A Second Chance at Romance
M. S. Spencer© 2014
Che Gelida Manina: a Story of Second Chances
“I don’t want to stay here, Amelia.”
“But Mother, you love Sarasota! You love the sun, the people, the beach. Why this sudden desire to move to Morocco?”
“It’s always been a dream of mine.” Grace knew her daughter wouldn’t buy it, but didn’t want to tell her how desperately she needed to get away from Florida. Since Jack died nine months before on Christmas Eve, she couldn’t bear to go to the Gulf…or listen to his favorite opera, La Bohème…or even light candles at dinner. Jack had been the most romantic man in the world and the love of her life. Now that he was gone, all desire for romance had gone with him. It was only because of her promise to him to stay through one last Christmas that she had remained. I’ll keep my promise, but I’ll be out of here by Boxing Day.
“Well, it makes no sense.” Amelia switched gears. “Just yesterday Brad was saying you should come up here to Portland—”
“Not on your life. I may be a doting grandmother but I don’t think I could handle twin toddlers twenty-four-seven.”
The woman at the other end of the phone sniffed. “Hmmph. Well, we don’t want you alone on Christmas Eve, Mother. Brad would be happy to book a flight for you.”
“You know I can’t, dear.”
“Oh, bother the promise. Dad would understand.”
Grace thought of Jack’s last whispered request. “No, he wouldn’t.”
“Okay, okay.” Amelia paused. “Did you sign up for Friends.com yet?”
“No, and stop badgering me.”
“All I ask is that you think about it. It’s about time you got out of the house. The site’s supposed to have a ninety-percent success rate in matching people.”
“I doubt that. Gotta go, dear.” Grace hung up and stared at the website on her computer screen. She hesitated, then clicked “Your Friends.com Profile.” She wrote quickly and furiously, tossing her thoughts out before she lost her nerve.
Recently widowed woman, 60, seeking companion for excursions—bird watching and sightseeing. Not interested in romance or personal confidences. No moonlit beach walkers please. No candlelight dinners. Love of opera a deal-breaker.
She typed in her credit card number and clicked ‘Submit,’ then returned to her profile and reread it. “Oh dear, that sounds awfully negative…”
Her finger hovered over the ‘Delete Post’ button when a message popped up. “Edward Harper has emailed you.” She opened it.
Widower, 62, happy to oblige. Coffee today?
Next to the message was a man’s photograph. She studied it, trying to plumb its secrets—a broad face, the planes of the cheeks flat and tanned. Little crinkles of skin at each temple hinted at a quiet sense of humor. His bright hazel eyes under a thatch of brown hair smiled at her, as if willing her to say hello. She pressed ‘Reply’ and typed in, “Yes.”
An hour later she sat in a booth in the Gray Dolphin Café, wondering if she’d recognize him. A tall man came through the automatic doors and strode resolutely toward her. “Are you Grace?”
I can deny it. I can get up and walk out right now. The eyes held her. Cheerful, calm, intelligent. “Yes. Won’t you join me?”
He slid onto the seat and ordered coffee for the two of them. Grace, used to dealing with the world on her own, found it refreshing. He had a way of making her feel comfortable and pampered at the same time. Two hours later they parted at the café door.
She didn’t hear from him that day, or the next, or the next. Exactly one week later, an email popped up. “Coffee today?”
Fingers scampering quickly over the keys, she typed, “Yes.”
They met at the café, but Edward drew her outside. “How about a walk through Robinson Preserve? I brought binoculars. And coffee.”
Two hours later he left her at the café entrance. She almost asked if he’d like to see her again, but didn’t.
Precisely a week later, he called. “Coffee?”
This time she was ready. “Would you care to go to Spanish Point with me? It’s an historic site.”
“Certainly—I was going to suggest something similar. I’ll pick you up at the café.”
And so it went for two months. The two of them met every Wednesday and toured local sights like Marie Selby Gardens, Ringling’s Cà d’Zan, and Ybor City. Edward proved a perfect escort—knowledgeable, funny, interested in everything. Grace’s life came to revolve around the weekly dates. She’d find herself thinking about him every day, wondering more and more often how he felt about her. After all, he never asked her personal questions. If she inquired about his past, he would demur. “We are but fellow travelers. That was the deal, wasn’t it?”
Whenever his reticence grated on her, she would reread her Friends.com profile. You asked for this, Grace. In fact, you insisted upon it. Then she would pour herself a drink and watch another re-run of Love Boat.
As the weeks passed, Grace sank deeper and deeper into a funk. Edward was careful to keep his distance—the occasional touch on the hand or squeeze of the elbow meant only that he wanted to draw her attention to something. She began to covet the delicate brush of his fingers across her skin. Sometimes she would even bump into him, pretending to be absorbed in a painting or view.
