From the author: This is a subtle romance that begins with an accident on a busy highway
Mark R Conte
It was a blue 1989 Mustang, and it was sitting crazily on top of the cement-dividing strip, the motor still running, though the hood was pushed up almost to the windshield. The door was ajar and Norman could see a young woman sitting in the driver’s seat. He pulled to the side of the road and got out of his car. She put her hands in front of her face saying, “Oh God, Oh God.”
“Are you all right?” he said.
“Nobody stopped,” she said. “They kept going past me. I was yelling to them, please stop, but they just went right by me.”
“Can you move?” he said. “Here, take my hand.”
She took his hand and tried to ease out of the car.
“Oh God,” she said. “It hurts. It hurts bad.” A trickle of blood appeared from her nostrils.
“Don’t move,” he said. “Just stay like that until I get an ambulance.” He let go of her hand, but she reached out quickly and took it again.
“Don’t leave me,” she said. “Please don’t leave me alone.”
He looked at her a moment, then said, “Okay. It’s going to be okay. I’ll be right here with you.” He began waving frantically with his other arm as the cars sped by. An airport limo pulled up beside him.
“Call an ambulance,” Norman said. “Get a police car too.”
“I’ll call the dispatcher on my radio,” the limo driver said.
“Hurry,” Norman said. “I don’t know how badly she’s hurt.”
“Oh God, I’m bleeding,” she said.
“It’s going to be okay,” Norman said.
The limo driver yelled into the microphone, “Hurry, goddamn it. There’s a woman bleeding here.”
“Don’t leave me,” she said. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I won’t leave you,” Norman said.
He took out his handkerchief and wiped the blood away from her nose and mouth. He noticed then that she had blond hair, lighter perhaps than his daughter’s, but just as long. He pushed her hair away from her face and suddenly realized the motor was still on. He reached in the car and turned off the ignition. The car jerked backward a moment, then settled on the dividing strip again.
“You’re going to be okay,” he said. “The ambulance is coming now. Can you hear it?”
“Please,” she said. “Don’t let me die.”
“I have to go back to work,” the limo driver said and pulled off into traffic. Norman waved him on. He could see the flashing red and blue lights of the police car and the ambulance behind it. She began to cry now, big sobs that made her chest heave. He was afraid she would hurt herself more, so he put his arm around her shoulders and said, “Just lean back and relax. It’s all right. I’m right here with you.”
“I’m scared,” she said. “I’m scared to death.” She began shivering. He reached down to button her coat and noticed one of her shoes was off.
“Where’s your other shoe?” he said.
“I don’t know. Isn’t it on?”
The ambulance braked to a quick stop. One of the men pushed Norman aside. The stretcher was out and on the ground before he even realized it was there, and they were taking her out of the car. She looked back at him calling, “My cello, please. I can’t leave without my cello. It’s two hundred years old.”
He looked in the car and saw the cello in the back seat. He put it in the ambulance with her. The medic pushed him gently away from the ambulance.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You can’t go in there.”
“Of course,” Norman said. “I understand.”
He stood on the side of the road and watched the ambulance drive off in a confusion of lights and sounds. He thought he could still hear her crying, though he could barely hear the sirens now. He got into his car and drove to the Philadelphia Yellow Cab Company where he was the superintendent.
He was an hour late for work. Ed had checked the previous day’s closeout for him and the cashier had the money bundled and ready for the Brink’s truck, so he made out the Daily Superintendent’s Report, filled out the forms for the new men, then went to the coffee machine.
He thought of her again. He wondered how badly she was hurt, wondered what her name was, if her family knew she was in the hospital. He thought he should find out how she was, maybe get her name, and call her parents. He felt somehow responsible for her, obligated in some way. He then realized that her family had probably been contacted and were, no doubt, all there at the hospital with her, so he forgot about the matter and went back to work.
The next day he was having lunch at H. A. Winston and read about the accident in the Daily News. He went to a pay phone and called the hospital. They said she was off the critical list but was still listed as serious.
“Can she have visitors?” he said.
“Just for short periods,” the nurse said.
