A scene from Thomas Docheri’s novel Affirmative Action
Use these to jump around or read it all:
Michael hitting on Catherine
The Audition, Part II, from Affirmative Action begins here
Michael hitting on Catherine
This is the second installment of the scenes I am calling, The Audition. It’s important to the story because it is the beginning of the relationship between the male and female protagonists, which drives much of the their motivation in three of my four novels about Jonathan Tyne. In this installment Catherine Duvall is trying to decide whether to audition Michael Ware, the alias Jonathan Tyne is using to avoid coming to the attention of the San Francisco Bay Area-based Tosca crime family, as her piano accompanist. Appearing in a public venue in a resort city visited by two million visitors annually, many of them from California, is playing with fire. Better for him if he dropped the idea of working with her but he can’t. She is too much woman. He rationalizes away the risk thinking he’s smart enough to have his cake and eat it too, no pun intended.
Please feel free to tell me what you think, especially how I have written Catherine . . . and as always, enjoy . . . The Audition.
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The Audition, Part II, from Affirmative Action begins here
C A T H E R I N E A N D M I C H A E L
A moment or two after Catherine Duvall walked away a waiter came up to his booth and introduced himself. He said his name was Antony and Catherine – he called her signora Duvall – had told him to take extra good care of Mr. Ware. The man was of medium height, maybe slightly shorter than Tyne, in his thirty’s; with black hair and a heavy, dark beard he’d shaved closely. Lean, like a dancer, with swarthy skin and incredibly handsome, Tyne was certain Antony had to beat them off with a stick. Antony handed Tyne a wine and a dinner menu, both bound in Moroccan leather. Then he deftly removed three of the place settings.
Tyne figured Antony was probably a senior waiter, chosen purposely by Catherine. It also occurred to him that if there was any possibility he might become Di Giorgio’s resident pianist, he’d better be on good terms with its staff. He did not make the usual pretense of studying the wine menu; instead, he was smart enough to ask Antony for a suggestion. Di Giorgio’s offered all its extensive selection of wines by the bottle, carafe and glass and the waiter beamed at being asked for his advice. Tyne said he was thinking about veal or possibly lamb, listened carefully and then chose a glass of Castello di Brolio Casalferro, an estate-bottled Chianti classico from Tuscany that Antony thought was especially good.
Before hurrying away Antony said he would tell Mr. Ware about tonight’s specials when he returned with his wine.
Before Antony returned Lydia Conti entered the piano bar carrying a bottle of wine. She was wearing her usual white, wrap-around apron but she also was wearing around her waist the canvas pouch in which she carried a generous supply of wine glasses. She saw Tyne, smiled, walked to his booth and as before, greeted him with a hug and a kiss. Then she slid in across from him.
She patted his hand and asked what wine he had ordered. When he told her, she looked thoughtful for a moment, and then poured a glass of 1992 Soave Bolla, a fragrant white wine she said came from Verona.
“Try this and tell me what you think. It won’t spoil your palette.”
He inhaled the aroma for a moment, then tasted the wine, holding it momentarily in his mouth before swallowing it.
He pronounced it excellent and read the label thinking he might buy a bottle or two from the local vintner before returning home. He took another sip just as Antony arrived with his Brolio. As he set the glass in front of Tyne Lydia said, “Michael, your server tonight is Antony Carbone, our senior waiter. Antony, say hello to Mr. Ware, an old and dear friend.”
Tyne offered his hand, the two men shook and Antony said, “the signora Duvall told me Mr. Ware’s name but she did not say he was a friend of yours.”
“Antony, if you don’t mind, my name is Michael.”
“The signora is very smart but she doesn’t know everything,” said Lydia.
Antony smiled, a very becoming smile and said, “She knows a lot. Well, you said you were thinking about veal. We have a very nice alla Florentine, with spinach, tomatoes, fontina – that’s a semi-soft cheese from Valle d’Aosta – and mashed potatoes in a white wine cream sauce. Also, the al Marsala is excellent with mushrooms and mashed potatoes in a glazed Marsala sauce. And this is not on the menu but our chef can prepare saltimbocca; that’s thinly sliced prosciutto laid on veal scallops, seasoned with sage and sautéed in butter and then braised in white wine. Would you like some time to think those choices over or perhaps something else appeals – the Agnello is excellent?”
“I’ve had all of those before, and they are excellent, but I’ve never had saltimbocca, so that’s what I’ll have, perhaps with some mushrooms sautéed in garlic butter?”
“Chef Richard can do the saltimbocca classico style or alla Romana. Do you have a preference?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Classico uses a dry white wine while alla Romana uses Marsala.”
“The alla Romana, by all means, please.”
