Long Overdue Valentine
by Karen Uffelman
He asked Rose if he should kiss her goodnight. It was a fair question and he wasn’t expecting a positive answer. She didn’t know how to explain her date with him in the first place. Going on a date was something teenagers did, not grandmothers, but she was lonely and he seemed harmless at the hospital information desk where she volunteered. He’d been visiting a niece who was in for shoulder surgery. His niece had fallen off a horse. Who rode horses in this day and age?
Rose had a pony when she was a child, but that was 60 years ago. More than that, actually. Penny the pony. Her dad had bought Penny from a neighboring farmer and given her to Rose, despite the grumblings of her older brothers and sisters. They’d never had ponies. Penny had been Rose’s constant companion, stubborn, but ultimately loyal. She never ran away when Rose got distracted by berry-picking or catching toads in the irrigation ditch, and she’d only bite if you weren’t quick enough with her treats. Rose would slather her palms with molasses and hold them up for Penny to lick, her fingers splayed almost backwards, out of the way of Penny’s big, yellow teeth.
Harold’s niece was in her twenties and had never ridden a horse before last weekend, when she promptly lost control of her mount and ended up in the ER with a broken arm and torn rotator cuff. Harold had wandered up to the information desk with a couple of half-inflated mylar balloons trailing behind him and a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
“Visiting a sweetheart?” Rose asked. Surprised herself. Not the kind of question she would normally ask a stranger. She was supposed to be helpful at the information desk, not nosy.
“No, actually, my niece. She fell off a horse. I’m not sure what floor she’s on. I’ve been wandering around for almost a half-hour and can’t find the right set of elevators.” He looked down at the heart-shaped box in his hand. “This is all they had at the drugstore – I guess because it’s February. I’m sure my niece won’t mind, though.” He gave her a toothy grin.
He wasn’t at all handsome. Too short, in Rose’s opinion. Men should be tall. All three of Rose’s sons were well over six foot, thanks to her preference for men of stature. Unfortunately, her husband had been tall but otherwise useless. She sighed audibly.
“I can probably find the room if you just point me in the right direction,” the not-tall-enough man said. There was something kind of charming about him. He was disarming in his confusion and looked like he needed help, not just directions. His shirt was on the wrinkled side, as if his wife neglected to iron it. Rose wasn’t much for ironing either, but she would have been embarrassed to send a man out of her house looking like that. She glanced down at his left hand, clutching the box of chocolates. No ring.
Rose spent more time than necessary explaining to Harold (he introduced himself with an awkward bow) how to get to his niece’s room. She gave him one of the photocopies of the hospital layout they kept on hand at the information desk. She drew an X to indicate his niece’s location and then, before handing it over to him, drew a heart over the information desk, writing YOU ARE HERE above it. She wasn’t sure why she did that – surely she should have drawn another X. She must have been influenced by the heart-shaped box. She blushed slightly as he took the map.
He smiled and thanked her, staring hard at her nametag (she’d been rude and hadn’t offered her name when he introduced himself).
“Maybe I’ll see you again, Rose.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” she replied. Was she flirting with him? Her cheeks felt very, very warm. What had come over her?
The next day was Wednesday, and Rose didn’t volunteer at the hospital on Wednesdays. She wondered if Harold would be visiting his niece and then wondered why she was wondering. She did the crossword and made herself a tuna sandwich, fussed over her cat, folded laundry. Normal, Wednesday activities.
After watching a couple of programs on the home and garden channel, she sat down at the piano and practiced both the soprano and the alto parts of next Sunday’s choir hymns. Her church choir was small and shrinking, and about a year ago she started filling in sometimes with the altos when someone was sick, rather than singing the soprano parts as she normally did. Her voice wasn’t as strong as it used to be, but she had a wide range, and liked being able to pitch hit when the alto section was too sparse. Made her feel useful – taking advantage of the talents God gave her. The new choir director had protested at first. He was a dumb little so-and-so, younger than Rose’s sons even, and hadn’t realized the favor she was doing him and the rest of the choir (and the congregation, for that matter). But eventually he got it, and just nodded when she scooted down to the alto row or back up to the sopranos. Except for the director, the entire choir was in their 70s or older, constantly getting pneumonia or breaking hips. The alto section seemed to be particularly fragile and sickly.