After work, he drove down the expressway to the University Hospital. There was a man on the corner selling small bunches of flowers. He picked out one and went into the hospital.
She was still being fed intravenously. Her eyes were closed and her hair looked darker than it did the day before. He laid the flowers on the night table and tried to ease out of the room quietly, but he bumped against the bedside chair and she stirred. Her eyes opened sleepily. She looked at the ceiling, then turned and saw him. She held out her hand to him. He sat on the chair and took her hand. She closed her eyes and went back to sleep in minutes.
She did not wake up again, and when he heard the soft chimes signaling the end of visiting hours, he put her hand gently on the bed and got up to leave. It was then he noticed the cast covering her left leg to her hip, and there was a bandage under her left breast that showed through her gown. In the corner of the room, the cello was propped up against the wall.
The next day she was awake when he walked into her room and he was embarrassed at coming to see her.
“Thank you for the flowers,” she said.
“An old vendor sells them on the corner,” he said, as if to explain his bringing them.
“They said you saved my life.”
“No, not me,” he said. “They did in here.”
“No,” she said. “You did. No one else would even stop.”
I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes people are too much in a hurry to get involved.” He looked in the corner. “How’s the two hundred year old cello?”
“Just a couple of scratches,” she said. “The orchestra sent it a get well card. Excuse me. The Philadelphia Orchestra!” she said in mock haughtiness.
She reached in the nightstand and took out his handkerchief.
“Look,” she said. “I had it washed this morning.” She handed him the handkerchief. She looked so proud he had to smile.
“Do your parents know you are in the hospital?”
“My father is dead. My mother lives in Birmingham and she is flying up here tonight.”
“How old are you?” he said.
“I’ll be twenty-one in two weeks.”
“I have a daughter that’s sixteen.”
“What’s her name?” she said.
“My name is Paula,” she said.
“Hello Paula. I’m Norman Bache.”
Two doctors came into the room to examine her and he had to leave. The next day she told him that her mother had come to the hospital after he had left and was really upset about the accident.
“She wanted me to go back to Birmingham with her,” she said. “She has this thing where she thinks I am still nine years old.”
“And, of course, you think you are thirty-five,” he said.
She giggled than, “Not quite,” she said. “But turning twenty-one scares me. I don’t know if I am ready to be an adult. Besides, I am beginning to feel like an old lady in this bed all day long.”
He asked if she read poetry. She said she did sometimes, but not much. He gave her a book of poems by James Dickey and said it might help with the boredom of being in the hospital. That was Thursday. On Friday they transferred 25 men to the new Garage on 26th street and he didn’t get to the hospital until after visiting hours. He talked the nurse into letting him visit for ten minutes.
She was sitting up when he went into her room and her face opened up in a greeting smile. She was no longer on intravenous and her face had more color in it.
“I’ve been reading the book of poems,” she said.
“Did you like it?” he said.
“I like one of the poems a lot,” she said. “Buckdancer’s Choice.” She picked up the book and turned the pages. “It brought back a lot of memories. My father died like that. It took a long time. My mother took it badly. She used to pass out in the waiting room. She still can’t stand hospitals.”
“How old were you?”
“Eleven. I used to sit in the chair next to his bed and listen to him fighting for his breath. I wanted to give him my breath. I used to think I could put my mouth on his and give him my life.” She smiled then. “I guess it was a childish fantasy.”
On Saturday he brought her New Poems by Pablo Neruda and he read her two of the poems from the book. She asked him to read the second poem again, then just the last stanza.
“…And if I take to the open road.
The same forgotten aroma
Of uninhabited roses comes back,
Some fragrance I lost
As some lose their shadow:
And deprived of its love, I stand
Stock still, stark naked, in the middle of the street.”
“Sometimes I feel like that,” she said. “As if I’ve lost my shadow and everyone can see it’s not there.”
“It’s still there,” he said. “You’ve just forgotten how to reach back and touch it.”
“How long have you been married?” she said.
