Excerpt #4 from my book. Marissa attends Michael's company Christmas party.
|The day before Michael’s Christmas party I got a tearful phone call from Bridgette. She had broken up with the man she had been seeing. She was quite upset and we talked for over an hour. Through her sniffles she told me she was examining her life and her choices. I mostly listened and tried to be supportive. I encouraged her again to come to church with me and to pray; I didn’t know if she would. She was talking about getting her hair cut and going on a cruise over the Christmas season, and I encouraged her to wait and think about it and not make any rash choices. She apologized about not being able to come to the party with me. I was disappointed; I didn’t want to go alone. I assured her I would be fine and that I would call her on Sunday and give her all the details. After our phone call I spent time praying for her while I took a long soak in my bathtub. I also prayed for myself and for all the single or widowed people I knew. There were a few men and women in the Bible study I attended who were in their late 30’s or 40’s like myself who were single. I prayed for all of us, that we would be blessed and encouraged in our search to find the person that God had prepared for us.
Bridgette and I had been planning on dressing together and doing each other’s hair. I managed to get in a last minute appointment with my hair dresser, so my thick brown hair was washed and wavy, with a crown of French braid around my head. I slipped on the dress Bridgette had brought back from her last trip to New York and looked in the mirror. Wow – even if I did say so myself – I looked great in this dress. I had lost weight since the accident, but more than that I was more toned all over from all the exercising and weight lifting I had been doing. I still needed to lose another 20 pounds or so to be within the acceptable weight of someone 5’7”, but I did look nice in this dress. I put on the earrings Bridgette had given me that matched the dress, thinking about her. I selected a bracelet from my collection but didn’t wear any other jewelry. The dress and the earrings were going to shine tonight.
I took a Lyft over to Michael’s office building. It was just after 7:00pm. The front of the building already had a queue of cars with people getting out. There were two Christmas trees in the lobby and a large (real) wreath on the reception desk. I took the elevator to the top floor along with 3 other couples. The elevator doors opened to a glittering, open space. There was a wall of windows in front of us, dark except for the twinkling lights of the city we could see. A band was playing softly off to the left on a raised stage that had two large Christmas trees on it. In front of us were scattered high tables, and wait staff circled with platters of food and drink. All the ladies were sparkly and shimmery, and the men were all handsome in their tuxedoes. Michael sure knows how to treat his employees. There was a coat station off to the left, and then I picked up a small plate and some shrimp puffs from a passing waitress. I circled around, and saw the young man who had driven me home after my fateful interview with the Feds. I saw Michael over by the windows, near the stage. It looked like he was greeting people – he was smiling and shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Oh, my. I turned away so I didn’t stare. He was wearing a tuxedo that of course fit him perfectly. His black hair was thick and wavy and he moved with ease and grace. Wow. I was of the opinion that all men looked good in a tux, but Michael seemed to bring that to a whole new level. I moved around so there were a few large groups between me and the end of the room where he was. The center of the room was filled with tables with linen tablecloths. Tall centerpieces were at each table. I couldn’t see what they were but they had flowers and candles, and their sparkle added to the festive air of the whole floor. A photographer moved around, taking pictures.
While I sipped champagne and nibbled on bacon-wrapped scallops I watched Michael. He threw his head back and laughed at something the woman he was holding the hand of said, and it made my stomach flutter. Get a grip, Marissa! He’s way too young for you, AND he has a girlfriend! Well, there was nothing wrong in looking, as long as I didn’t drool. I spotted Mrs. Thompson, Michael’s secretary, and went over to say hello. She introduced me to her husband. I glanced over again at where Michael was and for the first time noticed a tall man standing behind him on his right side. Well, if it wasn’t Mr. Romano, looking all lawyerly and distinguished in his tuxedo. I still felt a bit of resentment about the way he had treated me, but it was hard to hold onto that feeling in this setting. I chatted with Mrs. Thompson and her husband while I finished my champagne. I asked for plain water from the next waiter, and he brought it for me along with another person holding a tray of crackers and caviar. Mrs. Thompson was telling me about this annual tradition Michael had. Apparently they had to rent a space for a number of years, but since moving into this building 7 years ago they held all their gatherings in this top floor space. I thought I had myself under control enough so I excused myself and wandered over towards the stage and the windows, where Michael was standing. The couple he had been talking to left and then he glanced up and our eyes met. A slow smile spread across his face and he stepped toward me, holding out his hands. I couldn’t help but smile back at him. He quite dazzled me in that tux – I hoped I’d be able to keep control of my tongue.