The previous music director had been one of Rose’s best friends. Norman. He’d had perfect pitch and they shared musical tastes – none of this new-age “folk” hymn stuff that the choir now had to suffer through. He’d often consult her on hymn choice, ask her to help with the Christmas pageant, was always by her side in the fellowship hall for coffee hour. Norman had been a good 15 years younger than Rose, and she’d decided that was why they had never become more than friends, even though he’d never been married and she’d been long divorced. He hadn’t, in fact, had any romantic interests that anyone knew about. There had been an unkind rumor for a while that he didn’t actually like women in “that” way. To tell the truth, that had made him even more attractive in Rose’s eyes. A husband that didn’t paw you in the middle of the night would be about as perfect a mate as she could imagine. But Norman had moved to the big city for a better job at a bigger church (“An offer I can’t refuse, Rose”), and that pretty much ended their friendship except for his Christmas cards and her occasional phone calls to report on the new choir director’s failings.
There hadn’t really been any other men in Rose’s life since her husband left 28 years ago. She had officially kicked him out, told her three boys that he couldn’t come back as she stacked his belongings on the front porch. But he had already been gone, physically as well as emotionally, for months by then. Left her with three kids, a mortgage she couldn’t afford on her own, and a bunch of cowardly apologies mixed in with the lies. She got a second job and carried on.
A high school sweetheart (the one she should have married, probably) had called her up out of the blue some years back. Said he was going to be in town for work and wanted to know if he could take her out for dinner for old time’s sake. She took him at his word. She went on endlessly about her sons’ sporting and academic achievements, asking a couple of polite questions about his wife, but otherwise talking her head off. He and his wife didn’t have any children, and Rose hadn’t been that interested in his work (he was a sports announcer), so she dominated the conversation. She’d read in womens magazines that men liked to be listened to, but she hadn’t been trying to impress him. She found out later that his wife had terminal cancer and realized too late that the date was probably an audition. She’d flubbed it bad. His wife died shortly after and he remarried (somebody else) later that year.
Rose pretty much decided that was it for her and romance. And now here she was, standing on her front porch, with a man asking if he could kiss her.
Harold had come back to the hospital the following Tuesday after that first visit to his niece. Rose had been surprised to see him – people weren’t usually in the hospital for more than a couple of days with shoulder surgery. He looked less lost this time, although his shirt was still a wrinkled mess.
“No balloons? No chocolates?” Rose asked. Why were these questions coming out of her mouth?
“Uh, no, not today. I’m wondering if you’d like to go on a date with me sometime.” He got the last sentence out quickly. Then he smiled.
“Is your niece still here, or did you come all the way here just to ask me out?” So forward!
“Just to ask you out,” he replied, “Jill got out of the hospital last Wednesday.”
“And when were you thinking?” Was she actually going to say yes? Her cheeks were warm again.
“Uh, well, when might you be available?” He didn’t seem so nervous now. His shirt, upon closer inspection, wasn’t quite as wrinkled as it first appeared.
“Saturday would be fine,” she said, not believing she had agreed to a date with a stranger in less than ten sentences. Saturday was the day of the week you typically went on dates, right?
He wrote down her address and promised to pick her up at 5:00. They’d go some place nice. He looked forward to seeing her.
For the next four days she thought constantly about Harold and her upcoming date. She cleaned her house, tried to find some date-worthy clothes in her closet, thought up interesting questions she could ask. Imagined herself as a good listener. She even announced to one of her sons that she had a date. She hadn’t planned to tell anybody, but she didn’t really know this guy from Adam, and decided it might be good if someone had clues to her whereabouts if she didn’t show up to her Tuesday shift at the information desk. Her son had laughed and made her feel ridiculous. He made her promise not to run off and get married right away. Fat chance of that.
Saturday had finally come around and Rose was ready when Harold rang her doorbell. She had failed to find anything particularly exciting in her closet. There was a nice skirt one a daughter-in-law had given her as a Christmas present, but it had always been a little tight and was now out of the question. She had gotten it on, but had a hard time breathing in it and definitely could not sit down. She hung the skirt back up and pulled out the black pants with the elastic waistband she wore to church most Sundays. Not exactly attractive, she thought, as she surveyed herself in the mirror. She put on a pink knit turtleneck. Another present from one of her sons, but she couldn’t remember which. It had a couple of snags in the front, signs of her cat’s affection. She decided it was good enough and went to the living room to wait.
