BOSTON–Thirty minutes into dinner with co-worker Natalie Cooper, Matthew Rolen, a marketing manager at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, realized Tuesday that what he thought was a date was actually a work-related get-together.
"There Natalie and I were at Trattoria Il Panino, candles flickering and soft music playing. But somehow, the conversation kept turning back to the upcoming print campaign for [anti-fungal medication] Lamisil," the 32-year-old Rolen said. "Then it hit me: This is a business meeting."
Cooper, 26, and Rolen met last November when Cooper was transferred from Novartis' Florham Park, NJ, office, where she spent three years as marketing manager for the company's line of CIBA Vision contact lenses. Upon arriving in Boston, she was teamed with Rolen to head up the Lamisil campaign, and the two began spending a great deal of time together.
"Sure, everything we did was on the clock, but we were getting along really great–cracking each other up all the time and teasing each other about little things," Rolen said. "You know how it goes, sort of flirting but never saying anything too over the line. Then, one day, Natalie made a comment about how married she's been to our project, saying she really needed a night out on the town. I thought maybe that was her way of telling me she wanted to be more than friends."
While in Cooper's cubicle Monday going over ad specs, Rolen asked her to join him for dinner the next night. Noting how stressful it is to work against a deadline, Rolen suggested the two "get together and talk over some good food." Cooper agreed, and the pair met at Trattoria Il Panino at 7 p.m.
"As we were sitting there, I kept asking her all these questions about where she grew up and what kind of music she likes," Rolen said. "Then she'd turn around and ask me if I thought our media buys were too heavily concentrated in general-interest magazines. For some reason, I didn't catch on. I thought she was nervous and couldn't think of anything else to talk about."
Continued Rolen: "When I suggested we get some wine, Natalie said she wanted to 'keep a clear head' so we could really 'plow through this thing.' Looking back, I guess I should have seen that as a sign."
Rolen finally realized he was not on a date shortly after finishing the appetizers. "When the waiter cleared our gnocchi," he said, "Natalie took out a stack of papers and said, 'Well, should we get started?' I was like, 'On what?' She just laughed and said, 'Yeah, I wish I could forget about it, too.'"
The pair spent the next two hours working out details of the Lamisil campaign. While doing so, Rolen also dissected the evening's earlier exchanges in his head.
"I realized there were a bunch of times I must have looked like a real weirdo," Rolen said. "Like, she said to me, 'You look nice. Are you going somewhere later tonight?' and I said, 'Yeah, I've got another date.'"
As the evening wore on, Rolen became increasingly paranoid that Cooper would discover his original romantic intentions.
"Thinking I was covering my tracks, I said I had a thing for our supervisor, Michaela [Torres]," Rolen said. "I started babbling about how I like to date Hispanic women, because I find them very 'earthy' and 'spiritual.' I was out of control."
The final blow came toward the end of the meal. When Rolen insisted upon paying, Cooper relented but reminded him to save the receipt for reimbursement.
"By the time the check came, it was long clear that we were not on a date, but the save-your-receipt thing still hurt," Rolen said. "I wound up leaving the waiter an extra-big tip because I'd asked him to seat us at a private table next to the fireplace in their back room, which was closed off that evening. Actually, it proved really useful to have the extra space to spread out all our folders and printouts."
Compounding Rolen's embarrassment was the fact that he had spent much of Tuesday thinking about and preparing for the evening's non-date.
"I was so excited all day," Rolen said. "When I got home from work, I cleaned my apartment from top to bottom, just in case she wanted to drop by afterwards. I even got a haircut during my lunch hour. God, I'm pathetic."
Fortunately, the evening has not damaged the colleagues' working relationship, and Cooper remains blissfully unaware of the aborted wooing.
"That was a great idea to get together and finish up that project," Cooper told Rolen as they parted ways for the night. "I am so relieved to finally be done with that. Aren't you?"