“Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.” Phil said.
Leslie smiled and supplied the second line of the couplet: “No hell below us; above us, only sky.”
Phil looked up. “No sky here—just a ceiling.”
Leslie laughed. “Then we’ll imagine there’s a sky. Full of stars.”
Two weeks ago, Leslie had no idea that she would be sitting in a terrace cafe in Rome. By all accounts, she should be back in Toronto, doing her job (“Good morning, Field and Turner, how may I help you? One moment, please”), and going home to the apartment that she shared with her cat, Arthur. Dinner would be something microwaved; and instead of the wine she was enjoying right now, it would be a Diet Coke. Maybe two, if she was feeling particularly adventurous.
[spoiler]But ten days ago, Phil had come into the office for an appointment with Ms. Turner, whose previous meeting was running over; and while he waited, he had struck up a conversation with Leslie, and he had (rather impetuously, she thought) asked her to accompany her to Rome, and she had (rather impetuously, she knew) said yes. And now, they were in Rome.
Why Phil—a high-powered, well-dressed businessman, of about her age—wanted to go out with her, she didn’t know. She didn’t believe there was anything special about herself, and she wondered why he hadn’t asked her to dinner or a movie first, but instead, to spend a few days in Rome with him. And he had been enough of a gentleman that he hadn’t expected anything; he had arranged for Leslie to have her own hotel room.
A couple of children ran by their table, laughing and waving some sort of lightstick. A man was selling them in the square, and the kids were having fun watching the patterns of light in the darkness.
“We used to do that with sparklers when I was a kid,” Phil mused. “You know, make shapes, and write our names, and such.”
“We did too,” Leslie agreed absently. “It was fun.”
Phil looked at her. “You’re thinking about something else,” he ventured.
It was phrased as a statement, but it was really more of a question. Leslie hesitated, then answered, “I’m wondering why I’m here.”
“I’m wondering why too,” Phil said. Seeing a look of dismay cross Leslie’s face, he quickly continued, “Oh, no. What I mean is, that day in the office, I was just having a little fun. You know, ‘I’ve gotta go to Rome on business and I’d love a companion,’ that sort of thing. I didn’t expect you to say yes.”
“But I did.”
“Yes, you did; and I thought it was only right that once I had extended the offer, and you had accepted it, that I follow through. You get a vacation, a few days in Rome; while I attend to business. And I get somebody to enjoy dinner with, and to talk with, and if I can find a little time, we can do some sightseeing.”
“You thought there was something more?”
Leslie was silent. Phil’s expression showed he realized his gaffe.
“If you like, I can arrange to have you go home tomorrow. You don’t have to stay, if you don’t want to.”
“No, I’ll stay until we leave. I’ve never been to Rome before.” Leslie stood up. “But please excuse me—I think it’s the jet lag; I’m tired, and I want to get some sleep.
“Breakfast tomorrow?” Phil asked.
Leslie managed a weak smile. “Breakfast tomorrow,” she agreed.
Back in her room, Leslie fought back the tears, but finally gave up and gave way to sobs. It was all a joke! Something to brighten the day. True, Phil had been enough of a gentleman to follow through when many wouldn’t, but it was still another in a long series of disappointments. High school dances, college parties, singles bars; most evenings had ended with Leslie being tolerated at best, and ignored at worst. Some incidents had been downright cruel, such as the frat party at college where, it was revealed, the fratboy who brought the most unattractive girl won a prize of some sort. It was small comfort that the boy who had invited Leslie didn’t win the prize, but it was cruel nonetheless.
And now this. “Well,” Leslie thought to herself, “if Phil is giving me a vacation, then a vacation I shall have.” She reached for the tourist guide that the hotel thoughtfully provided in the guest rooms.
The next day, Leslie had composed herself enough to meet Phil for breakfast. They made polite small talk—the weather, the attractions of Rome, and so on. Leslie planned on taking a bus tour of Rome while Phil was at the office; and maybe tomorrow, she would go to see the art in the Vatican. They would meet for dinner, and perhaps a drink; and the day after tomorrow, it was back home.
After her vacation, Leslie never planned on ever having anything to do with Phil again, but that proved to be difficult. He did business with her employer, and would telephone for appointments, always saying hello to Leslie; and worse, would show up for them, again, saying hello to Leslie, and sometimes conversing while waiting until Ms. Turner could see him. Initially, she greeted him coldly, and rebuffed his attempts at conversation with one-word answers, but he persisted and Leslie learned a few things about him.
He was divorced. His marriage had been brief, lasting only a couple of years, before he and his ex decided that no matter how much it had seemed otherwise one weekend in Las Vegas, they weren’t really meant for each other. It was just as well they had never had any children. His business kept him busy, but when he could, he liked to work in his garden. It wasn’t always easy, with the amount of business travel he did, but somehow he managed to grow roses he could be proud of. And had a dog, Dudley, who loved to go for walks and to romp and play with other dogs in the local off-leash park.
