A Love for Maria
“My name is Maria Louisa Francisco. I am the youngest daughter of Lucia and Paolo Francisco. As is custom in my family, I remained at home to care for my parents. Now that they are gone, I am free to start a life of my own, and I am looking for someone to share it with.” There was a note of resignation in her voice, an acceptance of her solitary existence that was rooted in decades of conditioning. Her expressionless face, like the smooth surface of a pond iced over by winter winds, gave no clue to what lay beneath.
The small group at Maria’s table listened politely to the thickset, middle-aged woman. Fellow singles searching for companionship sympathized with her plight.
“I moved to Michigan from New Mexico in December,” Maria added. “I live with my eldest sister, Lucy, and her husband now.”
Maria listened as introductions continued around the table. One by one the men and women spoke of failed marriages, and what they had done with their lives since. She sensed she would not find the man she sought among them.
After a short discussion period, they moved to different tables to meet other attendants, and to dine on a spaghetti dinner prepared by members of the church hosting the meeting.
Maria wandered over to an empty couch in a corner of the lounge area after the meal. She moved as in a dream, rootless as tumbleweed in a wind storm. She had no desire to mingle. She wanted to go back to her little room in the attic of her sister’s house, but she had to wait for Lucy to pick her up.
A woman near Maria’s age with dark, tinted hair and carefully applied makeup sat down next to her and asked Maria what she thought of the group.
“I think I have come to the wrong place,” she replied. “This is not what I expected.”
The other woman scanned the room and nodded. “You know, you might have better luck on the Internet. There are several introduction web sites. I’ve met a few men that way.”
“But, how do you know if they are good men?” Maria asked.
The woman raised one eyebrow. “There are ways to check them out,” she said. “Read their profiles carefully. If you find someone who interests you, introduce yourself through email; talk with him on the phone. If you decide to meet, choose a public place. Ask a friend or relative to go with you.”
“My sister and her husband have a computer, but I don’t know how to use it. I would be embarrassed to ask.”
“Why, for heaven’s sake?”
“Oh, I guess I am ashamed to be looking for a man at my age.” Maria sighed.
The woman shook her head. “We’re never too old to search for love. You can use my computer, if you’d like. I’d be happy to help you.”
“You are too kind. We have not even been introduced.”
“I’m Jackie Sullivan,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m a nurse at Mercy General.”
“I am Maria Louisa Francisco. I moved here recently from New Mexico.”
“Are you a widow?” asked Jackie, who had not heard Maria’s earlier introduction.
“No. It was my duty as the youngest daughter to care for my parents in their old age.”
“You never married?”
“I was not allowed to marry.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Concern wrinkled Jackie’s brow.
“It is a tradition among my people.”
“How awful. You must have been very unhappy.”
“No! No. I loved my parents.”
“But to give up your own life to serve them—-I can’t imagine.”
“It was expected. I knew that from childhood.”
“Well, that’s in the past. We must look forward to a happier future.”
“Yes,” said Maria, but sadness in her voice betrayed her lack of conviction.
“I’m serious. I believe there is someone for everyone. We’ll find that special man for you.”
“But you are single yourself. How can you believe this?”
“I’m an optimist. I make no apologies for it, and I haven’t always been alone. I’ve been married…twice. I have two grown sons and one grandbaby, with another on the way. Would you like to see their pictures,” she asked, as she pulled a small album out of her purse.
Maria leafed through the pages. “You have a beautiful family.” She tried to sound enthusiastic, but the photos only reminded her of all she had missed.
“I can’t believe you’ve never loved anyone,” said Jackie, softly.
“I thought I was in love once—-with a man who worked on my father’s ranch. I was very young.”
“Was he handsome?”
“I thought so.” Maria blushed, remembering their hours together in the tall grass. “But even if I had been free, he would never have been allowed to marry me. He was not an appropriate match. My sisters’ husbands were chosen very carefully. They are all men of wealth and position.”
“I see. Is that what you’re looking for, a man of wealth and position?”
“No. I am past the age of bearing children. My beauty is gone. I look only for a gentle companion.”
“Whew! You had me worried for a minute there. Gentle companion I think we can manage. Let’s exchange phone numbers.” Jackie wrote hers on a napkin and handed it to Maria.
Maria sighed as thoughts of her lonely life flashed through her mind. She took Jackie’s pen and wrote her sister’s phone number on the blank half of the same napkin.
“It is kind of you to offer your help. You can reach me at this number.” Maria tore the napkin in half and gave her number to Jackie. She did not expect to hear from her again.
Jackie surprised her with a call the following afternoon. “Would you like to come to my place this evening? I could show you the ropes.”
“Show me ropes?”
“That’s an old sailing expression. I mean I’ll teach you how to use the computer.”
“Well, let’s get going on this. Why waste time?”
“You are right. I have no plans for this evening other than helping my sister with dinner. We should be finished cleaning up the kitchen by six-thirty.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty-five.”
A wave of apprehension swept through Maria, as it had many times since her arrival in the northern state, but she reminded herself that she had to be courageous if she wanted to find happiness.
