Chapter 1 Melanie
Melanie lived by the motto that forty is the new thirty because she had to – still single at forty she hated to admit she was on a desperate search for a man, but not this summer. Quickly she washed her hands as the stench of sterility mixed with metal threatening nausea. How she loathed airport restrooms! Swallowing hard she stared into the mirror at the tall, metal stall doors looming behind her making her feel like Alice In Wonderland. Melanie checked her hair and make up - a perfect reflection, though markedly pale, she noticed, peering ever closer. She opened her Gucci bag to retrieve some much- needed blush as well as her favorite berry red lipstick. It brought out the clearness of her skin and made her green eyes sparkle. Those exact words from the cosmetologist at Macys rang in her ears. Melanie was a woman who often received compliments and honestly expected them. Confidently she adjusted the layered T’s of organic cotton in mauve and black, tucked them into tight fitting black jeans and untangled her turquoise necklace. She liked clothes and dressed in the latest styles that best suited her slim figure. Fashionable was a word often bantered about in the quiet corners of the English department at Columbia University where she taught English Literature of the Nineteenth Century. Women can be so catty.
“Have you seen Melanie today? What is she wearing? Does she think teaching at university is a runway show?”
But, Melanie’s students expected that fashion show as they entered her classroom each session curious to see what the professor was wearing and Dr. Gray never failed to deliver; good clothing of cottons, linen, silk, organza and wool were mixed and matched until the desired look was achieved. Melanie strove for casual yet clever, beautiful yet edgy in subtle colors of grays to black, and every shade of purple. Her trademark was her eclectic jewelry, especially necklaces, collected over a lifetime: gifts from her parents as they traveled far and wide and also her own joyful discoveries in museums and art shows from New York to Boston.
At faculty parties she heard the hushed, snickering voices of the women whenever she entered the room wearing a glittering short dress that showed off her long legs, either on the arm of a different man than the event before or, worse yet, with no man at all by her side. Does everyone have to be married by forty?
Lucky in love never applied to Melanie. Her success at attracting every man was renowned yet she seemed never able to cross that final bridge to blissful matrimony and, truthfully, she was becoming more and more skeptical of that quest. Yet, as she gathered her bags and left the institutional confines of the airport restroom her beautiful smile and confident stride turned every head.
Melanie was celebrating the end of spring semester at Columbia and though she thoroughly enjoyed her students, faculty pressure and high expectations were overwhelmingly stressful upon her both mentally and physically. Though her students adored Dr. Gray, made appointments to get her opinion on a particular author or to discuss their future in writing, it was the continual barrage of subtle criticism from her fellow professors that made her sizzle. Melanie was an expert in women’s literature and yet she was not published. She felt the clock ticking now or never! Her gait became more exact as she reviewed her plans for the next three months in Tuscany.
Her goal was to finish her book this summer and finally get published. There really was no way around it. Every other professor in the English department and more than likely every professor in every department at Columbia except Dr. Melanie Gray had already attained that pinnacle of educational success and they never failed to bring it up to her at every opportunity. She had not idly watched her professional life go by – she had spirals of notes and lists of ideas peppering her apartment so all that was truly required of her was organization and structure and time, lots of time. So this summer she would shun her wonderful sisters and their charming children, her devoted parents, the fabulous seaside parties, the alluring ocean, the delightful heat of the sun, the shopping and the handsome men of Cape Cod to cloister herself an ocean away to accomplish this necessary feat.
She repeated her mantra silently to herself as she walked on: ‘No men this summer. No men this summer’ and giggled to herself not totally convinced of the feasibility of her mission. Her eyes focused on the Air Italia gate crowded with happy couples, happy families bubbling in both English and Italian. No, not for her such familial merriment! Why was it so elusive for her?
Her parents had completely understood when she had informed them she needed time away this summer, had to have time away this summer and they had readily volunteered their timeshare in Tuscany. Could she help it if her family was perfect and had money? As her father always reminded her money didn’t grow on trees, Mel, but work hard and money will come –and it had. How had her parents become so wise?
