head resting on her shoulder, breathing the sweet smell of her perspiration, feeling her heart pound against mine. "Glad you could make it, Aussie," she said.

Amber Valentino lay with her head resting on my lap as the train swayed into the Yugoslavian darkness. Todd was mourning his Gold Star Eurail pass and still sulking from the ear bashing he'd copped over the whole Don business. He wouldn't let us use another of his bandanas to tie the door shut so we borrowed a pair of Amber Valentino's tights. When Rich was finally snoring, I produced the chocolate bars the mustachioed woman had given me. It was the worst chocolate either of us had ever eaten, but we ate it just the same, washed down with the last of the red.

Amber Valentino had a tape player with tiny, crackling speakers. We turned off the light and listened to her one cassette, Joni Mitchell's Blue, until the batteries went flat and it sounded like Louis Armstrong. I stroked Amber Valentino's hair and she closed her eyes and said, "That's so nice." Soon she was asleep, but I sat wide awake, watching the faint outline of Yugoslavia slide by, wondering about the beautiful woman snoring on my lap.

"Wake up, Aussie, we're there."

"Huh? Where?"


"Iraq? What?"

"Crete. We're there."


"You've been asleep in a deck chair for twelve hours." Amber Valentino was standing over me, her perfectly tanned breasts dancing inches from my face in a chocolate-colored bikini top. "That train journey really took it out of you, huh?"

"I never sleep well on trains. Where's Rich?"

"He's getting the packs from the luggage room on the lower deck."

"So he's over the whole ticket thing then?"

"Oh yeah, he's real perky today. I think he joined the lifeboat club."


"She's German. Blonde. He's been flashing his American Express Card around, buying everyone drinks." I must have been staring at Amber Valentino's breasts. "There not bad, are they?" she said, cupping a hand under each one, giving them a gentle squeeze. She meant it too. She seemed duly proud of the cards she'd been dealt in the breast department.

"Sorry... I--"

"Hey, I like looking at them too. You might as well get used to it. You'll be seeing a lot more of them when we get to Matala." I swallowed hard and realized I was out of my depth. I should have been in Florence buying postcards of gothic cathedrals, or having my photo taken pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Instead I was heading off for a week of nude bathing and possible amorous encounters in lifeboats. "By the way, Aussie, your face's as red as a baboon's ass. I think you've had a bit too much sun."

Amber Valentino, Rich, and Rich's little bit of German fluff (as Amber Valentino liked to call her) had already headed off to Red Bluff, a nudist beach a couple of kilometers from the main tourist beach at Matala. I was on my way to meet them, a new pair of thongs tearing at the webbing of my toes, a cheap straw hat that felt more like a crown of thorns. I'd bought it from a stall near the beach that sold hats, film, Coke and "flip-flops." That's what they called thongs, no doubt due to the influence of English tourists. It was hard to feel manly in a pair of flip-flops, especially wearing a straw cowboy hat and a pair of op-shop army pants that I'd converted to shorts that morning with a pair of hotel scissors.

When I arrived at the beach, Rich and his blonde German were splashing waist-deep in the bluest of oceans. I saw Rich's stark white bum disappear below the surface as he dolphin dived under a wave. The blonde German had those pointy, bombalaska-shaped breasts and a big bottom. I heard Amber Valentino's voice. "Howdy, partner! I hope you found a shady tree for your horse."

"Very funny," I said, tilting the brim back with my thumb to see where her voice was coming from.

Amber Valentino was lying on her back on a lime green beach towel, her head resting on what she'd been wearing earlier that morning. All she had on was a pair of sunglasses and one of those wraparound sun visors that women golfers favour, which seemed a little ironic: like, hey, you wouldn't want to get too much sun on your nose. Her pubic hair had been waxed into a straight-edged racing stripe.

"I thought you Aussies were all bronzed lifeguards." She was looking over her sunnies at my legs. A couple of hairy, bleached pretzels protruding from my baggy shorts.

"Yeah, we all have pet kangaroos too. What a boring world it would be if we all lived up to our stereotypes," I said, laying my Barney Rubble beach towel on the sand opposite Amber Valentino.

"Barney Rubble?"

"Yeah, he's one of my favorite actors."

She laughed that raucous laugh. "I know what you mean. I've got a great admiration for Elmer Fudd." She stood and brushed her bottom with her hands as if she were dressed. "You coming for a swim?"

"No, I don't swim in the ocean. There's way too many things down there. Sharks, jellyfish--who knows what else."

"Not to mention Germans?" I nodded at the sand. "You know, Aussie, it's OK to look at me. I wouldn't lay around naked if I didn't want you to look." She struck a pose like a model on a catwalk, swinging her hips, then slapping a thigh with the palm of her hand. "So, what do you think?"