“I…I’ll see you then. Thank you, Jackie.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Don’t mention it? Why?” Maria whispered.
Jackie laughed. “That’s just an expression. I mean, it’s no trouble.”
“Oh, ok.” Maria giggled nervously. “I’m looking forward to getting to know you, Jackie. You are very kind.”
“I think you’re a sweet person, Maria. I’m looking forward to getting to know you, too.”
“Thank you. See you soon.”
“You bet. Bye, Maria.”
Maria carefully placed the phone back on its receiver, the hint of a smile curling her lips.
Later that day, as Maria and her sister Lucy prepared dinner, Maria told her of her plans for the evening, but did not mention Internet dating.
“I’m so glad you have found a friend. You have been spending far too much time in your room.”
“I needed time to adjust…to the changes.”
“I know. This must be very traumatic for you. I have always wished things could have been different.”
“I never imagined I would leave my home. I miss watching the sun paint the mountains with gold. That is what bothers me most about this place, even more than the cold. It is too flat and too drab.”
“You have only seen it in winter. You’ll feel differently come spring.”
“It will never feel like home.”
“I’m sorry our brother and his wife would not share the ranch with you after they took it over, but I am very happy to have you here with me. I missed you.”
“I sound ungrateful. I am sorry.”
“No. I understand. It takes time to adjust to such a tremendous change.”
“How long did it take you to feel happy here?” Maria asked.
“I was homesick for a while, but there is beauty here too. I grew to love this place. I must take you to see the big lake. Each sunset is unique and unbelievably beautiful.”
“As beautiful as our mountains?”
“Yes, in a different way. Besides, little sister, once you find a man he will be the mountain in your life and you will be the sun that brightens his existence.”
A brief smile flashed across Maria’s face and her eyes grew teary. “I hope you are right, Lucy.”
True to her word, Jackie arrived promptly at six-thirty-five. She was warmly dressed in a red parka with a green and white scarf wrapped around her neck, and matching knit hat pulled down over her ears.
“You are colorful today,” said Maria as she ushered her into the house. Did you make your scarf and hat?”
“I did.” Jackie told her. “Do you knit?”
“No!” Maria chuckled. “I had no need for warm clothing in New Mexico.”
“It’s a valuable skill here, but I’m afraid it’s an obsession with me. I can’t resist a beautiful skein of yarn. I’d be happy to teach you.”
Just then, Lucy stepped into the foyer.
“Hello! I’m Lucy. You must be my sister’s new friend,” she said, extending her hand.
“This is Jackie Sullivan,” said Maria.
“It is so nice to meet you,” said Lucy, warmth and welcome coloring her voice. “Would you like to come in? I fixed hot cocoa.”
“I can’t resist such a tempting offer,” replied Jackie.
Maria put her coat in the entryway closet while Jackie removed her boots, then Lucy led them into a well appointed sitting room.
Jackie’s eyes scanned the inviting space. In the center before a roaring fire, two brown leather loveseats faced each other, a massive coffee table in between. Rows of leather bound books lined shelves on either side of the stone fireplace. A painting of a sun drenched villa hung above the mantel. To her right, dark green velvet curtains hung from ceiling to floor, blocking cold air that rolled off a large picture window. The walls and hardwood floors were warmed by woven tapestries and thick carpets.
“You have a lovely home,” said Jackie. She realized Maria was not exaggerating when she said her sister married well. “What kind of work does your husband do?”
“He’s an engineer for Universal Dynamics,” replied Lucy. “You will see him in a moment. He is working in his study this evening.”
“I would hate to disturb him,” said Jackie.
“Oh, but he wants to meet you. We are so pleased Maria is beginning to make friends here. It has been a difficult transition for her.
“Please make yourself comfortable. I will get our refreshments,” said Lucy, as she left the room.
“Is that your home in New Mexico?” Jackie asked, nodding toward the painting.
“No, but it reminds me of it,” said Maria. “I am certain that is why Lucy purchased the painting.”
“This is a handsome house.”
“Yes, they are very fortunate.”
“May I ask you a personal question, Maria?”
“If you had been permitted to marry that ranch hand, would you have done it?”
“I was certain I loved him. I would have married him without thought of the future. I am still a romantic that way,” she added. “Maybe it is because I have always had every material thing I needed, or because romance is absent from my life, but love has always held more value for me than money and the physical comforts it can buy.”
“Hello, ladies!” called a boisterous voice from the doorway.
“This is my brother-in-law,” said Maria, a smile brightening her face. “Federico, I would like you to meet my friend Jackie Sullivan.
“Jackie, this is Federico Flores.”
“Please, call me Fred.” He grasped Jackie’s hand and gave a courtly bow.
“Lucy told me you’re an engineer. What’s your specialty?” she asked.
“I studied electrical engineering at Michigan State. When I received an offer from Universal Dynamics, I decided to settle here.”
“You’re not from Michigan?”
“No. My family lived near the Francisco ranch. I’ve known Lucy and Maria since we were children.”
At that moment, Lucy walked through the door carrying a tray filled with steaming cups. The luscious scent of cocoa preceded her.
“Are you joining us, Freddie,” she asked.