Melanie and her three sisters loved to hear the stories of the awkward meeting of their parents, Michael and Martha that special summer so long ago and how that meeting had grown into a successful construction company and four daughters, all a year apart. The Gray family of Boston: Martha and Michael Gray, Miklas, Melanie, Millicent and Merriwether. Their Christmas cards had been a yearly ritual of matching dresses and hairstyles, all the girls posed in front of the towering Christmas tree in the living room as the photographer captured the moment. Martha had those photos framed and hung in chronological order on the bathroom walls of the Cape house. Melanie shook her head to clear the burgeoning nostalgia …just not this summer. She’d especially miss her adventurous nieces and nephews - there would be no Aunt Melanie to plan a craft’s project, no Aunt Melanie to prepare the kid’s favorite cornmeal waffles with syrup and applesauce, or decorate the beach with sand sculptures. She had to clear her mind and dedicate this summer to a single quest. She could do it. She, Melanie Gray could do anything.
To insure her diligence this summer, Melanie had rented out her brownstone to a doctor, from France, doing summer studies at Columbia. The doctor’s resume was impeccable yet it was his glassy eyed teen-aged son that had prompted her to hastily pack up her many beloved objects of crystal and pewter along with family memorabilia and move them into storage for safekeeping. Melanie liked to think ahead, prepare for any and all possibilities- her mother had taught her that.
She crossed her legs and reached into her bag for the new Vanity Fair issue. Some nonsensical diversion far removed from the nineteenth century writers of her proposed scribe was exactly what she needed to bridge the gap until departure. Of course, a man sat down next to her. Here we go, she thought. She didn’t even bother to look up.
“Flying to Milan or on to Rome, may I ask?” he queried most politely with a very distinctive and yes, intriguing Italian accent that made her curious. Under normal circumstances she might consider him a possible candidate, a good voice was number three on her list, but men always had an angle these days, a game plan. Why couldn’t a relationship be simple – a woman likes a man and a man likes a woman? Did there have to be a cat and mouse, the spider to the fly? What happened to abject honesty? She mentally reviewed her list of male attributes: sincerity, number one, an easy smile, number two.
Melanie turned to give him her practiced and perfected haughty stare that screamed ‘leave me alone’. Truly she had learned well that most men were dogs by this age and that all the good men were already taken by now or came with three children, outrageous child support and an enormous alimony payment. Forty was young but impossibly old when it comes to finding unencumbered first love. And those men who had never married were too fixed in narrow paths of life – perhaps her goose was cooked. Her father loved that expression.
“Neither,” she said to an extremely good- looking man with shimmering brown eyes and dark, dark hair with just enough curl to be interesting, and an engaging smile. Impeccably dressed he wore a simple dark sweater over a glistening white shirt. His khaki pants eased up as he crossed his legs exposing thin white socks and dark leather loafers. Okay he looked dreamy and if she were not under the strict guise of her new summer plan she would make some time for this man, but not today. He looked too young anyway.
“I am actually on my way to Tuscany.” She opened her magazine to end the discourse while unconsciously weighing the pros and cons of engaging in conversation with someone new- a habit she had developed years ago when it seemed every man found her irresistible. He was handsome- seemed immature; dark eyes -probably a wandering eye; nice hands - unaccustomed to hard work, but a great voice, number four.
“As I am,” he continued with an infectious smile. “Although I have correctly read your ‘don’t bother me’ look (I have three older sisters) I want you to know I have been here in the United States finishing up my MBA so that I may join my father’s winery in Tuscany –most women find that attractive about me,” he said with an appealing grin that Melanie completely missed so determinedly engrossed in her magazine was she.
“That is interesting,” she offered nonchalantly flipping a page. “Where did you study?” she casually asked. Here was another man so full of himself he was already boring her. Dare she categorize all men as such? ‘I’ is their favorite pronoun. Lately her dates regarded a dinner at an exclusive restaurant as a stage to expound upon their life accomplishments, their attributes. Rarely was Melanie asked a single question (other than querying if she was employed). Men! Yet, her dad was an amazing man - handsome, generous, nice, funny, interesting, a great personality, successful in business and life and completely devoted to her mother and family. He was her ideal as were her brothers-in-law. There was Ben, a successful pilot, married to Miklis and Will the lawyer married to Merriwether and Mac the elementary teacher, married to Millicent. They were all good, honest men, devoted family men who adored their wives and actually were concerned about the lives of others rather than only their own life. Melanie unconsciously sighed as she again contemplated her plight. Exactly how had she arrived at this age still alone?
