First, there was Roses. She met him more than 30 years ago, at her second research job. Now, when they saw each other, he always brought her a single rose.
Roses, 6:16 a.m.: “I know this: You and I belong together. We have a beautiful future before us.”
Then, there was Wine. She broke up with him when she was 36. That was 23 years ago. Living 300 miles away from her, now he was sending her care packages of wine.
Wine, 9:02 a.m.: “Have a great day. A surprise is on its way! Did you know that studies say people are at their happiest in their 20s and 60s? (And remember to root for the Red Sox tonight!)”
And, for the long haul, there was Books, a college professor, the father of her daughter and, as of two years ago, her ex-husband.
Books, 4:52 p.m.: “In London. M answering messages. Will maybe see her on Saturday. Who knows.”
She had dumped them all, and now she wanted them back.
She worked with Roses at a New York drug company when she was in her 20s, and though married, he pursued her relentlessly. Feeling hounded but sorry for him, she would sometimes agree to go out for drinks after work, repeatedly reminding him that his wife was waiting for him. There was something appealing about him that went deeper than his piercing blue eyes, but she was immersed in trying to stay afloat at work, and the marriage thing just bothered her.
He wanted her, badly, and never let up: “Dinner?”
She mulled, then turned him down with a smile. “I have to do my hair.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “How about next week?”
She mulled again. “Busy. I have a lot of hair.”
That’s how their time went. He pleaded, she begged off, then gave in, and they would do the occasional drinks. He insisted that he was going to leave his wife, that they had lost whatever they once had.
One over-the-top bar-hopping night laced with tequila, they ended up back at her place, ostensibly to take turns throwing up in her toilet. Somehow, she found herself half-naked in bed with him. What? How? She protested; he insisted. She drew on some inner reserve of sense and sobriety and managed to throw him out before things went too far. In the morning, she felt a strange mix of hurt and remorse. She took a job in Washington the next fall and never spoke to him again.
Until 30 years later. She was back living in New York, and some well-meaning academic friends dragged her to a book party on Long Island after her divorce. The book was by an old research colleague of both his and hers, now a PhD, with whom she had never kept in touch. She wondered if Roses, who had lived somewhere on the Island, would be there. The idea perked her up; whatever hard feelings she had were long buried. She imagined sharing a chuckle over what young fools they had been.
Peering between the baby breath’s spray in the centerpiece on her table, she saw him come into the banquet room. She actually drew in a breath. While he was once a too-skinny thirtysomething, now he had filled out. The package was quite becoming. And even across the room, she could not miss those mesmerizing pale blue eyes.
She queued up with a handful of his old pals who were greeting him. At a break in their chatter, she said hello.
“Oh my goodness! I can’t believe it. Do I ever! What are you doing here?”
He walked her to a table, they sat down, and he did not leave her side for the rest of the evening. She swelled in the attention, the first time she’d been hit on since her ex-husband. She found herself caressing his knee as they talked. He plucked a rose from the centerpiece and put it behind her ear. She leaned in when he stole a kiss by the door.
That was fun, she thought on her way to the car.
The first text from him came 20 minutes later.
Roses, 8:22 p.m.: “It’s me. I can’t help it! I have loved you since the day you walked into that lab 30 years ago – young, pretty, bold and brave. Love you, yes! Can’t wait to talk again.”
She laughed out loud in the back seat. The same old flirt. Good lord, she thought, sitting up straight. Maybe he really meant it. She had never taken him seriously. This time, something was different. This time, she was receptive.
Roses, 8:32 p.m.: “Have I lost you already? Please say you’re there! We must speak!”
“No, no,” she finally texted. “I’m here. Home by 10.”
He called on the dot.
Thus began a deluge of phone calls and texts. On their first date, he presented her with a pristine ruby-red rose and announced to the foursome at the next table that he was going to marry her.
She laughed and brushed it off, but happily fell into his arms at the end of the night.
Roses, 2:17 a.m.: “Not a minute goes by when I don’t think of you. Not a minute.”
On museum visits and after movies, she told him all about the beginning, middle, and end of her years with her ex, while he poured out an equally ugly divorce story and bragged about his son, a musician in L.A.
