5.12 / December 2010

The Beautiful Italian

My boss was married to a beautiful Italian man.   They had gotten married, she said, so that he could stay in the country and work legally.   It was strictly business.   His name was Leo, and she was always careful to pronounce it Lay-Oh, not Lee-oh.   There was a picture of the two of them hugging in front of Niagara Falls on her desk, and whenever I sat in my boss’s office I could feel his coal-black eyes smoldering from within the frame.

My boss was only a few years older than me, and we had both gone to good schools, so I guess we should have felt like we had a lot in common.   Some of the main differences that separated us were the facts that she sat in an office, and I sat in a cubicle.   She wore really nice shoes, and I wore shoes that were pretending to be really nice shoes.   She had a stiff way of talking to people in the office, but I liked her better stiff because when she was feeling friendly she would take me along with her to Bergdorf’s or Bendel’s and I would have to hold things for her to try on and afterwards she would mark it down as my lunch hour.   Sometimes she would go for a chemical peel in the middle of the day, and I would spend the rest of the afternoon trying not to stare at her super-shiny empurpled face, pretending to believe that she had, as she claimed, gone to the dentist.

The day I gave my notice, my boss looked at me blankly, her mouth making little Os in the air like a catfish blindly sieving for food.   I guess it had never occurred to her that I might want to move on.   I told her I was enrolling in graduate school, but really the plan was to go backpacking in Europe until I ran out of money.   She ignored the fact that my last day was approaching until it was finally upon us.   We went to lunch together, but she didn’t seem satisfied with the kind of ceremonial closure we could obtain over salads and mineral water.   Pastis had just opened up then, and I could tell she thought she was giving me quite a farewell gift by inviting me to dinner.   Of course, she said, Leo would join us.   It suddenly dawned on her that I had never met Leo.   We had to go meet him, she said.   We left our salads wilting on the cafe table and went to go drop in on Leo at his office.

Leo worked in some sort of dental prosthetic workshop, making molds of teeth.   It was not what I had pictured him doing for a living, based on his photograph.   When we got there, he shook my hand and kissed me on both cheeks.   There was a visiting dentist in his workshop that day, a redhead.   Leo kept talking to her as she floated around the workshop and his eyes kept drifting over to the trail of freckles that led from her bronzed shoulders down into a V below her neck.

Later that evening, when my boss and I sat waiting at our table at Pastis, she told me over and over again how sorry she was, she didn’t know what was keeping Leo, she guessed he probably had to work overtime.   Don’t worry, I told her, I don’t mind.     It was a relief not to be her employee anymore.   I didn’t feel so awkward trying to be nice to her.   We’re fine, just the two of us, I said, feeling like her friend for the first time.   Yes, I said, we’re just fine here on our own.