“Marissa!” I felt him kissing each cheek and tried not to lean into it. His cheeks were warm and smooth against mine and his lips left little burn marks on my skin. “You look beautiful! That dress is so perfect on you!” He stood there smiling, looking me up and down, holding onto both my hands. From anyone else it may have seemed inappropriate, but Michael was so clearly admiring me that I couldn’t object. “I love your hair like that.”
I blushed. “Thank you, Michael. You look very dashing and handsome in that tux.” It was my turn to send admiring glances down and up. He had kept hold of both my hands, and I didn’t object. We smiled at each other while the band played “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. “What a beautiful, generous party you’re throwing here, Michael.”
“Oh,” he shrugged. “I just like to treat my people well. You know, they work hard all year.” He gestured behind him. “Marissa, you remember this gentleman, don’t you?”
I looked up to see a smiling Mr. Romano. He offered his right hand and with reluctance I let go of Michael’s hands to shake his. “I do indeed remember Mr. Romano. Merry Christmas, Mr. Romano.”
“Thank you, Ms. Morgan. The same to you. I’m glad you could join us this year.”
“Yes, Michael is very generous to his friends. I was just telling Michael that he was throwing a great party. I work for an insurance company, and we just have a catered lunch in the lunch room each year. Nothing like this,” I waved my hand around to encompass the space. Both men laughed.
“Marissa, I thought you were bringing Bridgette?” Michael asked, looking around for her.
“Bridgette had to cancel at the last minute. She just broke up with someone and is pretty upset about the whole thing.”
Michael frowned, looking down. Before I could puzzle out his reaction, he looked back up at me. My knees got weak, looking into those soft brown eyes. “I’m sorry to hear that. Why don’t you sit at my table, then. I had a last-minute cancelation myself.”
I opened my mouth to protest, or argue, or something, but Michael had turned away to greet a group of people who had come up behind me. Mr. Romano smiled down at me.
“The seating chart is over by the coat check, where you came in.” Then he, too, was turning away.
I wandered back over to that side of the room. I smiled and nodded to people without seeing anyone else I knew. I found the table I was now going to be sitting at and shortly afterwards the band leader announced dinner and everyone moved to the tables. I needed to duck into the ladies room quickly so by the time I got to the table everyone had been seated. I took the empty seat across from Michael, next to Mr. Romano. The men got up when I came to the table, to my embarrassment. I wasn’t used to being treated this way. Then again, I was rarely in a room where every woman was dressed to the nines and every man was wearing a tuxedo. Michael and Mr. Romano and I were by ourselves; the rest of the table had couples. There was a lady on my right who introduced herself as Mrs. Smith. Her husband was a cement contractor and they had known Michael for a long time. I wondered if I was sitting in the chair that Tiffany should have been sitting in.
There was a menu on my plate under my cloth napkin folded in the shape of a fan. We were having potato soup followed by your choice of fresh grilled salmon on jasmine rice with asparagus, or an arugula salad. That was followed by a cheese and fruit plate, and for dessert we had chocolate mousse and Piroulines. I declined the wine, sticking with water and iced tea. The wait staff were attentive, quick, and quiet. Mrs. Smith and I exchanged get-to-know you talk, then she was engaged in conversation with her husband and the man seated next to him.
“Enjoying the party?” Mr. Romano was leaning my way. I looked up at him. He was handsome, and not just because he was in a tuxedo. He had a large nose, but on him it fit well. He had grey hair but it had once been black. He did have nice teeth.