She loved his well-seasoned arms around her and spent much of their time tracing the paths of his warm veins. What she wouldn’t do to jump his bones. But he always had a commitment to attend to on the Island in the morning that meant he couldn’t stay over. It was, after all, a two-hour drive into the city for him. She’d be selfish if she made a fuss.
“I never stopped wondering about you,” he said as they nuzzled on her sofa one evening, “never, ever. I looked you up once in a while. I was sure I wouldn’t see you again in this lifetime, and if I did, you would throw something at me. But the memories were always alive.”
“Even from that last night?”
“Even. Even that. I was a clod, a dope. I should never have. We drank too damn much.”
She nodded, her own memory of that night a little uncomfortable.
“You went too far,” she said, looking up at him tentatively.
“I did,” he agreed, not breaking her gaze. “I did, and I lost everything.”
When she visited his North Shore cottage one sultry summer beach day, he recounted each and every night they had met for drinks, and they did indeed indulge in laughter over his luckless way with her.
“I was just one of your chicks,” she offered.
“No. No! Never. You were the one. I waited in the parking lot on my days off until you came out of work, just so I could see you.”
She smelled her rose and shook her head. What was wrong with her, that she didn’t see it then? Why was she so mean to him? Yes, he had told her he was separating from his wife. But she had been sure it was only a line. That’s just what guys say.
She met Wine online after she took the Washington job, drawn to his post because it mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird. So did hers. On their first meeting, at a Capitol Hill bar, they had an immediate rapport. But she had to smile when it turned out he meant the movie and she meant the book.
“Never? You've never ever seen it?” Wine was thunderstruck. “You are one deprived soul. That’s it – we’ve got to watch it together now.” She was pleased and flattered that he wanted another date. They spent the rest of the evening exploring mutual ground – suburban upbringing, love of travel, exasperation with their mothers.
Their friendship ripened quickly, over early morning coffees, bottles of red on the deck, weekends away at Eastern Shore bed-and-breakfasts he picked out. He didn’t seem to mind her quiet, crazy depressed spells, and she managed to tamp down her discomfort over the extra pounds he carried. She brightened at the sight of his puppy-dog face. His sentimentality complemented her seriousness. They enjoyed being a couple, a boyfriend-girlfriend who seemed to match, who never argued, who were fun to be with at dinners out.
She was amused that Wine was so impressed with her work in microbiology.
“I think it’s just the word you like,” she teased one night in bed. “All those syllables! My, my!”
“Yeah – no,” he insisted, twirling her hair. “You’re a big, scary brainiac – all those studies, all that research, your name on all those papers. Future Nobel stuff, I’m telling you.”
But she knew she was just someone’s assistant who did what she was told, expecting every day that her boss would decide she was eminently replaceable. The fear motivated her to work extra hard and extra long. It wasn’t that she wanted to achieve, or advance, or accomplish. It was that she didn’t want to be exposed as a fraud.
Wine made his annual New Year’s Eve party a few months later a coming-out for her, with all of his consultant colleagues and a few people he grew up with outside of Boston. He beamed at showing her off.
“What did he do to rope you in?” asked his overly sincere best friend, an editor of chemistry textbooks. “You guys are so good together. In case you didn’t know, we all think you’re terrific,” anointing her into their circle. “He said you were brilliant and beautiful. He was right.”
She shook her head and wondered if Wine and his friends just had low standards.
She and Wine eventually met each other’s mother. Hers was charming and chatty on a visit to D.C. and got along fabulously with Wine, so much so that she felt left out.
His was rude and bitter on a picnic near the Jefferson Memorial. A Russian immigrant, she still wrapped herself in a robe of resentment – for the early death of her husband, a chef who left her with a teenager and a mound of debt, for the absence of her Old-World family and culture, for having to share her son with his new girlfriend. So he was right to gripe about his mother, she thought.
After a couple of years of steady companionship, he started talking about getting married. He was 40 and wanted to be a father. She too was ready for a next step. She loved his warmth, their easy conversation. But did she love him? She was worried by the lack of electricity between them. They were good friends, very good friends, who had a respectable intimacy but few flashes of passion.
