Mary Beth Writes

6/8/2023

Len and I are about to take a trip that’s been in the works since January - you know I will post about it when we get back. Meantime, here’s a story I wrote long ago that I still like and think about a lot. I probably should post this at Valentine’s Day but, hey, we’re at the letter Q.

The apartment you are about to enter is my apartment of 1978-1980. There actually was a guy at the other end of my back porch/fire escape and he DID haul out overstuffed chairs for us one memorable evening. We drank some beers and admired the traffic on Sheridan. The conversation was great, though he wasn’t my BF.

Fiction is fiction.

A Fine Romance

"Fools Rush In ....."

Genevieve Seborg had already supped her soup, nibbled at a wedge of tiramisu, and sculpted several greasy breadsticks into a modest stockpile of small, bready cannonballs. She sighed as her great-granddaughter chattered on. And on. And on.

Sometimes she wondered if her faith in humankind was less than faith and more like optimistic horse doo-doo. She'd always believed every day was a gift, every person one met an opportunity to learn and grow and love. But lately, when partaking in events such as lunching with a 23-year-old person who never stopped talking, munching, or chewing gum, well, Genevieve wondered.

Was this really the glorious apex towards which all humanity had been yearning? Or was this another one of the unsung rewards of moving towards the end of one's life? The relief of knowing you weren't going to have to co-mingle with these gum-smackers forever?

Genevieve continued to smile benignly at the young woman whose pink lips were still flapping. Her name was Jennifer, generally called Jen. Somehow the family insisted this meant this child had been named in Genevieve's honor.

Lord love a duck. No one had ever called her Gen.

"And so, Great-Grandy Gen..."

Genevieve managed to keep most of her shudder inside her.

"...Mom and Dad are just so uptight and unfair. I AM going to move in with Jimmy and James. They keep saying ridiculous stuff about expecting more romance from Jimmy and giving him less sex but I don't even know what that means, do you?

Genevieve smiled as blandly as possible. She knew a little.

"And they are not cool about us living with James. But it will save all three of us buckets of money, which is important when one is in grad school, you know?"

Genevieve nodded her head in a kindly and hopefully very ambivalent way. She'd only completed high school, though back in primeval times, that meant she could add in her head, do long division without a calculator, converse in proper English, and if she asked someone a question, she stopped to wait for an answer.

"They're just all bendy 'cause Jimmy and I are in love. But we are real committed and responsible, you know? And James is gay, so it's hardly like I'm being immoral or anything."

Genevieve drew in a deep and hopefully very calming breath. Yes, she could release her breath. Yes. Breathe deeply. Smile kindly. It disguises one's interior life from the young.

"Oh, I know how gay people, when you were young, Grandy-Gen, were so deep in the closet you all didn't even know they were there. And they were much more miserable and untolerated and you had red lists and all that."

Genevieve breathed. Yes. A big, deep draught of God's sweet air.

"It is true, Dear, that the things we dared to discuss aloud were, I suppose, more constrained. But oft-times that worked out in interesting ways."

She smiled warmly. A lady knew how to manage a social occasion that was going from bad to worse.

"I'll pick up the check, Jennifer. I'm feeling a bit tired and I know Francie will want a bit of a walk before the afternoon is out."

Jennifer reached out to grab the check.

"I'll just put it on my plastic. No prob. It was my invite."

Genevieve neatly slid the check off the table and into her lap, a trick she'd learned with her financially strapped mother decades ago. No one reaches into your lap to grab a bill.

"As you mentioned, Jennifer, finances are tight when one is in school. Let me get this. I was so pleased when you invited me for a Valentine's Day luncheon."

"Yeah, well, I didn't want you to sit home all sad and dejected by yourself. This can be a real hard day for someone not in a relationship."

Genevieve felt her cheeks edging towards cement. Wally had passed away three years ago and there was not a day that passed that she did not miss him to the very core of her being. Still, she worked hard at not being a pathetic old thing. It would be nice if the child would comment on her strengths, not her losses.

She reminded herself that she loved young Jennifer and then she smiled, recalling the wise old adage.

"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

If the child only knew.

It was several hours later. Genevieve leaned her forehead against the cold glass patio doors of her townhouse while she felt the tears that had been gathering behind her eyes all afternoon. She urged Francie to hurry up at her business and come back inside.