That revelation struck a chord with Leslie. How many lonely evenings had she spent playing with Arthur, throwing a toy mouse for him to run after, or watching as he batted at the string she dangled in front of him? Arthur kept her company through many such times—was it possible that Dudley did the same for Phil? He never mentioned anything where he might be in the company of a lady—no dinners or shows or social events; outside of his business, there was only talk of gardening and Dudley.
Perhaps because there was no talk of Phil’s social life, Leslie eventually found herself conversing with Phil too. He learned about Arthur, and her fondness for Diet Coke; and how she enjoyed growing geraniums on her apartment balcony. She had never been married, and liked her job, but wished she had a better-paying one. “I answer all the calls, but they’re never for me,” she laughed one day.
And so, one day, the phone rang. “Good morning, Field and Turner, how may I help you?”
“Good morning, Leslie; it’s Phil.”
“Phil! Yes, I’ll put you through to Ms. Turner right away.”
“No, I want to talk to you.”
Leslie paused. “Me?”
“Yes. Well, you always say that you answer the calls, but they’re never for you. So, this one’s for you. I’d like to know if you’re free for dinner tomorrow.”
“How about Angelo’s after work? We’ll have a cocktail in the bar, then some dinner.”
“Nice Italian place. You like Italian?” Leslie heard Phil chuckling. “Silly question—of course you do; you’ve been to Rome. I’ll be by to pick you up at five. See you then!” And the call clicked off as Phil hung up.
Stunned, Leslie just sat there looking at her switchboard.
Phil was as good as his word—he came by at five the next day, which didn’t surprise Leslie. After all, he had already made good on his word to take her to Rome, even though it was a joke. She hoped this also wasn’t a joke, and just in case it wasn’t, she had done her best to look nice for Phil. But if it was, she made sure that she had the number of a cab company plugged into her cellphone, and cab fare.
But things seemed to be going well, and they had made polite small talk in Phil’s car on the way to Angelo’s. He spoke about how Dudley had enjoyed playing in the snow on the weekend; and she mentioned the trouble Arthur had got into when he became a little too curious about the tuna-fish sandwich she made one day. The two were laughing about their respective pets when they entered Angelo’s.
Soon, they were seated in the bar, and had ordered cocktails. When the waiter came with the drinks, he had a rose, which he gave to Leslie. “Every lady gets a rose at Angelo’s on Valentine’s Day,” he explained.
Phil smiled. “I would have given you one of my own, but they just don’t grow in my garden in winter.”
Leslie looked at the rose. She had forgotten this was Valentine’s Day. And here she was, with a man who had asked her out—for Valentine’s Day. While she was pleased to have been asked out on such a day, she was also a little confused. Was this going to be another joke?
Phil leaned forward. “Leslie, just in case you’re wondering, I really did want to go out with you tonight.”
He continued. “Rome was hasty. Rome was a bad experience. I played a joke and it backfired on me, and it upset you. To be honest, I didn’t feel good about it. I still don’t.”
Leslie looked at Phil, who cleared his throat and went on.
“Um … yes. But I’ve been hoping you can look past that. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about our conversations in the lobby is that you are just so wonderfully ordinary, and I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.”
Now, Leslie was totally confused, and her face showed it. Phil understood.
“Leslie, as you know, I move in some high-powered business circles. I wheel, I deal, I talk with bigwigs, and I make money for people. But while you see a well-dressed and confident businessman, what you may not see is the ordinary man. Who likes nothing more than to play with his dog, and grow roses; and—“ Phil cleared his throat again “—who really isn’t the person that you see. And who has been lonely for some years.”
Leslie remained silent. This was a side of Phil she didn’t know.
“In you, I see somebody I’d like to know better. I want to meet Arthur some day; I’d like to show you my roses. I’d like to see your geraniums, I’d like to—oh, I don’t know; order pizza and watch an old movie with you some night. I’d like you to come with Dudley and me to the park. I’d like to get to know you, and for you to get to know me.”
Phil now looked lost, and out of his depth, but he went on. “I guess what I’m saying is, that Rome was a mistake, and I apologize. Leslie, can we start again, please?” He paused. “Imagine that Rome never happened—“
“Imagine there’s no heaven,” Leslie interrupted. “It’s easy if you try.”
Phil picked up the reference. “No hell below us; above us, only sky.”
Leslie looked up. “But there’s a ceiling above us.”
“We’ll imagine it’s full of stars.”
Leslie smiled as she reached for Phil’s hand. “Starting over? I think we can manage that,” she said, as she gave it a squeeze.