When he started these chats, she always demurred. Then he started talking about baby names. He had his picked out.
“I made a list of names when I was in high school,” she admitted.
“Ah-ha! I knew it!” he grinned. “Sweetie, you’d be a great mother.”
“But they were names for dogs.”
It crushed him.
The new pressure made her antsy and suddenly unhappy. Her long face didn’t change him – like an imprinted duck, he maintained his devotion and adoration. But she knew she had to make a decision.
“Settling.” That was the word that stuck when all the others – “love,” “marriage,” “life-long” – failed to fit. She felt like making a future with him was settling for what was there and available.
That was the stew of her mind when Books walked in. He was an assistant professor visiting her lab on a company tour. Coincidence, fate, unconscious choice – something helped make it happen just then.
Talk about sparks. They had a fast fling, then furtive meetings, then she fell hard. It was time to let Wine go. He left with a whimper, holding his broken heart for all to see.
She and Books were torch-hot, always entwined. She felt at home around his mind as well as his body: his sarcasm, his socialism, his always knowing more than she did. This, she felt, was love, true love, romantic love, respectful love, being in love, accepting love, loving back. They had a daughter within a year and got married soon after.
When he got a professorship in New York, they moved out of Washington and she found work at his university, oddly in a position with better exposure and more supportive mentors, and over the years her work became well-regarded. She started on her PhD.
They thrived as a couple, too. After almost 20 years together, they were as comfortable as a pair of old shoes and still, occasionally, enjoying some physical heat.
Until he found someone else, apparently even hotter. Must be a freaking volcano, she thought. So much for growing old together. She was furious and he was unrepentant. Her only consolation was that their daughter was already in college, an almost-adult who would have to deal with the fallout in her own way. Books wanted a divorce so badly, and then so did she, that it was over and done in a matter of months. She stopped weeping and went online to announce her singleness.
At the end of a work trip to Washington to testify about antimicrobial drug resistance at some inconsequential subcommittee, she met Wine for lunch. He had found her divorce post on Facebook, and she agreed to a catch-up date. A busy pub in Alexandria. Daylight. Safe. Just lunch. Just for old time’s sake, she told herself.
Yet she found herself drinking and talking with him way past the end of their meal. They were still ordering merlots when sundown and the dinner crowd arrived.
The years had mutated his thick, wavy, black hair into snow, and he had gained more weight since they were together. His right knee was sore, unreliable, gave him trouble walking, he said.
Still, that baby face, smooth and round, always grinning and pudgier than ever, almost canceled out everything else physical and preserved that goofy teenager look she always loved. He carefully hid his heartbreak behind his back and tamped down his schmaltz of old.
Wine, 10:15 p.m.: “Going to sleep now. Here’s a photo of my epic cabbage soup. I’ll make it for you one day.”
A few weeks after she got back home to New York, he sent her three bottles of California wine. He called it a housewarming present, though she had been in her new apartment for six months.
For Easter, she got another three bottles – French, this time.
“I know you told me not to send you anything,” he said when she called to thank him and yell at him. “Wine is not a thing. It’s a consumable.”
She granted that that was acceptable. The wine sure didn’t go to waste. Divorce had left her suddenly trying to manage a budget.
Wine, 10:22 p.m.: “The beauty of being retired is you can wake at 4 a.m. and watch movies if you feel like it and then nap all afternoon. You really should try it.”
He would phone, too, mostly video calls. “I like talking to you. Is that such a bad thing?” She had to concede on that point, too. As ever, he was a good talker, and she was a good listener.
She learned that his mom, still alive and about to turn 91, lived in the apartment next to his. His mother had some heart issues, but was mildly active for her age, doing yoga every morning, tending an herb garden on the balcony, and food shopping once a week with Wine. He would text up to New York luscious photos of the meals he made for her – roast chicken, lobster tails, stuffed peppers.
“But I thought you didn’t get along.”
“Oh, we don’t. Not at all,” his said, his tubby face peering at her through the phone. “She’s still nasty. Always complaining. I’m either doing too much for her or not enough. I’ve just learned not to react when she pushes my buttons.”
