My old friend Kevin had a stroke about a year ago, but this story isnít about him. I just bring him up because heís 300 lbs and likes to give me advice on exercise. Move your arms around, he says, and stretch and touch your knees. Sway from side to side, he says. Funny, and I thought playing eighteen holes of golf was good exercise. And about eating he might say, I didnít eat that much today, just a couple of hot dogs and a pizza. Or, Iím cutting down on my sodium. But, Iíd shout, what about the hot-dogs! Oh, heíd retort, I donít eat hot dogs that much, and I cut down on the pot pies, too.
Heíll talk about the Mets forever, and whom they might trade a year from now, but if thereís anything serious to be discussed he finds a way to change the subject. Like this woman Iím interested in. She works down on Catherine Street at the Chinese bakery and has the prettiest eyes and smile Iíve ever seen. Well, it seemed she was interested in me, too, and we would start talking when I came in for my afternoon ice coffee. But then, as usual, I had a tough time asking her out. Since Iím pushing thirty-five, twenty-years gone are the days when one of my buddies might check the girl out for me, or say to her, Hey, do you like him? He sure likes you. And since Iím not exactly a guy who spills his guts to every friend I have, I still sometimes wind up calling on my old childhood pal Kevin for advice.
So one day I tried to talk to him on the phone about the bakery woman, just in passing, but after I deflected the conversation about the Mets' weaknesses and steered it back to her, all he would say was, Just take it slow. Take it easy. Relax. No sense in worrying about it.
Take it slow. Iím almost forty and unmarried and super-shy and chickening out on another chance all over again. He knew as much about women as about exercise. So after thinking for a few days, I decided to force myself into having to ask her out. I went right out and bought two tickets to the opera. Orchestra seats. Saturday matinee. La Boheme. And wouldnít she love to go, cooped up for seven days for 10-12 hours a day in that bakery? I hoped so. I stuck the tickets in my pocket, which meant Iíd either have to ask her to it or eat one of the tickets. Great plan, huh?
A day or two after I bought the tickets I paced up and down Catherine Street for a while before I went in there for ice coffee. She looked right at me, and I waved and smiled to her, but she just looked away like she didnít know me. The smile stayed frozen on me while some lady with big teeth came at me for my order. I guessed she was busy or something, but it was the first time I didnít get the beautiful smile and hello.
I went in there again the next day. She looked right at me when I walked in. I smiled and waved but she looked away again. No wave. No hello. What the----
The opera was a week away. I paced Catherine Street and went to three rival bakeries and had four ice coffees in me before I finally went into her bakery. She looked right at me when I came in, and this time smiled and said, Ice coffee? I hadnít expected the smile, and Iíd already turned to the teeth lady. Ice Coffee, I growled. Expecting to be snubbed again, I had done the snubbing this time.
Well, the snubbing score was 2-1 with her in the lead, but I donít think it made a difference to her because the next day when I went in with a smile on my face, she just glanced at me dourly and drifted away. The next morning, she looked right at me when I went in, and I smiled and said a cheerful hi, but she almost shouted, ďYes?Ē and then proceeded to get very busy with other customers while I had to order my coffee through another girl.
The opera was only a few days away, and all seemed lost. I went in one more time, but we both just looked at each other blankly. She got very busy again, and after a few moments, without ordering, I slipped out.
Meanwhile, the two tickets to La Boheme were still stuck in my pocket and getting bent from being carried to the bakery every day to show her. I wasnít going to ask anyone else because my heart was set on her, so I decided to go alone.
I sat there in the orchestra seat next to her empty one, and realized pretty quickly that it was going to be no fun pretending she was there. I wasnít in the mood. I put The Daily News on the seat as her replacement.
The opera was only a little familiar to me. I had the libretto and decided to keep myself busy trying to figure out what was going on in the story. The libretto was all in Italian, so it wasnít much help. I had visited Italy alone fifteen years before and could only be understood by the natives when I spoke English. The only Italian I knew was ďBasta!Ē which is what my grandmother used to say to me and my cousins when we were laughing too much. For my entire childhood and adolescence Iíd thought she was calling us bastards. Anyway, without knowing the words, this is what I gathered from the opera.
