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Our reunion came in surprising fashion. The sun had mangled and wrassled its way through our concrete Northwest ceiling for the first time in weeks, and this had given me the inspiration to crowbar my butt off the bed, hop onto Maestro’s creaking Schwinn and horsewhip my winter muscles down the island to the Pegasus. Even after a twenty-minute forced feeding of cool, light Bainbridge air, however, I remained under the shadow of a dictatorial scowl, and thus was thrown that much further out of my rut when I pushed my way into the Pegasus and found Gabriella’s face at the counter.
Gabi gave me a satisfied Cheshire-cat smile, like she had been expecting me. “Billy! Buongiorno!”
I floated to the counter on hovercraft tennies and reached across the wide marble counter to grab her hand and cover it with kisses.
“I can’t tell you how good it is to see you,” I said.
“Yes you can.”
“Okay. I’m... I’m... I’m awfully damned glad to see you, Gabriella.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t call you when I got back in town, Billy, but this all happened kind of quickly. Oh….” She looked past my shoulder to the door, which had just clanked open with a delivery of seven or eight serious cyclists in seriously bright Italian racing togs. “Hey, tell me what you’d like, and I’ll take a little break after this rush, okay?”
“Oh, um, okay. How ‘bout a macchiato?”
“Gotcha. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
I eased out to the back patio, where I watched pharmaceutical cotton clouds scudding over the harbor. I must have slipped into a semi-doze, because I awoke to the feel of Gabriella’s hands on the back of my neck, the first feathers of a massage.
“Oh, Guglielmo. I’ve been so worried about you. I thought of nothing else the whole time I was gone. I even imagined you sitting in the audience on New Year’s Eve, with that small steady smile of yours, and those precious wide-open eyes, drinking in my notes.” She finished her neckrub and sat down opposite me. “So here’s the news. Maestro has decided to take me on as a full-time project, especially now that we’re doing Puccini. He said, ‘TOSCA... will be your breakthrough, Gabriella. You are ready now. You are READY... to be a prima donna.’“
The transformation to aging Italiano knocked her train of thought right off the rails. She ran a hand through her hair and seemed to find the next station just past her left ear. “So... Oh! So I’m moving in! I’m moving in to his guest bedroom, at the back, near the sound. We’re going to be neighbors, Billy!”
“That’s great! That’ll save you so much time on the ferry. But... what are you doing here? I mean, here at the Pegasus.”
“Well, thanks to you, dear one, we have such a great relationship with the place, and a few months ago when the owner found out that I was working as a barista in Seattle, she basically made me a standing offer. When Maestro gave me the invite, then, I didn’t waste any time, and it turns out Barry had lost one of her best workers just last week. She’s so great, too. She said just give me your rehearsal and performance schedule, and I’ll work you in around it. In return, we’re making Thursdays ‘opera night’ – little spontaneous recitals featuring me and whoever else I can drag in here. She’s bringing in a piano from her house just so we can use it.”
I had to laugh. “You mean,” I whispered, “you’re going to reveal your secret identity?”
Gabriella gave my hand a swat over the tabletop. “Are you making fun of me?” Then her eyes drifted off to the high forested hillsides of Eagledale across the harbor. “Honestly, I think it’s about time I get over that, Billy. It was all getting a little complicated, me and my little image preservation campaign. And I wasn’t all that fond of Café Trademark, anyway. Except for meeting present company there, of course. And who knows? Maybe the Pegasus series will be good for some cheap publicity. But enough of that – how are you, amico mio?”
The answer to that question seemed entirely too complicated, so I decided to leap-frog the subject.
“What would you say is the swankiest, snobbiest, most expensive restaurant in Seattle?”
Gabriella blinked her eyes in thought. “Well? Um, I’d say the Palisade.”
“When would you like me to take you there?”
“Done. Steal the best outfit you can from wardrobe, and I’ll pick you up at... Oh. Where will I pick you up at?”
“Maestro’s. The guys are moving me in tomorrow.”
“Oh. Do you need help?”