“No. I must return to my work. It was a pleasure to meet you, Jackie.”
“It was very nice to meet you,” Jackie called after him as he exited down the hall. “What a pleasant man.”
“I want Maria to find someone just like him,” said Lucy.
Maria and Jackie exchanged conspiratorial glances.
“What have you planned for this evening?” asked Lucy.
“Jackie is going to show me some of her favorite web sites.”
“That sounds like a fun project. It will be good for you to learn how to get around on the Internet.”
Lucy asked about Jackie’s work at the hospital, and her family. One topic lead to another and soon the cocoa was gone.
“I’d better not keep you any longer. You won’t make much progress on the Internet.”
“There’s always another night,” said Jackie.
Maria and Jackie donned their warm coats and boots, and headed out into the snowy evening.
“Where is your home, Jackie?” asked Maria, as she settled into the passenger seat.
“You’ll see,” Jackie replied with a wink.
After a fifteen minute drive, Jackie pulled under an open carport attached to a cottage that stood on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan. The lake lay shimmering before them under the light of a full moon.
Madre de Dios! My sister was just telling me about a big lake. I did not know it was this big. You cannot see land on the other side!”
“This is true.”
“We missed the sunset,” said Maria, sadly.
“Yes, we did. Let’s not stand in the cold, girl. Come inside. Would you like a cup of herbal tea, or another cup of cocoa?”
“Tea, please. Too much cocoa will keep me awake tonight.”
Once inside the house, Maria looked around at the cozy kitchen, much smaller than her sister’s, but filled with charm: handmade curtains in the windows, shelves filled with colorful ceramic pitchers and bowls, and pictures of fruit and vegetables on the walls.
“Those were all done by my friends,” said Jackie, following Maria’s gaze.
A plump yellow tabby slipped silently into the room and curled around Jackie’s legs.
“There you are, puss. Did we wake you from your nap?”
“You have a cat in your house,” exclaimed Maria.
“Yes. She’s wonderful company. Aren’t you, sweetie?” Jackie reached down and scratched the cat behind the ears. “Her name is Punkin. Haven’t you ever had a pet?”
“No. We had cats in the barn to kill mice, but they were not allowed in the house.”
“Well, you missed out, dear. Didn’t she, punkydoodle?”
The kettle shrieked. Jackie snatched it from the burner and poured the steaming contents over bags of tea. “My computer is in the next room, but we don’t have to get down to work just yet. Let’s chat for a while.”
“That would be nice.”
They stepped into the small living room and settled into big overstuffed chairs. Punkin leaped into Jackie’s lap as soon as her posterior hit the seat.
“Did you miss me?” she asked the cat as she stroked its fur.
Maria smiled as she watched the two interact.
“Would you like to pet her?” asked Jackie. “It’s very therapeutic.”
“Oh. No thank you.”
“Here.” Jackie rose from her chair holding the cat out in front of her.
“No. Please. It is not necessary,” said Maria. She leaned back as far into the cushions as possible.
Punkin flailed her legs, struggling to get free.
“She senses fear. Are you afraid?”
“I’m not used to being so close to them.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” Jackie clutched Punkin to her breast and kissed her flat, furry head. “There, there girl, it’s ok. She just needs a little time to get to know you.” They sat back down opposite their guest.
“How long have you lived here, Maria? How do you spend your time?”
“I’ve been here three months.” Maria stared at her lap, embarrassed. “I have done little but sit in my room, I’m afraid.”
“I bet you feel like a fish out of water, don’t you?”
“Fish?” asked Maria. “Oh, yes, that is a good way to say it.”
“What do you want to do with your life, now that it’s your own?”
“There is so much I have missed. My sisters raised families while I waited to begin my life. They are grandmothers now and I have never had a child.” Tears began forming in Maria’s eyes. “I know it is too late for me to have children, but I would like to find some happiness, a kind man to share my life.”
“One thing I’ve learned,” said Jackie, “is that you have to be happy by yourself before you can find contentment with another person. What do you like to do? What are your talents?”
“I do not know if I would call it a talent, but I like to sketch with pastels, like some of the pictures on your kitchen wall. It is how I spent my free time back home.”
“There you go! My friend Stacy belongs to a group of artists. I’ll introduce you. You could meet people there. The next time you come over bring some of your work. I’ll invite Stacy.”
“OK,” said Maria. “Jackie, I would like to work on my appearance before I meet more people.”
“Honey, we both need to work on our appearance, but don’t let that keep you from meeting people. Come spring, we can start jogging along the lake. It’s a great way to get into shape.”
“Could you teach me about makeup? I like the way you accent your eyes with color.”
“Certainly. You know, your eyebrows would be stunning with a little shaping. Would you mind if I did that?”
“No, I guess not.”
Jackie jumped up, tossing Punkin to the floor, and disappeared into another room. She returned with a pair of tweezers and set to work on Maria’s brows.
Maria chuckled. “I am not used to someone fussing over me.”
“Well, there’s nothing like a little pampering to make a woman feel good.”
When Maria returned to her sister’s home that evening, she could not help grinning at the expression on Lucy’s face. Jackie had applied mascara and eye shadow and a little blush, as well as shaping Maria’s eyebrows.