Genevieve locked the door as the dog scampered past her, then bent to flip the switch that turned on the gas fire in the fireplace. It was one of the reasons she'd chosen this place after Wally died. He loved a fire in the fireplace and made them often. The two of them would settle into long evenings leaning against each other; reading, watching a little television, listening to jazz. Sometimes they put down their books to revel in old swing music. Wally wasn't much of a dancer, but the music put both of them in such a fine mood.

Genevieve padded to the kitchen in her slippers, made herself a perfect martini, and then returned to the overstuffed chair she kept close to the fireplace. She tucked her small feet under her, cocked her head to the side to gaze into the fire, and finally unleashed her tears and memories.

It was, after all, Valentine's Day evening. Fifty-odd years ago tonight, she'd also been crying.

It started on an October evening with a movie that starred Donna Reed. Donna Reed made Genevieve crazy. Why couldn't she be oval-faced, willowy, and ethereal? Why couldn't someone who looked like Gregory Peck or Jimmy Stewart fall madly in love with her? Heck, she'd take a Jimmy Durante, as long as the fellow was true-hearted and adored her.

But no; no mad love affairs of the heart ever happened to her. Here it was, Friday night, and she was leaving the Riviera alone. Even her girlfriend Betty, another secretary at the law firm, had nabbed a last-minute date with Tony Whatchamacall'im, which left Genevieve to endure Donna's flawless complexion alone.

The Riviera was a huge, ornate, faux-Moorish theater on Chicago's north side. Tickets cost a little extra, but the foyer was spectacularly gilded and the interior of the theater boasted acres of velvet seats. Once seated, if you leaned back you could admire tiny star-lights twinkling in the dark ceiling. It was a safe, respectable place for a single girl to go to the movies, though that night when the show was over, she felt so keyed up she decided to walk the six blocks back to her apartment.

The night was Indian summer; the air was perfumed with the last breath of summer mingling into the tang of fall. Beguiling trills of dance music floated on the air. The corner of Lawrence and Broadway echoed with people going to and coming out of the Riviera, Green Mill Gardens, the Aragon Ballroom. She walked east on Lawrence, wondering who was playing the Aragon tonight. She'd heard Charlie Parker was going to be in town in November and wondered if his band would play there.

She sighed again. She must be the last 25-year-old woman in Chicago who had never danced at the Aragon.

Right then her brand-new black suede pump came down awkwardly over a small rock on the sidewalk. She felt the heel snap off her shoe. Her ankle collapsed under her as she staggered to keep her balance.

A hand reached out to grab her arm. "May I help you?"

Genevieve lifted her gaze to the voice. At her side was the living incarnation of "tall, dark, and handsome."

She let her eyes examine his chiseled face, dark eyes, and wide shoulders. He was museum worthy, and, well, her high school English teacher had drilled into them that they should never rush their appreciation of a masterpiece.

"I didn't mean to startle you."

He chuckled in a voice that sounded, Genevieve thought, like an angel who'd just heard a knock-knock joke. His deep voice did thrummy things to her heart.

"I know you don't recognize me, Miss, but we are neighbors. I moved into the apartment at the other end of your porch a week ago. I've noticed you around a few times."

This magnificent specimen of humanity recognized her?

"My name's David Seborg. I've just started working at Motorola; I was raised by extremely pure and upright people on a farm in Wisconsin. I realize this is not the same as a proper introduction by a fat and unimpeachable aunt, but will it serve well enough for me to escort you back to our apartment building?

Genevieve started to laugh, then felt her hat starting to slide to the side. She slapped her hand to her head to catch. She must look the very essence of a clown.

She giggled anyway. "All my aunts are skinny. And truth be known, they're also fairly "peachable”. I would be grateful for your company, though."

His smile ratcheted up a notch. "You look like a girl who might come from a family of peachy women. I thought that the first time I laid eyes on you."

Genevieve smiled some more. She would love to ask him what he meant, but there were certain kinds of questions a respectable woman would not ask. What a man thought of a girl's looks was definitely high on that list.

Trying to walk at all, let alone with dignity, quickly deteriorated to slapstick. First she tried to wear both shoes, which required her to do a tippy-toe thing on the foot in the de-heeled shoe. The method tired her arch miserably.

She tried to walk flat-footed on the broken shoe, which gave her the gait of a drunken sailor with a too-short wooden peg.

By then they were both laughing so hard her cheeks hurt. The man plunked himself down on the front stairs of an apartment building, and then reached out to pull her down next to him. After that, he began untying his wingtips.

"What are you doing, Kind Sir?"

He turned his head to grin at her.