“Wow. I’m impressed. I could never do that with my mom when she was alive.” She felt as if he had grown up over the years.
“I have a grand plan,” he announced on the phone one evening. “It involves my favorite person. I just can’t tell you what it is yet. Give me a year.”
What was he up to? And did she want to be a part of it? Settling, she realized at home one night over a glass of Malbec, felt different now, at her age. What was wrong with settling for something warm and snug and satisfying when the days were ever shorter? She craved the comfort and well-being she once enjoyed in her marriage.
She had taken off her wedding ring well before the divorce was final as a rejection of the past and a commitment to change. But Wine and Roses out of nowhere made her past a current event.
She floated through her days, lifted by desire, both hers and theirs. It was like a dream – to be 59 years old and to be sought after, to want to love again. The path of life might be circuitous, even circular, but it was also short. She knew it was a gift to be within love’s grasp as the closing of the gate drew nearer.
In March, Roses announced he was convening a “summit” with her. A what? An important dialogue. “At my summits, there will be no physical contact until it’s over.”
“Then I don’t want to go,” she smiled.
“No. You must. This is serious.”
The physical rule went out the window right away. There was too much hunger for each other’s touch. But the summit was indeed serious.
His ex-wife, he said – “and, yes, we really are divorced – I can show you the papers” – had Parkinson’s disease and was increasingly unable to take care of herself. He had been stepping in.
“I don’t want this, I really don’t,” he said. “But I have a responsibility. She’s the mother of my son. She’s got no job, no family.”
She was quiet.
“It’s worse,” he continued. “She’s nuts. I mean, borderline certifiable. She calls in the middle of the night and says she needs a place to stay. I have to pay for a hotel for her. Or she takes a bus and just shows up at my door. She’s a crazy, sick, pain in the ass. I want nothing to do with her.”
He was squeezing her hand so hard she thought she might have to pull away. “But she’s got all these doctor visits and drugs to get and special foods she has to buy. And she’s got no money, and no car, and no family. So I’m it.”
“What I’m trying to say is I can’t be here for you, for us, until I get her into a situation, I don’t know, Medicaid or whatever, where I don’t have to do this.”
“Okay… So, like, are you talking a few weeks?”
“Yes, weeks, sure, weeks, maybe months. I don’t know – as soon as I can figure it out.”
She looked away and took it in. What could she say? She was skeptical that the ex had no one else to turn to – no one is that isolated – but she believed he had a good heart.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she finally said, patting his other hand.
“Oh God, I love you, with all my soul, I swear,” he said. “You are a beautiful person.”
They texted every morning, noon, and 2 a.m., about their day, their lives, their past and future. Many of the exchanges were hysterically funny, some were enticingly, frustratingly erotic. It was a different way to get to know someone again, but it was a way.
She didn’t actually see him for a month, and the next time after that was five weeks later. He had gone down a dozen rabbit holes at various government social services without a solution. And on his pension, he couldn’t afford any private-care options. He canceled several dates they had planned, and he passed on her invitations to a vacation in Quebec and a casino weekend in Connecticut. Yet on the phone, whether by voice or text, he pledged his heart to his one true love, over and over and over again.
Roses, 12:32 a.m.: “Are you awake? I think of you constantly. I’m not going to let you go again.”
She didn’t go anywhere.
Wine kept up his patter, and she aimed to be friendly without misleading him. She knew she wounded him once, and she swore not to do it again. Was it possible?
When he and his super-serious Boston pal arranged to meet halfway for a steak-whiskey-and-cigar weekend in New York, he insisted that she join them for dinner. That worked for her. She liked the idea of one more at the table to diffuse Wine’s attention – she wasn’t ready for where his full-on earnestness would take her. Not yet.
At the steakhouse, it was in fact she and the bestie who spent most of the evening talking. His science background made it easy for them to slip into good-natured arguments over the junk that passed for research journals these days.
Wine kept interrupting with mock outrage. “Hey, she’s my guest!”
But she could tell he was pleased with their fellowship. After their whiskeys, Wine talked about having the next reunion in D.C. or Boston, and he made the tuxedoed waiter take their picture.