“My goodness, you girls have been busy with more than the Internet this evening. You look very nice.”
“Thank you.” Maria hugged her before going to her room.
Sitting at her dressing table, Maria stared into the mirror and noted how her altered face made the rest of her look out-of-place. She removed her hair pins and shook her tresses loose, noting their Medusa-like quality, and determined to have them clipped in a more contemporary style. Motivated, she rummaged through her closet, fruitlessly trying to piece together a wardrobe that would match the look she envisioned. The clothes she brought with her from New Mexico were so unlike those she saw women wearing in Michigan. She sighed as she thought about how she must appear to them in her stodgy skirts and blouses.
Late into the night, Maria fretted over changes that lay ahead as sleep eluded her, even without a second cup of cocoa.
Though they had not turned the computer on that evening, Jackie promised they would go online during her next visit planned for the following Saturday afternoon.
An early spring thaw melted much of the snow that week, and a brilliant sun glowed from a cloudless sky on Saturday when Jackie returned. She had traded her parka for a jacket, and left her knitted trappings of winter at home. She bounded out of her Honda Civic and stashed Maria’s portfolio of sketches in the back, before hopping back in behind the wheel. “Stacy is joining us at the house,” she said breathlessly, as Maria slipped into the passenger seat. “You have a new hairdo! I like it. What else did you do this week?”
Maria giggled at her animated friend. “Nothing very interesting.”
“I see you picked up some makeup.”
“Yes, at the grocery store. I am afraid I do not apply it as well as you.”
“No, it looks nice. I like the eye shadow color.”
“Lucy bought me a compact with a lot of colors. This one matches my sweater.”
“Is that new?”
“Why don’t I take a picture of you today for your online profile?”
“Oh, could we just look at people on the computer, instead?”
“Sure, no need to rush, but it wouldn’t hurt to snap a few pictures. I can always take more later, if you’re unhappy with them.”
“Would you touch up my makeup first?”
“You look fabulous, really,” Jackie assured her.
Stacy was leaning on a silver Saturn parked in front of Jackie’s house when they arrived. She was dressed in tight jeans, a lavender leather jacket, and matching high-heeled leather boots. Her short cropped hair was streaked blond and spiked.
“Hey, girl. Long time no see,” called Jackie as she exited her car.
“I know. Terrible thing to be so busy you don’t have time for your friends.”
“This is Maria Louisa Francisco. Maria, my friend Stacy Collins.”
Maria smiled, wide-eyed, taking in Stacy’s mod look and instantaneously deciding it was definitely not for her. “Hello Stacy. I am pleased to meet you,” she said.
“Same here, dear. Jackie told me you’re an artist. I can’t wait to see your work.”
“It is just a hobby, really. I am not very good at it.”
“Nonsense. We’ll be the judges of that.”
The women filed into Jackie’s kitchen.
“Spread your drawings out on the dining room table, Maria, while I fix us some tea,” said Jackie. “You’ve both had lunch, but I hope you saved room for a little dessert. I made a lemon pound cake.”
“You devil,” called Stacy from the other room. “You know I’m on a diet.”
“I don’t want to hear about it. With your figure, you can afford to indulge…but, if you’d rather eat just the fruit topping, I won’t hold it against you.”
While the tea steeped, Jackie joined the other women to look at Maria’s artwork. Punkin strolled in from the adjacent room and purred at Jackie’s feet.
Maria had sketched her beloved mountains in shades of purple and gold with brilliant blue skies. She captured the desert in glorious bloom. A giant saguaro cactus showed its colors on a blindingly bright day. Painted ponies danced across a landscape speckled with tumbleweeds. The adobe hacienda, that had been her home, glowed like a hot coal under the southwestern sun. Maria had not looked at the pictures since she packed to leave New Mexico. Her eyes filled with tears at the sight of home.
They’re beautiful, Maria. You would be a welcome addition to our group,” promised Stacy.
“Thank you. I would like to join.”
“I have such talented friends,” said Jackie. “Let’s have our tea in the sun room, ladies. Everything’s ready.”
After their repast, the women walked single file down narrow stairs of gray, weathered wood to the beach.
“This is the first time this year my steps have been clear,” said Jackie.
The beach still had patches of ice and snow, but they strolled along the lake for a few yards, enjoying the break in winter’s grasp. Jackie had brought her camera along and she took pictures of Maria, in spite of her protests.
“There are some real winners on those dating sites,” warned Stacy, when told of their plans.
“What do you mean by winners,” asked Maria. “Is that good?”
“She’s being ironic. She means losers,” said Jackie. “Hush up, Stacy. Maria is nervous enough about online dating. She doesn’t need any negative advice from you.”
Stacy waved her arms in surrender. “There are good men there too, I suppose.”
Moments later they were huddled around Jackie’s computer as she brought up LocalSyngle.com, a favorite trolling site of hers.
“First we’ll do a search for men near your age in this ZIP code.” She typed the information in the online form, pressed ‘Continue’ and waited as a number of photos and online names appeared on the screen. One by one, Jackie clicked on the links to their full profiles. The women looked them over and Maria approved or vetoed further contact.
