by Gio’ Crisafulli
Lost in the remembrance of past conquest at a quarter to eight on 73rd and Lex, I was just two minutes from my old stomping grounds of Marymount Manhattan College, which until twenty-five years ago was an all-girls Catholic school and now boasted a student body that comprised a female to male ratio of 3 to 1 when I arrived at the cigar lounge Bar & Books on a fine November evening that was already dark and just warm enough to not need a coat, and I smiled when I saw the dress code written on the entrance. I guess if I had dressed differently we could always have gone to a different spot, but Quintana, who suggested she meet me here, knew me well enough: I wore a dress shirt with a striped tie under a v-neck sweater with a suit jacket on top, dark jeans and polished brown bucks. Quintana knew.
I entered and felt the immediate warmth of sanctuary, as if I’d come in from the rain. The place was dark with deep corners lit by the mystery of candlelight, filled with the aroma of expensive cigars and the goodwill of conversation. I imagined our ancient ancestors gathered similarly around the flames of a communal fire in the security of the tribe. I smiled again. Quintana knew.
I sat alone and ordered the house cigar and a Jameson without soda and without ice. I finished a chapter of the novel I brought along. It was written, and took place, in the 1930s and its central character was a man with one arm and enormous balls who uses his boat to move contraband between Cuba and the Keys in order to earn extra money for his family. What got me the most was his relationship with his wife; a good, strong-framed woman who was his elder but wept in adoration just at the sight of his face. I didn’t get the feeling that the man was pretty, just that, as far as his woman was concerned, there was none other. This guy was the real thing, alright. One arm and all, he takes on these smugglers who have commandeered his boat, just does what has to be done, simple as that –
– and there she is. When I lifted my head she was already approaching, staring at me with that smile.
She wore a dark cardigan over a tight black shirt that had its top three buttons open, with perfectly fitted dress slacks and heels. Quintana always had what I call the “Carfagna effect”. That is, she was always dressed perfectly respectable in a professional manner, and despite (or was it because of?) this, you wanted to rip the clothes from her body as if you already had in mind what awaited you underneath. Or maybe it was just because I not only had it in mind, but had had a taste of the entire feast. And brother, it’s sweet like pie then strong as homemade grappa. Believe me, in bed with this woman, you earn it. I immediately stood up and walked to her. We embraced and I kissed here where her ear met her neck. I took in her smell. Chanel Mademoiselle.
“You smell intoxicating,” I said. She would expect as much.
“This place smells intoxicating,” she answered, smiling ear to ear and staring me in the eyes.
So far, so good.
We sat down and just looked at each other with the shit-eating grins of lovers day dreaming how to use each other’s bodies like a ride at the amusement park. When she then took off that long sleeved cardigan to expose her naked arms, I felt an intimate, inner rush as if she stepped out of a dress she had just unzipped the back of and then casually let drop to the floor, feigning obliviousness to the fact that someone was watching.
“You’re sitting too far away,” I said.
“Just far enough,” she threw back at me, utterly aware of what I wanted to do to her. “I’m here to make this difficult for you.”
“I deserve that.”
And I did.
“Yes, you deserve it,” she agreed. “Why did you wait so long? I’m with you the night of my birthday –”
“December 16th” I interrupt.
"Yes.” she confirmed. “And yours…” she squinted her eyes. “…is the end of July.”
“That’s right. You’re never in the country. So, we decide to meet the night of my birthday and twice later that week and then you disappear. Explain yourself.”
"Quin,” I often called her simply that. “Remember my grandmother was sick right after that and passed away,” She immediately became serious to show her condolences. "aaannnnnnnnnnd…” My voice got weaker as I stretched out the word until it was only a lingering breath. Brief pause as I inhaled deeply. “I was always working a schedule completely the opposite of everyone else, and then my surgery.”
"Ah, yes! You mentioned my scent. So, how is it, being able to smell?”
"Good.” I tell her. “Food is more flavorful. The subway is more or less as horrendous as I imagined. You smell…” I searched a moment. “…alluring. But then again, you are. I don’t have to tell you that.”
No woman who’s got it needs to be told so.
“Lots of smells are still new to me,” I said, so as to take a bit of my attention off of her. I then looked briefly at her neck and then her shoulder and down that naked arm, stopping for the slightest moment on her cleavage which, although covered appropriately enough, solicited recognition. I didn’t look. I saw. What do you want? It’s there.
Then I looked in her eyes, and I obviously meant to say something, but I didn’t.
“Yes?” she asked with that smile that drives me crazy.
“How’s your brother?” I asked her instead, and she paused in a way that for a second had me worried that the worst had happened. But instead she said,
“Good. He’s here.”
“Yes. He finished his last tour in Iraq and now he’s getting his masters and works for an investment bank. Like your sister, right?”
It’s at this moment that behind Quintana, I swear to God see Tom Selleck enter the place, and Magnum P.I. himself sits in a corner to my right. Tall, with an utterly beautiful blue corduroy jacket that had golden brown elbow patches. And wow, I’ve never seen a man carry a moustache like he carries his. Must have been born with it.