Tyne’s only meal today had been the Cobb salad from Thump he’d eaten at noon. He’d skipped breakfast so he could harvest the samples he given to chef Richard and as a consequence, was ravenous. So he ordered spiedini – prawn and prosciutto skewers – and brushetta from the antipasti section of the menu and a pomodora salad – fresh mozzarella, Roma tomatoes and basil in an extra virgin olive oil dressing.
Antony nodded approvingly as Tyne spoke his order and just before he left Lydia said, “Antony, were you able to hear Michael playing the piano?”
“Yes, I was working in the main dining room and the remote speakers were turned on so I heard everything.” He smiled and shook his head, obviously amused by the memory. “Those Century-21 people are really funny. Someone should have told them the microphones were live.”
“What did you think? Go ahead; speak freely . . . Michael is Irish; he doesn’t understand Italian,” which wasn’t exactly true. Having been married to a Spanish woman who had been born in Italy and spoke the language fluently, especially when they visited her parents, he could understand the gist of most conversations, if the speaker spoke slowly and enunciated his words clearly.
“Antony, se si parla . . . lentamente e distintamente, posso . . . capire,” he said.
The waiter beamed and squeezed and then patted Tyne’s shoulder while Lydia looked on in amazement. “Bravo, bravo Michael, mi deve parlare lentamente. Il suo pianismo è impressionante.”
Lydia looked at Tyne and said, “Did you get that? He thinks your playing is awesome.”
“Grazie Antony. Sì, ho capito quello . . . che ha . . . detto.”
The waiter smiled again and said, “Shall I begin with the spiedini?”
“Per favore,” said Tyne.
When he was gone Lydia said, “I guess being married to an Italian woman taught you a few things?”
“Spanish-Italian . . . and yes, she taught me a great deal.” She also saved my life, he thought.
“They are all in love with Catherine . . . except the two gays. Say, your ordering pomodora reminded me that Richard would like to know whether you can grow Cherry Romas. We would use them in the pomodora if we could get them. It’s one of our most popular salads.”
“Does that mean we have a deal?”
She rubbed her thumb and finger together, a gesture Tyne thought implied something to do with money, and said, “You still have to negotiate schedule and price with Connie but yes, we have a deal. Richard is working up a list of what he’d like you to supply.”
“Yes, I’ve grown that variety before and I have a good supply of seeds. Sixty days plus three weeks for seedlings.”
“Speaking of Connie, are you staying in Bend over the weekend?”
“Yes. I could go back tomorrow or Sunday or even Monday, depending on how my discussions with Catherine shake out.” He didn’t think she needed to know he was really going to the Bay Area when he finished his business in Bend.
“Good, then would you be willing to meet with Connie tomorrow, say at 1 P.M. here at the restaurant?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
She nodded and started to slide out of the booth and Tyne said, “Lydia, I hope while you’re making your rounds you’re asking people who heard me play whether they liked what they heard?”
She stood next to him with her hip touching his shoulder, and she stroked his hair. “I am and so far the feedback has all been positive. Shall I ask Catherine what she thinks?”
“Please don’t. As far as you’re concerned I’m not available . . . because of all the travel. If she and I get together it will be because something happened that you weren’t aware of. If that happens you should act surprised.”
“So you can play hard to get?”
“Not hard to get, just . . . unconvinced. It’s up to her to convince me. Lydia, it has to be her idea, not yours and certainly not mine or this isn’t going to work. You do understand that, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure I do.”
“She has to want me to collaborate with her because my playing contributes something positive to her act and for no other reason. Just because we’re friends or I’m one of the restaurant’s important suppliers are not good reasons. Trust me Lydia, I know something about close collaboration especially since I blew it so badly with Madeleine.”
She bent down and kissed him on the forehead and whispered, “Okay Jonathan, I’ll do it your way.” She then moved away from the booth and began talking to a young couple sitting at one of the tables for four. He watched her for a moment until Antony brought his spiedini.
. . .
It was a few minutes before nine when Catherine Duvall reappeared. Tyne had just finished the saltimbocca and was working on a second glass of the Brolio. Catherine didn’t sit; instead, she stood close enough to Tyne he had to look up at her. He leaned his head back on the cushion and waited patiently for the woman to speak. After a moment she said, “What did you order?”
“How was it?”
“I’ve never had it before so I have nothing to compare it with other than previous veal dishes I’ve eaten here. Having said that, it was superb. Please convey my compliments to chef Richard.”
“I shall. I hope you’re planning to stay for my solo?”
“I said I would.”
“Yes, so you did. I’m about to start. Is there anything you’d particularly like to hear that I might know?”
“Well, I played Yeston for you; how about playing one of his for me?”
“What a beautiful song. Yes, I know it and I’ll be happy to play it for you. Is it one that you also know how to play?”
“One of three.”
“Oh, which is the third?”
“‘I Am Longing,’ from the song cycle. I’m trying to learn the rest of December Songs but the music is very difficult.”