“Seventeen years,” he said, then he remembered he wasn’t married anymore. “It would have been seventeen years this August,” he said. “But we were divorced two years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“In our case, it was the best solution, but that doesn’t mean the three of us are any happier apart, especially my daughter. It’s awfully hard to explain to her, and sometimes I think she is angry with me.”
“I lived with a guy for three months,” she said. “It was right after I moved up here from Birmingham, and we missed each other so much, we thought we were in love, so he moved up here with me. After a while, we realized that neither of us was ready for that, but it was still hard breaking up.”
“Did you love him?”
“It’s hard to tell after you break up, which was a whole two months ago. I guess you would say no because it didn’t last, but it still hurts just as bad.”
“It doesn’t always hurt.”
“It’s hard for me to believe that,” she said. She looked down at her hands. “It’s funny the things that bring it back to you. You see a book of matches and you remember how you were always running out of matches. You pass by a restaurant and you remember all the times you had dinner there, and every song they play on the radio, every song becomes your song.”
“Yes,” he said. “There is a period of adjustment.”
On Sunday, he drove to Allentown to see his daughter. He called the hospital from a pay phone on his way back. Paula said she was fine and that she had written a poem. He asked her to read it to him. She said she couldn’t because it was too corny, but he persisted until she gave in, though he had to promise not to laugh.
“I call it yellow dreams,” she said.
“The yellow dreams that fall
like leaves too ripe to cling,
gather in little piles
about our roots
and burn with the wind.”
The poem stunned him. He had expected a singsong greeting card verse.
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” he said.
“Do you really think so,” she said.
“I think you should write more poetry.”
“No,” she said. “I’m a one time poet,” then she laughed at the title she had given herself. “That’s me,” she said. “A one shot deal.”
On Monday he drove to the garage by way of Roosevelt Boulevard. It was September and the trees were beginning to turn. The heat had gone from the city, and the smell of autumn was in the air. Children in knee socks and windbreakers were walking to school and street crossing guards with bright orange jackets stood on every corner of every school zone directing traffic.
Just then he remembered that the next day was Paula’s birthday, so he stopped at a card shop and bought Paula the biggest birthday card he had ever seen, two feet by three feet, and sent it to her by special delivery. She called him at the office the next day and told him she had a special surprise for him.
The surprise was Fettuccine Alfredo ordered from Casa Vecchia, a small Italian restaurant just down the street from the hospital. She showed him how to roll the fettuccine on his fork with the tablespoon as guide.
“You’re Italian,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “On my father’s side. “Look,” she said, showing him her name on her hospital wristband. “Bellestrade. Paula Bellestrade. It means beautiful street.”
The following week she began walking on crutches. He thought it was important that she do it herself, but when she fell, he picked her up and carried her to her room. She began to cry then, small whimpering sounds that almost broke his heart.
“I’ll never be normal,” she said.
“Nonsense,” he said. “Your leg will heal and the cast will come off.”
“No,” she said. “They were all in here this morning. They took off the old cast and poked their fingers all over my knee saying, Does this hurt? Did that hurt? When they put on another cast, they told me I would have a slight limp when I walked. I asked them if I would be able to run and they didn’t answer.”
Friday she called and told Norman she was being released that afternoon. He met her downstairs by the front desk. She was taller than he thought she was and practically beautiful in her “Street make-up” as she called it. He took her home and helped her up the flight of stairs to her apartment.
He did not see her for two weeks, and if he had had her phone number, he would have called her after the first week. He was reluctant to just go up to her apartment on a pretext, but she called that afternoon to tell him she had mastered the art of walking on crutches. He asked if she had gone out. She said, no, she didn’t feel that brave yet. He told her to be dressed by seven o’clock because he was taking her to see the play Evita. She said she would be ready at six.
It was late October and she wore a knitted scarf and beret set that made her look French, and used a cane she borrowed from her landlady.
England was at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and there were a handful of demonstrators outside the theater protesting an Argentine presence in Philadelphia. Earlier in the day, English planes had sunk an Argentine troop ship, killing hundreds of Argentine soldiers, the first real bloodshed of the war, and news of the sinking was the headline of the day.