In the half-light of the restaurant entrance, she stood and watched them walk off into the city’s bustle until they disappeared in a knot of tourists. She stood there for 10 full minutes more, somewhat incredulous of the glow they left her in.
Roses, 11:46 p.m.: “You did what?? Who is this guy? Am I doomed? Are you giving up on me?”
She didn’t answer him. This didn’t have to do with him. And he wasn’t actually there to leave.
Wine, 2 p.m.: “Take a look at this: 1880s house, three bedrooms, New Hope, Pa. What do you think??”
She didn’t answer him, either. No, she was not planning on moving in with him. She was not planning anything, actually. Maybe that was the problem. But one lunch and one dinner with Wine did not a future make.
Roses persisted, no surprise, perhaps propelled by the specter of Wine. A bouquet of white buds sat outside her apartment after work the next week. A sign of hope? A truce? A new beginning?
She called him. Almost immediately, discarding her best intentions, she pleaded for his company.
“Just a weekend. Any weekend. She can’t need you 24/7.”
There was a long pause. “Now she’s having trouble walking,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. But I can’t let her crawl around on her hands and knees. And she would! I’m just caught in a bad spot at the moment. I mean to be with you, forever!”
She wanted to believe him. But she also wanted to be with him. After six months of professing undying love, he had not spent a single night with her.
She moped. She pined. She lost her train of thought at the lab. She woke every morning shaking her head in confusion and disbelief and hurt. He had aroused a longing in her and then abruptly refused to satisfy it. Why?
She sifted through a dozen scenarios in her head. Very few of them had a happy ending. She considered a return trip to Long Island, this time unannounced. Surely there was something to find there. She imagined herself in a wig and sunglasses, slunk down in a rented car parked down the block, eyes locked on his cottage. And then … nothing. In her head, the cottage lights stayed off, the door never opened. She saw herself sniveling softly into the tresses of her blonde wig before driving home in rotten traffic.
That’s ridiculous, she thought. I am not going to stoop to that level. If she had done that with Books, the pain would have been far worse. At least Books owned up to his affair.
So when Wine invited himself for a weekend visit to New York, she didn’t put him off the idea. In fact, she suggested sometime in May. New York in the spring could be enchanting. She also made sure Roses knew Wine would soon be escorting her up Broadway.
Roses, 1:15 p.m.: “Nooooooooooooo!! And if you couldn’t tell, I’m jealous.”
A week into May, she hadn’t heard from Wine about any visit, so she called him. Mom had been having mild chest pains, he said. The doctor gave her some pills and advised against surgery, but Wine didn’t feel right leaving her just then. “You should come down here,” he proposed instead. “You need a break from work! And you’d get to see me!”
What is it with these people? she thought, hanging up the phone.
Her daughter was a welcome distraction. M, who had stayed pals with her father while at art school in London, insisted on inviting both of her parents to her graduation.
“You’re not going to make a scene with Dad, right?” M said over Skype.
“Of course not. It’s over and done with. I’m an adult. I’ve moved on.”
“Yeah?” she smirked. “How far? Bringing a date?”
“Very funny.” Her mind briefly wandered. But no. She wouldn’t even ask. Neither of her paramours would go to London with her. Why would they? They wouldn't even see her in New York.
Roses, 5:52 a.m.: “You can still text from there? You’ll send pictures? I will miss you madly. My heart belongs to you.”
Wine, 10:11 a.m.: “I knew she’d do it. Congrats and have a great trip. Come down to D.C. to celebrate when you get back. I’ll be waiting.”
Books, 12:40 p.m.: “M wants me to meet up with you early so we don’t create a ‘scene’ (her word) at her big moment. Okay by me. See you tomorrow.”
Deliberately, she arrived at the ale house early. It gave her a sense of control, though she couldn’t pinpoint how, exactly.
The place was ordinary – dark, woody, with pockets of men and their pints. She and Books had spent afternoons at similar London pubs recounting theater matinees after they moved M into school years before. They had made a game of raising a toast at each bar to mark milestones in M’s life, reminiscing and congratulating each other.
“Here’s to the SATs!”
“To her first tattoo – she was 14, wasn’t she?”
“To summer camp!”