She hadn’t realized, when she suggested Saturday for their date, that it would be Valentines Day. Kind of presumptuous on her part. She hoped he had called ahead and made reservations. Her stomach felt funny. She wondered if maybe she should tell him she was ill, and crawl into bed with her cat and a Hamish MacBeth mystery, but then the doorbell rang and she answered it and he handed her a rose.
“A rose for Rose,” he said. She hadn’t expected flowers and was taken a little off guard. She made a show of putting it in a vase, feeling happy and more enthusiastic than she had expected to. They drove to a restaurant that Rose knew well, she and a couple of her choir friends ate lunch there some days after church. She was glad it was someplace familiar. Her sons were always taking her to exotic restaurants she had never heard of, which always made her anxious.
She ordered a pork chop and he got the chicken. She tried to be a good listener, but Harold asked her lots of questions and she couldn’t help but talk. He seemed genuinely interested and turned out to have a pretty good sense of humor. The waitress dropped off the check right after their dinner plates were removed and Rose had to wave her down and explain that she hadn’t been offered dessert. Harold said, “that’s the spirit!” and Rose felt approved of and admired. Rose got the lemon meringue pie and Harold ordered a dish of ice cream and said several times how happy he was that he didn’t have to go home on an empty dessert stomach.
He drove her home the long way, over by the river. She was a little bit nervous about it, but it was a much prettier drive than the way they had come and she wasn’t ready for the date to be over. When he pulled into her driveway they sat quietly for a few moments. Rose wondered if she should invite him in. What would happen then?
“Rose,” Harold broke the silence, “I’ve had a wonderful time tonight, but I have to tell you something.”
Was he dying? Moving? Was he Catholic?
What? The naked ring finger…the wrinkled shirts…
“Not emotionally married, but still legally married.” What was that supposed to mean? A vague memory of her ex-husband passed through her mind.
“We’re going to get a divorce, but it takes time. My wife has been involved with someone else for over a year, so, we’re definitely no longer together, but…”
“Does your wife live with her new boyfriend?” Rose asked.
“Well, no, actually we still live together.” Again with the wrinkled shirt…
“I know, I know,” Harold continued. He sounded like he was going to cry. “We have three dogs, and we both love them, and it’s made getting a divorce, or even living apart so much more complicated.”
DOGS? Rose’s cat would never put up with a dog, definitely not with dogs, plural. This was clearly not going to work.
“I’m so sorry, Rose,” Harold reached out for her hand, “I just haven’t felt like a man since Virginia took up with that other guy and then you were so sassy at the information desk,” Sassy? “And you flashed that pretty smile and then you drew the heart around the information desk at the hospital and wrote YOU ARE HERE and I couldn’t help thinking, yes, I AM HERE and I can’t just let this opportunity slip through my fingers.”
“Oh.” That was all she could get out. Sassy? Did he say she was sassy?
“I’m sorry to ruin the evening like this,” he let go of her hand. “It was extra-hard to tell you after our date was so nice, but I didn’t think it’d be fair to leave you in the dark about me being married. I realize it’s too soon and this whole thing was a mistake.”
They were quiet for a few minutes more, but finally Harold got out of the car. He leaned back in and said “Can I walk you to the door?”
Rose nodded and waited him for him to come around and open her door for her. They walked up the drive way together. It was a little icy and she didn’t resist when he took her arm. She fumbled with her keys and unlocked the door, the porch light going on automatically because of the movement sensor one of her sons had installed. Rose wondered if her neighbors were watching (of course they were) and what they might be thinking. Maybe, “Rose has taken up with a married man!”
Harold apologized again, and said, “I don’t suppose you’d let me kiss you goodnight?”
“I guess you’d better,” Rose answered, not wanting to disappoint the neighbors.
When he kissed her, it was a nice. A little bit the way you’d kiss your mother, she’d tell her sons later, but still nice.
She looked at him, “I don’t know what you’re going to do with your wife, or her boyfriend, or your DOGS, for that matter, but I did have a nice time tonight and I guess I wouldn’t mind if you called me again.”
“Really?” he asked, his expression suddenly hopeful
“I didn’t say I’d answer the phone, of course.”
He smiled and walked down the steps, out of the circle of porch light.
“I’ll phone you on Wednesday!” he called back before getting into his car.
Rose walked into her house and sat down on the couch next to her cat.
“Guess what, kitty. I think I have a valentine.”