Our food and drinks arrived at that point. It took a moment to get the right sandwich in front of the right person. I took a bite of my roast beef on rye; Sharon just looked down at her chicken salad on whole wheat. I hadn't thought she was a chicken salad kind of woman, and maybe now that her sandwich was here, it failed to inspire her. After a moment considering her meal, her face turned up to me.
“I want to tell you about my . . . husband.”
My first thought was: Oh shit. The last phrase I wanted to hear come out of her mouth was “my husband.” It was difficult to imagine what horrible thing had happened between them that made him impossible to talk about when she had had no problems at all divulging her mother’s running away and the sudden deaths of her sister and father. But now it was obvious that she really wanted to say whatever she had to say. I shrugged and said, “Sure.”
“It’s hard. We’re divorced.”
“I’m sorry because I’m sure it was painful, but I have to admit, your divorce is good news as far as I’m concerned.”
Sharon smiled and shook her head ruefully, “I guess it would be.”
I reached across the table and gave her hand a squeeze. “I am sorry. There’s no regulation in the dating handbook that says we have to talk about this.”
“Now that I’ve gone this far, I might as well tell you everything,” she said with another sad smile. This Sharon was so different from what I’d experienced so far that it was like being out with another woman. And, sucker that I am, it only added to her allure.
“After my sister killed herself, I was crazy.”
“I thought you worked and studied and nothing else.”
“You really do remember everything, don’t you?”
“No. Anyway, you were saying . . .”
“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I got involved with a local boy from Philly. He wasn’t going to college, he was working his way up through the family business.”
I waited for her to explain, and when she didn’t, I asked, “And that business was?”
She looked directly at me and said evenly, “It was an Italian family.”
“I’m guessing we’re not talking about owning a nice restaurant or —”
“That must have been . . . I don’t know, exciting?”
“It was different than anything I’d ever done. And it got me out of myself. It seemed so exciting to hang out in the kinds of clubs he liked, with people who were so rough around the edges. But then I realized just how rough they really were. I would read the papers and wonder what kind of crimes my husband was guilty of. At the same time, he was staying out all night with his friends, screwing anything he could get his hands on. But if I smiled at another man at a party, I got slapped around the minute we got home.” She paused, lost in the memory for a second. Then, she said, “So . . . I left.”
“I thought it was hard to get a divorce from that particular type of family man.”
“It is. Usually. But his ego was so offended by my wanting to leave that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me once I said I didn’t want to be with him. He said I was a worthless whore and that he’d be better off without me.”
“And you were able to get a divorce.”
“Yes, I was. And the minute it was final, I headed for New York and lost myself. I changed my name — I changed my look. I don’t ever want to have anything to do with those people again.”
“Is, uh . . . is Sharon your real name?”
She shook her head with a bitter smile.
“It suits you.”
“I don’t know . . . ,” I said, flailing about for a conversational gambit. “It . . . just sounds sexy to me.”
The bitter look on her face dissolved into a real smile. “Thank you.”
Sharon reached across the table and took my hand. Holding onto it, looking directly into my eyes, she said, “Go ahead. Ask.”
She didn’t say anything, continuing to gaze straight into my eyes, still holding onto my hand. I felt as if she was telling me all kinds of things without speaking, but I wasn’t sure if I understood any of them.
“The guy in the restaurant the other night,” I said, “the human shark. Is he someone from your past?”
“So your real name is Maria.”
“My real name is Sharon. That’s who I am now.”
“It’s okay,” she said softly, taking no offense. “I know what you meant. But it’ll be a cold day in hell before I let a jerk like Rocco ruin my life.”
She hesitated for a long moment then said, “Rocco Vincente Imperioli.”
“My Latin’s a little rusty, but doesn’t that translate roughly as Rocco the Conquering Emperor?”
Sharon grinned, “He’d love to think so.”
“He’s a friend of your ex’s?”
That really made her stop and think. After a long moment she said “Well . . . they’re very, very close.”
“That means he’s not someone to be taken lightly. Not that I take anyone with a gun lightly.”
“No, you shouldn’t take him lightly.”
“But you have no intention of letting him ruin your life — I thought you said your ex was willing to let you have a divorce.”
“I may have overstated my case,” she said with a sly smile. “I like to think positively.” She paused, the smile disappearing. “Look, my ex was willing to let me go. That doesn’t mean the years haven’t changed his mind.” Her voice changed, going low and guttural in imitation of Mafioso, “Guys talking in his ear about the whore and how maybe he should have taken care of business, you know?”
“You don’t know if that’s true, you just want to be careful, is that it?”
“Have you thought about leaving town and changing your name again?”
She gave my hand a squeeze and said in a husky whisper, “Would you come with me if I did?”
I looked startled, and she laughed, still holding my hand as she spoke, “No, I don’t want to do that again. I did it when I came to New York, but now I have a life here, and I don’t want to give it up.”
“What if you bump into Rocco the Conquering Emperor again?”
“What are the odds on that happening?”
I shrugged, not wanting to say that maybe he was looking for her.
“Besides,” she said with the sly smile back on her face, “I have a backup plan.”
My natural inclination was to ask what it was, but I realized that it probably was in my best interest not to know. That not knowing was the sensible, smart way to live. Emphasis on the phrase, “to live.”
“Have I completely blown any chance I had with you?” Sharon asked me, once again looking directly into my eyes. Her hand was still firmly holding onto mine.
“Well, this isn’t the most romantic conversation I’ve ever had with a girl . . .” I didn’t want to come off as a wimp, but I was more than a little intimidated by what she had told me. When you fell in love with the prettiest girl on the cheerleading squad, you assumed that she was dating the captain of the football team. But that was only one guy — albeit a gigantic, hulking being — and the odds were good that you were smarter than he was. Getting involved with a mafia wife assumed that the football captain would appear with a bunch of his teammates, all equipped with brass knuckles and guns. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that scenario.
I looked across the table at Sharon and felt the steady pressure of her fingers wrapped around mine. Her eyes were beautiful and steady in their focus on my face. Her wide mouth was open ever so slightly, as if ready for a kiss. Her body — her wonderfully curvy body, was poised on the front of her seat, leaning toward me ever so slightly, ready.
Ready for what? My answer? Or for a much deeper involvement with me? Or just a roll in the hay? (Maybe confession was an aphrodisiac for this lady.) I was confused because I had feelings that were in diametric opposition to each other. My first impulse: I wanted to run away and hide. My conflicting impulse: I desperately didn’t want to be a coward. Like most guys I know, the idea of being a coward made my stomach turn sour. I wanted to be one of those guys who did whatever was right, no matter how scary the situation was. In terms of my immediate quandary: I wanted to protect Sharon from guys like Rocco. This wouldn't be wimping out in the face of the schoolyard bully. This was the Mafia. People like me disappeared when we inconvenienced guys like Rocco and Sharon’s ex. Guys like that would kill you for taking their favorite parking spot. There wasn’t a chance in hell I could protect Sharon from Rocco and his boys. But wasn’t that when you needed to display real courage? In the face of impossible odds?
“No,” I said firmly, finishing my reply to her question about blowing things. “You haven’t blown anything.”
Sharon tugged at my hand and came far-forward in her seat, leaning over the table. I responded to the tug on my hand and met her halfway. We kissed softly. It was a nice, lingering kiss that continued over the mostly finished sandwiches in a busy, plates-clattering coffee shop.
Eventually we settled back into our seats. I looked down at the tabletop, unwilling to see the expressions on any of my fellow diners’ faces. Sharon was still watching me, still holding onto my hand.
“I think we should settle the check,” she said, her voice a bit husky.
“And then we should go to my place . . .”
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