Okay, so the blog this week is a couple of days late. My apologies. I waited until today because I wanted to include my latest short story, which I completed within the last hour. It is for a contest on Vocal, and the theme is a date, must mention merlot somewhere in the story. Let me know what you think.
SECOND CHANCE, FIRST DATE
Inside my head, alarm bells are going off. Voices are telling me this is wrong, to stop and rethink my decision, so for the moment, I close my eyes and listen to the sound of rain falling around me. Something about the sound of water thundering against pavement has always soothed me. I open my eyes. Thank God for my umbrella, which has done an admirable job of repelling the deluge. Otherwise, I'd be soaked to the bone, which would be a tragedy since I'm in my best suit.
The sensible thing would be to cross the street and take refuge in the restaurant, but sadly I am momentarily incapable of movement. Besides, sensibility and I parted ways long ago.
My name is Levi Carroll and, for what it's worth, I believe you should know I am as nervous tonight as I have ever been in my life. Why, you ask? I am on my way to meet someone—a first date of sorts.
In conditions such as this, the sensible thing would have been to hail a taxi and have the driver stop at the door where I could have limited my involvement with the elements, but tonight I made the fateful decision to walk. My mother always said I was a glutton for punishment, and after enduring what I have for the last half hour, I'm beginning to think she was right. Somehow, I had convinced myself that I thought better on my feet and a walk was the appropriate method of travel for this particular evening. After all, with my house only a few blocks from the restaurant it shouldn't have been more than a fifteen-minute walk, but tonight the air is cold and the incessant rain, which has been falling most of the day, has transformed the journey from sprint to marathon.
While I attempt to conjure a bit of courage, I survey my side of the street. Behind me stands a long row of houses, each connected by a common wall. Their outward appearance is similar—shaker siding, covered porch, and a balcony from the second story that overlooks a small front lawn—and although they come in varying shades of mostly warm colors, all are pleasing to the eye. Lights are on in all except one, and through a nearby window there appears a young boy whose face, framed by a pair of small, cupped hands, is pressed against the glass as he stares out into the night. He can't be older than seven, and as I watch him, I wonder what sort of fantastical thoughts are playing in his head. Oh, the joy and innocence of youth, I think as I feel the corners of my mouth curl into a smile.
Paralleling the houses, beyond the reach out the iron gates, is a long sidewalk that runs north to south as far as the eye can see. The narrow strip of concrete, lit in regular intervals by the pale glow of streetlights, is where in now stand. In front of me is McAllen Street, the new dividing line between the residential area of town and the revitalized market district where old buildings have been converted into swanky bars and restaurants. As I peer into the windows, I observe most places are full. Valentine's Day is the busiest night of the year, and if not for a reservation, acquiring a table before midnight is simply out of the question. Fortunately, I planned ahead.
On the far side of the street is Sids, the restaurant where we agreed to meet. It is a place we both know well. Within the warm confines of the restaurant sits Rachel, someone who I am both anxious and nervous to meet in person. I'm ashamed to admit, but we met on the internet, and though online connections are becoming more popular by the minute, it's a bit outside my comfort zone.
I take the cell from my pocket and scan through my photos until I find her picture. Lifting my eyes, I find her sitting in the window. Cast in the warm glow of candlelight, her image shifts and distorts with the streams of water that snake their way down the smooth surface of the glass. Even so, she is undeniably beautiful. But despite her appearance, on her face is etched a look of concern, which she bravely tries to hide. I knew this night would be uncomfortable for her, for both of us. Despite staring in my direction, I'm confident her eyes have not found me, for I am still on the other side of the street, cloaked in the shadow of my umbrella, hidden by the dark of the night.
Again, I ask myself if I've made the right decision. I waver, albeit briefly, and steady myself as I arrive at the same conclusion as before. Okay, here goes, I tell myself, one foot in front of the other. Surely, it can't be that difficult, and yet... With a rose in one hand and the umbrella firmly clasped in the other I step down from the sidewalk and into the street, careful to avoid the torrent of water that is rushing by at the edge of the road on its journey to the storm sewer. I find a lull in the traffic and cross.
On the other side, another sidewalk, a mirror of the one I've just come from. I come to a stop and let a man and woman pass. Just a few feet in front of me is a small set of steps leading up to a red door with a black handle. Not too late to change your mind, I say in my head, but involuntarily ascend the steps. Enough of this nonsense, I tell myself as I reach the landing. Beneath the safety of the awning, I reach for the door and swing it open as I draw the umbrella to a close. I should be delighted to have reached my destination, but the real journey has only just begun.