“I am, yes.”
“I see you are being kept well supplied with something to drink and eat. We wouldn’t want you to get hangry, would we?”
I looked up at him, ready with a smart retort, but the crinkling around his eyes and his upturned mouth told me I was being teased. “Yes Mr. Romano I am well supplied by Michael’s generosity and the fabulous wait staff here.”
“Why don’t you call me Stefano?” he asked me. Our plates with the remains of the salmon we had both eaten were taken away. I saw Michael looking our way, a slight smile on his face.
“Alright. And I’m Marissa.”
“Marissa.” He said, confirming our first-name basis now. “You aren’t drinking, Marissa. Are you a friend of Bill?”
I recognized the reference to Alcoholics Anonymous. “No, I just choose to not drink very much. I want to enjoy the party, not remember it as a blur and wake up with a headache.”
“Ah. I ask because I’m a friend of Bill. I thought it might be something we have in common.”
“Oh. Well.” I scrambled. “I’m sure we can find something we have in common to talk about. Besides Michael, of course.”
As we nibbled on our selection of cheese and fruit we compared notes. Stefano actually already knew a lot about me, having checked me out when the feds were sniffing around, trying to find something to pin on Uncle Sal. He wasn’t much of a football fan, but he did like baseball and went to as many Giant and Oakland A’s games as he could. We had visited some of the same cities and museums in those cities, so that carried us through the dessert. The chocolate mouse was perfect; smooth and very rich. The crunch and sweetness of the Piroulines was a nice way to finish out the meal.
“Michael is going to get up and give a little speech now,” Stefano told me as Michael stood up. “Let’s turn our chairs around.” We were seated in the last row of tables before the stage.
Michael got up on stage and greeted everyone. We all applauded for the wait staff and the food. He said some encouraging words to his employees, and singled out a few who had gotten contracts or sold high-priced properties. From his words I concluded his company had had a very good year and while he was praising and crediting all his employees, I knew that he also worked very hard and put in just as many hours as they did.
“And now for a special treat before we open it up for dancing. We have with us tonight the Bay Area’s very own Dickens Singers! Let’s welcome them!”
Everyone clapped, and the singers made their way along the windows from somewhere in the back, up to the stage. They all looked marvelous in this setting, with their Dickens clothing that I knew to be as authentic as they could made it. They would get hot up on the stage singing but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. The wait staff had brought up several wooden benches that the singers arranged themselves on, with a row of them standing in front.
I heard a deep voice in my ear. “Michael tells me one of them is your sister? Which one?”
I leaned back towards Stefano’s ear. “She’s on the left. In the dark green dress with the flowers on her bonnet.” He nodded.
The group sang four songs and were applauded loudly after each one. There were shouts of “Encore!” after the last song, so with bows and smiles they performed one more song. I didn’t get to see Margaret perform very often, especially when she was with her Dickens group. It was a lovely treat for me to be in that setting and enjoy watching and listening. She must have seen me, because as they made their way off the stage again she gave me a little smile and wave, and I waved back.
The band came back on stage and started up. Everyone got up from their tables and the noise level rose. Michael came up to me and had to lean over to be heard.
“I enjoyed that Dickens group very much! Did you like the dinner?”
We had to take turns speaking loudly while leaning towards each other’s ears. “Yes! It was delicious! I rarely get to see Margaret perform with the Dicken’s group so that was quite the treat for me.”
“I’m glad you liked it! I’m going to come find you for a dance later, so don’t go away.” And then he was off.
Oh, my. Dancing with Michael! When was the last time I had danced? I couldn’t remember. I hoped I remembered how. Everyone had moved to the outside edge of the room while the wait staff moved several rows of tables out of the way. Stefano found me and asked me to dance as the dance floor was clearing up. He was a really good dancer, and I relaxed as we moved around the floor. We didn’t talk, for which I was glad. I was concentrating on following his lead, not stepping on his toes, and moving to the music. After Stefano I danced with the young man who had taken me home that day from this very office building. It was his first time at Michael’s Christmas party and his first time wearing a tuxedo. After that I got some water, then Mrs. Thompson’s husband danced with me, followed by Stefano again. I sat out a few more dances and then got asked by someone who introduced himself as George. We started to dance and he was telling me about himself. It was a bit hard to hear over the music and noise but I think he told me he owned a tile and plumbing business in Daly City and had done business with Michael for a long time. We stopped when someone tapped him on his shoulder.
