Behind the pen counter at Selfridges Department store in London, I had two and half square feet to call my own. In front of me a glass display case gleamed with pens that sparkled like jewels. Across from me the wig counter tempted more than one associate to take respite from boredom and prance around the aisles with long red curls or a sleek black up-do when a supervisor wasn’t looking. I stood dutifully waiting for customers to come or the hours to pass.
My co-workers had exotic European names like Phillipa and Sophia and were beautiful and well dressed. Each one had a better eye for fashion than I did, and I studied their dress and mannerisms, trying to emulate them in defiance of my midwestern heritage.
One Wednesday morning, I wore a pink dress which I had made in desperation from the cheapest fabric available. My craftsmanship was terrible but I loved the soft, flesh toned color and the way that shade looked against my pale skin. I dressed it up with a watery green scarf which my friend had brought back from Greece and a suede belt I borrowed from a roommate. I was 22 years old and wanted to see what the world looked like beyond the borders of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Somehow I stumbled my way into a work permit and a job selling pens in a place and with people who became more foreign the longer I stayed.
The job was dull and not as fun as scooping ice cream at Harrods department store, which I had done when I first arrived in the UK, but it paid the bills and promised more of a future than the ice cream shop could offer. Mostly, it enabled me to breath European air, something I had longed to do all my life.
Standing in one place all day, being able to take only a singe step to the right or left, challenged my active nature and I spent the hours between customers composing letters I would write when I got off work or straining to remember bits of poetry I had memorized over the years. In the midst of this mental reverie that Wednesday, I met a man from Brazil.
“Hello,” he said with a smile that shot through me. Two olive toned hands leaned on the glass. “I need to buy a pen as a business gift, something appropriate for around $50.”
He had to be at least 35 years old, maybe even older, and his confidence and elegance were palpable. His English was perfect, with just enough of an accent to draw me in. His striped tan shirt and navy blue pants looked casual but expensive, a demonstration of exquisite taste that made me aware of my homemade dress and borrowed accessories.
I remembered my training and directed him to a burgundy pen about 20% higher than the price he suggested. My fingers brushed his as I handed him the $62 pen.
“What is your name?” he asked me.
“Nancy,” I said
“How do you spell it?” All my life, I had been one of many Nancies, my name a reinforcement of how ordinary I was. Here was a guy who couldn’t spell it, who pronounced it in a way that made my name sound uncommon.
I wrote my name with his pen and watched as he wrote it again on the same test paper, watching his hand feel the weight of the pen, the way it fit against his fingers.
“I’m not sure about this one.”
I handed him another, watched him write “Nancy” over and over again. He told me his name was Luciano, and when he said it, it sounded like music. “Nancy, where are you from,” he wrote next. I told him. “Nancy, what do you do when you are not selling pens,” he wrote. In this way, we conversed. I knew I was dancing on the line between professionalism and flirtation, and the daring of it thrilled me. He was way too old for me, and the fact that he was buying a pen at a department store put him outside my social class.
“Nancy, will you have dinner with me tonight?” he wrote, then turned the paper for me to read.
Pretending to myself and the world that propositions like that one occurred every day at the pen counter, I heard myself say that I would love to have dinner with this stranger. He handed me a charge card for the pen and a business card with the name and address of an Italian restaurant near Trafalgar Square. He said he would be waiting for me there at 8 o’clock.
I rode the #59 bus to my shared flat in West Hampstead wondering what to wear, if I had time to redo my hair and if I should do this or not, although I knew I was going to go. It felt dangerous, the kind of encounter they warn American girls about before we travel abroad, but the tide had carried me this far and I put those thoughts aside.
At 7:30, I splurged on a taxi, a traditional British black cab like the PT cruisers we have here at home. London blurred by my windows as we passed neighborhoods, some familiar by now but others still exquisitely foreign and fascinating. I wore a simple black dress with a delicate silver chain and electric blue stilettos. The air felt cool but since I didn’t have an appropriate jacket, I ignored the temperature and focused instead on what the evening might hold. I wondered if Luciano would even show up, if I would even recognize him if he had changed out of his striped shirt and blue pants.
Tentatively I walked into Mario’s Italian restaurant shortly after 8, a tiny place with meat and cheese hanging against the walls, the smell of tomatoes and spices heavy in the air. Feeling at once hesitant and brazen, my eyes scanned the crowd and landed on his where he was seated at the bar, waiting for me. He stood when I walked over and kissed me on both cheeks, then guided me to a small table. For a second, I flashed back to the the only restaurant in my home town, a diner which included homemade cinnamon rolls with every meal, a place where the waitress is mopping the floor by 8 o'clock at night.
Luciano said he knew just what to order if that was all right with me, and I listened to him describe to the waiter in Italian what we would be eating and drinking. A bottle of wine arrived seconds later.
I learned that he was the publisher of several art magazines and traveled to far away places to look at art and discuss it with important people. He lived full time in Sao Paulo but kept places in London and Rome where he spent a lot of time.
I had stars in my eyes by the time the first course came, visualizing myself in Paris at exclusive art galleries, voicing my opinions and sampling fine wines. Luciano was attentive and funny, self effacing and rich, the perfect date.
When the check came, he reached for his pocket and took out the $78 pen I had sold him earlier that day. I looked at it closely. Part of his key chain was stuck in the clip, and it dangled there for a minute before he tucked it carefully back into his pocket. The image of that key chain stuck in my head as he paid and we got ready to leave.
We were nearly to the door when I realized that it wasn’t the ring of a key chain on the clip of that overpriced pen. It was a wedding ring; I had been dallying with a married man. Stepping outside, our eyes met, and he knew that I knew.
“I had a wonderful evening,” I said to that charming stranger. In Brazilian fashion I kissed him on both cheeks. A taxi sailed passed, and my arm sprang upward. Splurging on the fare once more, I climbed inside and gave the driver my address, gazed out the window and indulged in thoughts of what might have been. Then as my neighborhood drew nearer, I remembered my midwestern heritage once more and turned my thoughts sensibly to what I would wear in the morning.
An abbreviated version of this story originally appreared in Literary Mama.