Wandering out of that momentary haze, my mind suddenly found its focus. Her brother was back. I was relieved, then watched my thoughts wander into a lonely melancholy without answers. I looked down and took a drag of my cigar. She read the expression on my face and asked,
"And your brother?”
“He’s been terrible.” I answered. “Completely throwing his life away. He’s disowned his family. He doesn’t let me or our brother to talk to him even though we give him a roof over his head and food, even though we found a school that would accept him.”
Quintana’s face sagged a little more with my every sentence.
“He didn’t come to our sister’s wedding and he didn’t come to see our grandmother when she was dying and he didn’t come to her funeral. He’s disqualified himself from life, and he’s forsaken everyone who loves him.”
"Giovanni, I’m sorry."
"And living with him during these two years it’s been a struggle from day to day depending on how he is. But listen, Quin, it’s not an excuse. I obviously took you for granted.”
“Nothing was taken for granted.”
“I’m not bullshitting you.” I insisted. “I’m not saying I’d want to give you a ring. I’m not saying that if whoever you’re engaged to weren’t around I’d be an alternative. And maybe we would find ourselves exactly like this on a different night talking just like this. But you were worth my time.”
She looked down for a heartbeat, then looked me straight in the face.
“He and I had been going out for only a little while when you disappeared the last time a year ago,” she said. “It was the last time I could have still explored an affair with you without betraying something with him. These past few years your modus operandi was interesting: I receive a phone call from you, a text, we’re together for two weeks, and then you vanish.”
And then she looked me in the eyes with a subtly evil smile like she expected me to say something. She knew already, but wanted to hear it from me.
"There have been others,” I said. “but not while I was with you. Actually, it’s been sort of rare.” And it’s the truth. “After being with you two and a half years ago, I took the overnight job at the hotel and I vanished from everyone. Six months later I began an affair with a friend that lasted six months in which I was only with her. Eight months after she and I were no longer together, that December, I was with you again, and only you. Then I did a play…”
"You did a play?” she asked, offended that I didn’t let her know.
“Yeah, as a favor to a friend of mine at the African Women’s Repertory Theatre, a grandmother, actually, who wrote and directed it. It was called CLEOPATRA. I was Marc Antony. She knew I wasn’t acting anymore, but she said she wrote it for me, it was a good role, and I didn’t want to turn her down.”
“How was it?”
“Good. The time away from the world of acting did me well. So, after three months of working together, the actress who played Cleopatra and I were together.”
Quintana immediately seemed to have smelled the stench of a fart, and smiling, I said, "I know.”
She was so disappointed in such a cliche.
“But listen,” I told her. “We liked each other from the beginning. It was three months later, right after the last show that we finally did something. She was one to take home to Mom. Like you: intelligent, cultured, sexy, with a heart of gold.”
“And so?” Quintana asked.
“She never mentioned she has a boyfriend in California.”
Quintana enjoyed one hell of a hard and robust laugh, and stretched it out before she took the cigar from my hand and took a long, full drag while squinting her eyes at me as if trying to make sense of something: player or romantic?
“I was shocked in the sense that I was disappointed,” I said. “And she’s the one that pursued me. She’s the one that literally begged me. This was a woman who clearly needed to be fucked.”
"Oh, Gio’,” she said as the smoke flowed from her mouth, “what a burden you carry.” She handed me back the cigar and took a sip of her gin on the rocks while looking up to the heavens with the question, who the hell is this guy and what horse does he think he road in on?
“I’m not complaining.” I said. “But the truth is I really liked her. I would have wanted to continue something serious with her. So it was over, and three months later I met a woman at the Vatican.”
And now Quintana laughed a belly roar that conveyed her genuine certainty and amazement. "Only you would meet a woman at the Vatican.” she said, knowing it was the truth.
So I told her how I was looking down on the pavement of the piazza when into my field of vision walked a pair of open-toed high heels supporting bare legs that stopped me where I stood, my one foot in Vatican City and my other in the Italian Republic. I followed them up past a flowing short summer dress with shoulder straps until I found their owner taking in the sunset that canvassed the sky behind the dome of St. Peter’s with a blood orange that soaked both us and the urban landscape in which we had paused to appreciate the natural beauty of what stood before us. I told Quin how I had walked on alone, only to see the girl again by chance the next morning on the train to the airport. How only when we ended up on the same flight to New York I then determined that I just had to approach her. How I thought my luck had run out when her final destination turned out to be Toronto. How she came down to visit me for a couple days and how last month I spent a long weekend at her place up north.
“You see?" Quintana then asked. "I believe that when a man wants something, he’s determined.”
I sank just a tad in my seat, while she went on:
“You and I are a good idea. But I have to be pursued. Believe me I know you’re sincere. And we’ve gone through some things both strange and magical. But if you really wanted me you would have pursued me.”
I took the cigar from my mouth and a torrent of smoke flowed from my lips like the ghost of my desires escaping to freedom, and it formed a thick cloud in front of us. I caressed her face, and my fingers slid down her arm and I enjoyed the touch of her skin.
“Just far enough.” she said.
