She leaned an ample thigh against the down pillows of her white couch and with a manicured forefinger painted Eve’s Apple Red; Rita lifted one slat of the blind to peer out into the Culver City spring night.
The only child of a marriage between a Russian Jewish father and Sicilian mother, Rita inherited the shoulders of her father, the eyes of her mother and the nose of both, including the bump. Growing up in Brooklyn, she always longed for a nose job, but Mirabella her tiny torpedo of a mother talked her out of it every time.
“You crazy? Your nose is a classic. Look at Barbra Streisand, she’s got a shnozz, bump and all and no doctor ever cut on her.”
A week ago on the phone Harry suggested that he pick her up at seven. Now, with thirteen minutes to go, Rita was impatient, sort of hoping he’d be so eager to meet her that he’d come early. Rita was rusty and the dating business made her nervous. After all, she and Julian had been going steady for twelve years, almost married for God’s sake, until he dropped the bomb. And now here she was, tossed like a sack of laundry onto the heap of single, overweight forty-five year olds.
Every Christmas they’d go to midnight mass and down on her knees Rita prayed to Mary, the Mother of them all, that Julian would pop the question. On New Year’s Eve he was at her door, arms wrapped around a boatload of red roses and she was sure, positive, that this was the moment. But his news was all bad. With tears the size of pennies dropping from his curly lashes, Julian told her he was gay and thought he was in love with Roy, and they were going to live together to try it out, and oh how sorry he was for not telling her sooner, but so many times he was simply positive he was hetero…. and on and on he droned in a limp wristed monologue until she picked up the roses and threw them in his face.
“And didn’t I tell you?” Mirabella screeched on the phone. “Didn’t I tell you something was wrong with him? The minute I laid eyes on Julian back in seventy-three I said, a daffodil, that’s what I told your father.”
Her therapist, Dr. Marcia Weinberg, liked to show off her cool by quoting Bob Marley, and insisted that Rita pick herself up, dust herself off and start all over again. But how? She was forty-five, way too zaftig and her hair was beginning to go gray in all the wrong places. Clearly, the shank of her life was over.
“Nonsense,” Dr. Weinberg retorted, herself an angry divorcee who built a reputation throughout West L.A. for repairing women whose self esteem had been permanently damaged by their mothers. “Out in that big exciting world is the right one for you. As my grandmother Tillie always said ‘There’s a lid for every pot.’
Like a diligent student, Rita did her psychological homework, faithfully reading the lonely hearts ads in the L.A. Times under ‘Men seeking Women.’ When she was obsessing over Julian, her eyeballs would stray to the ‘Men seeking Men,’ but she’d force them away, repeating Dr Weinberg’s mantra, “I am a big beautiful woman and I’m moving on...”
Harry’s voice on the phone was as deep and rich as tiramisu, and she pictured a Peter Jennings type, tall and slender with no trace of a regional accent, while her own Brooklyn accent clung like Estee Lauder.
She glanced at her Movado, a gift from Julian that she’d keep forever no matter what Mirabella said. It was three minutes to seven and she almost wet her pants suddenly conscious that she’d been holding it in for hours. Off the couch and down the long hallway she clumped in her platforms, and like a contortionist, lifted her dress with one hand and grabbed at the waistband of the queen size panty hose with the other. Her few seconds of relief on the toilet were interrupted by the chimes ringing out their ‘Avon Calling’ tune. She wiped fast and in her panic yanked too hard and snagged a run in her nylons as wide as a ski slope. Shit! There was no time to change, and Avon Calling chimed again, twice in succession.
A quick hair fluff-up in the medicine cabinet mirror, and Rita was off at full speed when the words of Dr. Weinberg sounded in her head. “Stop, take a deep breath, stand up to your full statuesque height, throw your shoulders back and show how proud you are to be a big beautiful woman.” With her hennaed head erect, and channeling Princess Di, Rita approached the front door and gracefully opened it, a rehearsed smile pasted on her rubicund lips.
The spring night air was soft as cashmere and drenched with the perfume of new jasmine, and Rita heard a baby bird warbling in his sleep high up in the Eucalyptus. Harry waited, perfectly centered in the pool of light cast by the porch lamp, his frame nearly obliterated by a bevy of Easter lilies big enough to cover a casket. Rita, adjusting to her new contacts, blinked in the dim light, looking here and there, until looking down from her five nine Everest, she saw him.
Short! He was short! Not more that five two, maybe even less without the hat. With eyes beginning to roll back in her head, Rita held on to the doorknob, when Harry boomed from behind the lilies, “Rita, how glad I am to meet you.”
With one swift movement he thrust the bouquet at her stomach and strode into the house on quick, short legs. She, like a bewildered bride followed numbly, holding the flowers in two chubby arms while ransacking her memory for the wording of his ad. Not one hint about height, of that she was sure, just the elusive coverall, “well proportioned.”
Harry stripped off his driving gloves, removed his plaid fedora and patted down his thin black hair. Then with a 250 watt smile he unbuttoned his leather-elbowed tweed jacket and settled himself on the couch. Astonished, Rita stared in disbelief as his feet in their little saddle shoes, dangled above the polished hardwood floor.
“You’d better put those in water” Harry indicated with his small pointed chin. Speechless, she looked from him to the lilies and back again, and marched off holding the bouquet upside down like a dead chicken.