“Here’s to the senior prom! God, she was gorgeous. Well, she was before 4 in the morning, anyway.”
“How about this one – to the end of piano lessons!”
Moving her stool to face the front, she realized Books must have already been with her when they were raising their glasses then. Her cheeks briefly flamed. I was such a chump, she thought.
She admitted that M was right – best not to have their first conversation in two years in front of their daughter. Even with mutual friends and jobs on the same campus, she and Books had found it easy to avoid each other in New York. They parented by text, mostly about tuition and holidays and summer internships.
And then, there he was at the door. Still cultivating that rumpled-professor look, she noted. He found her in the dimness, tossed her a wave, and came over. She leaned back on her stool in the corner so he couldn’t possibly embrace her. She would be civil, for M’s sake. But that’s all.
“You fit right in with all the tweediness here,” she said with a smile.
“And you’re looking too damn young to be the mother of a college graduate,” he rejoined.
It was a promising start. Their chit-chat was mostly about work – he had scaled back his classes, and she had asked to go part-time. Maybe this time she’d finish her PhD, but it wasn’t important anymore.
“I guess we’re feeling our years,” she said.
“So, are you seeing anyone?”
She let his loutish question waft in the air. How in hell do I answer that? she thought, drifting away to her uncertain affairs back home. Was she seeing Wine? Or Roses? What was she doing with them, anyway?
She eventually shook her head. “No, I am not seeing anyone.” That was the literal truth, at least. It was also the response that divulged the least information. And the one that was the most painful for her to say out loud.
“How about you? How is she?”
He rubbed his beard. “Well, she moved on to someone else.”
“Someone her own age?” she smiled, hoping to exact some hurt in return. He stiffened. “Oh, come on. No big deal,” she said, patting his forearm. “I couldn’t resist.”
His neck muscles relaxed. “Actually, I don’t know who. But it didn’t take her long.” He sat forward with his pint. “I kick myself sometimes, you know.”
“I was in such a hurry for change, to make it all happen. To start a new life, to feel younger. And so on and so forth. Not very original, I’m afraid.”
“I’m not looking for an explanation.”
“No, I want to tell you. I’ve been wanting to tell you for ages.”
“I actually don’t care,” she said. “In fact, I’d rather you didn’t.” She surprised herself with her frankness.
A dense air descended over their scowls. She looked at her phone and winced. They still had an hour before they needed to leave for the ceremony.
“What I wanted to say,” he picked up again, “and what I will say, damn it, is that I regret it all. And I’m sorry. I’m enormously sorry I hurt you.”
In a conversation full of long pauses, this one was monumental. The silence stretched so far that it became uncomfortable for both of them.
She finally exhaled. “I didn’t expect that,” she said. “And I don't need it. I was perfectly content to come in here and continue hating you.”
“And with good reason,” he said, looking at her mournfully. “I hope you can forgive me sometime. You were always the more gracious one.”
“Oh, stop.” She thunked down her glass on the wood table, harder than she meant to. “Let’s not. Okay? Let’s just not.”
With herculean effort, they got back onto a more inconsequential track – M’s job hunt, the dismal state of politics there and at home, the highlights of London theater – until it was time to go.
“Here’s to us,” he said, downing the last of his draft.
Books, 9:31 a.m.: “Thanks for not slugging me, or worse. It was really, really good to spend time with you, to be a family again. I’ve missed you. Hope we can meet up in the city. Have a safe flight.”
Three bloody Marys on the plane dissolved her tension. She survived. M was happy. It was all a modest success. And yet, she didn’t know where she was going, or with whom.
She had had love, withheld love, saw love walk out on her. And now, desperate to give it back as time grew shorter, she just couldn’t put her finger on love.
She wondered if these men were all simply locked into lives that did not, could not, would not include her, no matter what they texted.
They’re all frauds, she thought without bitterness. Maybe they meant well, maybe they even meant what they said. But they’d each spun a web of delusions and self-deception around her.
Have I, too? she asked herself as a misty sleep took over.
On the ground, as she waited for her suitcase to come down the chute, she pulled out her phone.
Her, 4:14 p.m.: “I’m back. Lovely trip. Can’t wait to see you.”
She texted it to all of them.