"What do I think? What do I really think? I think you're beautiful. I think you're smart and funny. I think you're drop-dead gorgeous, and if your man Don has got even half a brain he'll have already realized the mistake he's made and be on his way to find you as we speak."

Amber Valentino blushed for the first time since we'd met. It was strange to see a naked person blush. All of a sudden she seemed very aware of her nakedness. Vulnerable for the first time. She stood there awkwardly for a moment, not knowing what to do with her hands, then said, "You're a sweet guy, Aussie," before turning and running in the direction of the water.

I wished I'd had the nerve to let my dick swing in the breeze, to follow her into the ocean with the sharks and jellyfish and the big-bottomed German with the pointy breasts. Instead I watched the sway of Amber Valentino's hips as she ran, her feet squeaking and flicking sand. With a splash she disappeared beneath the foam of a breaking wave.

Don called the hotel next morning begging forgiveness, claiming he'd tracked her down, though it was clear Rich had set the whole thing up. She was to meet him at Roma station in two days time. Rich was reluctant to leave his blonde German, so I volunteered to escort Amber Valentino back to Rome and he shouted us two plane tickets from Athens to Rome with his old man's American Express card.

Something strange had happened there at Red Bluff. There was a closeness between us that belied the six days we'd known each another. She stopped being naked in front of me. Cut out the sexual references when we spoke. In Athens we shared a hotel room and when Amber Valentino showered she wore a robe from the bathroom, slipping her underwear on beneath it, dressing with her back to me. It was unnervingly sexy--like I'd fallen for my sister. We shared a bottle of wine and she slept with her head resting against my chest, and this time I slept too.

We flew to Rome the next morning and took a cab to the railway station. In the cab, out of the blue, Amber Valentino leaned across and kissed me. A long, sweet kiss on the lips. It left a lingering taste of the peppermints she'd been eating on the plane. I must have looked shocked.

"Thanks, Aussie," she said. "Thanks for everything."

We sat in the allotted coffee shop at the station and waited for Don, both of us just playing with our spoons rather than actually drinking the coffee. "It's been quite a week," she said.

"You're not kidding. It feels more like a month."

"What'll you do now?"

"Well, I won't be catching any trains. Probably head for Britain and get a low-paying menial job."

"Sounds a bit stereotypical."

"It does, doesn't it? Maybe I'll go and see the Sistine Chapel and think about it in the morning."

Then Don walked into the coffee shop. I knew it was Don because Amber Valentino launched herself at him like a flea to a dog. He was a big guy, with big hands and a big accent. He pumped my hand and said something corny and predictably American like, "Thanks for bringing my girl home," and I shrugged and left them to it, still with the faintest hint of peppermint on my lips.

In London a couple of months later I had a letter from Rich back in South Dakota. He was managing one of his father's ice-cream emporiums and seeing a "nice girl" from his neighborhood. He wrote that Amber Valentino and Don were married and living in San Diego. Two years after that he wrote to say that Amber Valentino was divorced and living with her father in Venice Beach, bringing up a young son. She'd named him Rudy, after the old man. I wrote to her a couple of times and she sent a photo of herself and little Rudy. We lost contact after that... like you do.

I saw her again twelve years later. I was sitting up with my own little boy doing the midnight bottle feed, watching late-night TV, CNN to be precise. There was a news story about an old woman in Pasadena who lived in a house with over a hundred and fifty cats. And there was Amber Valentino. Drop-dead gorgeous Amber Valentino, interviewing this cat lady right there on my TV for CNN. I wanted to wake someone up, to yell out: "Hey, look, it's Amber Valentino--on the TV. Amber fucking Valentino, self-confessed cat hater doing an interview with a cat lady on CNN!" But Amber Valentino was just one week of my life out of a possible eighteen-hundred and seventy-two. The only people in the world we had in common were an ice cream salesman from South Dakota, a big-bottomed German woman whose name I never found out, and some Californian guy named Don.

As quickly as she'd appeared she was gone. "This is Amber Valentino in Pasadena for CNN." That's what she said. Clear as you like--as if we were sitting across from one another in an Italian coffee shop. For a week I watched CNN into the early hours of the morning, but I never saw Amber Valentino again. She'd vanished into the airwaves. And as much as I try to forget, the taste of peppermint is always the taste of that kiss.

John Holton ( is a newspaper writer and short story teacher from Bendigo, Australia. His first collection of stories, Snowdropping, was runner-up in the Steele Rudd Award, the most prestigious prize for short story writing in Australia. He is currently finishing his second story collection.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2003 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 13, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2003 John Holton.