She’d had lots of men even many long-term relationships, yet not one man whom she wanted to keep forever by her side. Why was that? Her focus had been on education. After her bachelor degree she had immediately studied for her masters and then her doctorate. Her doctoral thesis had taken more than a year out of her life. Looking back she wondered if she had overlooked that one best catch in her past when her mind obsessed with English literature. Would anyone ever devotedly love her? She wasn’t desperately looking for a match, a husband, though a good man, a man to journey a lifetime together would be so welcomed, as water to a lost soul on a desert. Okay, admit it, ‘actively evaluating every possible candidate’ would correctly describe her life at this time. Forty!
“I studied at Harvard,” he continued to draw Melanie into his hopeful web. “But I spent a lot of weekends here in New York with friends I met at university. You are from New York?’ he asked knowing he would not get a response from her. “In fact my friends like me so much they drove me to the airport this afternoon to wish me ‘bon voyage’,” he chuckled quietly. She paid no attention to his ramblings, yet he was unfettered. “May I ask what you do other than read a magazine?”
“No you may not.” She gave him a hard smile and watched as he slowly deferred to her looming wall of defense then completely surrendered, gazing off into the crowd probably checking out another woman traveling alone. Sometimes it is better to end than to begin.
Peace at last.
“First class passengers may now board.”
The passengers stood together as if in practiced synchronization and it was then Melanie realized that with her considerable bad luck these days with men, this man, this eager Italian, would probably end up seated right next to her for the entire six hour flight. She crossed her fingers and scanned the crowd locking eyes with an old man ahead of her – even he would do, or even that single woman with a crying baby would be better than a man dripping with eligibility. She slowed her pace allowing the other passengers to widen the gap between herself and Mr. Italian. She didn’t feel like casual flirting this crossing. The timeline of her book must remain in clear view because she had to be successful in her professional life – her romantic life was in shambles. No men this summer!
Perfect! She was seated alone in a window seat. She relaxed, took off her heels and slipped into flip-flops she had tucked into the zippered outer pocket of her computer bag. She got out her iPad and chose a tattered notebook to review her earliest notes as other passengers inched by her. Melanie would adhere to her timeline and work until dinner then enjoy the movie that she knew she hadn’t seen (she never went to the movies anymore) and hopefully sleep a little though that would be a miracle in itself. She closed her eyes and imagined her family gathering this first weekend at the Cape. Her father always grilled rib eye steaks that first Friday night of endless summer. She could feel the warm caress of the evening breeze and imagine the constant break of waves rushing to shore and then dusk would comfortably settle in among the seas grasses and dunes. Her father, his arm draped across the shoulders of her mother, always remarked how lucky were they that each daughter had become a teacher- a profession that allowed their summer adventures to continue year after year as a practiced play.
Her reverie was suddenly interrupted.
“Excuse me, excuse me, please, Miss Gray. We have last minute passengers, married passengers, seeking two seats together. Would you consider moving two rows behind you where you can also enjoy a window seat so that these late arrivals might sit together?” The perfectly coiffed flight attendant with hopeful eyes, expertly lined with black eyeliner, leaned low, whispering in charming Italian accented English so only Melanie could hear. She looked anxious.
“Oh, all right, yes,” she replied with noticeable hesitation. She was so comfortable here – so alone. Did she have a choice? She slung her purse over her one shoulder, her computer bag over the other and gathered her things, all the while suppressing her internal grumbling.
“Where would you like me now?” she asked feeling not at all like her cheerful exterior indicated. Surely her luck could not hold out.
“Two rows back, right here, next to Mr. Movado,” said the flight attendant smiling as she led Melanie down the aisle. “This is Ms. Gray, “she said her eyelashes aflutter. “And thank you both for being so understanding. I will see that you enjoy an extra bottle of champagne this evening.”
Mr. Italian, good- looking Mr. Italian, his white shirt accenting his bright, teeth, grinned as a wolf to its prey.
“Hello, Ms. Gray, so nice to see you again,” he remarked with a sly smile. “I promise to speak only when spoken to.” He zipped his lip with a smile then stood allowing Melanie to ease into the window seat.
