t was May of last year. I had accompanied Alberto to Bologna for a medical congress. It was also his birthday and I hadn’t bought him a gift yet. While he went off to drink bad coffee, sleep during tedious slide shows, and fight to the death to reach the complimentary buffet, I spent the day wandering around the city, shopping. I knew I’d eventually find something perfect.
By four o’clock my wallet was still fat but my feet were getting flat. I had found nothing that fulfilled my personal gift criteria: original, useful and affordable. Not to worry, when shopping for a man, socks and underwear are the basic fallbacks. I popped into a clothing store and hurried through the large colorful women’s section on the ground floor to reach the dark dreary men’s section in the back on the second floor.
Yes, I know the color commandment: blue for boys and pink for girls. As they grow up, they’ll learn: dull and earthy for men, warm and bright for women. Society would crumble if we violated the gender color spectrum.
I found a suitable selection of trendy-looking stretchy boxers and socks to match. Great! I dove in the bin and dug through the piles of black, gray, blue, and earth tones. I finally came up with four pairs of boxers with funky patterns. I chose some matching socks in black and gray.
A job well done, it was time to return to the hotel with my stash. On the way, I passed the Yamamay store, a lingerie chain, with a display of colorful men’s swim suits in the window. Not surfing shorts, real swim suits. What a contrast from the usual in funeral black. I saw one in particular with a patchwork like a Modrian painting. Fun. Wasn’t that what a day at the sea is suppose to be? It would be perfect for Alberto.
Into the tiny story I went. The men’s wear rack was wedged into the back corner behind children’s wear. A woman behind the counter looked up from folding a pile of fuchsia, mustard and burgundy women’s underwear and eyed me suspiciously.
Another woman followed me to the back of the store. “We have a summer special offer on bathing suits for a free disposable underwater camera…” she said in a cheery sales voice.
Across my third eye came visions of Lloyd Bridges and Jacques Cousteau with their free disposable underwater cameras ready to snap pics of great white sharks, giant squids, or mere people.
“… If you also buy a woman’s bathing suit,” she added definitively.
“Why would I want to buy a woman’s suit?” I said without thinking.
“For your wife or girlfriend.” She smiled brightly.
In Italy you are almost required to spend the summer at the beach and fall in love. The marketing department at Yamamay was offering a free camera to document the experience.
I paused for a moment and tried to think of a woman for whom I could buy a swimsuit. My swimming buddy Anna? No! Too weird. Besides, in what alternative universe do men know what swim suit style would appeal to a woman, much less her size.
“I don’t have a wife or girlfriend,” I protested, “I have a husband.” I flashed my wedding ring as proof.
From the corner of my eye I could see the other saleswoman behind the counter staring at me as if she were poised to push the secret security button should I suddenly demand to try on women’s lingerie or bursts into show tunes.
“Well,” my sales assistant breathed in deeply and shrugged her shoulders. “They don’t say anything about that, but I suppose it would be okay if you bought two men’s swim suits.” The other sales woman rolled her head and returned to folding.
My eyes lit up. Alberto’s and my relationship had just been acknowledged as a legitimate possibility in the Italian love-marketing scheme. I bought the colorful patchwork suit for Alberto and an orange one for me. And I got my free disposable underwater camera.