"Give me thy faithless shoes, Fair Maiden in Distress. I'm removing my shoes. You'll wear them, I'll wear my socks, and we'll be a pair made in heaven."

Her heart tripped at the thought but she protested anyway.

"That's ridiculous. You don't have to give me your shoes!"

He stuck her pumps in his pockets as he rose, sock-footed, and extended his hand to pull her up.

"I'm not giving them to you. Frankly, I don't think they suit you that well and I do regret how badly they are going to compliment your lovely blue dress. But I will lend them to you for the duration."

He was tall with big feet. Genevieve was petite with small feet. When she slipped her feet into his shoes it made them both laugh. She couldn't lift her feet without the shoes falling off, so she scuffled along. To keep her balance, she curved her hand around his arm. He certainly didn't protest and the truth that they could have taken a bus never crossed either of their lips. They were having too good a time.

Thus they arrived in raucous, slipshod fashion at the vestibule of her section of their building. Genevieve covered her awkwardness by pulling her mailbox key from her purse to grab her mail before she went upstairs.

He peered over her head at her letters, his hands resting so innocently on her shoulders.

"Aha. So the lovely lady's name is Genevieve. What a beautiful name. And now that we know each other's proper names, may I invite you to join me for drinks on our terrace? Say in about 15 minutes? I am quite good with a martini."

"The terrace? Would that be the fire escape of our apartments?"

"It would."

She looked up and over her shoulders at him, a smile on her face.

For a moment the silliness in his expression fell away.

"You have beautiful blue eyes, Genevieve."

She blushed and turned her head back away from him. "I'll meet you on the terrace in a jiffy. And I do thank you most kindly for the use of your shoes."

His grin was back. "Now that they have been graced by your elegant feet, I'll have them bronzed and use them for planters.

"Big planters."

He chuckled.

And that is how simply it all began.

That first warm night they curled into two hideous, over-stuffed chairs David's aunt had passed on to him when he moved to the city. Being a young man with muscles and brawn to spare it didn't dawn on him that dragging several hundred pounds of Victorian furniture out of his apartment to a porch was inconvenient.

And the porch wasn't really a porch so much as the wooden stairs that rick-racked along the back of the building. Genevieve and David lived on the third floor, so they could watch traffic humming along Sheridan two blocks away. Their view cut over a school playground that looked, against the darkness of night, like dinosaur skeletons playing hopscotch. Lights from hundreds of apartments in the neighborhoods around them twinkled like stars that had come home for the weekend.

The martinis were perfect and as the night slowly poured itself over them; they drank a whole pitcher of them. Towards midnight they realized neither had remembered to eat dinner so Genevieve grilled cheese sandwiches and David said they were the best he'd ever eaten. She said the trick was in the vermouth.

They both loved movies so they had to talk about every one they'd ever seen. After a while she started to shiver so he went in his apartment, grabbed the army blanket from his bed, came back out to tuck it around her. And they kept talking.

She told him about how her dad had died when she was 10, her mother had taken a job, and she had taken on much responsibility for her three younger sisters.

He briefly described his stern father and sweet mother. The war gave him the excuse he needed to leave the farm, he was glad to be done with his dad and all those cows.

"I swore when I left there I wasn't even going to tend to anything with brown eyes again. Probably why I noticed your blue peepers right off the bat."

She grinned and flirted her eyelashes at him like Betty-Boop.

"Do you have brothers to help your dad?"

"No, I'm an only child. When I was discharged Dad expected me to put on coveralls and take up where I'd left off. But I simply couldn't. I rode that GI Bill to the University of Wisconsin, studied engineering, and here I am, 30-years old and just starting my first job. Dad's not too happy about it."

"I'm sorry. That must be a little rough."

He tucked the scratchy blanket a little more snuggly around her shoulder.

"Well, I've got lots of cousins and some would love to help out and maybe someday take over the farm. He can't see that, but it's how it'll have to be.

He stared out into the night, his eyes far-seeing and determined.

"I love what's new. In engineering I get to be a part of that."

She tried to stifle her yawn. David chuckled. "I'm boring you and we are crazy to stay up this late just talking.

"I've enjoyed every minute of it, David. If I'd known a night could be this enjoyable, I'd have cracked the heels off my shoes years ago."

He swept a finger down the side of her face. She shivered. "Well, if we can have this much fun doing nothing, why don't we try something lively. Would you be able to fit in some dancing with me? Maybe tomorrow night at the Aragon?"