“May I help you with your things, Mr. Carroll?” asks Edwin, the attendant in charge of coats and umbrellas.
“Yes sir, thank you,” I say with elation as I hand him the umbrella and shrug the coat from my shoulders.
Warmth embraces me and instantly I thaw.
The host, a man by the name of Garrett Beasley, raises his eyes from the appointment book and clears his throat. “Mr. Carroll, so good to see you again, sir,” he says with a smile. He is a thin whisper of a man, perhaps forty years of age. He's been the host for several years and despite the obvious difference in age, he's always treated me with respect, though I imagine it's mostly manufactured rather than genuine.
“Ms. Nichols is waiting for you in the dining room,” he announces as I straighten my tie in the mirror.
“Yes, I saw her through the window on my way in,” I say as I swivel my eyes to him. “Has she been waiting long?”
“Only a few minutes, sir. Now, if you're ready, I'll take you to her.”
As I round the corner, she is the first thing that catches my eye. The room is full and alive with the buzz of conversation and is accompanied but not drowned out by the soothing sound of a violin. I hardly notice. She has captured my attention. Her face is beautiful, angelic, with soft edges. Still peering out into the darkness, she is unaware of my presence and it is in that moment that I love her most. As I admire her from a distance, I think perhaps the rain has mesmerized her or the cars on the streets with their lights as they fly by. She is wearing a tasteful red dress, which she said she bought especially for this occasion, and has draped elegantly around her neck a string of pearls that glisten in the flicker of candlelight. She is exactly the way I pictured her.
“Levi?” she asks, standing as I approach. “Is that for me?” she asks, spying the rose I've tried unsuccessfully to hide at my back.
“Yes, it is,” I reply, handing it to her.
“It's beautiful.” She presses the pedals to her nose and closes her eyes, drawing in its fragrant aroma.
“Not half as beautiful as you,” I say as I lean in and gently kiss her cheek.
We part and she smiles softly.
“Your waiter will be with you momentarily,” says Garrett.
“Thank you,” I say. I help Rachel into her chair, then take mine and let out a sigh.
“Should I order drinks?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says with a nod. “Do you enjoy wine?”
“I do,” I tell her. She doesn't know, but my wine of choice is a classic, elegant merlot, which pairs nicely with Beef Wellington, by far the best item on the menu. “Your choice,” I say, eager to learn of her selection.
She scans the wine list while I signal the waiter.
“What can I get for you, madam?” he asks kindly.
“A bottle of Château Pétrus,” she says, taking my breath.
“Excellent choice, madam,” he says with a nod. “I'll have that out momentarily.”
When he's out of earshot, she turns her eyes to me. There is a warmth in her smile that is disarming.
He returns a moment later and pops the cork, filling a glass for Rachel and one for me.
“Thank you,” we say to him.
“How about a toast?” I offer, raising my glass. “To love and life and whatever the future may bring.”
“Yes, to the future,” says Rachel as she lifts her glass and clangs it against mine.
After a sip of wine, I lean back in my chair and survey the room. It is aglow in candlelight. I close my eyes and listen to the soft music—something from Vivaldi, though I can't be sure—and from out of the abyss of my mind a memory breaks loose and bubbles to the surface. It is from the night I proposed to Mary, my wife of forty-three years. We were twenty-two. God, that seems like a lifetime ago. Despite the passage of time, I can still see her expression, smell the sweet scent of her perfume, and hear the tremor in her voice as she said yes.
The last year has been the most difficult in my life. Both of us having recently retired, Mary and I had been looking forward to traveling and spending time with our grandkids. But as the world was going on lockdown, she caught the coronavirus, and though she fought bravely, she and the lifetime we'd shared, slipped away like a thief in the night.
I fight back tears and take another drink as Rachel tells me a story about her late husband, Dan. We're in the same boat, she and I, though neither of us are to be envied. As the alcohol takes hold, my memory fades, and the smile on my face returns.
“I have a confession to make,” she says, gazing up at me as she places her wine glass gently on the table. Her eyes dart away. “I almost decided not to show tonight.”
I stifle a smile and reach for her hand. “Can I confess something as well?”
“Yes, please,” she begs, allowing me to hold her hand.
“I nearly didn't either.”
“Really? Oh, what a relief,” she says, putting a hand to her heart. “I was worried I was the only one.”
Any tension we had been feeling to that point melted away instantly, and as we ate and laughed and shared stories about our lives, I felt for the first time in a long time that I had a reason to smile again.