I heard the slightly melted ice cubes shake around in her glass as she raised it and took a sip and put it back down. When she then hesitatingly raised a pair of vulnerable eyes to meet my own through the smoke rising above our table in the dimly-lit intimacy of our surroundings, she almost seemed a mirage, and I wondered if I also seemed one to her.
Awe hell, I thought. Why pretend it’s not there? "I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to go home with you.” I said. "But I’m not an asshole. And I believe in karma.“ And I’m not in love with you. Even though I didn’t say it, Quintana read this in my eyes. Quintana knew.
Drawn back to her bare neck, I saw her neck again, from behind her naked body. I lightly pulled on a fist-full of her hair, pulling her head slightly back toward my face which was buried in the rest of it, my soul getting buried by the increasing severity of her cries of pain and cries for more. My other hand was just above her breasts and slid up until I almost violently gripped her throat as if to squeeze, but instead, barely held onto it ever so gently. The arch of her back was magnificent and I kissed her where her ear met her neck. With every thrust she and I sank more and more into earth that was collapsing beneath us while drowning under the impossible weight of a devastatingly insurmountable euphoria from above, and we climbed higher and higher right through it until we ourselves leaped out of our own bodies in utter derangement and, at the point of deliriousness, fell graciously downward in a celestial wind as if in partnered parachutes until we collapsed on the bed, laying together as if floating on the surface of the ocean.
Now, not even a year later, I looked at her simply, across the table from me. A man in front of a woman. She looked at me too, and I swear that for only the briefest instant, she seemed on the verge of tears.
"I’m so attracted to you.” she said one moment later, collected and confident. “Seated here, with you, I’m attracted to you.”
My eyes must have flickered in disbelief.
“And I’m going back home to him.” Almost as if she had to insist. “I explained everything to him. I told him that I’m meeting you tonight. If I didn’t it would have made what he and I share something less than it is. And he knows that I will be coming back home after nothing more than a nice drink with a friend.”
Oh, Quin. I wanted to say. I thought the world of her. I put my hand on top of hers. I looked down and I took her hand in mine.
"This is the ring?!” I asked, shocked.
I held her fingers and looked in disbelief not at a diamond, but a snake!
“It’s a snake."
"I know.” she said.
“When’s the wedding?” I asked.
“There isn’t going to be a wedding. We’re running off to elope in Prague. Then as a honeymoon maybe we’ll go to Bucharest.”
I smiled. That’s so Quintana.
“I’m not a bride.” she said.
“No. Of course not.”
“I never dreamt of being princess for a day,” she went on, "The diamond, the white dress. I never assumed I’d even get married.“
"Then what a compliment to him.”
“I always liked the thought of having a partner for life.” she said. “This life with him isn’t anything I expected. He teaches math.”
"You work together?” Quintana taught literature at a high school in the Bronx.
“Yes. And he’s obsessed with football.”
“Yeah? I play football.”
“You play football?”
“Sure, in the autumn every other Sunday with my coworkers from the hotel.”
"Ah, yes….” she said as if she remembered something for the first time in a long while. No one ever takes me for an athlete when they see the way I dress. “You are an enigma. Just a bit narcissistic…”
“…writer,” she went on, "passionate lover, introspective without end but also able to be the life of a party…“
I kept smiling.
”…American but sort of foreign. And before one even realizes it, poof, you’re gone.” She continued. “I have to give you credit. If you penetrate your surface…“ she breathed in deeply while looking at me with eyes that were completely fixed. "…there’s the surprise of just more and more to discover.”
Not convinced she meant that as a compliment, I didn’t know how to respond.
“With him,” she continued, “there are no surprises.” And instead of being a disappointment, it seemed on the contrary, a quality. “That’s a good thing too.” she said with a smile looking off to the side at nothing in particular. But I could tell that behind her eyes she saw the image of him. And she was proud of him. Love that Quin.
“So you still dance?” she asked.
“Just for fun. Nothing serious.”
And now she saw an image of me behind her eyes as he smiled that naughty smile. “You sure can move.”
Others are shocked in varying measure by the fact that I carry a book wherever I go, but not Quintana who about this particular tendency of mine always had the attitude of, right on. She looked down at the side of the table and without batting an eyelash grabbed the novel that I had brought and asked, “What are you reading?“
"To Have and Have Not by Hemingway.”
“He’s so good. But don’t you find him a bit too self-confident?"
"No.” I told her. “Just confident enough."
She laughed and pretended to hit me with the book from across the table. We threw back the last bit of our drinks, I allowed my cigar to die out, and we emerged from the entrance onto the Manhattan street. It was almost three hours after we arrived. We hugged each other and kissed on the cheek, mutually content. She crossed the street alone, then turned around toward my direction when she shouted something that I couldn’t quite make out.
"What?” I yelled back.
The traffic passed between us and it was a bit too dark for me to read her mouth.
She shouted again.
“I can’t hear you.” I yelled. Signaling her to wait, I crossed the street until I reached her.
“What?” I asked.
“Remember that I want to see you at my birthday party next month, okay?”
“Of course.” I told her, and without touching each other again, I raised my open hand up to say goodbye with a smile. I meant it, and she smiled right back. I turned around, and so did she. We walked on, the two of us, in different directions.