“See, that’s what I was talking about,” said Stacy, pointing to a request for a woman interested in ménage à trois.
“What is that?” asked Maria.
“That is definitely a ‘No!’” replied Jackie, returning quickly to the list of faces and pseudonyms.
“This is like shopping for men,” said Maria. A nervous knot gripped her stomach. “I wish they gave more information.”
“That’s where email comes in. You can correspond safely from this web site with anyone you see here, once you join and add your profile to the site. They won’t know your location or real name, unless you choose to reveal them.”
“They’ll know what I look like, though. Must I put my picture on my profile?”
“No, but not many men will respond to your inquiries without one and, suspecting the worst, most won’t venture to contact you first, either,” replied Jackie. “What do you say to giving this a try? I got some good shots of you, and there are a couple of men here I think you’d like to check out.”
Maria took a deep breath, the knot in her stomach tightening. She glanced at Jackie and Stacy, seeing expectant looks on both their faces.
“A one month membership costs only twelve dollars,” said Jackie. “If you aren’t happy with the men you meet, we can pull your profile off.”
“They will think I am a strange woman. No one around here reaches middle age without being married unless there is something seriously wrong with them.”
“That’s not true,” said Stacy. “Some people choose to stay single and, besides, you don’t have to reveal your situation in your profile. Just say you’re currently unattached and looking for a serious relationship.”
Maria took another deep breath. She was beginning to feel queasy, but did not want the women to see her nervousness. She smiled as she had for her mother on many a long, lonely day: the smile of a dutiful daughter. “Ok,” she said, “if you help me fill in the information.”
She reached inside her purse and took twelve dollars from the spending money her sister had given her that morning and offered it to Jackie. “I don’t have a credit card. Will you pay for me?”
“Put your money away, dear. This is my gift to you, my new friend.”
Maria smiled and the tension in her stomach eased. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Jackie. “Let’s get started.”
Besides the basic information such as age and height, they listed Maria’s likes and dislikes, as well as qualities she looked for in a companion.
“He should be kind and thoughtful, honest, hardworking…”
“…and have a sense of humor,” added Stacy.
Maria sent short messages to two men she found interesting: one who called himself ‘Fisherman’ and another named ‘Slugger’. Fisherman replied immediately. He did not list his age on his profile but, when asked, said he was fifty-seven. He wanted to meet her.
“He looks strong and virile,” said Jackie, noting the picture of a muscular man with dark curly hair. “He probably dyes his hair, but you shouldn’t hold that against him.” She patted her own tinted locks.
“Fifty-seven is older than the age range we listed,” Maria said, “but I suppose he is not too old for me.”
“The important thing is that he’s interested,” said Stacy, “and he looks like a decent guy, plus he owns a construction company, and a cottage on Silver Lake. Ask if he’ll meet you at Sugar’s Diner. It’s always filled with people.”
“I didn’t know this would happen so fast,” gasped Maria, She turned from the computer screen to face Jackie. The queasiness had returned and she sensed the room tilting.
“I’ll go with you,” Jackie assured her. “You’ll be safe. Trust me. This is quicker than writing emails back and forth for days.”
Maria held her head in her hands for a moment, trying to regain her composure. Despite her efforts, her hands shook as she typed her request to meet at Sugar’s Diner the next day at one o’clock.
Fisherman replied in the affirmative, telling her to look for a man in a red shirt.
Maria went to church with her sister and brother-in-law Sunday morning. They attended Saint Mary’s, a Gothic stone edifice in the center of town. Its cool interior was nothing like the adobe mission church Maria attended in New Mexico, but the Catholic Mass was familiar and comforting in this place where everything else was strange. She closed her eyes and pretended she was home, forgetting for a moment her qualms about the afternoon meeting.
She had revealed her “date” plans to Lucy the evening before. Her sister was horrified at first, but when Maria explained that Jackie would go with her, Lucy seemed satisfied she would be safe.
“I want you to be happy, Maria,” she said. “I’ll pray to the Virgin that you find a good man.” Lucy lit a candle and offered a prayer for Maria’s happiness before they left church.
When Jackie arrived at the house, Lucy cornered her before she could whisk Maria off to Sugar’s.
“Tell me about this Internet dating,” she said. “Is it really a good way to meet people?”
I’ve met several nice men that way,” said Jackie.
“I’d feel better if I could introduce Maria to someone I know…but there’s no one,” sighed Lucy. Her brow wrinkled in dismay and worry.
“You will have time to get to know whomever I meet,” promised Maria.
Lucy looked thoughtfully at her for a second. “Very well, I’ll have to be content with that,” she said. “Vi con Dios, little sister.”
Maria exchanged a smile with Jackie as they drove off. She was still nervous, but her sister’s blessing took the edge off her fears. She felt anxious to meet the handsome stranger.
When they arrived at the diner, Jackie encouraged her to walk in ahead of her. Maria paused just inside the doorway to scan the room. It was filled with noisy customers seated at red linen covered tables. The plethora of red confused her at first, but her eyes finally settled on the only man wearing red in the room.