“No no no. We have sprightly young tenors and baritones for such things. Don’t you worry. Whoops! Gotta go. How’s seven o’clock?”
“Bene. I’ll meet you at your door.” Gabriella kissed me on the forehead and scurried back into the Pegasus, where a pack of ravenous, power-walking grandmas had just entered, hunting for scones.
* * *
Instead of waiting for me to come to the main house, Gabriella appeared in my doorway wearing a long black frock coat, a burgundy silk scarf, and a top hat! (She told me later it had been used by Colline, the philosopher from “La Bohème.”)
Her first words, oddly enough, were, “What the hell are you doing, Billy?” Having cleaned and suited myself much too early, I had taken up my recent assignment, cutting out the pathways from a large fabric pattern of the Chartres Cathedral’s labyrinth so I could etch it onto Maestro’s central deck. When Gabriella broke in on me, I was literally covered with it, its twenty-foot-square expanse wrapped around both legs and an arm, like a giant flat squid on the attack.
“Oh, nothing much,” I said lamely. “It’s Maestro’s latest thing.”
“Well, okay, but do you think you could get out of that thing and take me to dinner, gosh-darn-it? I’m hungry!”
I let out a mighty harrumph. “You nineteenth century Frenchmen are so rude!” I then made a reasonable facsimile of a toreador swipe, thrusting the monstrosity to one side, patted the scissored leavings from my suit, and straightened up to give my monsieur a kiss on the cheek.
“You look... handsome.”
“Merci. I thought it was high time I tried out a trouser role.”
“C’est bien. Allons?”
It took a little while for Escamillo to warm up; compared to last year’s cross-country ramble, these ferry-boat jaunts were barely enough to get his water pump going. (I imagine also that he was jealous, having sniffed out the scent of that rental minivan on my clothing.) Nonetheless, we hit the ramp at Winslow with magical timing, landing on the auto deck just as they were closing shop. I followed the flagman’s cheerleading to a starboard spot with an excellent view of the southward sound: the eastward reach of Restoration Point, and Vashon Island in the far distance. Gabriella felt too Gay Parisienne to expose herself to the passenger deck, so we remained in the car all the way across as she told me of her time in Vancouver. It was a beautiful city, many times bigger than Seattle and surrounded by grand green mountains. During her stay she had met a handsome young law student from Calgary. They went out a number of times – movies, a hockey game, a couple of dinners – and things were proceeding quite nicely until one night when Mr. Alberta had outlined for her his ideal life: a highly domesticated life, as it turned out, composed of kids and pets, charitable dinners and the Sunday New York Times... and a stay-at-home wife.
“I would usually have dismissed it as a fairly innocuous comment,” she said. “Except for the fact that we had both been feeling the steady stream of hormones all week long, and had shared some pretty romantic moments – and in fact were about to turn our sails bed-ward, which is not something I give away at every streetcorner, mon ami. So you see, I think this little performance had some pretty clear intent to it, some direction. The nerve of that bastard! What does he think, I just came out of the womb singing Bellini? That it’s really no big deal? I’m just using this little opera shtick to catch myself a man, and then it’s off to Niagara Falls and hello laundry room?! Hello daytime talk shows?! Hello honey how was your day at the office?! What horseshit.”
I had both hands on Escamillo’s steering wheel and imagined I was guiding him over the water to Seattle – a pretty neat little James Bond kind of delusion. “So,” I said. “Would it be reasonable for me to assume that this has happened before?”
Gabriella let out a knife-sharp burst of laughter. “Hah! It’s a running theme, pal! Apparently we opera chicks are big candidates for elbow-dressing in these parts. If I had a theme song, it would be, ‘Honey, Why Don’t You Give Up La Scala and Come On Home to Me?’”
“Well,” I chuckled. “It certainly speeds up the screening process.”
“You got that right, Bubba. When F. Lee Scaly took a restroom time-out, ol’ Gabriella checked herself out of the restaurant and hailed a cab home.”
“Oh, Gabriella!” I swooned. “You’re such a diva!”