Melanie absentmindedly smoothed her dark hair that always misbehaved in the evening when her efforts to straighten it seemed to give up. It would soon be frizzing wildly as a Chia Pet. Her Irish heritage had bequeathed all the sisters with such curls that could resemble cotton candy at the behest of humidity or this long journey into night and through early morning, as was the case today. She would have to secure it in a ponytail or braid it or twist it into a bun before disaster struck.
“That is not necessary, Mr. Movado. You may speak as you wish. It is just that I envisioned a quiet flight of solitude where I might accomplish a little work in preparation for my efforts in Tuscany.” She smiled slightly and he nodded his head in understanding. His cologne wafted through the close quarters and Melanie was startled by its mesmerizing effect. So he was a practiced man of innuendo.
“I will not interrupt your solitude except to ask what work it is that you do? Is that too much to ask of you?”
“No,” she responded with an amused smile as she pulled out a warm gray cardigan from her bag. Flights were often much too cold for Melanie to enjoy without another layer of clothing. She leaned forward pulling on her sweater, failing to catch the other sleeve with her arm and the ever-helpful Mr. Movado leaned over to quickly assist her.
“My sisters. I understand the struggles of women. A beautiful woman like you is not married?”
Melanie gave him a stinging look. “Are you married, Mr. Movado?” She asked as she easily wound her hair into a bun securing it with two long pins.
“Well, no but I am a man. I will marry one day but I wait for the perfect woman.”
“And I wait for the perfect man. It seems obvious that neither of us has had any success so far, but are you enjoying the search?”
His smile was warm and gorgeous, most charming indeed. “I am. And you also?”
“Honestly? No not so much anymore,” she confessed. Who cares? She might as well be honest. Obviously she would never see this man again. “When all your sisters, your good friends and everyone in the world is married with children by this age but you remain alone, the search becomes an almost desperate pursuit. I don’t enjoy that.” Oh, had she really said ‘desperate’?
Fortunately she was interrupted by the pilot’s lengthy discourse on the video to be presented informing the passengers of the exits on the plane, the location of the floating devices, the oxygen masks and the screen ahead tracking the progress of their flight. Unwilling to pick up the pieces of the conversation Melanie stared out the window as the plane taxied into position her mind once again drifting to the Cape where she had spent every summer of her life for as long as she could remember. She berated herself for listening to reason, forcing her to travel as far as possible from her beloved family and the excitement of endless days of sunshine, the constant beat of water exploding upon the shore and that giant mass of twinkling stars that entertained nightly. Her nieces and nephews adored their Aunt Melanie. Camp Gray would have to take a back seat to her publication this year. But, oh those summer days of heat and swimming, digging for clams and hunting the best shells, sea glass, and smooth gray rocks, spiced with scavenger hunts and bicycle rides to the library surely she would be sorely missed by the little kids. Who would take her place?
‘Spinster’ quickly flashed into Melanie’s forty-year old brain filling her with regret. Yes, she had definitely become that person now who does absolutely everything alone at a nearly unmarriageable age of forty. Proof today - here she was sitting alone on an airplane, traveling alone to Italy to work alone on her book, spending the summer alone. Alone at forty - that was the life she had created for herself? This was the life to sustain her throughout her lifetime? Today, this first day of June, Melanie fought back tears and the urge to continue the hysterical journey into self-pity. After all she was a successful woman – a professor at a respected university, a well-read member of society, an astute investor, a great daughter, sister and aunt. One didn’t have to be married to be successful! Forty was just a number. Yet- that pestering, biological clock that ticked, ticked, ticked like the ticking crocodile chasing Captain Hook was weighing upon her mind. Children at forty? How had her personal life escaped her careful perusal?
Melanie had read volumes of articles debating the aging female reproductive system. She wanted children but really, only movie stars had babies after forty. Melanie figured she had possibly three good years left if she ignored all research. Looking like thirty does not mean one’s reproductive system is as young as thirty. Frustration framed her deep sigh as the plane began its liftoff and she continued internally scolding herself for never finding THE man – the perfect fit for her, a father to her children. Admittedly she longed for the comfort of a man’s embrace, a child’s arms reaching up to her. Great! Six hours of feeling sorry for herself loomed before her. Live each day as well as you can – she took comfort in the words of her mother realizing each day provides another chance at a better life.
