The stucco-and-tile façade of the Chee Chee bar glares blackly out onto Broadway; inside, the stale air is tinged purple. A half-dozen men hunch over the bar; four of them are drinking from 24-oz. tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The bartender has stepped away from his post; that might be him studying the jukebox on the back wall, or it might not. He doesn’t have to worry much about his neglected post; “urgent” is not the watchword here. “Grouchy” might be a better call, gauging from the loudest man at the bar. “You know the old saying, ‘Women and children first?’” he asks the man next to him. “Children, I get. I don’t know about women.” It seems that love, sweet love, has struck again.
One neighborhood over, at Tango Wine Company in Little Italy, the lighting is better, the mood is more upbeat, and the crowd is decidedly more feminine. Tango regularly hosts “PMS Wednesdays” — an opportunity for women (and men too, I guess) to “sit back and enjoy a fantastic night of Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate.” The shop sells ladies’ tees bearing saucy texts like “women taste better” and “wine rack.” And it sells wine, grouped into such whimsical categories as “Wines to Impress Your Boss” and “Screw ’Em.”
I stop in during their California vs. Argentina Friday night tasting, order a Prosecco, and take note of Vampire Weekend’s cheerful song “Oxford Comma” on the sound system. Then I head for the back corner, where five women have scooched in close on a butter-soft sectional to share a bottle of Two Angels Divinity (a red Rhone blend).
“Does anybody want to talk about her first love?” I ask. The ladies turn as one toward Sofia: a woman expertly made up and put together in a short tweed dress, a shorter brown leather jacket, dark tights, and sharp heels. “She was rated one of the hottest women in Boston,” boasts one of her friends.
Long before Boston took note, however, Sofia grew up in ’70s Montreal in what might gently be described as a strict Sicilian household. “I wasn’t allowed to go to movies or to parties,” she says without rancor. “You stayed at home until you got married. You know how most parents want their kids to be doctors? When I told my parents I wanted to be a doctor, they held a family reunion and decided that I couldn’t.” This was not, interestingly, because their brand of traditionalism forbade a woman’s venturing into the workplace. “They were happy for me to be a secretary or anything else, just not a doctor.” Why not a doctor? “Because I would have to see naked men, and then no one would marry me. And in order to date, I had to get engaged. It was like The Godfather — you know, with the family following you as you walked.”
Eventually, anyway. There was a year at the outset where she dated a young man in secret, without the benefit of engagement. “He and I were at the university, and there was the library where people studied — where the Asians hung out — and the library where people had fun — where all the Italians and everybody else would hang out. I had a bunch of Italian friends, and they were in there playing poker, and I went in to say hello. And there was this non-Italian guy, just staring at me. I felt uncomfortable, so I walked away, and he kept staring at me all the way down to the next level. I thought he was one of these bad boys.”
Apparently, the thought was not entirely unattractive. “That was around Valentine’s Day. The morning after Valentine’s, I received a dozen red roses from some other person who liked me, and I was bringing a rose to a girlfriend of mine who had received no roses. It was one of those beautiful wintry days in Canada with big snowflakes, and I was wearing a fur hat like the ones in Dr. Zhivago, and I’m taking the subway to university, and he [the guy from the library] walks into my subway car. He said, ‘I like that red rose. You must be a really lucky girl.’ I had never seen him on my subway car before. We struck up a conversation.” That led to coffee, and that led to plans for a Saturday evening date — Sofia’s first in all her 18 years.
“So Saturday, I’m living at home and waiting for him to call, and he calls at five o’clock. The big thing in Canada on a Saturday night — it’s hockey night. The date is to go to a girl’s house: you watch the hockey game, you smooch, and you don’t spend any money.” That wasn’t an option for Sofia’s suitor. “So he said, ‘Okay, I guess we can meet on the subway and go downtown.’ ” But when they finally met up, “He said, ‘There’s one small problem. I spent all my money drinking last night with the boys.’ So I had to pay!”
Amazingly, this did not prove to be a deal breaker. “There was something genuine about him — and I so much wanted that date. I wanted to get out of the house. I was supposed to be studying at the library, so I wasn’t going home.”
She liked the bad-boy persona (“It was a façade; he was good at heart”); he liked the way she looked and that she was as driven as he was. After a year, Sofia told him, “I’ve got to tell my parents. We have to get engaged. His parents were freaking out — they wanted him to be a doctor, and he was getting engaged to this 19-year-old Sicilian. His mom was afraid it would…slow things down. I told his mother, ‘Don’t worry. I want to be a doctor, too.’ So she took a leap of faith. We had an official engagement party, and then we stayed engaged through college. We went to medical school together and training — from Montreal to Boston to San Diego, and finally back to Montreal. It was something like a ten-year engagement, but it worked very well for us. We were soul mates; we grew up together. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun — we didn’t have a home, we didn’t have kids, so we could almost be kids ourselves. And we could travel for our education.”