“George – may I cut in?” Michael was standing there, smiling at me. George held his hand out towards me and walked away. Just then the song ended and a slow, romantic song started. Michael held my right hand with his left and slid his right arm around my waist. He pulled me gently toward him and put his cheek on my hair. With the heels I had on my chin came to the top of his shoulder, rather than my forehead.
Wow. I hoped he couldn’t detect my trembling. I hadn’t danced like this with anyone since I was married, in my 20’s. It was really hard to remember Michael had a girlfriend and he was so much younger than I when he smelled so good and was holding me while we gently swayed to the music. This was so romantic! Had I ever done anything this romantic before? I couldn’t think; all I could do was enjoy dancing with Michael, who was of course a terrific dancer. When the song ended – all too soon – he escorted me back to the edge of the dance floor. My sister was there – out of her Dickens clothes and wearing a long black dress that flattered her.
“Thank you for the dance, Marissa. Hello Margaret.” Michael kissed Margaret once on the cheek and then he was lost in the crowd.
“My, my Sissy,” Margaret said in my ear. “You two looked like quite the couple out there.”
“Oh, Michael danced with a lot of people, Margaret.” I looked her over. “You look beautiful, Margaret. I love those earrings with that dress. And oh – you guys were terrific! I love seeing you perform!” I reached over and gave her a hug. When we parted I found Stefano at my elbow.
“Is this your sister, Marissa?”
“Yes – this is Margaret. Margaret Mazetti, please meet Stefano Romano, Michael’s attorney.”
Stefano took Margaret’s hand, but he didn’t shake it, he just held it. My sister looked dazzled. “Lovely to meet you. Would you like to dance?” and they were off on the dance floor. Margaret had let her hair down, and because it had been pinned up under her hat it now fell in waves to her shoulders. With her ears and wrists glittering from her jewelry and her dress swaying around her ankles, she did look very lovely.
I had to wait two more dances before I could get a word in with Margaret again. Stefano had left to go get them drinks. I didn’t know what might be happening with the two of them, but I was bushed and ready to go home. I said as much to Margaret when Michael came up and asked me to dance. Tired? Who was tired? Not me! Stefano came back and placed their glasses on a nearby table, pulling Margaret out on the dance floor. The band was playing “Moondance”, one of my favorite songs. Stefano and Margaret whirled and twirled, along with several other couples. Michael and I swayed to the music, holding each other as we had with the first song we had danced to. I was glad there was just music and no singer, as I recalled some of the lyrics to the song were pretty romantic and I would have felt self-conscious dancing to that with Michael. At one point Stefano and Margaret whirled by us, Stefano spinning Margaret out away from him, and then pulling her back with a spin to him and holding her close before moving off again. Michael looked down at me and we both smiled. After the dance he walked me to the edge of the dance floor as before, and Stefano and Margaret joined us, a little out of breath.
“This has been a marvelous evening and I’ve enjoyed myself, but I’m ready to go home.”
Margaret gave me a quick hug and told me she would call me the next day. Stefano leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek, to my surprise. He had on a spicy after shave I could still detect and his cheek was smooth. Michael said he would walk me to the elevators.
As we waited for the lady at the coat check to get my coat and purse, Michael said, “I was glad you were recovered enough to dance on that leg.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, sticking my left leg out a bit. “The only time it bothers me now is when I walk too far or stand too long on it.”
He helped me into my coat and then waited with me for the elevator to arrive. Several other people were also leaving and they all thanked Michael for the party. I stepped in and turned, and he was smiling and waving as the doors closed. Wow. What a night!