inaldo, bartender, 40; Giovanna, sales clerk, 45; Jennifer, English teacher, 31. Scene of Encounter: Neighborhood bar.
Any girl who’s studied abroad in Italy can attest to the allure of the Italian barman. An emphatic pre-class buon giorno over morning cappuccino or the smooth “salute” with Proseccos en route to a disco… we’ve all had our bartender crush. His smile is sweet and he seems forever happy to see us. On a return visit he’s the first stop for a nostalgic welcome.
When you actually live here, a local bar is fundamental to assimilation. In a small, clean, well-lighted space, the barista is friend, confidante, and a source of constant compliments. No place to go? You go to your bar. But just when you think you’ve got a “Cheers” vibe going on, a low-cut top and miniskirt can pull the comfortable bar stool out from under you.
Jennifer sipped her second glass at the bar, chatting with Rinaldo about Sicilian wines. He’d just completed a wine course and glowed with newfound knowledge. Unoaked Chardonnay in hand, Jennifer listened intently as Rinaldo listed the fruits and flowers she might smell. She ran her tongue over the roof of her mouth and curled it, feeling for acidity as he suggested. Her cheeks flushed as he watched her, casting an occasional eye around the bar should anyone but the regulars wander in.
They had a cozy friendship, laced with enough sexual tension to keep it fresh and enough distance to prevent it from crossing the line. But he was here, and since she’d lived alone in a foreign country he sometimes felt to her like family.
Rinaldo topped up her glass and swished his own, observing the arches.
“Have you ever tasted anything like this in California?” he asked almost rhetorically.
Her uncle was a winemaker in Sonoma. She understood far more than she let on.
“I haven’t actually…” she began, “but it reminds me of something I tasted last year in Greece.”
“You’re right!” He marveled. And it makes sense. There’s something about the terroir, you know? The land…”
His words trailed off into space and his eyes shot towards the door. Jennifer instantly sensed an invisible wall between them. Then, she smelled it.
A spicy musk clung to the closed air of the bar and hovered around the woman that had entered like an aromatic aura. Jennifer turned to look.
She was average in height and weight, with long dark hair dyed the color of eggplant skin. Wispy bangs framed sternly shaped brows and coated eyelashes. A round neckline revealed a sun-speckled chest and swollen breasts — the work of a surgeon, a miracle bra, or both.
Jennifer tucked her nose into her glass and rolled her eyes imperceptibly, seeking but not finding his.
“Giovanna dear! Good evening!” Rinaldo greeted her warmly. “What can I get you?”
The woman strode across the floor with smooth and methodical steps as if in a spotlight beam.
“It’s been so long Rinaldo! Too long!” She worked her lips around the words shaping the phrase into something between syrupy sentiment and girlish exclamation.
Jennifer watched intrigued. She re-crossed her legs, which were clad in cotton yoga pants, and flexed and pointed her un-manicured toes in flip-flops. She’d come after a aerobics class, her cheeks still flushed and her hair falling out of a messy ponytail. She felt invigorated and pretty in a healthy natural way… the wide-eyed, big-smiled, fresh American pretty that men — Rinaldo especially — claimed to find so attractive.
But in Giovanna’s wake, she suddenly felt heavy and unattractive. She picked invisible lint from her knee and felt a shadow cast upon her.
“Giovanna, this is Jennifer, my American friend.”
For some reason, “friend” stung, though that’s all she’d ever considered him.
Rinaldo gestured for the woman to sit down and filled her glass with the same wine they’d been studying moments ago. “It’s a fascinating one, right Jen?”
He winked at Jennifer, and her pulse quickened. She straightened up in her chair, tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear, poised to stake her territory.
“You know, in Sonoma they’re experimenting with unfiltered Chardonnay —
“Ummmm! Delicious!” Giovanna’s praises pierced the air, and deflated Jennifer. “So how are you? It’s been forevvvvvver.”
She spread out the words like mortar, layering nouns and verbs with expert accessories of physical, female communication, and effectively shutting out her competition.
Jennifer faked a yawn and rose to leave, her glass still half-full.
Rinaldo played at disappointment, “Aren’t you going to finish?”
There was nothing to finish. She was a “friend” — a girl among men and women who knew the rules.