Paolo and Claire recognized each other immediately.
They only met briefly that one incident, ten years ago. They never met again.
As Paulo’s wife, Melissa, introduced him to Tom and Claire, their eyes met. With one intense look, Claire asked him to remain silent about the past.
He smiled, “Glad to meet you Claire. And you’re Tom?” Tom took his arm from Claire’s waist and shook hands with Paolo.
Tom glanced around and leaned in. “These office get-togethers can be overwhelming. Let’s find a place where we can get acquainted.”
They all agreed and found an open table in a quiet corner. Tom got drink orders and moved toward the bar. Paolo followed. They sparred for a moment over who would buy.
Tom cinched it with, “This one’s on me. You get the next round.”
Paolo nodded. He knew his command of English could improve. He kept challenging himself. “How long you worked at this company?”
“About eight years, just before Claire and I got hitched.”
“Good for you. That’s about when Melissa and I got married.” So they got married a couple years after Claire and I crossed paths. Paolo never knew how to respond to men’s statements about their wives. Best not to sound too interested.
“Congratulations. Melissa and I work in different departments. Mainly see each other in meetings. She’s sharp.”
Paolo smiled, “Oh, I know.”
They carried the drinks back to their wives. Claire and Melissa were laughing.
Claire looked at Paolo. “Melissa tells me you opened a restaurant.”
“Si, it’s something I’m wanting for a long time. Kind of classic Italiano. Try to stay on the light side. Everyone’s health conscious now.”
Tom asked, “What’s it called? We love Italian.”
“Trieste.” They nodded. “I wanted Il Duce or the Borgias, but they were taken.”
Tom and Claire looked at each other and laughed. They checked Melissa’s reaction. She also laughed.
Paolo smiled. “You know, Columbus was an Italian too. He getting a lot of flak lately.”
Tom agreed. “Tell me about it.”
“Well, what school don’t teach is Columbus’ real purpose wasn’t oppress everyone in the New World. His ships were full of pizza dough, tomato sauce and cheese. He wanted to introduce his favorite Italian food and make friends.”
“The names of the ships were the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Mozzarella.”
They were laughing into handkerchiefs.
Encouraged, he went on, “It’s true! You can Google it.” Their laughter grew louder. He had them now. Others at the party looked at their table. How were they having so much fun?
“But it didn’t work out because of the Puritans.” This got the biggest laugh yet. “You are not Puritans, no?”
“It turn out the Puritans had restriction on pepperoni and didn’t allow pizza.” Tom and Claire were beside themselves. “…So another three hundred years before pizza finally legal in New York.”
Tom gave Paolo a high five. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in years.”
“No lie, Tom.” This brought a new wave of laughter.
Melissa had heard all this before so she didn’t laugh as hard. But she enjoyed seeing their friends get such a kick out of Paolo’s humor.
“My place has a mural on wall. Like Da Vinci?” They nodded. “It show Columbus tossing pizza dough.”
“That’s hilarious. You’re amazing, Paolo.”
Paolo sipped his drink. “Anyone thirsty? This one’s on me.”
Tom nodded. Paolo took note of everyone’s drink and went to the bar.
When he came back Tom and Melissa were talking shop. Their CEO took a microphone and made some announcements. After that he let the party continue.
Melissa and Tom continued comparing notes on office politics.
Steering clear of the past, Claire and Paolo made small talk. Yet, that unnamed connection remained. They shared a memory exclusive of their spouses. Paolo told her he thought Tom was a good man for her.
The evening wore on. The four of them snacked while talking of childhood experiences. Paolo reminisced about coming to the United States. Tom made some predictions about his company’s future. Others from the office stopped to say hello while making their rounds.
The evening wound down. Paolo and Melissa said good-bye. Tom and Claire promised to visit Paolo’s restaurant.
Driving home, Melissa sighed. “Sorry it ran so long. I’m exhausted. You helped a lot, love.”
“A good night. I like them.”
“They like you too. You are hilarious.”
They drove in silence.
Melissa cleared her throat. “So, how do you know Claire?”
“I don’t know her.”
“Paolo, you were obvious. I caught the looks.”
“I’m true, Mel. I never spoke to her before tonight. Never knew her name.”
“You want me to believe you never met before?”
Paolo drove in silence. He glanced at Melissa. “When I a waiter, before you and me, she came into Rocco’s with a man. That piano player… Used to tour.”
She nodded with a grim smile.
“He drank too much and started on her. I don’t know what about.”
He held his hand up and she stopped.
“He got loud. Disturb the others. I talk. Said this abuse not right. I say I call a cab.”
“Piano man became belligerent. But left after complaining to Greg, my boss. I lost my job over it.”
“I lost my job.”
“But with Claire?”
“Never saw them again. Or expected.”
“But why act like you never met?”
“I don’t know them. They your friends. It not for me to embarrass them.”
Melissa touched his hand. “I get it. Thanks for telling me this.”
Paolo blew her a kiss. “I’m with you, Mel.”
They drove on.
Tom and Claire got into their Uber. They rode for a while in silence.
Claire squeezed Tom’s hand. “Tom?”
“You have fun?”
“For a company confab? It was okay. ”
“Can I tell you something?”
“I think I remember Paolo from years ago. Before you and I met.”
Tom turned to her, “What?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t know him.”
“What are you talking about?” He shifted in the seat. “I sensed…”
“Back when I dated Billy? I told you about him.”
“That nut case who called himself a piano player. Yeah?”
“Right. Well one night he, Billy took me to Rocco’s. That Italian place on 5th?”
“I know it. Go on.”
“Well, Paolo waited on us.”
“I’m not finished. During the dinner, Billy got upset about a contract or scheduling conflict or something. And he started ragging on me. He got loud.”
“So Tom, I think it was Paolo, came to our table and told Billy he needed to pipe down. He said whatever the problem, I didn’t deserve to be treated in this way.” She indicated herself.
“He took your side against, what’s his name?”
“Yeah. His accent was thick. But I remember he told Billy that kindness is more effective than yelling.”
“So far so good.”
“Well, if you knew Billy you’d know that escalated things…” Tom shook his head. “…Billy stood up and confronted Paolo.”
“In the restaurant? Rocco’s?”
“We were in the middle of the dining room. Not even a booth.”
“So Paolo told him, very calmly, if Billy touched him, he’d never play the piano again.”
Tom looked at her with his mouth open.
“Right. Can you imagine? That backed Billy off.”
“This is very interesting, Claire. I’m glad you told me. So Paolo wasn’t…?”
“No. Not at all.”
“He did exactly as I said.”
“No. That ended it. We left. And then I left Billy. And I met you. And here we are.”
“So when we met Paolo…?”
“I knew I would tell you after. I didn’t want to get into the whole thing in front of everyone. It’s your work.”
“Good call. That would’ve complicated it unnecessarily.”
“I thought so.”
Tom gave the driver an instruction to turn at the next corner.
“So, maybe next time we want pizza… we can check out Il Duce’s or whatever he calls it.”
“If you want.”
“I think he called it Trieste.”
“The Borgias. Hilarious.”
They kissed until the driver announced their arrival.