Maria heard a sharp intake of breath as Jackie stepped up behind her and looked over her shoulder. Then fingers grasped her arm, turned her back toward the door and pushed her outside.
“The nerve of him,” Jackie raved. “He looks twenty years older than his online picture. He’s at least forty pounds heavier, and the only hair on his head is in that cheap rag of a wig.”
“Do not judge him harshly, Jackie. He is a lonely, desperate man,” said Maria.
“Don’t tell me you want to go back and talk to him,” said Jackie. “If he can’t be honest about his appearance, I wouldn’t trust anything he said.”
“You are right. I have no desire to meet him, but I feel sorry for him. He thinks no one will want him as he is. I feel that way too.”
“Maria.” Jackie put a protective arm around her shoulders. “I’m sorry this had to happen on your first try. There are good honest men out there. We’ll find one for you.”
“Maybe we should spend more time exchanging emails,” said Maria.
Jackie had to agree.
They went back to Jackie’s house for chamomile tea. “It will calm our nerves,” Jackie promised. They sat back in her big overstuffed chairs and let the tension drain from their bodies.
Punkin seized the opportunity to curl up in Jackie’s lap after rubbing a furry side against Maria’s leg.
“That’s her way of showing she accepts you,” said Jackie.
“Her fur is very soft. I can see why you like to stroke it.”
“We might turn her into a cat lover yet, Punkinpuss,” said Jackie to her furry friend.
The two women sat companionably for several minutes, sipping their tea and listening to sounds of the lakeside coming in through an open window. Waves crashed on the beach below and seagulls squawked as they wheeled and dived in the crystalline blue sky.
Maria studied her friend’s face. There was a question she longed to ask. “Why are you so determined to help me, Jackie?”
“It’s my nature to try to fix things, Maria. That’s why I became a nurse.” A playful smile curled her lips. “I’d heal all the world’s wounds if I could.
“We should check the web site to see if Slugger replied to your message,” she added.
“Oh, Jackie, I do not think I am ready for another encounter with a stranger.”
“If the horse throws you off, you need to get back on immediately,” advised her friend.
“My grandfather used to say that,” said Maria.
“Some wisdom is universal. Come on. That’s enough sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. Let’s get back on it!” Jackie jumped up, dumping Punkin unceremoniously to the floor and pulled Maria after her to the computer.
Slugger’s reply awaited them. He wanted to know more about Maria’s background. Did she have a profession? Did she have children?
“I wonder why he calls himself ‘Slugger’?” asked Maria. “It makes him sound like a fighter.”
“His profile says he’s interested in all kinds of sports. That’s a baseball term,” Jackie told her.
“I know nothing about sports,” said Maria. “He teaches high school geometry, though. He must be an intelligent man.”
She typed her response, telling him of her recent move to the area after living in New Mexico, but she did not mention her spinsterhood. Jackie told her that her lack of children might be viewed as a plus by most men, so she did not feel too embarrassed to admit she had none. That done, she sent the message on its way.
“I should be getting home,” said Maria.
“I’ll give you a call when Slugger replies,” promised Jackie. “Are you planning to go with Stacy to her next meeting?”
“Yes, it’s a week from this coming Thursday.”
“I don’t have to work that night. Would you mind if I tag along? I want to see the expressions on their faces when they see your work.”
“I would love for you to tag along, Jackie.”
Either Slugger was a more hesitant suitor than Fisherman or he did not check his email every day. Three days passed before Jackie called to tell Maria of his reply. They exchanged several emails after that, sometimes three or four in one evening. Jackie read each message to Maria over the phone, and Maria voiced her response while Jackie typed and sent it.
Slugger asked about Maria’s interests, her favorite authors, what music she liked, if she had ever been to a baseball game. Maria learned that he liked southwestern cuisine and country music, which pleased her. She also learned he had played semi-professional baseball before a shoulder injury forced him to take up a different career. Slugger was a nickname he picked up during those days of swinging a bat.
He was anxious to take her to a basketball game, another favorite of his, but they decided to meet first over two steaming plates of burritos at Poncho’s Villa, the only Mexican restaurant in town.
“I have a good feeling about this one,” said Maria to Jackie and Stacy as the three women drove to the restaurant Saturday evening.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good luck,” said Jackie.
“I’ll cross mine too if you think it will help,” added Stacy. “Blind dates are killer. Let’s hope he’s not like the…last…” Her voice trailed off as Jackie gave her a withering look.
Slugger, whose real name was Mark Iverson, had told Maria to look for a man in a tweed sports jacket with a Western cut. They quickly spotted him as they entered the dining room. Maria was thankful he looked just like his online photo: thick salt and pepper hair and a slim build. She insisted on introducing her friends to him before they moved to another table. As he stood to greet them, Maria noted with pleasure that he was only a couple inches taller than her own five-foot-four-inch frame.
“I’m glad you are not much taller than me,” she told him after they placed their orders.
“I thought all women liked tall men,” said Mark.
“Tall women like tall men. I prefer looking at someone closer to my own eye level.”
“I’m glad of that.”
They chatted throughout the meal about their lives, and Maria eventually got up enough courage to tell him she had never married, and why.