“Why, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“You mean why is the music difficult?”
“No, why are you trying to learn that music? Lydia said you are some sort of computer consultant. If you’re not a professional musician, why are you trying to do something as challenging as learning the cycle?”
“Because he wrote it specifically for Andrea Marcovicci and she’s my favorite female singer. I listen to the December Songs CD a lot and anything I enjoy listening to I want to play. It’s just for me; just something I enjoy doing. Had you not asked for a Yeston piece I probably would not have played one. Consultant sounds like I give advice; I haven’t actually done that in quite a while . . . years, in fact. I used to, when certain technologies were in their infancy, but those days, at least for me, are gone. I’m a software engineer, by the way, and mostly what I do is hire out as a contract programmer.”
She looked doubtful, as if she had not understood what he said, so he added, “I build things that people want built; things that generally take a few weeks to a few months to build. That way, when I’m done, it’s don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. Companies that hire me would rather not have an employee around after they no longer need one.”
She frowned and he thought she had more to say when Antony arrived with the dessert menu. He handed it to Tyne and then nodded at Catherine. Tyne opened it and glanced briefly at the list of pure, unadulterated decadence. He’d been thinking about cannoli all evening and was about to order it when he saw Antony wink at him. He closed the menu, leaned back and pressed both hands on the leather cover as if it was a keyboard. “Actually Antony, I was hoping you would suggest something as memorable as the veal? The saltimbocca was primo.”
“Yes, I do have something very special for you; pere ripiene. As you know I was instructed to take extra good care of you.” As he said this he glanced at Catherine, pointed at her but hid his hand so she couldn’t see the gesture and then smiled at Tyne.
“Pere is pears, isn’t it?”
“Corrètto Michael; pears stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. And extra good care always requires at least two choices or what’s the point. We also have tonight crostata di ricotta, which is a cheese pie that is better than any cheesecake ever made. We serve it with white grapes.”
“Antony, it’s Mr. Ware, not Michael,” as Catherine rebuked him, gently but firmly.
Tyne stared at her for a moment and then said, with emphasis added, “No Catherine; it’s Michael. Antony and I have discovered we have something in common. Like my ex-wife Antony was born in Genoa. We were discussing the ten-day bicycle trip my ex and I took through Liguria and the Piedmont the year before we divorced. We started at La Speza and followed the coast road to Genoa, then on to the Italian Academy of Cooking at Savona and beyond to Imperia and then a big loop north through the lower Piedmont as far as Alessandria. The tour manager had a van to haul the luggage and a sag wagon for those who couldn’t do the 20 to 30 daily miles. My ex and I did the whole trip on two wheels and enjoyed some really superb Northern Italian food along the way. You should try that some time, with someone you really care about. Can’t think of a better way to see Italy than by bicycle.”
Antony looked back and forth between them and again he winked knowingly at Tyne. He’d picked up on something going on between them and was amused.
. . .
During the hour it took to prepare and serve Tyne’s meal he and Antony had struck up the beginnings of friendship. At first the waiter had bristled when Tyne asked about Eddie Bryce; whether he was Catherine’s – he was careful to always refer to her as Ms. Duvall – significant other and why he had left her high and dry in Bend just when her cabaret act was proving to be a success. He mellowed when Tyne explained he was only asking because Catherine had proposed a musical collaboration. He knew the wait-staff worked for Catherine and he wanted to know what it was like to work for her. And, not to put too fine a point on it, who might be offended if he made a move on her? After all, she was a real babe; that’s what he called her, a babe, and Antony did not dispute that appellation.
What he learned was that despite the wedding ring she wore, Catherine was not married. Catherine’s ex had told him this but it was interesting to hear it confirmed by the waiter. Divorced from this Duvall dude who lived back east, upstate New York he thought, and a concert pianist by profession. She wore the ring, as many waitresses do, to ward off unwanted advances. When Tyne asked for the source of this fascinating intel Antony said it was from Carla Rainey, a former 2nd runner-up Miss Oregon while at OSU, Catherine’s assistant and his current squeeze, which was why he, Antony, had no problem with Michael making a move on signora Duvall. He encouraged it, in fact.
Something else of great interest to Tyne occurred during that hour. After the pomodora Antony brought Tyne a cup of Manhattan clam chowder with a large dollop of pesto floating on the surface, Genoese style. He said chef Richard had found a new source for basil and tomatoes and he would appreciate Michael’s opinion. Tyne asked whether others were being queried and Antony said at least half the diners in the main dining room were sampling the zuppe. He ate the soup slowly, savoring the subtle flavors and was pleased to discover Richard had followed his recipe rather than Filippini’s. After he finished the soup he told Antony to tell chef Richard that he was no expert but he had enjoyed the chowder, and especially the pesto, very much.
