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The Italian Lesson


Harry Buschman

Leo was forced to admit to himself that he was undergoing erotic distress at the most inconvenient and unexplainable times. In a crowded elevator coming back from lunch he stared down the neck of a dark haired woman carrying an umbrella. Her breasts were large and separated by a bottomless cleft of incalculable depth. But it was the umbrella that aroused him. What was she doing with an umbrella on a Spring day as lovely as this? Or maybe that wasn't the question at all ...

... and this morning at the presentation to IP Productions in the board room, the swish of Martha Livingston's legs as she crossed them under the conference table, threw Leo completely off stride. Until he was called upon to speak, he had visions of the regular heaving of the restless sea as it ran up the shore and ran back out again.

Later that afternoon he took the bus home because of the threat of a shower. Normally he walked from the office to his apartment on the East Side, but the rain had just begun. It speckled the sidewalk and put a glossy shine on the manhole covers along 42nd Street. He found a seat on the long bench behind the bus driver and began reading the advertisements on the opposite side of the bus. Three blonds in jeans from Hunter College got on in a clatter of clogs and a fine feminine frenzy. They stood in front of him talking in high spirits and swaying to the rhythm of the bus. They all wore low-riders, the preferred mode of dress for all undergraduate women, their navels gyrated an inch or two from his nose. Two of the navels were implanted with silver rings and one was unadorned. Leo was transfixed, caught up in their enthusiasm and completely fascinated by their girlishness. They must have sensed his interest because without a word the three of them turned their backs on him and crossed to the other side of the bus.

There, of course, Leo could only see their backsides, which were equally fascinating, as the girls shifted their weight from side to side to the rhythm of the bus. He caught himself smiling and staring, while at the same time aware that he had ridden beyond his stop. He stood up quickly, and reluctantly made his way to the front of the bus. As he waited for the next stop, he looked back longingly at the young women.

It was raining now, but Leo was unaware of it. He retraced the path of the bus, wondering what on earth was the matter with him. There was thickness in his temples and a hunger inside him that he hadn't felt for many years - not since he was a boy, actually. He thought back to the three years with Julia and, so far as he could remember, their relationship never aroused in him the eroticism that had been nagging him for the past two weeks.

His apartment was just ahead and by force of habit he raised his eyes to his two living room windows on the 23rd floor. His windows were no different than any of the others, and he thought to himself how illogical it was for people to feel it necessary to have their own space - to live a private and isolated life behind four walls and then live in a building housing 500 people. The doorman told him there were 500 people in the apartment and not one of them knew the other; but they all knew the doorman.

He ducked in the lobby just as the rain really began coming down and stood there looking at Salvatore in his little cubicle just inside the door.

"Hello, Mr. Pointer. You're early tonight - you got your nice suit all wet - should have waited 'til the rain was done."

Leo nodded in agreement, opened his mailbox, extracted what looked like two bills and hurried to the elevator. He wanted nothing to do with Salvatore and his advice, Salvatore was always sure to tell him what he should have done after he did it. Leo's wet suit didn't bother him, he had others. His problem was more basic and seemed to be growing stronger daily. He wondered, with a wry smile, what Salvatore's solution would be to solve the libido problem.

He was lucky to keep the apartment when his wife walked out. She could have decided to stay here but it was too small for her, she wanted something bigger - something uptown bigger. Imagine, he thought, she needed a bigger apartment without him than she did with him.

He let himself in and switched on the living room light, everything looked the same as he left it this morning. He pushed the replay button on his answering machine and got out of his wet suit and, while listening to the machine, he took a beer out of the refrigerator. Near the end of the litany of telephone calls, the familiar voice of Martha Livingston stopped him in his tracks ...

" ... Just got in Leo ... thought you'd be home by now ... I want to see you about the IP Production account ... " Her voice was low and she rushed her words. Leo had the distinct impression that he could hear the swishing of her legs under her desk as she spoke into the phone. " ... Would you call me at home, Leo ... please ... 627-8875 ..." She seemed to breathe deeply, just once -- and then hung up.

Leo stood there in his underwear with a beer in his hand. It was the last message on the answering machine and he looked around him nervously. "She wants to see me," he mumbled. He took a sip of the beer, then looked at the can, turned around and walked back into the kitchen. He emptied the beer in the kitchen sink. He wondered if he should call Martha in his underwear. Did she want to see him about IP Productions, or was that just an excuse? She never wanted to see him about an account, or anything else for that matter -- now she wanted him to call her. That was her home number too, she's probably at home now, maybe waiting for his call. Yes, he thought, I'd better get some clothes on, I don't want to call her in my underwear.

Leo got into a pair of chinos and pulled a T-shirt over his head, then, just before replaying Martha's message, he scuffed himself into a pair of moccasins. He jotted her number down and dialed it -- Martha picked it up immediately.

"Oh, Leo. You just caught me. I was on my way over to see you -- we have to straighten this out, Leo -- wait for me."

"What's up, Martha? You mentioned IP Productions." It was all he could think of to say, and just about the time he got the last word out, she hung up.

The very thought of Martha Livingston here, alone, with him roused him and at he same time frightened him. Should he call out for supper, maybe some wine -- and flowers! Damn it, he had vases but no flowers. First I've got to clean the place, "My God! The cleaning lady hasn't been here in two weeks!" He dashed around putting yesterday's dishes in the dishwasher, Sunday's Times under the sofa and his dirty laundry under the bed. There wasn't time for anything else, "After all first impressions count the most."