“I’ve never heard of that custom, but it’s a credit to you that you stuck to it,” said Mark.
Maria was relieved by his response.
Mark had been divorced for fifteen years. He spent his free time coaching little league baseball. “I’m a fan of just about every sport there is,” he said. “Baseball’s my first love, but I enjoy watching basketball, soccer, football and hockey, even golf and tennis.”
He pulled an iPod out of his pocket several times during the evening, punching keys to get online. “March madness,” he explained. “Michigan State’s playing Purdue tonight.
“I love these high tech gadgets,” he added. “I used to carry a Walkman around with me—-annoyed my ex-wife to no end. I don’t blame her. It’s difficult to carry on a conversation with someone who’s plugged into a radio all the time.
“There’s a basketball game at the high school next Friday. Would you like to go with me?” he asked.
Maria was afraid to tell him she was not a sports fan. She smiled and said she would be happy to meet him at the school.
“That will be fine. Bring your friends, if you like,” Mark said.
They exchanged phone numbers, and he promised to call her before the end of the week.
“Well, what did you think of him?” asked Jackie, as she drove Maria home.
“He has many good qualities,” she replied. “I suppose it is foolish to hope for a perfect match.”
“Why, what’s wrong with him?” asked Stacy from the back seat.
“He really likes sports.” Maria shook her head, a quizzical expression on her face.
“A lot of men do,” said Stacy.
“Was that an iPod I saw him playing with?” asked Jackie. “What was he doing with it?”
“Something about March madness,” said Maria. “What sport is that?”
“Oh my god, you are a babe when it comes to sports,” laughed Stacy. “What a funny pair you two would make.”
“Do you think it is a mistake to go to the basketball game?” Maria was already having second thoughts.
“No,” said Jackie, her brows knit together in thought. “You do have some things in common. I’d give him a chance.”
“He’s not bad looking,” commented Stacy. “I’d give him a couple chances.”
Mark called Wednesday, as he had promised. Maria and her sister were out shopping, so he left a message on the answering machine asking Maria to call him back.
Maria worried all afternoon about what they could talk about. She had told him everything she wanted to say about herself at dinner. She punched in the number with trembling fingers that evening.
The phone rang several times before Mark picked it up.
Maria heard impatience in his voice. “Hello…Mark? Did I call at a bad time?”
“No. Hi, Maria. I’m just watching a game—-Michigan and Penn State. I can talk. How’s your week going?”
“Fine. I was sad to see the snow return last…”
“Just a minute. Oh! Man! Come on. Come on. Jeez. You’re throwing it away, guys,” Mark yelled on the other end of the line. “Sorry. What were you saying?”
“I’m sad to see the snow. It looked like spring…”
“Alright, that’s what I’m talking about!” he shouted at his TV again. “This is a killer game,” he offered as explanation for his distraction.
“I’m sorry I bothered you,” said Maria. “I’ll talk with you some other time.” A frown creased her face as she hung up.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lucy.
“I do not like sports,” said Maria.
The next evening, Stacy stopped by to take Maria to the artists’ meeting. She had picked Jackie up first, and Maria slid into the back seat, pushing her portfolio in ahead of her.
“I hope I meet some nice men at this meeting. I am not happy with what I have found on the Internet,” she told her friends.
“What happened?” asked Jackie. She turned around in her seat, a look of dismay on her face.
“Slugger is very rude. I do not want to give him any more chances.”
“What did he say?” asked Stacy.
“He said more to his TV than to me.”
“Oh!” said the two women simultaneously.
“I’m afraid the art group consists mainly of retired people,” said Stacy. “They’re all very nice, though. They’re going to love your pastel drawings. You should enter some of them in our next competition…”
Stacy chatted on and on about the group as she drove to the meeting place, an art supply store downtown. Maria heard only half of what she said. The feeling of hopelessness that dominated her days and nights when she first arrived in Michigan washed over her once more. A life filled with loneliness stretched out before her like the parched sands of a desert.
“Maria, we’re here!” Jackie pulled the car door open and peered in. Stacy was already entering the building. “Are you coming? What’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry,” said Maria, recovering somewhat. “I was miles away.”
“Well, don’t be nervous. These artists don’t bite.”
The room was buzzing with conversation when they entered, but the group president, Tom Parker, quickly brought them to order. He introduced a guest artist: a young woman whose demonstration of block printing techniques constituted the evening’s program.
Maria and her friends sat near the back of the room. She looked over the sea of white and graying heads, and saw that Stacy was right about the age of the group’s members. The feeling of hopelessness overwhelmed her. While the speaker droned on about inspiration, motivation and marketing strategies, Maria’s mind drifted back to New Mexico and her few brief encounters with love.
“Maria, stand up!” Stacy’s voice cut into Maria’s reverie.
Maria stood and found the entire company smiling at her. She smiled back and nodded as they welcomed her to the group.
“We’d like you to display your drawings on that table over there so we can admire them,” said Tom. “While Maria is doing that, do we have any old business to discuss…any new business?”