When the curtain opened there was some poor guy trying to write, but he kept getting up, maybe because there was a draft or he thought there was a mouse. Then some big guy with a deep voice busted in and they sang for a while about the draft or the mouse. Pretty soon the big guy said he had an AA meeting so he split, and then ďaccidentallyĒ walked in this lady with a teensy voice, and she said something like she was looking for a nudist camp and must have walked into the wrong place. Well, this got the writer all worked up and he said to wait and talk a while, and pretty soon they were getting along all right, although she kept singing with her back to him and fluttering all around the room like some bird----maybe to keep him from getting bored or so he might lose some of the extra poundage. In any case, she had him prancing all around the room and wrapped around her little finger.
After a little while, she threw her ring on the floor and pretended like she had lost it. The two lovers got on hands and knees to search it out, and while they were groping around for it, their hands touched together, and I donít even know if they found the ring but they got up all of a sudden still holding hands and the music got all swollen. He started booming out with a big old song about her dishpan hands, and I have to admit that a little teardrop was curling down my right cheek as I thought about singing like that to the bakery woman with all the other workers looking on and the customers waiting around impatiently, my voice booming all the way down Catherine Street and she smiling right into my face.
When the song ended I clapped along with everyone else as the two lovers stood on stage like statues waiting for everyone to shut up, and then the girl started in on the next song, tweeting that her name was Mimi. Her voice was like a nail in a coffin, and the way it sounded she was singing her entire life history to him while he stood there all wrapped up in her looks but pretending to listen.
When her song was all done, there was an even bigger uproar from the crowd, but this time I didnít do any clapping. I disliked her automatically because she was almost as short as the bakery woman, even on stage, and I was jealous of the writer who seemed to have all the luck. I couldnít even get an ice coffee, much less a smile or a wave or her name from her, and here was this guy lucking into a girl just because he could write and sing a little and had a full complement of hair.
I missed a little of the story because I was daydreaming, but soon there was another happy couple hanging out with Mimi and Rudolpho and having a great time.
They sat in a cafť discussing proper horse care while a lot of cardboard appeared from the heavens pretending to be the street. Pretty soon Mimi had trouble keeping down the crepe suzette, and everyone looked at her, but it was a false alarm and they ordered a pitcher of beer and discussed somnambulism. All was well until one of the cows started mooing too loud and an extra had to lead him backstage to be slaughtered. Mimi started hacking again because she was allergic to the other girlís perfume, and Rudolpho finally decided to take her home before she ruined all their fun.
At halftime everyone went to the bathroom but I stayed in my seat glancing through the program and wondering vaguely if it was that the bakery woman had suddenly noticed I was losing my hair and that was why sheíd stopped smiling. By the time the second act started I hated her, and I didnít even follow the story that much but slipped in and out of sleep. I finally woke up for good when Mimi went into one of her most vicious coughing jags, hacking up a storm while everyone except the horses looked on worried. Before she knew it she was in bed dying, and the writer was bent over her not even minding that she still was coughing right in his face---a sure sign of true love when a girl can cough in a guyís face and he doesnít even flinch or get pissed.
At last she croaked permanently and the writer went ape and bawled his head off, singing all the while, but I wasnít sad at that part, and was thinking, big deal if sheís dead because at least he had the chance to have a girl love him and die on him. I was sadder at the beginning when they touched hands and that should have been the end of the whole opera right there with everyone going home to use their own bathrooms.
When it all ended there was a big hubbub over the actors coming back on stage for a final farewell, and when Mimi came out healthy again there were the biggest bravos of all. I stopped clapping when she made her entrance but then clapped again for one of the horses as he appeared through some of the background scenery looking for some respect.
I walked all the way home from Lincoln Center because I didnít want to be around anyone, even the typically friendly New York cab driver. An hour later, when I got to Catherine Street I passed the bakery. It seemed about to close. Casually, I peeked inside and spotted her walking with a broom in front of the cake cases. Seeing me, she stopped dead for a second, and I gave her a little wave. She hesitated, looked full at me, and then waved back to me---the wave as small as mine but the smile just as warm. Then she hurriedly disappeared behind the counter.
With Rudolpho still singing in my head, I went in for an ice coffee before she closed.
Lou Gaglia teaches in upstate New York. He has published recently in Bartleby Snopes, Hobo Pancakes, and Indigo Rising.