“Hey guys, we could use a hand here.” Tony conned two young men in the parking area to help with the groceries. She knew them from work, as their white shirts and plastic pocket inserts identified them as IBM people.
They invited us to a movie then and there. We put away the groceries and piled in the Olds, Michelle taking the wheel, Pilar and me in the front, and Tony in the back with David and Neil. They talked about mutual friends.
At the movies, the boys sat at each end, with a cackle of girls all going to the concession stand and bathroom at different times, rearranging the seating at each re-entry and interrupting the flow of the movie.
It was Michelle who noticed how Neil sought my company after that evening. I had remarked about his shyness and reserve, his engagement in books and songs, his uniform of white shirts, white socks, and thick glasses. I had noticed him before, the only boy who had thanked me for the pizza on the day of the party.
I was learning Bob Dylan’s songs listening to his harmonica.
It was on a week night, a month after we had moved in, the girls working on a big art project that took over the living room; I was correcting papers. We had invited the boys to share my birthday cake, a rum cake from Sarno Bakery a place known for Italian pastries and Italian Opera.
David left around eight, but Neil was still hanging around at ten. The girls began hinting that they were tired and ready to retire. I picked up the coffee cups and moved them to the kitchen sink. Neil followed me, talking about how he had been writing and trying to get his thoughts out. I said something like, well, one day, they will come to you more clearly.
He mumbled how lost he was in these feelings.
The girls had popped back in the living room in their robes, pushing for the evening to end, when I said to Neil, walking him to the door: “Neil, see you in the morning!” He seemed to hesitate at the door for another fifteen minutes. When he finally left, I was frustrated:
“That was strange.” I told the girls.
“What was he talking about?” Pilar asked.
“Not a clue!” I declared.
"Was I rude?" I added, still trying to gauge what I did, what he said.
"Nah, he's just smitten with you!" Michelle countered.
The next morning, I expected to see the boys as usual, having coffee and reading the paper on the patio we shared.Neil, I was going to say in the light of day, Neil, what were you talking about last night? Nobody was outside. I didn't see them all week.
On Sunday, on the way to the laundry, as shy as usual he stopped by.“Hi, I just wanted you to have this.” He handed me a small package and walked off, not waiting for me to open and react.
“Wait! Do you want to take a walk and get donuts?” I said. He turned around and said he had to get back to work as soon as he got some clean laundry.
Strange, I thought. Nobody works on Sunday.
“Michelle, do you remember what happened Wednesday night?” I asked my roommate as soon as I got back in the apartment.
“Sure, what’s to remember? Hey, what’s that you’re holding?”
I opened the package I had received from Neil: a bottle of perfume, ‘My Sin’.
“He always hangs around, waits to talk to you.” Michelle was excited.
“Why me? I gave him no encouragement.”
“The boy is just interested in you, that’s all. I think the cake did the trick.” She laughed out loud, and Pilar asked what happened.
“I have a problem!” I said.
Michelle was enjoying my discomfort. She continued: “The last time somebody made himself a fool for me was in junior high. And then my brother reacted like the jerk he was and punched him. How humiliating to have your big brother punch your sweet friend.” She was laughing.
“Michelle, I need your help here. Was there anything I did wrong? Think, remember. Pilar, what do you remember about Wednesday night? I didn’t even wear makeup that evening.”
“What is the big deal? It’s not like he proposed!” Pilar had jumped in.
“I pushed him out of the house.” I said, disconcerted.
Another week went by and I still did not know what Neil had meant to tell me that Wednesday night. I slipped a thank you note under his door and waited for him to respond. I was hoping he was in, and seeing the note, he would then open the door and talk to me.
David opened the door. Neil had gone to a training.
O.K. I thought. This is going to work just fine. He is gone, I will forget that evening and continue as normal. Everything can go back to normal.
Before the week was up a dozen red roses arrived. I found them inside the apartment, on the dinner table when I got back home. The manager must have let the delivery person in. The sealed note accompanying the roses was burning in my hands.
“Open it. Go on. It must be from Neil. I am sure.” Michelle still had that teasing tone.
“Oh, how sweet.”
“Open, read what it says out loud!”