During the second act, a woman dressed as a peasant burst on the stage from the wings and said,
“My Lady, the British have sunk the General Belgrano. Five hundred of our countrymen are dead.”
A small child in the rear of the stage began to sing the Argentine national anthem, and one by one, the other cast members joined in the singing, until the whole cast was out on the stage singing the Argentine national anthem. The improvisation stopped the show and earned the cast a standing ovation.
When the theater let out, there were rows of policemen on each side of the theater exits with clubs and riot helmets in anticipation of some sort of clash, but the crowd drifted quietly to the parking lots and restaurants, which made the policemen seem out of place.
They drove to Paula’s apartment and when they reached there, Paula found it more difficult to going up the stairs, so Norman carried her up the last flight of stairs.
“I feel like Cinderella,” she said. “Do you like Chantefleur, Blanc De Blanc?” she said walking into the kitchen. She poured the wine into delicate glasses with stems and brought them to the living room. He raised his glass and said,
“To your marvelous recovery. You look beautiful.”
“I wish I could believe that,” she said.
She turned on the radio and the sound of music made her quiet for a moment.
“Favorite song?” he said
“Memories,” she said.
“We all have them,” he said.
“It’s really my fault that we broke up,” she said.
“What terrible thing did you do?”
“I have this romantic idea of how love should be. I mean, I think it should be magic, like if you are kissing each other and your hat falls off your head, or your scarf drops to the ground, you don’t even notice.”
“And if you do notice,” he said. “You don’t care.”
“God yes,” she said.
“And what’s his name wasn’t like that?” he said
“Dennis,” she said, making a frown. “Jesus, if the phone rang while we were making love, he would reach over and answer it.”
“Well, I’m fairly certain you will have a lot more chances at magic, though I’m not quite sure of how perfect it will be.”
“I don’t want perfect,” she said. I want magic.”
Norman looked at his watch and rose from his chair.
“Oh God,” she said. “I must be a rotten date, talking all about my problems all night.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “I had a great time. We saw a great play and had a philosophical discussion on love like two old buddies.”
“You’re a good friend, Norman. I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here these past few months.”
“Well,” he said. “If I had met you twenty years ago, I’d have been the most romantic boyfriend a girl ever had.”
“You wouldn’t have liked me,” she said. “I was a fat baby.”
He walked to the door.
“If it’s any comfort,” he said. “The first love isn’t always magic. Sometimes it takes a while to get it right.”
She put her arms around him and hugged him.
“Thank you,” she said.
He turned and walked to the stairs.
“Norman,” she said. “I wish I had met you twenty years ago too.”
He took her to the Philadelphia Art Museum the next week, and then to the Academy of the Arts. Saturdays they would go to the University Book Store and pick out books for each other.
December came and on the first Monday, fourteen inches of snow fell on Philadelphia and he was so busy getting the cabs out on the street and the service trucks for the cabs that broke down or got stuck that he did not think of calling her until two-thirty.
“How is it outside?” she said.
“It’s still snowing,” he said. “I just looked out the window and my car is completely covered.”
“Isn’t it great?” she said. “It’s my first snow. I wish I could go outside and roll around in it.”
“And build a fort?” he said.
“No,” she said. “Snowballs to knock your hat off your head.”
When he drove to her apartment, he had to park on Delancy Street and walk down Nineteenth Street with his arms full of groceries. The houses on Spruce Street almost twinkled from the whiteness of the snow, and children were pushing each other up the street on sleds, shouting and laughing with red faces and bright plaid scarves.
Paula took the groceries and he shook the snow from his coat and hat. Norman made Steaks Diane. Paula made Caesar salad. They ate hungrily and drank Chantefleur. Later, they sat in the living room and read Candide. Near the ending of the play, they were close together on the floor reading with emotion.
Candide-“Will you marry me?”
Cunegonde- “It’s too late. I’m not young. I’m not good. I’m not pure.”
Candide- “And I’m not young, and not worth much. What we wanted we will not have. The way we did love, we will not love again. Come now, let us take what we have and love as we are.”