. . .
“Yes, the cheese pie, by all means . . . and some espresso?”
“How about . . . caffè alla Borgia, which is coffee laced with apricot brandy and sprinkled with cinnamon?”
“Antony, you’re spoiling me for any other restaurant . . . and any other waiter.”
Antony gathered up the dessert menu and Tyne’s dinner plate, after first asking Catherine – he again called her signora Duvall – to scusa per favore, signora and move slightly away from the table, so he could properly clear it, and then he left.
She stared at his retreating back until he passed around the corner of the bar, then back at Tyne for a moment and then said, “I don’t care how many walks down memory lane you and he take, I don’t appreciate you undermining my authority in front of a waiter, even if he is our senior.”
“I did no such thing. I merely affirmed in front of you that I encouraged him to address me by my given name.”
“I don’t believe in having too many rules either but one thing I do insist on is absolute courtesy to our guests, which includes addressing them by their surnames. I make it my business to make sure each waiter and waitress knows the name of his or her guest, from my book.”
“Cool, you did that very well. He referred to me as Mr. Ware until I asked him to use my first name. If you doubt what I’m saying, ask Lydia. She was sitting with me when all this happened. Is this the way it’s going to be, working for you? If so, then I pass.”
She seemed to want to say something more but didn’t. Instead, it turned into a staring contest until Tyne said, “It’s getting on past nine. Shouldn’t you be doing your solo?”
“I’m not sure I want you to work for me. You seem to have a real knack for getting under my skin. If that’s the way it’s going to be, perhaps you shouldn’t wait around for me to finish?” With that she turned on her heel and walked quickly to the piano.
. . .
Catherine played for an hour and a half and before she was done Tyne knew he could learn a great deal from this woman. She played a diverse mix of popular music – Gershwin, Kern-Hammerstein, Mancini-Bricusse, Harold Arlen, Don McLean, Carole King, Carly Simon, David Foster, Bacharach-David, even one New Age piece he recognized, Naccarato’s “Stone Cottage” – and of course, near the end the Maury Yeston song he had requested. He wondered whether she deliberately kept his request almost to the very end. Her back was to him and not once did she turn to see whether he was still there.
She took requests too, or at least that’s what he thought she was doing. Several times a waiter approached, waited patiently for her to finish, then bent close and said something to her. Each time she nodded and the waiter dropped cash into the tips jar. It occurred to him that her tips were probably commingled with the one he’d received from the woman named Gaby. He’d forgotten to tell Antony to see that any tips he received were distributed to the wait staff, his usual practice. And to Tyne’s surprise, not a single person chose to sit at the piano. Most in the piano bar dining area stayed to the end and applauded, sometimes with gusto as she finished each piece. Almost exactly at 10:30 she turned off the microphones, rose from the bench, gathered the tips and without even a glance in his direction, left the piano bar.
Both the crostata di ricotta and the caffè alla Borgia Antony served him were excellent and Tyne ordered a second caffè. After the second cup he asked Antony for the check but the waiter refused. He said he’d been signora Duvall’s guest and therefore there would not be a bill. Tyne then did a careful calculation of what his dinner cost from his memory of the menu. It came by his reckoning to sixty-six bucks; so he rounded this to seventy and when Antony returned to see whether he wanted anything else, he tipped the waiter fifteen. He said dinner was one thing the signora could be responsible for but unless she was going to serve the meal too, Antony’s service was what made the meal memorable. He thanked Tyne and smiling his most enigmatic smile said, “Good luck with the signora; you’re going to need it.”
He decided to wait to see whether the signora would return. She’d played for ninety minutes without a break; surely that meant she needed a potty break. Sure enough, fifteen minutes later his patience was rewarded when she returned to his booth carrying a bottle of Grand Marnier and two liqueur glasses. She slid in across from him and gestured with the brandy. “I adore Italian wines but I much prefer French brandies and liqueurs.”
“Stravecchia Grappa and Refosco are both very good as is Strega.”
“Would you prefer one of those?”
“I’d rather it be your choice.”
She nodded and poured two glasses. He waited until she took a sip, then he did the same. “I wasn’t sure you’d stay.”
“I said I would; I generally do what I say I will do.”
“Did you enjoy dinner?”
“Very much. Thank you for comping me. By the way, I tipped Antony so you don’t have to.”
“That was thoughtful of you.”
“He’s an excellent waiter and I generally get the best meals and the best service by asking for recommendations. Antony rose to the occasion.”
“That’s good to know.”
“I noticed you did ‘Stone Cottage’; one of my favorites.”
“It was a request. I would not have played it or any other New Age piece otherwise.”
“What have you got against New Age?”
“Nothing except so few people enjoy hearing it.”
