Her number appeared in his hand. He hesitated, then swiped the phone on the second verse of the ringtone.
“Well hi, you!”
Her voice unraveled him. He did his best to recover.
“Congratulations! You really nailed it yesterday. Quite impressive!”
“I hope I wasn’t overbearing.”
“No, no, not at all. You were smooth and eloquent. A charming talking head.”
“I wondered when I’d hear from you. Did you get my text?”
“As soon as you sent it.”
“Oh. Why didn’t you call?”
“I needed . . . I was in the middle of something.”
“Hmm. Any comments you would like to offer?”
“No, no, not at all. I wanted to . . . Yes, you were great. Seeing you on a screen . . . It’s been a while. It reminded me of our sessions together.”
“Ah, the Barolo and Bolognese marathons. Are you free this afternoon?”
He was anything but free, but it had nothing to do with his schedule. His fantasies of her raced through his mind like an atom smasher destroying his better judgement. There was no escape. He had been able to put this in perspective before, not concerned with a little crush here and there. It came with being human. She was so engaging and infectious. She brought a comforting, pleasant aura with her everywhere. She was literate, intelligent and, best of all, demure. They are all like that, he thought, trying to convince himself.
He knew the truth. No, they are not all like that at all, and she filled every idea of his imagined bliss. She was the uncontrollable distraction, the unrelenting thought that would not go away, and he had yet to reveal the effect she was having on him, over him. This teleworking environment had its advantages. He could surf her repeatedly on those recorded meetings. Her electronic self was on demand. How was he ever going to manage this? This was no longer a flirtatious parlor game restricted to those moments in the conference room just before the start of a meeting. Now in the safe-space intimacy of his laptop, he could view her at will. He was trapped by the idea of her. He had become the corporate office voyeur and while it had made him feel like a tactless and inappropriate low-life, he had become addicted to rewinding the dimpled smile, the shake of her head to readjust her chestnut flip, the fit of her suit that accented the splendor of her form.
Over and over. Play. Pause. Rewind.
“How about an hour from now?” Her inviting tone interrupted his obsession.
“Sure. See you at Emilio’s.”
His imagination was hijacked by the stirring tension within him. Vivid scenarios of warm wet lips provoked a reckless joyride in his mind. He pictured his roving eyes hovering over the shadowy swells of an overstressed bodice. Workplace friendships were never easily defined by HR-department directives for proper behavior, especially with women — especially with this preoccupation of his simmering inside. The afternoon café meeting still appeared innocuous, but it was negotiable.
All it would take would be a glance that lasted a moment too long; a nervous, unnecessary laugh; a glimpse of a champagne spaghetti strap as she stretched to grasp her rosé, perk of a summer day’s sleeveless attire. Opportunities had appeared so many times before, and he had not taken advantage of them. Any advance would have seemed misdirected, unacceptable, and doomed to failure. But this time, they came from within, inside his own yearnings. They had a life of their own. The crimson bolero, the ochre chemise, the alabaster shoulder, all subtle, vulnerable risks. The psychology of color was always present to suggest a surreptitious invitation. He explored the fortress for a weakness in the chain, an unlocked basement window.
Finding the solution to her riddle would tax his ingenuity. Cultivating an entry was one of the last remaining thrills in a society possessed with wokeness. He fixated on unwrapping her mystery. But his brand of swagger was no longer coveted or in fashion. Outmoded social graces had come to terms with inequality, and the best he could hope for was an invitation to be played.
He reveled in the possibility of being chosen.
He feared his desire was not a secret. Feelings of the heart have a spirit that travels like an unseen vapor. Women know this. They sense the interest, the search. They can receive it as an invitation or a threat. It is always their decision, regardless of one’s intent. Wearing this obsession was like standing naked, despite any attempt to keep it inside.
Women always know.
She was already there, of course, but not because of any interest in seeing him. That fantasy existed only in the torrid afternoon daydreams of submission boiling over in his head. She was early because she held absolute control of herself and everyone around her. He hoped for a sympathetic, patronizing nod to this foolish, childish affectation. She was merely being punctual.
“I’m famished,” she proclaimed. “Shall we be brave and split a Gnocchi Marinara with a chianti instead of the usual?”
“Sounds like a plan,” he countered, as naturally as he could, angered that he had responded with such hackneyed blandness. He felt like a short-sleeved middle manager. He could feel the pocket protector peeking from his shirt pocket. But he didn’t own any short-sleeved shirts or pocket protectors. They were figments of his uncertainty, his tentative resistance to man-up, take control, seize the moment. Too many failed encounters, too many Saturday nights with abrupt conclusions put an end to his personal bravura. The unforgiving social climate forced a contrite masculinity that did not move his love life forward. He could hear his ballpoint pen clicking, like a cricket intruding on his concentration while he listened for a break, a crack in her defense.
He extended his hand across the table, hoping for any hint of recognition. She returned his gesture with a gorgeous, brooding look that swelled his fantasy of abandon with her. He imagined a stolen embrace on some rainy afternoon in a distant fairy tale. But her look was one of impatience with the time it was taking for lunch to be served. He was terrified of the possibility that she knew all along what he felt inside, and was savvy enough to disregard it. She probably knew that he would not have the confidence to entertain any possibility of intimacy.
The waiter arrived. The Gnocchi Marinara tasted like a compromise. The Bolognese had always been promising. He would not be surprised if this were the last lunch he would share with her. With culinary familiarity gone, the rules had changed without his consent. She would never embrace his foolishness.
Women always know.
John Bonanni’s new memoir is a rip-roaring look at life in show business. His work appears in Adelaide Magazine, San Antonio Review and The Ravens Perch. He received his MFA from Western Connecticut State University.