Jackie and Stacy helped Maria arrange her artwork on the long table at the side of the room, then stepped aside as the group filed past on their way out at meeting’s end. A few people asked questions, and everyone complimented her lovely drawings and welcomed her to the group.
When the room had cleared, the owner of the store came over and offered his framing services. “Members get a twenty-percent discount,” he told her. “You’ll want to enter some of these in the spring competition.”
“That’s in May,” added Stacy. “You have a little time to decide.”
“I would like to enter,” said Maria. “I will come back in a few days with the drawings I select.” She was certain her brother-in-law would pay for the framing, but wanted to ask him first.
As the women gathered the drawings up and Maria placed them back into the portfolio, Jackie noticed the edge of a piece of paper jutting out of a pocket in the front cover.
“Are there more drawings in here?” she asked, pointing to the pocket.
“Just some pencil sketches,” said Maria.
“Could we take a peek?” asked Stacy.
“They are decades old and not very good.”
“Nonsense, let’s see ‘em.” Stacy pulled a small stack of yellowed pages from the pocket. The top sketch was of a young man with haunting eyes and long dark curly hair.
“I know him!” she gasped.
“That sketch is almost thirty years old,” said Maria.
“Is that the young man you told me about?” whispered Jackie.
“Honestly,” said Stacy. “He’s a ringer for a young man who works on my parents’ farm in Shelby.”
“It is just a coincidence,” said Maria, wiping a tear from her cheek.
“You still love him,” said Jackie.
“His kisses stopped the world.” Maria choked down a sob. “He was sent away to keep us apart.”
Jackie put her arm around Maria. “That is so wrong.”
“What was this man’s name?” asked Stacy.
“Luis! That’s the boy’s father. He manages the farm. He’s worked for my parents since I was a teenager!”
Jackie grabbed Maria’s shoulders. “Maria! It’s him, the love of your life!”
“Is he married?” asked Maria. She feared the answer, but had to ask.
“Well, he was, has been several times, actually. He has bad luck with women,” said Stacy. “He may be a completely different man than the one you loved years ago.”
“Where’s your romantic spirit?” scolded Jackie. “To hell with Internet dating; we’ve found your man.”
Maria struggled to breathe. “We must ask him if he is willing to meet with me. Stacy, could you please tell Luis I am here, and I want to see him.”
“Sure, honey. I’d be happy to help. I’ll do that first thing tomorrow morning.”
“I cannot believe I will see him again.” Taking deep breaths, Maria slid into one of the chairs. “What if he doesn’t want to see me?”
Jackie saw the panic on Maria’s face. “I can’t predict the future, kiddo,” she said, softly. “What is meant to be will be.”
Stacy drove Maria, Jackie and Lucy the sixty miles to her parents’ farm the following afternoon. She told them Luis was anxious to see his old flame.
Lucy’s arm hugged Maria’s trembling shoulders the entire way. Lucy had known of the love affair between the pair, and though she agreed with her parents’ decision to send Luis away at the time, she wanted only Maria’s happiness now.
As Maria stepped from the car, the two former lovers stared deep into each other’s eyes, searching for the one they had lost. Luis’s face was weathered from long days in the sun, but a smile wrinkled it now.
“I dreamed of you,” he said, softly, so only Maria could hear. “Sometimes, after making love to another woman, I couldn’t help remembering how different it was between you and me—-how special.”
Maria blushed, remembering the heat of their passion. “I dreamed of you, too. I saw your face everywhere: in clouds and mountains, even in the faces of strangers. I felt your touch in the hot summer breeze.”
“I am an old man now,” he said, his expression serious.
“You are still my Luis,” said Maria. She realized for the first time that his fears might be the same as hers. “I would like the chance to get to know you again.”
Luis cautiously took her hand and led her to a bench in the shade of a massive oak. There they spoke of old times and much that had passed since they parted.
“There is someone I want you to meet,” he said, motioning to his son to come close. “This is Carlos.”
Maria felt time jerk backward as she gazed into the face she had known so well nearly thirty years before. “Stacy told me he looked like the picture I drew of you.”
“She told me that drawing brought us together again,” said Luis. “I’m thankful you’re so talented.”
Carlos smiled at the two of them. Luis still held Maria’s hand. “Why don’t you take her for a walk along the river, papa?” he said with a wink.
“Would you like to take a walk with me?” Luis asked.
The question, and the way he asked it, reminded Maria of the young man she had known so long ago. Her heart had beaten furiously since he touched her hand. Now its force threatened to overwhelm her.
“I should find Lucy…and my friends,” she said breathlessly, the words sticking in her throat. “They have waited…a long time.”
“I think they went into the house with Stacy’s mother. I’ll take you home, if they need to leave,” he said.
“Ok. I will tell them.” Weak from the emotions that rushed through her, she stumbled rising.
He reached to steady her. “Are you ok?”
“I missed you,” sobbed Maria, collapsing back onto the bench. “I was empty without you.” The words tore through years of rigid self control.
Luis wrapped his arms around her. “I waited my whole life for you,” he said, choking back tears.
Maria held him close, her eyes closed, breathing in the scent of him. She knew to the depths of her soul that she had found her mountain, and her home.
Copyright 2012 Darlene Blasing