Friday, February 12, 2016

Skipping Valentine's Day

I was asked to write a short story and read it as part of my church's UMW Valentine Tea last Saturday. In case you'd like a quick romantic fix, it's copied here.

"Skipping Valentine’s Day"

From the moment Marla saw the heart-shaped Valentine candy boxes in Walmart only two days after Christmas, she knew she wasn’t going to be spending February fourteenth alone. Last year had been dreadful, and she had no intention of doing a repeat.

She started planning in January. Not a cruise alone. Probably not to one of her best friends’ homes, because she didn’t want their sympathy. That was the one thing that made her break down every time. Besides, they couldn’t possibly understand that John’s death brought relief that his suffering had ended. No one should have to live through brain cancer of a spouse.

Ginger’s email that the baby’s baptism had been scheduled for Sunday, February 14th was perfect. She picked up the phone to confirm, always preferring to talk to her daughter.

“Hi, Mom. You got my email?” She must have recognized the Caller ID, and her cheerful tone lifted Marla’s spirits like a beam of sunshine through the phone.

“Yes, honey, and I’d love to come.” Marla heard the smile creep into her own voice. Amazing how much it helped to chat with her daughter. “Can’t miss my only grandchild’s baptism. But I don’t want to drive to Oklahoma City and back in one day. May I spend the night at your house?”

“Of course. Come for several days. We’d love to have you.” She took a sip of something, probably her morning coffee.

Marla reached for her own. “Well, I don’t want to impose.”

“Nonsense. You’re always so helpful. Jim’s dad is coming, too, so we thought we’d move Addie’s crib into our room. Give y’all the other two rooms.”

“Is his wife coming?”

“His late ex-wife? Didn’t I tell you? Maybe not. It all happened while Dad was so sick, and you didn’t need more depressing news. You know she married some guy from California who was an amateur pilot? He crashed his new plane on a night flight to Vegas, and they both died instantly.”

Marla felt a shock as strong as if someone had slapped her. “Oh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.”

“Julie Ann Broughton…Warren! I didn’t raise you to say things like that.”

“But it’s true. She left Walt a note the week after our wedding saying that she had both kids married off, and now she had a right to be happy, too. She moved in with her lover, got a thirty-day divorce, and married him the following Monday morning.”

Marla wondered why she hadn’t heard this before. She knew they were divorced; knew Julie didn’t seem to care much for her mother-in-law, but never knew why. “When did all this happen?”

“I’m sure I must have told you. They crashed the same week Dad went into the ICU. Remember? Jim and I went to California first because of her death and got to Fort Worth just before Dad died.”

Facts reshaped themselves from the fog surrounding that terrible week. “I was thinking y’all went out there on business. I’m sorry. I should have sent flowers.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway, it’s all more than a year behind us. Walt’s recovered from the whole mess and doing fine now.”

The image of Walter Warren came to her mind. A tailored business suit, classy tie, clear blue eyes and a craggy jawline. Several inches taller than she, about the same age. Always such a gentleman. How could anyone leave a man like that? He deserved better. “Where does he live now?”

“He’s still based in Houston, but he travels on business a lot. Exxon sends him all over the world doing deals. Europe, the Middle East, sometimes to South America. He’s home about half the time.”

Marla reflected on the years her husband had traveled with his engineering company. She often went with him after the children left home. Those were good years.

In the weeks before the baptism, she found herself looking forward to seeing Julie, Jim, and the baby. And Walt, too. His call one evening in early February surprised her.

After a somewhat awkward beginning, he got to the point. “Julie and Jim said you’re going up for Cici’s baptism. I thought I’d drive up from Houston, and I can come right through Fort Worth. If you haven’t already booked tickets, would you like me to pick you up?”

The gears of her mind whirled. “I’d planned to drive. It’s only about three hours from here. Are you sure?”

“Definitely. I see enough of the inside of airplanes. It will be a pleasure to get the car out on the road. The thing is, I have a little business to do in OKC, and need to stay until Thursday.”

“Arrive Saturday, church on Sunday, stay until Thursday. That’s perfect. If you really don’t mind, I’d love to ride up with you.”

Since she’d obligated herself without asking God, Marla did double duty on the prayer carpet until the thirteenth. She knew it was out of order to make plans and then ask God to bless them. The week passed well, though, and she didn’t feel conflicted. In contrast, the tingle of anticipation grew each day.

Walt arrived at her house at exactly ten a.m. They greeted each other with a polite hug, as distant relatives do. She’d rarely seen him in a sweater and slacks before, and he looked good. Travel hadn’t fattened him up. He lifted her suitcase into the trunk as if it were nothing. She was glad she’d kept her resolution to exercise more this year.

She settled into his new Lexus, and they were off. “You must have been driving since five this morning.”

“Four thirty, but I’m still jet-lagged. Flew in from London two days ago.”

She asked about his trip, and they chatted halfway to the Red River about their favorite foreign destinations. In the back of her mind, phrases of condolence tumbled. How could she express sympathy for the death of an unfaithful ex-wife?

He raised the subject first with a comment about returning from Brazil right after Julie and Jim’s wedding. “So I came into the house and she was gone. There on the kitchen table was a note that she had started life over with her new love. I never knew she had a guy on the side while I was out of town.”

