Bottega Organica

I went there for quiet lunches, and for the free bread and olive oil. The waitress seated me next to a table with two women, the only other people in the place. The one facing me was speaking. She designed clothes, and felt good about her designs.

“Ever been to St. Barts?” she asked. “We just got back from Reggie Dampel’s amazing house there,” she continued before the other woman could respond. “The first day, he made this salt encrusted grouper for dinner. It was so good. It came from a recipe he picked up in Turkey, when he was invited to the Ertagans’ ancestral house on the Bosphorus. You know who the Ertagans are, yes? Reggie was so sweet; he talked about giving Anna a call about my first collection. She is about to start on the fall issue.”

The waitress had taken my order: Sicilian chunk tuna with steamed potatoes and green beans. I drizzled oil over it from the shallow dipping bowl, something my father did too. I added coarse salt, and twisted the wood pepper grinder to spice it up. I opened my drawing book, and uncapped a fine ballpoint pen. I did not need to look at the woman across from me again, her features glided onto the page.

“So how long have you worked for Jon in New York?” the woman added, “I am disappointed he could not make it today. I would have liked to talk to him directly. Chuck, my boyfriend, and Jon went to New Haven together; well you know, Yale, for architecture school. Basically what I need you to do is to pass this portfolio on to him. I have a letter in here that explains everything. I don’t think I need to go over it with you.”

For the first time, I looked at the other woman sitting to my right, she hadn’t said much. With her head down, she skewered a green bean, and with a hop of her fork stabbed a small morsel of tuna, forcing the bean upward on the same fork tines.

“Jon mentioned you are from somewhere out West?” the designer said.

I interrupted, and asked the silent woman, if I could borrow their pepper mill. Mine is stuck, I said. She leaned, reached across and retrieved it from the other side of the table, next to the designer’s dish.

I thanked her and pointed out that we ordered the same tuna dish. She smiled and passed the pepper mill like a baton.

They asked for the check. They had not ordered coffee. I kept drawing.

The waitress put a little treasure chest that held the bill midway between the two women. It could have belonged to a miniature pirate. The designer reached into her bag, and pulled out a mobile phone. She started to scroll for messages. Without looking up, she apologized for forgetting to bring money. When she heard no response, she lifted her head, repeated what she had said, and added a smile.

I swung the pepper mill, placed it in front of my silent neighbor, and like a pawn making its first move on a chessboard, slid it forward to the middle of the table.

The designer glanced up briefly, and resumed scrolling.

My neighbor finally spoke, “maybe you should get money from a teller machine.”

“That, could take a while,” the designer answered.

“I’ll wait.”

“I don’t think there are banks in this area.”

“Actually I was born in the West Village and grew up not far from here on Bleecker, so I can help.  Make a left out of the door, then another left on Bowery. The bank is one block north on Bond Street.”

As the designer seized her bag and shuffled out, I asked, “Did you enjoy your tuna?”

I opened my sketchbook, and ripped a page along its perforations. I placed it on the table in front of her.

“This looks like Jennifer, crawling, with scales and a dragon tail,” she said.

I nodded.  She smiled.

I ripped a second page, and slid it to the right of the first sketch, adjusting their fit like a puzzle.

“This must be St. George. He is on a horse, aiming a lance downward,” she added.

I took my pen and extended the lance until it crossed the seam between the two sheets, and poked the dragon.

“What is your name?” she said.

Hers was Sophia.

She took money out of her purse, paid for their meal.

Sophia is stirring. She will wake up in a few seconds, and reach for me. It is a glorious view from our bed across the Bosphorus. I asked my family about Reggie Dampel, and no one had stayed at our house by that name.

by Mark Hage

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