He was expecting her to take the lead; she didn’t, but her gaze never left his face. The silence dragged on for several minutes and it began to annoy him. Finally, he leaned forward with his forearms on the table and tracing the rim of his glass with his index finger he said, “While you were playing, which by the way I thoroughly enjoyed, I had this fantasy running through my head that I could learn a great deal from you. But alas, then I remembered that I get under your skin. Except . . . hold on . . . please let me finish . . .” when she started to interrupt. “You left before I could comment about that . . . what I would have said is getting under your skin is a good thing, like the Cole Porter song says, isn’t it? Isn’t that right where you want me to be? If you don’t, you should.”
“If it’s such a good thing why am I so annoyed?”
“Annoyed . . . truly?”
“That doesn’t suggest collaboration between us is likely to be successful. So, Catherine . . . may I call you Catherine . . . or how about Cat? It suits you.”
“My name is Catherine, not Cat, Cathy or Kate. I prefer that you call me Catherine.”
“Thank you for clearing that up; so Catherine, I know why I’m here. Why are we here?” and as he said this he nodded with his head and gestured with his hands to indicate that here was the booth they were sitting in.
“I thought we could talk . . . and maybe between us we could figure out why there is this . . . tension between us. I’ve been looking for an accompanist for several months to replace the one I lost and you’re the first of seven or eight I’ve auditioned with the talent to help me do what I want to do. I can’t let that opportunity pass by simply because we’ve . . . how should I describe it . . . we’ve stepped on each others toes?”
“Well, I’ve got all night. Why don’t you start by telling me exactly what it is I do that gets under your skin? I’m a big boy; I can take criticism so don’t pull your punches.”
“Okay, everything you did tonight, from start to finish was a game. You came here tonight to use your talent to hit on women and you’re very good at it, very slick. You even came on to me in the reservations line. You never made a reservation; that was just your bullshit story to hit on the hostess, and why the hell not, she’s just a glorified waitress and probably fucks everything in pants?”
When he started to defend himself from that unfounded canard, the part about what he wanted to do to her because she was just a glorified waitress, the look she gave him froze the comment in his throat.
“Correct me if I’m wrong; you arrived at about seven for . . . if I remember correctly, an eight-thirty reservation, so you said. Now why would someone do that? I don’t think you even wanted a table. I think you just wanted access to the piano. You’re so good at it I bet you do it at every opportunity . . . as good as you play, perhaps your entire adult life? Haven’t you?”
“Years and years.”
“What an asshole you are, to use your talent that way.”
“Okay, some of what you said is true . . . some but not all, but even the parts that are true have a context. If you’re going to beat me up for what I do you should at least understand the context.”
“I can hardly wait to hear this.”
He stared at her for a moment and then he said; “I see a lot of red in your hair. Mostly it’s dark brown and black but the red is quite prominent especially in this light. Is it natural or do you have a very talented stylist?”
“Why do you need to know?”
“Because redheads are crazy, really nuts, some more than others depending on how much red they have. Does the carpet match the drapes?”
“What? What does that mean?”
“Well, a true redhead has red in her bush . . . not necessarily all red but a mixture of red and brown or black. I hope you don’t . . . what’s the euphemism they use now . . . of yes, groom it all away . . . the hair, that is, not the red?”
If looks could really kill he’d now be quite dead. Slowly, very slowly, she seemed to get her anger under control. Her entire upper boy had tensed and it allowed him to see her upper arms were ripped. He concluded she wasn’t just slender by way of a careful diet but she worked out too, seriously.
“My hair is quite natural, even the little bit of gray I have. Andrea is a little gray too and so is Gloria. When they color theirs maybe I’ll think about coloring mine.”
He studied her face and hair again and finally said, “I’d say 15-percent red, which means only a little crazy, but enough to explain why we’re getting off to such a bad start.”
“Bullshit. We’re getting off to a bad start because you are . . . you are being quite obnoxious.”
“No, the word you are looking for and are too ladylike to use is asshole. My wife used it a lot . . . still does, as a matter of fact.” He thought for a moment and then said, “No, my mistake. I almost forgot. You just used that word too, didn’t you? So, note to self . . . self, she’s not as ladylike as she’d like me to believe.”
She looked like she wanted to respond to this but when she didn’t he said, “Catherine, you should see yourself, your face, your body language. You’ve already made up your mind I’m an asshole so why should I bother explaining to you what I know you aren’t going to believe?”
He could see she was indeed very angry and now he was sure she was trying very hard to get her anger under control. She must really think I play well enough, he thought, to put up with my shit. He wasn’t applying a full-court press but he did want to see how far he could push her. She tossed off the remainder of her liqueur, poured another glass and then said, “Try.”