He barely finished dressing before the phone rang again and it was Salvatore. "Mr. Pointer? This is Salvatore down in the lobby. I have a lady here."

"Miss Livingston?"

"Yes, that's who she is. Shall she come up? ... "Then in a lower register, he added. "Highly recommended, Mr. Pointer."

"Send her right up, Salvatore."

He figured he had a minute, no more. He straightened up what seemed out of place, sprayed the room with essence of pine and tried to compose himself.

The doorbell rang and Leo took a deep breath. He had to keep his pace down going to the door -- after all, it wasn't a fire or the pizza delivery man, it was just a ... he took the last few steps at a trot.

She stood in the hall, seeming to be a head shorter than usual. She wore baggy gym pants and a sleeveless T-shirt. To Leo, except for the armload of file folders she carried, she looked like somebody who might run past him in the park on a Saturday afternoon.

"Leo, I only have a minute."

He noticed she wore no make-up either, her eyebrows had disappeared and her hair was tied tightly behind her head. He wondered why he went to the trouble of putting on a clean shirt.

"What's the hurry, Martha?"

"I have a week's vacation coming," she smiled shyly. "Wally and I are going upstate. They're still making snow at Great Gorge." She dumped the folders on his coffee table.


"Of course Wally. Wally Backman in Contracts. You know Wally, don't you?"

"Yes, I know him, but I ..." Leo decided not to pursue it. Martha shrugged her shoulders ...

"Anyway,: she went on, "There's the residuals. I've worked them out the way I think IP wants them -- but you've got to keep on it, Leo. They have to be ready by the end of next week. We'll be back by then, and I'll go over it with you."

Her presence in the room was no longer feminine, he looked at her and wondered what he ever saw in her. He wished she'd leave. "I'll get on it. It'll be ready. Go. Have a good time. Say hello to Wally for me." She gave him a half smile and left closing the door softly behind her.

Now what, thought Leo. Can it get any worse? He couldn't remember a day as bad as this. He leafed through the folders Martha brought with her and put them back on the coffee table. He began pacing the room, then suddenly he got down on his knees and fished the Sunday Times out from under the sofa and turned to the movie directory.

He checked out the porno theaters in the neighborhood but unfortunately he'd seen them all, some even twice. But there was a Fellini at the Empire -- La Citte Delle Donne, "Hmm, never saw that," he muttered. "Fellini, huh -- gotta be a dirty movie." He pulled on a turtle neck sweater, stepped out into the hall and slammed the door shut. Down in the lobby Salvatore caught his eye just as he headed for the door. "That was a quick one, Mr. Pointer. How did things go?"

The Empire was just around the corner, it catered to the once-married, under forty crowd. Most of them came in corduroy jackets or turtle neck sweaters and wore glasses. They carried slim volumes in the crooks of their arms and if they brought a date with them, she was invariably flat chested and adenoidal. It wasn't uncommon to see both of them using their own cell phone talking to people standing in the lobby of other cinemas. None of them would ever think of walking into the middle of a movie, therefore they stood in the lobby and talked to each other until a new show began. If the movie was Italian with English sub-titles, the crowd would speak the Italian they learned at school or in the crash language courses given for junior executives.

Leo tried to remember the movie -- Fellini's "La Citta Delle Donne," The City of Women, or something like that. The faint smell of stale popcorn had gotten into the air-conditioning system and it turned his stomach. He edged over to the wall and stood under a poster advertising a black and white French movie he had seen when he was in college.

There was a girl standing there with a tote bag at her feet. Of all the exciting women he had seen that day, she was the least attractive. She was small, thin and very intense. She wore a sort of suit, British in cut, the skirt of which had worked its way around to the front so that the zipper looked liked a man's fly. Dike, he thought, and yet she made a half hearted attempt to stand a little straighter and fluff her hair when he stood next to her.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi, you like Fellini?"

She had no idea what he was talking about. "Fellini?" she said. "What's a Fellini?"

"This is a Fellini movie. "La citta," it's one of his later movies. Quite good."

"It's in Italian, right? That's why I'm here, I'm trying to learn the language, I want to go there."

"Why do you want to go to Italy?"

"It's warm all the time. The food's good too ... my father was born in Italy. You speak Italian?" she added.

"No. Say something to me in Italian ..."

"Quando era l'ultima volta avete fatto l'amore ad una donna." She blushed and turned away. "My name is Maureen Blotz, what's yours?"

"Leo. Leo Pointer -- what did you say in Italian?"

"Quando era ...."

"No, I mean what does it mean?"

"You can figure it out. You know all about Fellini movies -- you're an expert, right?

"Well, let's see ... it started Quando, then era, right? It means 'In what year' was the last ... oh, I don't know. I give up ... it's something about the year the women got the right to vote, right?"

A chirping sound came from the tote bag at her feet. She reached into it and fished out her cell phone. "Hello," she said. "Hi, Paula. Now? Yeah, okay --- I'm not doing anything. Same place? Okay, I'll be right over."

"You have to go?" Leo asked her.

"Yeah," she said. "Something came up. You know how it is."

©Harry Buschman 2004

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