She pinched her eyes shut. "If I'm dreaming, don't wake me up."

He leaned in closer. "We're not dreaming together yet, Genevieve, but I'm hopeful we will get there."

Francie had gone to sleep on the rug in front of the fire. It was completely dark outside. Genevieve untucked herself to stretch her bones and joints. Time to make a little supper. Maybe a grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe another martini. She wasn't going any place tonight except back in time.

On her way to the kitchen she detoured to her CD player and searched through her collection of music until she found one of her Glenn Miller CD's. She slipped it into the slot, found the right number, then let the music swell into her quiet life.

  "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread

  And so I come to you, my love, my heart above my head

  Though I see the danger there

  If there's a chance for me then I don't care.”

She wore last year's office party Christmas outfit; a sapphire blue satin dress with miles of swishiness in its wide, gored skirt. Heels, a tiny peacock feather concoction on her pale blonde pageboy, and over-the-elbow gloves.

When she opened the door for David that evening, he stood stock-still. When he whistled she felt like the prettiest girl in the world.

Walking through carved doors into the Aragon was like floating into a dream. Music poured over them from a live dance orchestra. Crowds of young men and women, holding hands, laughing, flirting, hearts beating wildly, pushed up the stairway towards the ballroom.

Genevieve caught her breath at the top of the sweeping staircase. She'd read about the Aragon. She'd imagined it. She'd never seen it with her own eyes.

The huge ballroom was ringed with stucco walls and ivy-covered lattices to replicate the courtyard of a Moorish castle. Palm trees towered over the dancers. Tiny lights twinkled everywhere.

David looked down at her awe-struck face, grinned, and grabbed her gloved hand. "Let's dance, Gorgeous!"

They danced fast. They danced slow. Their faces glowed with exertion. After too many dizzying dances, Genevieve pulled off her steamy gloves and David tucked them into his pockets. The next dance was a slow one and the sensation of her hand slipping into his was exquisite; like riding a toboggan down a long dark hill.

The air was thick with perfume, cigarette smoke, and the scent of hot skin. There was a constant thrumming undercurrent of people humming, singing along, talking, being exuberantly human. She felt the vibrations of the El train rattling past the Aragon in the night.

They danced for hours. Very late in the night the orchestra slid into a quiet run of pleading, remembering notes. A tuxedoed singer crooned into a silver mike. Genevieve edged in a little closer to David and when she looked up into his face, he didn't grin or joke. He just looked back at her in a long hammock of a moment, and then gently pushed the side of her head against his chest so that she felt the beat of his heart as they danced.

 “Fools rush in where wise men never go

  But wise men never fall in love so how are they to know?

  When we met I felt my life begin

  So open up your heart and let this fool rush in.”

In the weeks that followed Genevieve reveled in the magic of having her own sweetheart. And not a Jimmy Durante, either! No, her man was so handsome that Hollywood could take lessons. He was also kind and thoughtful and wonderfully romantic. Didn't he bring her a red rose or a bunch of daisies every week, popping them out from behind his back with a sparkle in his eyes and a kiss on her cheek?

He wasn't a good cook, but neither was she. They rubbed along just fine with sandwiches and eggs and his excellent martinis. They went to movies and shared hot fudge sundaes afterwards. When she bought curtains for her kitchen windows, he hung the rods. When he didn't know what to buy his mother for Christmas, she helped him pick out a soft pink robe.

They watched movies. They danced past midnight. They took long handholding walks along freezing, winter-windy Chicago streets. They ate at a particular Chinese restaurant so often the owner would bring them shrimp egg rolls with the menu. David taught her how to play poker. She beat him at Scrabble.

The only thing they didn't do was fight, or yell, or kiss. It was the last that made her uneasy. It wasn't a topic a girl could just launch into, though she worried all the time. She asked him once if she had bad breath. She made it sound like a cute little joke, of course, but his eyes told her he knew where she was headed so he grinned a tight smile and headed her off at the pass.

"You have the breath of baby angels. If you're wondering about what I think you're wondering about, it's just that, well, ..."

She held her breath.

He leaned back against the porcelain sink of her kitchen then turned for a moment to stare out the window in the back door. It was as if he was pleading with someone who wasn't there. The overhead light gleamed against his hair. His arms were bare where he'd folded back his cuffs to wash their supper dishes. She waited.

