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"Just coffee, please. A decaf espresso." I wasn't going to spend unnecessary calories on this encounter. Nor was I going to risk losing sleep.
"I'll have the tiramisu," said my companion -- I use the term reluctantly. I should have guessed that this sallow, twitching guy with a frayed collar and happyface tie would order tiramisu in a deli.
Ottavio Rossi, despite the poetry of his name, was about as Italian as SpaghettiOs. I speculated on whether a man could be sued for false advertising in a personals ad. This "freshly divorced, optimistic, and glad-to-be-alive architect, recently moved to Washington, seeking company on walking tours of new city and new life" was actually a depressed looking waiter whose feet hurt. And he wasn't much of a talker. I wondered -- not for the first time -- how I, nearly fifty years old, could have been so crazy as to answer an ISO and arrange a meeting with a strange man just because he sounded funny and wise in his forty-three paid words.
Anger and curiosity make a dangerous stew.
For three weeks I'd been simmering, since I told my boyfriend, Dave -- by now, my ex-boyfriend -- that we needed to take a breather from our relationship until he was ready to pay it more respect.
What's made the breakup more complicated is that we both work at the same place, the Washington Examiner. I'm the restaurant critic, and Dave is -- or was-the star investigative reporter. In the past year, his star began dimming in favor of a newer, younger and female -- reporter, who uncannily scooped him at every turn. Understandably, he'd grown irritable. What's worse, he was increasinglyuncommunicative.
My usual view is that relationship problems should be solved within the relationship, but that wasn't happening.
"I've got to work this out myself," Dave would answer when I tried to get him to talk. Mr. Independent Go-It-Alone. Bob Woodward without Deep Throat.
He didn't even try to argue when I suggested a trial separation. He just stopped calling, started treating me like a stranger in the office, and immersed himself in his work. Then he wangled an out-of-town assignment to cover a long-running trial in San Francisco.
So I decided to pretend this breakup was an opportunity -- a time to satisfy my curiosity about those ISO acts my office mates and I often read to each other. At the moment, though, adventurousness seemed like an astonishingly bad idea.
Here I was, Chas Wheatley, a restaurant critic ever ready to mince a chef's ego to a duxelles, in this case too cowardly to make an excuse and dump Ottavio Rossi. I couldn't hurt the poor guy's feelings, even though he had virtually lied in describing himself and had almost nothing to say.
I'd been careful to arrange our meeting in a place that was public, but one where I was unlikely to cross paths with anyone I knew. I suggested we meet for coffee, which seemed like a safely limited encounter. And I'd never told him a name he might recognize, just introduced myself as Charlotte Sue, which is my real name but one that nobody ever uses
The really frustrating part was that although I'd scrupulously avoided the ads of any men who might be connected with the restaurant business, and assigned Ottavio extra points because he was new in town and we were unlikely to have acquaintances in common, now he told me he e 'd just made a career change. No sooner had he placed the personals ad in the newspaper, he said, than he'd lost his job. He was afraid of falling behind in his child-support pay ments, so he'd turned to the emergency income source of countless out-of-work actors and downsized corporation lawyers. He'd inimediately -- after telling a few lies about his experience, I suspectedsnagged a position as a waiter "in a big-time restaurant," he bragged, one where his Italian name had been "a major plus."
It got worse. Ottavio hadn't had an ordinary mainstream architecture job when he came to Washington. He was a kitchen designer. For restaurants.
I sat over my undrinkable bitter espresso and tried
to mak e the best of a bad situation. Maybe I couldlearn some worthwhile restaurant gossip. I quaked atthe idea of Ottavio regaling his fellow waiters withhaving met a restaurant critic through a personals ad,but since he hadn't asked a single thing about me yet,I hoped I might get away without his knowing who Ireally am.
Silently willing him to hurry up with his tiramisu, which he hadn't touched yet, I asked him where he was working.
"It's a pretty weird place, Charlotte.... May I call you Charlotte?"
What else could he call me, since that was the only name I'd given him? I nodded and smiled, assuming he would elaborate, but he didn't.
"How is it weird?" I prodded.
"Just weird. If only people knew what restaurants get out of them, they'd sure watch their backs."
Ottavio's eyes were riveted on his coffee and he silently stirred it. I began to count the intertwined boomerangs on the Formica table. just as I was about to try again to pry a detail or two from him, he blurted, "I couldn't believe theyd fire me because of one single mistake. They had it in for me. I'm sure of it."
"Who? At the restaurant?"
"No, my design firm. Kitchen Works. just one drawing, that did it. I got the scale wrong on one drawing, and they fired me. You'd think that since I was the only CAD..."
"Computer-aided design operator," he answered, and went on as if there'd been no interruption. "Since I was the only CAD who knew how to get the most...