a surprise guest at dinner.

by s.m.

She went to dinner with her brother and his tiresome wife anyway.  It wasn’t that she disliked her sister-in-law, Giulietta, she just preferred not to listen to her talk.  And she had been close to Ricci, as a child, especially after her father died.  Ricci had stepped in and taken care of her, more like a father figure than a brother.  She was closer in temperament to her brother Michele; closer in age, too, but Ricci had always been protective and kind, if not entirely understanding.

They had planned to meet at a Japanese restaurant near her, in Brera.  Giulietta was notoriously late so Francesca gave Ricci’s name to the maitre-d and expected to have to wait with drink at the bar.

“It should be three, under Ricardo Ghiberti,” she said to the host.

“Four,” the host answered, “and one guest has already arrived.  Would you like to be seated with him?”

Francesca scanned the dining room, confused.  Michele was out of town, and didn’t get along with Giulietta anyway.  They only all had dinner together once a year, at Christmas.  She nodded, and the maitre-d led her to a table in a far corner.

Fully engrossed in his blackberry, Bruno sat facing out to the dining room.  Francesca saw him and froze for a moment.  Damn Ricci and damn Bruno.  As if this dinner wasn’t going to be awkward enough.  By that point, Bruno had seen her walking with the host and was smiling; he was standing up from his chair to allow her to be seated.  Francesca did have that to recommend him: his manners  were impeccable.

“Ciao, Francesca,” Bruno said, embracing her familiarly.

“Ciao, Bruno.  What a surprise,” Francesca replied.

“I was surprised myself,” he said.  “I had just mentioned to your brother that I’d seen you last week, and he told me you had plans for dinner and invited me along.”  He paused.  “You did say that we could have dinner sometime.”

Francesca nodded. Bruno looked good–no longer a businessman on holiday, he wore a finely-tailored suit and tortoiseshell reading glasses.  He looked like he belonged.  “I received your flowers,” she said.  “Thank you.  You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s nothing,” Bruno said.  “I feel so badly.  How much longer do you have to wear that?” he asked, gesturing to her air-cast.

“The doctor says four more weeks,” she answered.  “I’m getting used to it.”  She looked around for her brother and his wife.  “Have you heard from Ricci?” she asked Bruno.

He pulled out his blackberry.  “He told me he was running late,” he said, scrolling through his messages.  “That was about twenty minutes ago.”

“He’s always late,” Francesca grumbled.  Bruno ordered a bottle of wine and they were well into their first glass when Ricci and Giulietta finally arrived.  Her sister-in-law was wearing thigh-high Jimmy Choo stiletto boots and trailing Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino scent.  Her brother seemed more distracted than usual, and Francesca felt like it almost wasn’t fair to ask him why he thought it was a good idea to invite Bruno to dinner.

“So after fifteen years,” Bruno began, “suddenly Francesca and I have seen each other twice in a week.”

“Oh, yes,” Francesca answered unconvincingly.  “I’m sure you heard about our accident in Capri.”  A pained look crossed Bruno’s face and immediately she felt horrible for having mentioned it like that.  “I hope you enjoyed the rest of your vacation,” she added quickly, trying to ameliorate her temper.

“It was fine,” Bruno said.  Ricci and Giulietta said nothing and kept looking back and forth from Bruno to Francesca, like they were watching a tennis match.  “We had lovely weather,” he added.

Francesca drank the remaining wine in her glass and Bruno signalled for the waiter to refill it.  Ricci told the waiter they’d do the omakase then began talking with Bruno about some sort of derivatives; Giulietta asked her opinion on whether bell-bottom jeans would actually be making a comeback in the spring like all the magazines said they would.  Francesca took another long swig from her glass of wine.

She should have stayed home.  She should have just stayed home and watched MTV.  But when Bruno and Ricci started talking about football, her ears perked up.  Bruno was a Lazio fan and Ricci’s team was Inter, both strong this year but neither as strong as Juventus.  Bruno said his bank had box seats for Lazio and Ricci should come for a game some time when he was in Rome.  Giulietta saw she had lost Francesca’s attention and tuned into the men’s conversation to see what she had been missing.

“Don’t tell me you follow football,” she pressed Francesca.

“I don’t, really,” Francesca said, shaking her head.  “I shot a spread at a stadium last month.”  That was safe–it was going to be obvious when the magazine came out.

“I don’t know a thing about the game,” Giulietta continued, “but I could watch those players all day long.”

Francesca laughed, almost so loudly that she worried she’d give herself away.  “I’ll have to take a good look,” she replied.

“They’re all over the magazines,” her sister-in-law said, “with their girlfriends in Ibiza or Mykonos or Miami.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” Francesca smiled.

“Francesca hangs out with models all the time,” Bruno joked.  “Footballers’ girlfriends won’t impress her.”

Giulietta looked puzzled.  Ricci just looked tired.

“We went to a party the magazine threw in Capri,” Francesca explained.  “Bruno got to meet some of the models.”

“You never take me to parties with models,” Giulietta pouted.

“I think she felt sorry for me,” Bruno quipped.  “I made it sound like I never had any fun.”

“I suppose global economic collapse just isn’t what it used to be.”  Ricci hadn’t spoken much all evening and when he did, it was like a tray of dishes dropping in the distance: they all stopped and stared at him.  Of course that’s why he had been so distant and distracted.

“He didn’t mean it like that,” Francesca said quietly, cutting the silence.

“I’m sure it’s easy for you to say, with your Prada this and Gucci that, all anorexic smiling girls and photos of shoes on yachts in Capri–”

“What I do promotes the Italian economy,” Francesca said, keeping her voice calm and measured.  She had never seen her brother so upset.  “You know that.  These brands are made in Italy.  It is an actual industry.”

“What are you going to do when your precious brands can’t get anyone to secure their loans?  When lenders call in their revolving lines of credit?”

“Ricci, relax,” Bruno said cautiously.  “I’m taking it as seriously as you are.  I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“What I don’t know is what’s going to happen when this–” Ricci gestured around them at the restaurant, its chic patrons, its dark teak and sushi chefs, “–all this, is gone.”

Giulietta began sniffling and crying quietly.

“Oh, shut up,” Ricci said to her.