He slid too easily into a story she'd not heard before. "You know I'm not too fond of my dad but I adore my mother. I often wondered why she married him until I once overheard an aunt telling someone else that I was born not quite seven months after my parents' wedding.

"So I guess I'm a little more careful than the average guy. I want to be sure and I want it to be right. I really, really do."

Why did those words look so bleak in his eyes?

Genevieve leaned her head against her chair. Francie padded over to sit close, positioned exactly so that her doggy head would be under her hand. Genevieve sighed as she caressed the dog's silky ears.

"You know I'm to the hard part now, don't you, Sweetie?"

The little dog pumped her stubby tail.

They were going to the Aragon for Valentine's Day night. He'd purchased the tickets weeks ago.

She borrowed a dress from Betty. It was rose pink lace over a rose-pink taffeta. It had a wide square cut neckline, long pointed lace sleeves, and the skirt fluffed out so wide she looked like an upside-down peony. She loved it and loved dressing up for the night she hoped would end with the kiss for which she longed. The one that would tell her she really was the love of his heart. Because she knew, as well as she knew her own name, that he was the love of hers.

He was going to pick her up at 6:00 so they could go out to eat first. He was always prompt, so when 6:20 came around and he wasn't yet at her kitchen door, she put on her coat and went to his. She knocked. There was no answer. She twisted the doorknob. The door opened. She walked in. She could hear his voice in his living room, so she walked down the short hall towards it.

His deep voice was in real pain. "Vince, I am so sorry. I don't know what to say. I have tried and tried, but I can't forget, either."

She rounded the corner just as he turned around to her. His eyes were rimmed with tears and his voice was deathly quiet.

"I'll come to the funeral on Monday. I love you, too."

He cradled the phone gently, and then looked at her so sadly that she simply crossed the room to him. He pulled her into his arms the way he had the night they first danced to Fools Rush In. She wrapped her arms around his waist. He nestled his cheek against her hair. He let his fingers knead her neck as he talked quietly against her hair.

"I am sorry. I thought I could change, but I can't."

She squeezed back her tears and looked for her spunky voice.

"What funeral and who is Vince and is he a good enough person for a man like you?"

She even tried to smile. It wasn't very successful, but it eased something in both their hearts.

"I met him in the Navy and then we went to UW together, too. He went back to his hometown to teach high school this fall, mostly because his little sister has been so sick. She has TB and she's only 12. I met her once. Molly's a real squirt. "

And then he broke apart into a sob. "Oh Lord, Genevieve, she died today."

Genevieve held him as he held her. After that, she went back to her apartment, carefully took off the rose lace dress, put on her bathrobe and made herself a grilled cheese sandwich. After that, she cried.

Her heart was broken, but she was a strong young woman who believed every day was a gift and every person one met an opportunity to learn and grow and love.

She had learned what it felt like to love and be loved. How could she regret that?

When David moved to California a few weeks later, she even helped him pack.

Three months later, on a balmy May evening, Genevieve's apartment buzzer sounded. Usually, it meant one of her neighbors had forgotten their keys, so she buzzed the person in.

She heard energetic steps dashing up the stairs. There was a knock at her door. She opened it carefully. A good-looking man stood there in a dark blue suit. He had wavy brown hair and hazel eyes lit up as if he had a joke he needed to tell her very badly.

"Yes?"

"Umm. My name is Walter Seborg. Yeah, that Seborg. I'm from Wisconsin. When I was talking to my cousin David last week, I mentioned that I was doing a business trip to Chicago so he asked if I would check up on you."

Genevieve began to smile. She just had to. The man had that kind of face.

"How is David?'

"He's pretty relieved to be out there and happy with his new job. But he's pretty sorrowful over you."

"Good. He ought to be. I'm still rather sorrowful over him, too."

The man looked her over.

"Begging your pardon, you're not a bit sorry-looking. David said you were a beauty, but I see that once again, he underestimated a situation."

Wally always did have a way with words.

He was also hungry and wanted to go to any coffee shop that served skirt steak and mashed potatoes, and would she accompany him? She said she'd already had dinner. He said that was fine; he'd just buy her a piece of lemon meringue pie. So, she went with him.

David found his life in California. Genevieve found her life with Wally. Genevieve stood up, gathered her martini glass and sandwich plate, and carried them to the kitchen. Francie padded along after her, her toenails clicking along the floor.

Jennifer's parents were wise, Genevieve thought. One shouldn't neglect romance.

It is an awesome force that cracks a heart open so that love can move in.

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U is for Umbrella

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...

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