Gabriella fetched her top hat from her lap so she could tip it. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so-o-o-o much.”
I took a left out of the ferry depot and soon found myself heading north on Alaskan Way, but for some reason thought I was heading south, so I turned off on Broad Street, near the Seattle Center, to get my bearings. I immediately spied a tourist-trap horse-and-buggy perched at the curb, advertising strolls around town. Gabriella cultivated a curious expression as I pulled over and parked.
“Billy, what are you doing?”
“The Palisade can wait, Oh Abraham. There’s a stallion ovah yondah with our names on it.”
The driver was one of those guys who really played the part, having grown a big ol’ mustache and waxed it to turn-of-the-century handlebar splendor to match his pioneer riding clothes. I asked him if he had a regular loop we could take, and he nodded yes, about a half-hour’s worth, so I held Gabriella’s beaverskin and helped her up. We tucked our legs under a wool blanket and were soon rough-rolling through town, the driver, the horse and two passengers all letting out vaporous streams of breath.
We were heading east on Virginia when I spotted a restaurant called Pagliacci’s, and what more of a sign would you need than that? I knocked on the side of the carriage with Gabriella’s walking stick, and shouted for the driver to pull over, then tipped him enormously and helped my diva to the sidewalk.
Gabriella pulled down on her embroidered vest and smirked. “Well. It’s obvious that to-night will be largely improvised.”
Pagliacci’s turned out to be nowhere near as plush as I’m sure the Palisades would have been, but it had a warm, chatty elegance to it, and gorgeous washes of mango, Tuscan gold and latte-colored paint over the walls. Gabriella’s outfit made a prime target for the host, a jolly, fat paisano with a big beefy mustache and comic demeanor to match.
“Oh-hoh!” He exclaimed with a sweeping bow. “It is the gentlemen of Verona, out for a night on the town. I will get for you a table in the corner, from where you may gaze upon all the bellas of Washington.”
Gabriella missed not a beat, clapping our host chummily on the shoulder and replying, “Thank you, good sir! You are a gent, a mighty gent and true.” She leaned toward his ear and spoke in confidence. “And please, my good man, if you could do us a great favor, do not reveal our true identities. Under these fair garments, you see, I am not a nobleman at all but the poorest wretch of a student, Gualtier Maldè! And this being to my left, though he look as manly as any a burly, plaid-coated lumberman of Washington State, he is, in fact, the governor’s dainty daughter, Cleodora!”
Fully invested in our little skit, our host eyed me studiously and declared. “Good God, man! What a brilliant disguise!”
We eventually wrapped up our routine and were shown to a table next to a column of cappuccino-colored tromp l’oeil marble. The items on the menu were not near costly enough, but I managed to coax Gabriella into a decently expensive grilled salmon, while I ordered us an appetizer of oyster and mussels in garlic sauce and a bottle of ten-year-old French cabernet, and got myself a bowl of cioppino with lobster that could well have supplied a week-long camping trip. We finished up with a dessert of amaretto cheesecake and two espressos. Still, when the bill came around, the total was not nearly high enough. I waved back our waiter, whose name was also Bill, and picked up the wine list.
“I’m sorry. Could we add something? Ah, here she is. We’d like two glasses of this tawny Lisbon port.”
“Certainly,” said Bill, and raised his eyebrows in appreciation.
When Bill returned with our libations, I found Gabriella honing her award-winning squint. I hadn’t seen it for months, actually, and it seemed like an old friend, come back to town.
“You’ve been up to something all night, Guillaume.”
I gave no answer, but lifted my drink, the color of maple syrup as painted by Monet, and almost as old as I was.
“It’s all gone, Floria. It’s all... gone.”
Gabriella’s smile grew as the lights came on inside. “Congratulations,” she said.
We sipped the thick, buttersweet liquid and waited for the bill, which this time came to two hundred sixteen dollars and thirty seven cents. I left three big portraits of Benjamin Franklin – the final withdrawal from my brother’s account – then we hurried outside to catch a cab to First Hill, where Gabriella would make her return to Café Trademark with style.
Photo by MJV