Paula put down the book and sighed.
“Oh Norman,” she said touching her heart. “What a romantic you are.”
“I guess so,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“No apology needed,” she said. “It’s beautiful. That would bring out the woman in any woman.”
“Assuming she’s a romantic female,” he said.
“Yes,” she laughed.
“Anyway,” he said. “I doubt that you would need any bringing out.”
“God no,” she said. “Not at all.” She ran her fingers through her hair.
“Will you excuse me?” she said.
Norman began to feel awkward sitting there alone on the floor, so he rose and reached for his coat.
Paula came out of the bedroom wearing her silk lounging pajamas.”
“Are you leaving?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s three-thirty.”
She kissed him goodbye at the door.
“Be careful,” she said.
Friday the office was a whirlwind of confusion with phones ringing constantly, cabs stuck in snow or ice, and irate customers shouting about the taxi they ordered that was late or never came. Just before lunch he called Paula. She said she had company and could he call back? He said he would.
The general manager came down from the main office and they had lunch at the Red Lion Diner. Norman and Tom had been good friends for twelve years. He felt he could talk to Tom, and he did need someone to talk to because he was suddenly uncertain about his life and the decisions he seemed to be making on impulse. He was thirty-seven years old, on the doorstep of middle age, he told Tom, and she was twenty-one, for God’s sake. What did Tom think of that?
“Thirty-seven,” Tom said. “I’m goddamn sixty four. They’re going to retire me next year. Kick me out on my ass and put me in a rocking chair. How do you like them apples? Thirty-two years I gave them and what good does it do me? Thirty-seven? I wish to hell I was thirty-seven.” He leaned across the table. “I’ll tell you what to do, Kid. Listen to the beat in here,” he said pointing to his heart. “You don’t want to end up an old man like me with nothing to look forward to but an old man’s home.”
After work, he drove to Paula’s apartment complex. She was standing at the top of the stairs when he reached her floor and was smiling excitedly.
“Guess what?” she said. “Dennis flew in from Birmingham this morning. Mom told him about the accident and he was really upset. He said it was all his fault because he had left me alone. You should have seen him!” She did a little dance on her good leg. “He practically begged me to go back to him. Can you imagine? Begged me.”
He was set back a moment, not quite sure of what to say.
“What did you tell him?” he said finally.
“I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. I can’t believe I said that. I said I wanted to think about it for a while because I didn’t want to make another mistake. You should have seen him. He was crazy. He said he wouldn’t leave without me. I mean, it was all turned around. Can you believe that?”
“Yes, I can,” he said. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I have to take this all in and get my head straight.”
“Then you’re going back to Birmingham?”
“No, not to Birmingham, but I think I will give it another try. I mean, I’ve been dreaming about this for months.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” he said.
“Dennis said we have to give it a second chance, and I think that’s probably true.” She walked up to him and hugged him. “I know you’re worried about me, afraid I’ll get hurt again, but you’ve made me strong. I know who I am now. I wasn’t sure of that before.”
“Is that what you want?” he said.
“Desperately,” she said.
“Okay then,” he said kissing her forehead. “I wish you luck and happiness.”
“I’ll be okay, Norman.”
He let her go and started to turn to the door, but she held on to him.
“I owe you my life,” she said.
“Nonsense,” he said. “You owe your life to your healthy body and the good doctors at the hospital.”
It had stopped snowing, but the wind was still blowing gusts of snow off the rooftops, carrying bits of paper through the air, sticking them on windshields like parking citations. The trees were gray from the winter freeze and icicles hung from their branches. He stopped for a moment to look at the children playing in the snow, then he got in his car and drove off,
Friday he took the long way to work, through Pennypack Park, watching the joggers making their way through old Indian trails, snorting puffs of steam from their nostrils. The snow had gone, but the air was bitter, still he kept his car window open so that he could smell the winter.