He took a deep breath, held it for a moment and then shaking his head, let it out in a sigh. He took another moment to gather his thoughts and then said, “I’ve been divorced for almost four years and it wasn’t my idea. My ex and I – God how I hate that term, her name is Madeleine – Madeleine and I were married for almost nineteen years. And I know it’s not very fashionable but I never cheated on her, not once. I’ve been playing in piano bars since the divorce, and yes, to hit on women. Actually, any man can hit on women; it’s much more fun and much more satisfying to get them to hit on me. If you want to call it a game, then yes, that’s my game.”
“Are there children?”
“No, neither of us wanted them.”
“Nieces and nephews?”
“Not any of them, either.”
“So, at least you’re not setting a bad example for . . .”
“What about you?”
Catherine looked away and chewed her lower lip. When she said nothing Tyne said, “If you’re thinking of a polite way to tell me to mind my own business, don’t. If you can ask personal questions, so can I.”
She finally met his steady gaze and said, “I had two miscarriages in my thirties . . . both at four weeks.”
“Sorry; that’s tough. Madeleine had two of those too.”
“I thought you said neither of you wanted children?”
“Madeleine changed her mind in her late thirties, so, we tried.”
“Did you change your mind?”
“Not really, but I wanted her to be happy.”
“She probably sensed your ambivalence.”
“Probably. Another one of my many failings.”
“So, you woke up the day after the divorce was final and headed for the nearest piano bar . . . because you wanted to get laid?”
“He smiled and said, “I wish I could say I didn’t do anything of the sort, but . . . there’s quite a lot of truth in what you said. That first year wasn’t one of my best. It wasn’t my worst . . . but I’m not all that proud of what I did . . . except, I did learn how to get what I want, and I don’t lie about what I want. A lot of women seem to want that too.
“I’d been out of the dating scene for more than two decades and that first year, when I discovered how effective playing in public was, I went a little crazy, like a kid in a candy shop. And it’s funny, even ironic how it all came about. Madeleine likes to entertain; small, intimate dinner parties for friends and her business colleagues – she’s a marketing executive – and she liked me to play for our guests. I didn’t mind a bit; I love to play and if she thought it was useful for her career, then I was more than willing to help.
“And one time, this was a few months before she told me she was divorcing me, at one of those parties I played very much like I did tonight, and I flirted with one of our guests. We both knew the woman and her husband were having a rocky time and that night she had a little too much to drink and was coming on to me, although to be fair, I initiated it. Nothing happened, it was all just in fun, just the booze talking, but Madeleine overheard what she thought was lovers’ code and after all the guests left she accused me of having an affair with one of her best friends. That’s how she described the woman, as one of her best friends. If she had a best friend other than me it was sure as hell news to me. She had business contacts she networked with to enhance and promote her career.
“It took some time but I managed to convince her that there was nothing going on with the woman, or anyone else for that matter, but after she began divorce proceedings I got the idea that playing the piano in public places, such as Di Giorgio’s was a great way to meet women, especially for someone who’d been out of the game for as long as I had. It was and for a year or maybe a little more than a year I indulged myself. But eventually it got old and do you know why?”
It was a rhetorical question so he didn’t wait for an answer. “Because almost all of the women I met were married and cheating on their husbands. That first year it didn’t matter to me and I had no regard for the men I was cuckolding. I figured if they couldn’t keep their women satisfied they got what they deserved. And perhaps I’m naïve but it came as something of a surprise that there was so much adultery going on.”
He paused for a sip of cognac and she said, “Is it possible you were getting even for what happened to you?”
He stared at her for a moment. A rather perceptive remark, he thought, and then said, “Maybe. I’ve told myself Madeleine didn’t have sex with the new guy until after she informed me of her decision but that too is pretty naïve.”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted you. Please continue.”
“So, sometime early in ’97, when I had this epiphany and finally got my shit together, I stopped getting it on with married women. From that point on I mostly added names to my address book. I didn’t stop playing the game and I won’t until I find Ms. Right but I no longer behave so self-destructively. Sooner or later someone I’m attracted to who is free to choose and wants an exclusive relationship will sit down at the piano to listen and life will be good again. And don’t take this the wrong way but tonight is the third time I’ve come back to Di Giorgio’s looking for you. I saw you for the first time last December. It was before you were performing because the piano wasn’t in its usual spot and the raised stage was still under construction. You were the hostess that night too and you seated me in a booth in the front dining room. I was able to watch you throughout dinner, for almost two hours. You were wearing a white silk blouse buttoned to the throat, black slacks and black pumps. You had your hair different then. It was done in this loose braid and then coiled on the back of your head and to say I was smitten is an understatement.”
“Sorry Michael, I don’t remember you. We get so many guests that . . .”
Tyne gestured with his hand, palm outward, waggling his fingers as he interrupted her. “I thought tonight, when we spoke in the reservations line you recognized me from last December . . . oh not my name but maybe my face . . . or perhaps the hair. I thought I saw something in your eyes. You know how you see someone for the first time, and your eyes meet, maybe by chance, and there’s something there, like maybe you two know something no one else knows . . . or you’ve seen each other before?”