She had said goodbye to him one Wednesday, facing the emptiness of the week ahead. Sitting in her car, it suddenly struck her as unfair. Is this all he can give? One afternoon a week for the rest of my life? She checked her face in the rear view mirror. Wrinkles spiraled through the once blooming cheeks. Her hair had begun the gradual but depressing transformation to pure white, and her once cobalt blue eyes had faded to the cerulean of a misty morning sky. She started the engine. “I’ve got to do something.”
But as the days dragged by, she did nothing. Time and again she would click on Edward’s address, only to hesitate. I’m not ready.
That Sunday Amelia called. “I hope you’ll reconsider and come for Christmas, Mother.”
Christmas. Christ. In her preoccupation with Edward, she had lost track of the date. In three weeks her vow to Jack would be discharged. What difference would it make if I left a few days early? Unexpectedly, Edward’s smiling face flashed before her. Yearning vied with terror, threatening to rip her heart apart. I’m not ready. I need to get out of here. She finally managed, “Perhaps I will.”
“Wonderful! Come a week early—that way we’ll have plenty of time to catch up.”
As her departure approached, Grace put off informing Edward. I know him. He’ll nod silently. He won’t even ask if I need a ride to the airport. She stifled the stab of pain.
The day before she was to leave, she finally confessed. His eyes, for once, did not smile, but he said nothing. She waved him off at the café and went home to finish packing. As she locked the suitcase, cold reality sluiced like ice water down her back. I guess this is it. She looked around the cozy bungalow Edward had never entered. And yet he seemed so much a part of it, of her life now. The longing she’d felt for him—longing that she refused to acknowledge—exploded into desire. I want him. I want to hold him. And I want to talk—really talk—pour out all my thoughts and my childhood dreams, my needs, my fears.
To silence the pleas, she did something she hadn’t done since Jack died—she took the shell path to the water. The beach was empty and she walked until her feet hurt—a mile, two miles, three. As she walked, the sun began to descend in one of those glorious Florida sunsets that make you wonder if you’ve landed on another planet. The white powdery sand crunched between her toes. How I’ve missed this! Maybe I was wrong to cut myself off from the things I loved.
By the time she arrived back at the shell path it was nearly dark. She turned for one last look at the moon and stars. A beach chair sat forlornly on the shore, waves lapping at its legs. Something fluttered from it. Oh, right, I left my towel there.
As she approached, a silvery tenor began to croon Jack’s favorite aria from La Bohème. In it, Rodolfo sings to his new love Mimi, ‘Che gelida manina—What a cold little hand you have!’
She rounded on the chair. “Edward?”
He sat up. “Grace?”
She wanted to run into his arms. She wanted to kiss his lips, his forehead, his hands. Instead, she stood quietly, her arms at her sides. “Edward, what are you doing here? I thought you hated the beach.”
His eyes bored into her. “Not me. You. You didn’t want romance. You didn’t want to hold my hand, or light a candle, or hear my music. I respected your wishes.”
She ached to cry out, “I was wrong! Edward, I want to be with you!” but fear clogged her throat. I’m not ready. All she could manage was, “Yes.”
His lips twisted. “Yes.” Then he stood up and walked away across the sand. Grace watched helplessly as the second love of her life left her.
She went to bed, but the hours ticked by as she lay awake, by turns angry and despondent. The next morning she called Amelia. “I’ve decided to stay here for Christmas.”
“Mother? Why? You’ll be so lonely!”
“No! No, I’ll be fine. I have a promise to keep.”
She checked the calendar. Four days to go to Christmas Eve. She had to find Edward before she left. I can’t leave without telling him about Jack—without explaining my aversion to romance. She turned on the laptop and typed his name in the search box.
The first list turned up three dozen Edward Harpers, ten of whom lived in the Sarasota area. She spent two days tracking them down, leaving messages at the most promising leads. Then she sat down to wait.
Christmas Eve arrived without any word from Edward. Her suitcase stood ready by the door. As the light faded, she went outside to her patio. La Bohème played softly from inside. I can’t lose him. Why didn’t I tell him? What was I afraid of? The pain? You fool, the pain found you anyway. At least she had the beach and the music back. Only one more thing to do. She found some matches, and lit the Christmas candle. As she watched the flame flicker in the evening breeze, she savored an uneasy peace. Perhaps it’s for the best. I’ll leave tomorrow and forget all about him.
As she pondered, she felt a warm presence. Someone moved from the darkness into the light. She sprang up to find bright hazel eyes smiling into hers. He touched her hand and sang softly, “Che gelida manina. What a cold little hand you have, my dear. May I warm it?”
She gave it to him, then led him down the path to the beach.
The Happily Ever End.