“You are always on my mind. Neil.” I read the note, but did not trust it; I handed it to Michelle.
“I knew it! Didn’t I tell you? ‘You are always on his mind’. How sweet!” Michelle was turning the note over, looking for more clues.
“What do I do now?”
“Nothing. Just wait.”
I had to think. I had to figure this out. What was it that I felt? I felt curious, flattered, giddy with anticipation, happy that someone would notice me and not Pilar, happy that I was not even trying to catch his attention. But how did it happen? What did happen?
At school, my students were worried about my moods. I overhead them at lunch time while I was making my obligatory supervision rounds.
“She can’t be right. She must have had a bad accident or something. She doubled her assignments for no reason.”
They were right. I had a bad accident all right. I was holding the light on my self, and everything was blinding. I could not make sense of anything. Most of all, I did not need these girls to guess my state of mind. Some more homework might stop their gossip.
I panicked when he called.
“Hi, did you get the flowers?”
“Oh? Yes! Yes!”
“Rosaria, I should have talked to you before I left town. Did David tell you?”
“He told me you had left for a training.”
“He didn’t give you my letter?”
“I wrote you a letter.”
“Neil, we are going around in circles. I did not get the letter.”
“I get back Friday night around ten. Is it too late? Can you pick me up at the airport? I forgot, you don't drive alone."
“You need to have a back up plan. Michelle doesn’t like driving nights. ”
“Oh! If you can, come.”
O how I wished I could drive. I needed to talk to Neil without anybody else around. I needed to understand.
David didn’t have the letter. Neil told him to destroy it if he had not delivered to me the very next day. Why? And who plans these things? Was David complicating things?
Michelle and I went to the airport, hoping the plane would be on time. The plane was two hours late. Neil was tired, had been on the plane since early morning and needed a shave. We got home after midnight, having exchanged just a few words.
The next morning, I ran into him. He barely waved at me on his way to catch the bus.
That day at work I made up my mind. What I had craved was a romantic encounter. I did not need this, this hot and cold teeter-totter feeling. Why did he ignore me this morning? I had work to do and plans for my future. This was just an interlude. The man did not deserve my attention.
That evening, Neil stopped by and asked me for dinner at a local Italian place, right down the street.He began to thank me about the airport ride. He was sorry, he kept saying, for the inconvenience he had caused. Ok. Not a problem.
At dinner, the marinara sauce was too runny and the veal was tasteless.
“They call this veal scaloppine!” I said with a snide.
“You didn’t like it?” Neil looked disappointed.
“This is really bad.” I said, not realizing that he had chosen this place to impress me.
On the way back, he and I talked.
“You know that I have been trying to tell you how I feel since your birthday.” He started.
“You have not been really clear, have you?” I said, trying to sound normal.
“I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Neil, what are you saying? This is serious stuff for me to hear.”
“I have never felt this way. This is serious for me too.”
For the next few days, I felt anxious, thrilled, confused, elated and scared. I was falling for someone I hardly knew.
How could it be?
At school, Sister Mary Joseph noticed my distracted behavior.
“Sister, I am returning to Italy, worst possible time for a romance.”
“Oh Dear! Has romance found you?”
“What do you mean? This boy. I can’t stop thinking about him. I did nothing. He sees me without make up, in sweats. He’s a neighbor, catching me while I cook or clean.”
“Well, what do you like about him?”
“Not his looks. I mean, I thought that one falls for looks, the John Wayne, or Jimmy Dean look. I like his company, his intelligence, his wit…”
“Well, you certainly enjoy a lot about this person.”
“I like him. I miss him when he leaves.”
“The question is, would you give up your family for him? When you can answer that, then you are understanding the commitment necessary for a long life together. And he for you? What will he give up for you? Did you ask yourself that question? Love is an act of faith, a voyage across a future ocean.”
On Valentine’s Day, Neil and I went out to dinner, just the two of us, to The Castaways in the Burbank hills, up above the city. We sat outside, the only couple who braved the cold. With Neil’s jacket over my shoulders, the evening felt easy, as though we had known each other our entire lives.
The city below winked knowingly.
We were on top of the world.