In the kitchen, Rita leaned on the sink and took deep breaths. Oh, how she needed Dr. Weinberg at this very moment; but on a Saturday night? No, she could only call if it was a “terrible emergency.” Weinberg’s message machine was clear about that. In a daze of disappointment, she tossed the lilies into the wet sink where their yellow pollen dissolved into the color of a Tahitian sunset, and in a flight of fancy, Rita wondered if that was how primitive people made their paints. Then, hearing his voice calling, she thought, I’ve got a primitive-size man right in my living room.
“Hey Rita, I see you’re a jazz collector! Jesus, you’ve got Louie and Ella from the forties and in their original sleeves, my God!”
Rita sprang from the sink as if launched.
“Don’t you touch those records,” she yelled clomping like a Clydesdale into the living room.
“Ok, ok,” Harry said, “don’t get your wig in a snit, see? I’m holding them by the edge, not a fingerprint of mine on these babies…”
With her mouth shut tight in an angry red line, Rita put the records back in their slots, while Harry, hands in pockets, walked around the room on the balls of his little feet, checking it all out, like a furniture appraiser.
“Nice set-up you’ve got here, and boy I sure like your taste in art,” he said, peering close to the Matisse poster she’d bought framed from the L.A. County Art Museum.
“Well” he, said, turning to face her and clearing his deep voice, “Where would you like to eat dinner?”
Standing opposite Harry’s miniature frame, Rita felt bigger than Jumbo the Elephant and she could just hear Mirabella cackling, “First a fairy, then a midget.” Rita’s plentitude quivered inside her silky muumuu and her bosom heaved from beneath her beaded Indian shawl.
“I think you should leave,” she said, her voice low and shaking.
Harry’s dark little eyebrows shot up like McDonald’s arches and he sat down, this time on the edge of the couch...
“Leave? What for?”
“Because you lied,” she said.
“How?” He said, the one syllable reverberating around the room.
“You said you were well proportioned.”
“I am,” he insisted, standing up and throwing off his sporty tweed.
“Look,” he said, patting his chest, his waist, and his hips, “Look at this… all in proportion.”
Then Harry rolled up his sleeve and flexed his boy-sized bicep.
“Feel that” he said, thrusting his arm at her. “Hard isn’t it? And, by the way, there’s not an ounce of fat on me,” he boasted.
Rita’s cheeks turned the color of her nail polish.
“That does it!” She said, pointing like a traffic cop to the front door, “You can leave right now!”
At that exact second, the phone rang and the two of them froze like mannequins in a store window while it rang again and again.
“Aren’t you going to answer it? Harry said angrily, shrugging into his jacket.
“You can let yourself out,” she said, shooting him a nasty look over her shoulder as she took the stairs two at a time up to the bedroom.
“Mother, I can’t talk now!”
“What?” her mother bellowed,” speak up I can’t hear you.”
“I said, I can’t talk now.” Rita hissed.
“So… how’s it going, good? He’s not a fag I hope, just your luck” she chuckled, “to spend twelve years waiting for a guy who likes men.”
“Mother I’m hanging up!” Rita said, and she did, before Mirabella could bite another chunk out of her heart.
Rita waited and listened, her ears pricked like a terrier for the slightest sound coming from the living room below. But all was silent. Good, she thought, he’s gone and good riddance, the little worm.
Wet with sweat she threw open a window, kicked her platforms under the bed, then ripped off the muumuu, beaded shawl and all, and hurled the bundle out the window where it landed on the pyracantha bush below, the beads making a sound like tiny castanets. With both hands she yanked off her panty hose, then reached behind and unhooked the 44-D. Her released flesh sighed with freedom and her sprayed curls fell like melted cannolis around her shoulders. Her old blue bathrobe, a threadbare friend, calmed Rita’s hot skin and the flattened bunny slippers were like kisses on her swollen feet.
Anticipating an enchanting evening, Rita had cooled a bottle of Gallo Chablis, imagining how she and Harry would sit on the couch and sip it while they got acquainted. Now it was waiting in the frig along with last night’s meat loaf and she was hungry enough to eat a goat.
She’d gotten halfway down the stairs, when a noise from below froze her. On silent bunny-slippered feet, she crept down two more steps, then leaned over the banister.
He was at the sink, his head thrown back, gulping down a pill, and over his shoulder she could see the lilies, limp and lifeless as a drowned white bird. With eyes as dark as two tunnels, she glared at his back and sensing her, Harry turned, then jumped as if bounced from a trampoline.
“I thought I told you to leave,” she said in a gravelly grumble.
“You did, you did,” he agreed nodding, his eyes cast down at the linoleum. “But I was feeling faint and came back in to take my pill.” Contrite, Harry stood like a minister, his hands clasped in front of him waiting, the silence broken only by the tick of the teapot kitchen clock.
Rita cleared her throat and when Harry glanced up at her, she could see his eyes widen. Like opening-night searchlights they swept over her; her sweaty face, her tumbled hair and her big body hardly hidden within the thin blue robe.
“My God,” Harry whispered, biting both his lips and nodding again and again.
“What did you just say?” she asked, squinting through her contacts and descending a few steps.
Harry didn’t answer. Instead, he moved closer, his eyes never leaving her face. Now Rita could see his expression. It was ablaze with a look she’d only seen in the movies, Cary Grant looking at Ingrid Bergman, but never on the face of any man looking at her. Her heart throbbed. Like a jungle cat she watched him from under half mast lids, then lifted an arm and ran her fingers through her hair.
One eyebrow went up knowingly and her mouth relaxed showing the tip of her tongue between full pillowy lips. Harry reached out and took her hand leading her down. She could feel his heart through his fingertips and coming closer to him, her face beamed bright as a sunrise, as Harry got very, very hard.