The older man who got in the elevator with me wore blue jeans and an elegant suede jacket. He carried three chilled champagne bottles. When we reached the top floor, I realized he occupied the apartment opposite mine. Before I could turn the key, he spoke up, “Could you help me?”
“I am ninety,” he added, “I am not sure I could open these easily.” He indicated the bottles with a glance.
I followed him in to his apartment, asked for a small towel and opened the first bottle.
“You have helped me open this bottle. You might as well help me drink it too.” He smiled and got two glasses from the kitchen. Those weren’t champagne flutes, but we didn’t care.
“It is my wife’s birthday. I had to celebrate,” he explained as he poured the champagne.
“She isn’t here, is she?” I asked, for the place seemed bare of any sign of a female presence.
“No, she is in Milan, visiting her sister who is ill. She will be back for Christmas.”
We kept drinking and chatting, occasionally talking about ordering some food but doing nothing about it. The first flakes of a light snow drifted by the large French windows, as Stan, my host, kept pouring.
When he came to three days later, he saw a pair of gray-green eyes in a gentle freckled face, framed in the dark cascade of long hair, urging him to sip from a bowl of soup. He thought he had never seen a more angelic face. When the farmer’s daughter realized that he could not drink the soup on his own, she started ladling spoonfuls to his lips. Stan soon realized that, since the cottage had only three small rooms – a living and dining room and a bedroom each for the couple and their daughter – he had in effect dislodged the daughter from her room. More, as the couple had to work the fields, the daughter was his sole caregiver. The fact that she did not speak a word of English and Stan had the benefit only of an Italian phrasebook, their conversation consisted of many repetitions, some playacting and a large amount of confusion and laughter. The more she laughed, the more angelic she seemed to Stan.
It was a week before Stan could get up, shower and dress himself. By the time he reached his intended camp, the tide of the war had changed and he was ordered to move to another camp in short order. On his way out he again went to the farmer’s cottage, thanked them with the help of his phrasebook and offered them the envelope of cash he had taken out at the camp. They refused to accept the money.
Six months later, after he had received a further order to return to the US, he turned up again at the farmer’s cottage, this time without an envelope of cash but with a strange proposal. He wanted the hand of their daughter.
He told the parents they had to trust him, for it would take some time before the authorities would allow his betrothed to join him in the US and it would take several months after that before the parents could come to see their daughter.
It took eight months for the War Department to deliver the farmer’s daughter to an Air Force hangar near New York, where Stan waited eagerly with a box of chocolates and his phrasebook. He had taken lessons meanwhile, but the moment he saw her come down from the military plane, his legs got wobbly and his words got jumbled. Hearing what he said, she laughed, doubtless from confusion. But Stan thought she looked more angelic than ever.