“The thing you need to remember is that men are far more easily seduced from the neck up than from the waist down.” She set the oven to preheat, then reached into the cabinet above it for the sugar canister. As she walked across the kitchen to the refrigerator, she glanced over at me to make sure that I was listening.
I nodded so that she would know I was paying attention, and then turned back to the bookcase I was dusting, working slowly so that she would keep talking. The bookcase was the last thing left to dust in the last room that needed dusting, and I didn’t want to leave yet.
“The first meal you cook for a man is crucial. You do cook, don’t you?”
“Well… sort of. I mean, I can follow a recipe, but I don’t usually…”
She sighed as she gently set a carton of eggs down on the counter and took a mixing bowl out of one of the lower cabinets. “That’s what I was afraid of. Well, at least the beginning is clear. Learn to cook, Lisa. Mark my words, it will serve you far better than you think.”
“What does cooking have to do with sex?”
“And what does sex have to do with seduction? When was the last time you wanted to have sex with a man and he said no?”
“That doesn’t usually happen,” I said with a small measure of pride that I didn’t try very hard to conceal.
“You’re a pretty girl, that doesn’t surprise me. But now answer me this. When was the last time you had sex with a man and asked him to come back again, and he didn’t?”
She asked it gently, but it still hurt. I didn’t answer.
“Hurry up with that bookcase and come sit down so that I don’t have to shout at you. You can stay for another hour, then I have to start getting ready. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
I nodded again, still stinging from the question I hadn’t needed to answer. As I finished dusting the bookcase, I thought about what she had asked, and more curiously, why she had asked it. Men stuck around or they didn’t, that’s just how it was. And the best way to keep them around was to not sleep with them, everybody knew that. I knew that, all my friends knew that, everybody knew that. I didn’t want to think about what miserable failures all my friends and I were at putting this particular truth into action, based on nothing more than our constantly renewing hope that this time with this guy would be different.
It never was. But whatever we were doing wrong, Silvana was apparently doing right.
I had been cleaning for her for two years. She wasn’t usually home when I was there, but she had been often enough that I had picked up a few things about her. We had perfectly friendly conversations, she didn’t address me like someone she was paying to be there, and if she didn’t make a habit of pouring out the deepest secrets of her soul to her cleaning woman, she certainly never seemed to have anything to hide, either.
She was 53 years old, attractive but not beautiful. She seemed reasonably intelligent, if I had to guess I would put her IQ at above average but far from genius range. Her home was comfortable but not extravagant, her voice was interesting but not compelling, she was an endless list of this but not that, nothing extraordinary that would make her stand out in any crowd of women.
And she had two gorgeous successful men, one of them ten years her junior, who were absolutely devoted to her and had been for years.
The previous weekend, I had been dumped by yet another of the guys that I had hoped would be different. I don’t even remember exactly how we got to talking about it, Silvana has this way of picking up on moods and asking things without actually asking them, but there I was, telling her what had happened as I was dusting her living room, telling her how hurt and pissed off and frustrated I was, and before I could stop myself, I was asking her, “How do you do it?”
I had thought that she might be offended, but she had just smiled, the smile of a woman who knows she has nothing to fear from sharing her secrets. And now here I was, sitting at her kitchen table, drinking a cup of the best coffee I’d ever tasted and listening to her talk about cooking.
“To most men, comfort is far more important than romance. In their minds, ‘romance’ is that thing they’re expected to come up with on Valentine’s Day. Romance equals pressure. Men don’t like pressure. They like to be able to relax. Give them a place where they can do that, and they will return to that place, without fail. Become that place, Lisa.”
“So, feed them, is that what you’re saying? That’s why you said learn to cook?”
“Feeding them is a good start, yes. But even then, it’s about what and how you feed them.”
This was starting to sound really complicated. But I guess if it was easy, I wouldn’t have had to ask in the first place. “What and how. Okay, I’m listening.”
“Take, for example, meatloaf.”
“And that, my girl, is the very attitude that has kept you where you don’t want to be for as long as you’ve been there.”
“Okay, sorry. It’s just that, well, meatloaf doesn’t seem very…”
“And that’s the beauty of it. What you serve, and how you serve it, communicates to a man what your expectations are. A five-course meal served by candlelight says something before you’ve even lifted your fork. It says to a man, ‘this is a romantic evening, don’t spoil it.’ That’s not to say that such meals don’t have their place, they do, but not early on in a courtship. And that is the mistake that most women make, thinking that sort of thing is how to begin. That belongs in the middle, when you’re familiar with one another and he knows that this is the exception to the rule, not something he has to live up to every day. But at the beginning, you are, with the best of intentions, creating an expectation that will most likely only frighten a man off. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“Now, the meatloaf is another story entirely. A well-executed meatloaf, served in a well-lit kitchen, by a woman who is perfectly comfortable serving it, tells a man that he can relax. And that is what he wants to hear. He’s hearing it on a level he himself may not fully understand, but he is hearing it. And once it’s heard, the rest will follow.”
She gave me a few minutes to absorb all of that while she finished mixing something, poured it into a glass baking dish and carefully set it in the oven. “What’s that?”