When he walked into his office , he just wanted to sit and relax for a few minutes, but two policemen were waiting for him at the door and he knew there would be no more daydreaming today. The policemen only came to his door when one of the men was robbed. Cab drivers were often robbed. They were an easy mark. They carried anywhere from seventy-five to three hundred dollars. They sat in the driver’s seat with their back to the passenger and they were directed where to go, any dark street would do. There would be a knife or a gun in the back of the driver’s head and a demand for all the money, which he wisely gave up. The robber then got out of the cab and disappeared into the dark night.
He answered the policemen’s questions and then talked to the driver and asked him if he was okay.
“Just a little shaky,” the driver said. Norman then told the driver to take the day off and spend them with his wife and children.
Three weeks had gone by and the men at the office had stopped asking about Paula. Eleven o’clock the phone rang and Elaine said, “Norman, line one.”
“Hi,” Paula said. “Merry Christmas.” She sounded breathless.
“Hi,” he said. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” she said. “I’ve been exercising with Jane Fonda, trying to take the ten pounds off my butt I gained in the hospital.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “You look great.”
“Thank you sir,” she said. “I need all the compliments I can get.”
“How is Dennis getting along in Philadelphia?”
“He’s okay. I told him all about you. I said you were my savior. He asked me if I genuflected every time I saw you. I think he’s jealous.”
“My God,” Norman said. “He’s twenty-four years old.”
“He was never jealous before.”
“Maybe it’s a good sign, I mean that he cares.”
“Well, I’d better let you get back to work,” she said. “I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. I really miss you, Norman.”
“I miss you too,” he said.
January came and he did his after Christmas shopping at Wanamaker’s where he had shopped for sixteen years. He picked up his daughter that Saturday and took her to see Villanova play Georgetown at the Palestra. The rest of the week was rather normal. He made out the Superintendent’s Report every day, bundled the money for the Brink’s truck, held hearings for the men on probation status, and had lunch with his secretary on Thursday. However, he couldn’t decide what to have for lunch, settling for the same salad Elaine had ordered, and when they were finished lunch, he almost walked out without paying the cashier.
“Jesus, Norman, what are you in love or something?” Elaine said.
When he returned to the office, he went to the restroom to wash his hands. He looked in the mirror reluctantly. He saw several gray hairs over his left ear. It was odd that he had aged this much in the last two years.
At four-twenty the phone rang. He picked it up expecting to hear Tom’s voice.
“Hi,” Paula said. “It’s me.”
“Hi,” he said.
“I’m at the Academy. We just did a matinee. The house was packed.”
“Shubert?” he said.
“No, Mozart,” she said. “Can you come down and pick me up?”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” he said.
He drove down the Expressway to the Vine Street exit, circled City Hall and parked his car at the stage door exit. When he got out of his car, he saw Paula coming out of the stage door with her cello. It began to snow again, big, soft flakes that fell on the both of them. He walked up to her and took the cello.
“How did you get here?” he said.
“I took a bus,” she said.
“Where’s Dennis?” he said.
“Gone, gone, gone,” she said.
“It was mutual. He said that I wasn’t the same, that I was a different person.. He was right. I’m not the same person. Used to be he could always convince me he was right about anything. I have my own mind now.”
“Good for you,” he said.
“All we talked about was you.”
“You talked about me?” he said.
“He started making all kinds of accusations.”
“What kind of accusations?” he said.
“About your motives, about what he thought you were really like.”
“I’m sure that wasn’t flattering,” he said.
“He accused me of being in love with someone else,” she said.
“With who?” he said.,
“You. He said I was in love with you.”
“How could he say that?” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and I guess it’s true,” she said.
He turned and looked at her a moment, then he opened the car door and put the cello in the back seat of his car. When he turned back to her, she was standing there in front of him, waiting.
“I have a house in Huntingdon Valley,” he said. “It’s a lot different from apartment living. Do you think you would like living in the suburbs?”
“Norman,” she said. “I would love it,” and reached up to kiss him, knocking off his hat as she did, sending it tumbling down Broad Street. An old bum, crossing the street at the Spruce Street intersection, bent over and picked it up. He dusted off the snow and put it on his head. It was a perfect fit.
“Magic,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Potomac Review.