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Breakfast in Milano


Harry Buschman

 Like most restaurants along the Corso Magenta, Gobbo's was noisy and filled with animated men who seemed to know each other. They all smoked and talked while they ate. The air was filled with a babel of French and Italian, punctuated with wild hand gestures. At the same time, tight vested German business types shook their heads from side to side in disagreement. You could tell no one paid retail.

Hadley was looking for a quiet place to sit with his coffee and brioche. He had a folded Herald under one arm and his brief case under the other.

There was a woman sitting alone at a table for two near the glass fronted pastry window. He could sit with her if she didn't mind, it would be quieter there. She was looking out the window at the crowds passing in the street outside -- not waiting for anyone, just looking. Neither young nor old. Somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five he guessed. Dark, heavy hair hanging loosely. From experience, Hadley knew she must have given it fifty brushes this morning. "You don't roll out of bed with hair like that."

She was drinking black coffee and holding the cup with two hands like a chalice. It made him think of magic and potions and fantasy stories he read as a child. Was she Italian, and if he spoke to her what language would he use? If she was italian he knew he would make a fool of himself; instead he raised his eyebrows and nodded in the direction of the empty seat at her table. In turn, she looked at him and shrugged. "So far," he thought, "we understand each other."

Hadley pushed the chair back with his foot and put his breakfast on the small table. He sat and looked at the woman with an apologetic smile. He dislodged his briefcase and the morning paper from under his arm but finding no space on the table, put them on his lap. All this was done with the peculiar lack of grace Americans seem to have when they are acutely embarrassed.

Now, sitting across from her, he was struck by her elegance and his own lack of it. Hers was a comfortable fitness of herself in a place she knew well, while he felt like a man wearing brown shoes with a tuxedo.

With his vision averted he checked out her earrings -- small pearls. Her suit -- tailored and flared at the hip. He couldn't see her legs, but he knew she'd be wearing black patent leather. If he didn't have an appointment at the Building Commission at nine ... but he did and this would probably be the last time he would ever see her. "Besides," he thought. "I must look like a lost tourist, sitting in Gobbo's at 8:30 in the morning."

The moment he came in, Carlotta knew he would sit with her. He looked American. "Although," she reminded herself, "how can you say someone 'looks' American?"

There is no such thing as an American. They come from here -- but they change in America. Arrested Development, that's it. It must be their water -- or maybe their women. One or the other.

"He's bothered by the noise. The smoke -- and the languages. He can't make up his mind at the pastry counter, and he can't understand the chef. I'll bet he wants to know the ingredients in each bun."

"Well put together, though," she thought. "Must put in hours at the spa." Then he straightened and looked around for a place to sit down, holding his tray out as if it were an offering to the gods. The arguments grew louder -- one of the Frenchmen was shouting, his voice rising like a tenor above the chorus, it was something about the price of silk, and wouldn't shantung do just as well.

If it hadn't been for that she thought he might still choose to sit elsewhere. But the Frenchman sealed the deal. His eyes shifted to her and the empty chair at her quiet table. "Well," she thought. "I'm almost finished -- what harm can it do?" The body language took over and Hadley sat down.

She sat there watching the Frenchman's performance. It was only a degree or two to the left of Hadley, and nothing he did escaped her. She noticed his coffee was black and he had chosen a small brioche and he buttered it like a Frenchman does - adding a dab after every bite.

Two degrees to the left of Carlotta's head, Hadley could see people walking on the Corso Magenta. His attention, however, was concentrated on Carlotta. He was close enough now to catch her scent; a bouquet -- it reminded him of Fichter's Flower Shop back home -- or walking through the perfume department of Bloomingdale's. He noticed her lipstick. "How do they do that?" It looked as though it had been painted on with a fine brush; it left no mark on the rim of her coffee cup. Her hands were older than her face and the index finger of her left hand tapped out a rhythm that was beating within her. Her almond colored face turned whiter at the neck-line of her dress. Her eyes were a work of art, they looked impossibly far apart, impossibly deep and improbably green.

She opened her purse, fished out a few lira, then closed it securely. For a split second she looked directly at Hadley and smiled. Then she stood. Hadley, still chewing on his last bite of brioche, stood as well and his forgotten briefcase and Tribune fell to the floor. They both smiled -- she, at him. He, at himself.

"Arrivaderci, madame," he said.

"Have a nice day," she replied.

He watched her as she walked away. Yes, the shoes were black patent leather, and the legs! Ah, yes, the legs ...

©Harry Buschman 2003

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