by Wayne Scheer
Elizabeth had finally accepted widowhood with grace and humor. She’d even changed the recording on her answering machine to say: “As unlikely as it may seem, the widow Grayson is not home at present.”
The last thing she expected, nearing her seventy-sixth birthday, was the message that greeted her when she returned home from the grocery store.
“Hello Elizabeth, or should I say Widow Grayson? I love your message. This is Jack Kearns, a friend of Mary and Bill Lindsay. We met last week at the art auction. Heaven help us, but Mary has taken it into her head to fix us up. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t entirely her idea. I asked about you with, perhaps, too much fervor. Anyway, she’s concocting a plan to invite you for dinner while neglecting to say I would be there. But at our age there’s no time for games. Would you like to meet for coffee? I’ll leave my phone number. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll try again tomorrow evening.”
Elizabeth shook her head. Good grief, she was being asked out. When the shock wore off, she played the message again. This time, she enjoyed Jack’s honesty. Like Leonard, her late husband, he sounded intelligent and honest, a no-nonsense sort.
She put away the few items she had purchased at the grocery store, and recalled meeting Jack at the auction. She had been there to buy a painting by a local artist she admired and couldn’t be bothered with small talk. Still, she remembered Jack as tall and interesting looking, with longish white hair and a bushy beard. She thought he looked like a man who smoked a pipe, although thank goodness he didn’t smell of tobacco. She also recalled that they had exchanged a few words about art, and he had appeared knowledgeable and unpretentious.
For the first time since her husband’s death three years earlier, she found herself thinking of another man. Should she feel guilty or amused, she wondered?
She considered what the children would think. Barbara would probably say it’s about time. Bryan, more like his father, would make a joke and shrug it off. The grandchildren’s reactions would undoubtedly be dismay that such an old lady might have a gentleman interested in her.
She wanted to call Janice, her friend since high school, but Janice’s cancer had recently spread to her liver. This was no time to gossip about a man asking her out.
Her brother would have found this amusing, but he had passed almost ten years earlier.
Waving her hand in the air, she tried putting the idea out of her mind.
She turned on Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor, but her mind wandered to Jack. She recalled how he had focused on her when they spoke, as if he were truly listening to what she said. She regretted having been so preoccupied with the auction.
What foolishness! After spending more than fifty years with one man, how could she even entertain such thoughts? She had finally grown comfortable with her new life. Why would she want to risk….Risk what? Eating dinner by herself? Dashing off to the grocery store for a couple of things as an excuse to get out of the house? Her comfort was little more than resignation; she knew that. She had never been one to passively accept what could be changed for the better. Why was she so accepting now?
It would be wonderful listening to music or enjoying good food with a thoughtful man. Since the death of her husband, she hadn’t felt at ease with couples like the Lindsays, always imagining herself a third wheel. And, although she had a few women friends, she enjoyed the company of men.
She had grown accustomed to being the only woman in the boardroom as a fundraiser for nonprofits. She had learned to enjoy intelligent men and avoid the bores. Most of all, she had been able to come home and laugh with Leonard about her adventures in the so-called man’s world of corporate finance. Leonard understood little of what she did, and she understood even less about cardio-pulmonary research, but they appreciated each other’s intelligence. And they had laughed. She tried recalling the last time she had laughed freely at a clever remark, instead of forcing a smile at an insipid, poorly told joke.
What harm could there be in sharing coffee and conversation with an interesting man?
She turned towards the telephone, remembering he said he’d call back tomorrow evening. Would it be forward of her to call him? Should she at least wait a bit longer? The thought made her smile. Leonard had always observed that men never outgrew their adolescent insecurities. Apparently, the same held true for women.
Pushing herself out of her chair, she played the message once again, this time copying Jack’s number and calling it, not allowing herself time to think.
The telephone conversation went well. Once she identified herself, Jack sounded relieved. He said he hated message machines and feared he had rambled like a dolt. Once they both admitted their awkwardness, they spoke comfortably.