“You don’t have to apologize, I quite understand,” finally feeling confident using his Ware pseudonym with this one would be okay.
“My, my, you have quite a memory . . . what I was wearing, even how I wore my hair.”
“My dear Catherine, you were . . . are, impossible to forget, especially in those slacks. You have an ass to die for. I’ve thought about your ass many times since then.”
“Do you always speak so . . . frankly?”
“Yes, pretty much; it saves a great deal of time.”
“You said this is the third time you stalked me. When were the other two times?”
“I’m not stalking you. I simply . . .”
“If it’s not stalking, what the hell do you call it? I don’t know you; perhaps you’re a serial rapist or an axe murderer?”
“That’s nonsense and you know it. You think Lydia would vouch for me if I wasn’t a stand-up guy? I simply regretted not making more of an effort that first time to get to know you, at least make an attempt to see you again and I was looking for a ring and I can’t recall seeing one. I was here in March and also in June but if you were here I didn’t see you. But all that’s behind us now since you aren’t free to choose,” and to make his point unequivocal he touched her wedding ring. “Are you?”
She ignored the question and pulled her hand away. Instead she said, “So, is that your story; why someone who plays the piano as well as you do uses it in this childish way; to score piano groupies?”
“Is that what it is about me that gets under your skin? That I use the piano for sex?”
“That’s one of them, a big one.”
“You’re such an arrogant smart-ass and I don’t like smart-asses.”
“Well kiddo, you’re not exactly a slouch in that department yourself.”
“So if I understand you correctly, you’re just looking for the next Mrs. Ware. Is that it?”
“I’m not looking for ownership, just exclusivity . . . for whatever time I have left.”
“You look healthy enough. Is there something wrong with you?”
“No, I’m in good health but life is fragile and shit happens.”
“Do you really believe you can have exclusivity without ownership?”
“Ownership can be a strait jacket while exclusivity is a state of mind. We know ownership doesn’t guarantee exclusivity and with the right state of mind, it isn’t necessary.”
“Yes, but at your age . . . perhaps you should just settle for fun and games with your groupies.”
“What has my age to do with it?”
“Aren’t the women you’re likely to be attracted to already taken? Isn’t sharing what was really going on your first year as a single man?”
“Perhaps . . . but consider for a moment the sorry state of marriage in this country. It’s a well-known fact that half of all marriages fail. That means at any given moment half of all married women have either just shed, are contemplating shedding or are in the process of shedding their unwanted baggage. Some have already hooked up with the new guy since infidelity is a leading cause. Others are looking forward to regaining their freedom but don’t relish being alone. This latter demographic is of interest to me, specifically: childless, well-educated, self-supporting career women, if you will, say . . . thirty-eight to forty-eight with a secular humanist point of view. The sort of women who dine regularly at up-scale restaurants, such as Di Giorgio’s and enjoy listening to well-played piano whether they frequent piano bars or not. They will hear and some will investigate and voilà, new friends by the truck load.”
“Wow, no mention of what they have to look like. I’m impressed.”
“Women with those characteristics look after themselves; they’re always presentable, which is sufficient though lady jocks and fitness junkies earn bonus points. You look like one. Are you?”
“I’m a dancer, so yeah . . . I work at it.”
“Ballet or . . .”
“Jazz and aerobic.”
“Splendid. Dancers have the best bodies and dancer on top is to die for.”
“On top of what?”
“The second most satisfying position in sexual intercourse. You know, fucking. It’s that marvelous hip action.”
“Care to discuss which position is the most satisfying? For both participants.”
“Not with you, Ace.”
“Nevertheless, someday you’ll ask and after I demonstrate it to you, you’ll be my love slave.”
“That’ll be the day. Okay, that’s a pretty clear statement, before all this other bullshit I didn’t ask for, of what you’re looking for but it says nothing about why exclusivity is so important to you. Care to flimflam me, dazzle me with your footwork?”
“Charm, not flimflam, hopefully, right out of your knickers.”
The look she gave him was lethal. “Not if you were the last man on earth, Ace.”
“I think you should revisit Buddy’s lyrics. I think if you do you’ll discover that you have the song’s intent exactly backwards. Think about it.”
“That’ll be the day it snows in hell that you’ll get into my knickers. Is that clearer?”
“I love a challenge.”
“Maybe I don’t want to hear this, after all.”
“Au contraire. You’ll miss the best part.”
She studied his face for a moment and then said, “Okay, but lose the sexual innuendo. It’s boring . . . and so tiresome.”
“Whatever . . . it’s funny – not funny ha ha but funny ironic – you should ask the why question, exactly the way someone else I met recently did, in a similar context.”