“I’m really sorry, Walt. I thought you two were so happy together at the wedding.”

“I did, too. It totally blindsided me. I’d hoped she would start traveling with me again. Maybe not to the Middle East right now, but she would’ve loved Paris and Australia.” He motioned to the rugged Arbuckle Mountains. “I thought we were that solid. Now I think about retiring in the future, and don’t want to be at home alone.”

“You could certainly marry again. You’re attractive, intelligent, and prosperous. Lots of women would be thrilled to entertain that possibility.”

“I messed up, Marla. I let my career destroy my marriage.”

“Don’t take all the blame. My husband traveled a lot, and we had some great trips together. And when I couldn’t go with him, I took up quilting and ran up the numbers on my pedometer. I didn’t go looking for a substitute.”

“If I date again, she has to be a committed Christian. And Christians divorce, too, but at least that’s a start in the right direction.” He got a faraway look in his eyes, and pain clouded his handsome face. “Church was part of her social life, but I always felt I was dragging her along on my spiritual journey. Next time I’d be looking for a partner in faith.”

Marla looked sharply to the right out the window and covered her smile. If he’d asked for a show of hands of anyone interested in applying, her hand would’ve flown up like a helium balloon.

They stopped for a quick lunch on the road and still arrived at Julie’s by two. After a relaxing afternoon of chatter and playing with the baby, Walt took them to a nice place for dinner. Julie wasn’t willing to leave Cici with a sitter, so they all took time keeping her happy. Remarkably interactive for a three month old, she made the evening a joy.

On Sunday morning, Marla stood with the young family and Walt, committing to raise Cici in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Tears stung her eyes that her beloved husband couldn’t be with them. She stole a glance at Walt and he, too, appeared on the cusp of emotion.

They had lunch together after the service, again compliments of Walt, and then spent the rest of the day at home. He brought out a large, satin box of Valentine chocolates which they all liberally picked from, and Jim and Julie exchanged sweet cards of love and several kisses.

Marla turned away, happy for them at the same time she hurt to be alone today.

All sentimentality passed as father and son vegged out in front of the TV watching the Super Bowl while Marla and Julie kept them supplied with junk food and soft drinks. Marla cared nothing for watching football, but enjoyed the family atmosphere. Snatches of conversation, shared laughter, and joint baby duty bound them together in a comfortable ambiance. Walt suggested that he could move to a hotel for the rest of the week, but the kids wouldn’t hear of it.

He called from work mid-morning Tuesday, speaking briefly with Julie. She hung up with a sly smile, glancing at Marla as if she carried a secret. Marla’s cell phone chimed immediately after.

“Would you like to go to dinner somewhere tonight?” Walt’s voice set off warm ripples through her middle. “I hear you prefer seafood to steaks, and got a recommendation for a good restaurant.”

Stunned, Marla didn’t answer while trying to sort out what kind of invitation he implied.

“I talked to Julie,” he continued, “and the kids will stay home. It’s parents’ night out.”

“Thank you. I would enjoy that…a lot.” She tried not to stammer, not to sound either too excited or unappreciative.

He dashed in after six, freshened up, and whisked her off to a delightful evening of mature conversation. It felt so good to be valued as a woman. She hadn’t considered dating again, but Walt made her feel very special in a romantic way.

When the waiter had cleared away their dinner plates, he took on a serious expression. “Marla, I’ll be fifty this year. With any luck, I have too many good years to waste alone. My job is rewarding, but there has to be more to life.” He let that hang in the soft background music as if waiting for her confirmation.

“I agree,” she said barely above the clink of crystal glasses. “You should not spend the rest of your life single.” She lifted her eyes to his then couldn’t break away from their depths.

“Do you think I should quit this job, which I enjoy, in order to secure a stable marriage? Is that necessary? I don’t think I could stand having a wife so bored that she had to have another man while I’m gone—again.”

“Walt, faithfulness is a decision. In a committed marriage, it’s not an option. I never minded my husband’s trips. If I couldn’t go with him, I sort of enjoyed the time alone—and the reunion when he returned.” She chuckled, feeling the heat of a blush in her cheeks. “Even when apart, we maintained a spiritual bond.”

A momentary frown crossed his brow. “I should ask where you are in your grieving process. Would I be rushing you to start courting so soon? It’s only been a year or so.”

“I began grieving about three years ago, when the surgeries, chemo, and radiation began. His personality changed…Life was hard. His illness and death won’t ever stop hurting, but I’ve come to a certain understanding with God’s help.”

He turned his hand up on the table, an invitation to her. “Then I’d like to call you after we return home. Continue this exploration into new territory. I think we might be very good for each other.”

She placed her hand in his, hoping that healing might unite them both under God’s loving umbrella. “I’m willing to find out.”


Cathy said...

Beautiful story Lee. Makes me want to know more of their future story (and some of the back)!

Lee Carver said...

I left it wide open, Cathy. In my mind, they date for a while, fall seriously and maturely in love, marry within six months, and begin a beautiful marriage. They enjoy travels and share their grandchildren, and God blesses them with many happy and fulfilled years together.