Jack had been widowed for nearly five years and had suffered depression, but had only recently realized it. He had spent so much energy assuring his children he was doing fine, that he had ignored his own feelings. To his surprise, over cocktails, he had admitted to Mary and Bill that he wanted to date again. That’s when Mary told him about Elizabeth and arranged their introduction at the auction.
“You mean it wasn’t a chance meeting?”
“There are no coincidences in Mary’s world,” he said. They laughed freely. After a pause, he added, “Mary describes you as brilliant, witty and kind. A virtual saint.”
“The operative word, I’m afraid, is ‘virtual,'” she had assured him. “I’ll have to catch up on my reading of both the Gospels and Oscar Wilde.” She felt proud of her little witticism and relieved he seemed to get it.
With that, they arranged to meet for lunch the next day. They both admitted they had stopped drinking coffee after breakfast and neither wanted to wake up early enough for a breakfast date.
After she hung up, Elizabeth tried recalling which of them had used the word “date.”
That evening, memories of her first date with Leonard haunted her. They had both been in college — he a junior, majoring in biology, and she a sophomore English major. They had attended a school production of King Lear. She had been surprised that a science major knew so much about theater. Her own knowledge was limited to an “Introduction to Drama” course and a high school performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” in which she had assisted with the lighting.
Despite her naivete, he had hung on to her every word. Leonard had a way of listening with his whole self, much like Jack. When she spoke, he’d lean in towards her, his hand on his chin. His eyes focused on her, as if she were the only person in the room. She had known immediately Leonard was special.
Even after he went on to medical school, and she earned an MBA, they remained friends. When Leonard finally asked her to marry him, her mother replied, “It’s about time.”
So how, after a lifetime of living with and loving her best friend, could she be thinking of another man? The very thought seemed bizarre.
She ate her dinner alone, grilled chicken breast with roasted beets and a salad with a pear vinaigrette dressing she had prepared yesterday from a new recipe. Too acidic, she thought. It needed sweetening. Perhaps a touch of maple syrup or honey?
She read for a while and watched some television before deciding to go to bed early. Her mind wandered to the first time she and Leonard had been intimate. She could still feel the comfort of his arms, the way she had relaxed and let go of her inhibitions. It would be good to rest her head on a man’s chest, to inhale the muskiness of a man’s smell.
That night she dreamed of Jack. Was it a sex dream? Certainly not. She couldn’t imagine Jack that way. Or herself. Although the details dissolved with the morning light, she felt aroused and distraught.
In the shower, she made up her mind to call off the lunch date. She’d tell him the truth: She wasn’t ready. She imagined him joking, “You’re not ready to eat lunch? How about dinner then?”
She knew how foolish she sounded. How often had she advised her own children to step out of their comfort zones, to take chances? When her daughter had doubted being able to succeed in law school, Elizabeth had responded, “How will you know if you don’t try?” Barbara, who recently made full partner at her firm, had told her numerous times how important those words were to her.
If only she could follow her own advice.
Now a new fear taunted her as she stepped out of the shower and considered her reflection in the mirror. Her body looked like she had stayed in a swimming pool too long. Recalling how proudly she had presented her young, firm body to Leonard, she pushed up her sagging breasts and watched them fall, not bounce. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
After drying herself and putting on an old, comfortable robe, she poured a cup of coffee and finalized her decision. She would call Jack and cancel plans. No need to torture herself any longer.
When she reached for the phone, she saw a missed call on the message machine. She played it.
“Hello, Elizabeth. It’s Jack. I hope it’s not too early to call. If you’re anything like me, you’ve had a restless night. Until a few minutes ago, I had decided to cancel our plans. I feared I wasn’t ready to meet a woman I wanted to know better. I’m being a perfect fool, I know — I assure you I’m not usually this indecisive. Would you please call me when you get a chance and assure me I’m not a total idiot. Perhaps between us we can strengthen our collective nerve.”
Elizabeth smiled, and — it seemed for the first time since yesterday — exhaled. She reached for her reading glasses and called Jack’s number.