“That isn’t the way I thought about her but I suppose to you anyone I meet in a piano bar is a groupie . . . that is . . . except you dear. Think whatever you like. This was in California, my most recent trip and the real point of the evening was to celebrate the birthday of a man I’ve known and loved for more than twenty-five years. She wasn’t exactly my date but my friend’s wife was trying to be helpful and included her in the guest list. She made a point of introducing us. Her name is Isabel and when she joined me at the piano I could see the rings. I played . . . oh, at least a dozen pieces, mostly for the man, including some Elton John original compositions I learned as a birthday gift for him, but I also played one she requested and I played ‘Alfie’ with harp augmentation for the first time in public.
“The woman’s . . .”
“Did the woman know it was your friend’s birthday?”
That was the third time she’d interrupted him, he thought, as he gazed at her face, her eyes so striking as to threaten to make him lose his train of thought. If he spent any amount of time with this woman he was going to have to find a way to stop her from doing that. Of course, he’d interrupted her too. Perhaps they shared that trait in common, as he and Madeleine did; perceiving they knew where the thread of a conversation was going and jumping in to the consternation of the other party. After Madeleine and he had argued about it for the umpteenth time, he’d made a concerted effort, mostly successful, to rein in his own rude behavior. This woman seemed to bring out the worst in him.
He stared at her for a full minute with the trace of a smirk on his face, thinking; might as well get in a punch of my own since she’s been wailing on me. So he said, “You have this annoying habit of interrupting me.”
“You do it too.”
“Yes, I know I do. It’s a bad habit I’m trying to control. Maybe we could both work on it, that is, if we’re going to spend any amount of time together?”
“That remains to be seen but I’ll take it under advisement.”
Tyne studied her face for a moment longer, remembering what the waiter had said: that she wore the ring to keep the hound dogs at bay – wondering whether to believe him. Perhaps it was something else Charles hadn’t told him, that she really had remarried. Of course, if Antony and his squeeze Carla had it right, it was a lie. But, it wasn’t a bad lie; not a lie he couldn’t forgive, especially if he could get her to come clean, of her own volition, because she didn’t want to keep him at bay. He decided it was worth a try.
“You know, I’ve heard it said some couples fight, deliberately, because making up is so much fun. The sex is off the charts. And of course, they have to care enough to want to go a couple of rounds, to get whatever is buggin’ them out of their systems. I’m thinking we may be like that.”
“We’re not a couple.”
“Yet, what does yet mean?”
“We’re not a couple, yet.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breadth if I were you.”
“You look like you’re a fifteen-minute girl.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask but what’s a fifteen-minute girl?”
“A girl who craves sex every fifteen minutes.”
“That would take a platoon and I’m not into gangbangs.”
“Only takes one if he knows what he’s doing.”
“And you do?”
“Uh-huh. Best is when a fifteen-minute girl hooks up with an oral guy, especially one who plays the harmonica. That’s why I know we’re going to be great pals. We’ll fight a lot, come close to killing each other, probably, but making up will be so good.”
“Is your wife a fifteen minute girl?”
“Ex . . . wife.”
“Whatever. Is she?”
“Ten, but she’s Spanish and Spanish women are the hottest women on the planet. Their body temperature’s even a degree or so warmer than the rest of us.”
“Hmm . . . is that so? The Delissaldes, my father’s mother’s family, were Basque. So, what does that make me?”
“Part Spanish . . . you could be a twelve-minute girl. But, not to worry. We’ll eventually get you classified correctly.”
She shook her head as if to say, not a chance. “Lydia said your wife . . . sorry, ex-wife, is Italian?”
“Her parents are Castilian Spanish. They couldn’t countenance Franco so they emigrated. The waiting list to get in here was long so they went to Italy. Madeleine was born in Genoa. She was ten when they got U.S. visas.”
“And she divorced you because you couldn’t keep up?”
“No, she divorced me because at that moment of existential crisis that all relationships eventually have, I failed her. What can I say; at times I can be pretty stupid . . . but the good news is I learned my lesson.”
Her eyes were not only striking, they flashed when she was angry. He could see she was working overtime to keep her anger in check. The danger, he knew, was that if she could control her anger she could control him. Hot and cold, fire and ice; a woman to make a man forget about all other women, he thought. “Yes, of course she knew it was Jeremy’s birthday even though she knows him only casually. They both teach at UCB. As I said, Jeremy’s wife Claire thought the party a good opportunity to introduce the two of us.”
It took her a moment to remember what she’d asked him. “So she knew something special was going on; not like what you did tonight?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Interesting. Please continue, but spare me all this fifteen-minute shit.”
“Are you sure? I mean, oral guy and . . . twelve-minute girl is one of the primal forces of nature. It’s not something to ignore.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
. . .
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