Mr. Movado observed Melanie with growing interest but mistakenly analyzed her audible sigh as anxiety. He leaned in to reassure her.
“I have flown at least twenty times to and from Italy and America on this airline. Air Italia has good, sturdy planes and experienced pilots.” He wanted to pat her hand or shoulder to comfort her but didn’t dare. She was a cold woman that needed no one. “Everything will be all right.” He smiled in assurance as he studied the anguish in her beautiful face. Her skin was gossamer only outdone by her wild black hair. Her intense, green eyes were intelligent and he had already been victim of their immense power, boring straight through his soul endless times since their first meeting only a short time ago. She was a great beauty, poised, confident, but so unwilling to share.
“No, no. I like flying. I do. I was experiencing an internal struggle that plagues me all the time of late.” She shook her head. Get a hold of yourself, Mel. “Flying to me is a vacation in itself. I enjoy it.” She turned to him, a face of delight, then gazed out her window once more as the buildings of New York began to resemble the Play mobile town her nephews made each summer upon the picnic table on the patio at the Cape as waves pummeled the sandy shore.
“Do you live in New York, Ms. Gray?” He waited patiently. “Ms. Gray?”
“I do and please call me Melanie, and you are?” She might as well be friendly.
“I am Alberto, Alberto Movado,” he began then raised his head to peer over the seats. “I see the attendant coming now with our bottle of sparkling wine. Ay, yes! It is a Movado,” he declared proudly with small applause as the attendant approached. Alberto had worked hard to be accepted by his father into the family wine business in Tuscany. Now his life at the winery could finally begin. His voice would be heard. He would have responsibility in marketing and advertising and his father the hard man who found satisfaction in pointing out other’s flaws, especially flaws in his only son, would finally respect him. Alberto had grown weary of never meeting his father’s standard of excellence and sought an advanced degree in business and advertising hoping to please the great man. Though his new job would be marketing the wine he hoped it would be a first step toward his goal of making the wine. He was anxious to take on his new role, to finally prove himself and gain the respect always denied him.
“We have your champagne on this fight, Mr. Movado, Look.” The young woman held up the beautiful bottle labeled in green and silver foil for his perusal. “I thought you and Ms. Gray would enjoy this before we serve your dinner. I am sorry but this airline only has plastic.” She feigned the saddest frown then uncorked the champagne with quiet success.
“Wait, before you pour. I never travel on a plane without glass flutes.” He smiled cleverly and removed a long slim box from his carryon that he opened to reveal two crystal glasses. Melanie looked on in mocking approval.
“Only on flights or wherever you go, Alberto? Do you have a service of sterling with you also?” she teased with a coy smile.
“Yes, you find me interesting now that I allow you to drink your champagne from crystal, Melanie. Before you found me an interloper in your private, airplane life.”
Melanie laughed heartily as she received the flute of bubbly and placed it on the side tray. Late afternoon had quickly turned to sunset as the plane progressed through clear skies. Melanie felt the minutes of her life tick by -time that she could never recover as she sipped her champagne to quiet her mind. It was subtle sweetness.
“Delicious! How do you make your champagne, Alberto?”
He held his glass high focusing on the clear, yellow hue. “Oh, Melanie, this is Italian Prosecco, a sparkling wine You know the French hold fast to the label ‘champagne’. ” he said with a smirk, his nose up in the air. “They boast their Champagne is a gift from God!” He laughed. “Yet it is all sparkling wine – French grapes are as Italian grapes, we ferment twice as the French ferment twice, we age, the French age but the subtle difference is in the sweet versus the dry, yes?”
“Yes, I like your sweetness. Alberto.”
“Thank you Ms. Gray.” He bowed as if receiving an honor. “I knew you would find me so appealing.”
Was it his broad smile or his nearness, or that enchanting cologne, or the darkness of night or–whatever the cause, Melanie grew calm, heat as a warm blanket enclosed her. She held her glass of sparking wine aloft. “To a safe flight and a productive summer for each of us. And it is your sparkling wine that I find so sweet, Alberto.” She smiled.
“Yes, I know, Melanie. You like my crystal. You like my sparkling wine. Slowly before you realize it all my sweetness will overpower you. You wait, Melanie,” Alberto teased her but the movement of the attendant down the aisle immediately caught his attention.
Quiet Italian mumblings between attendant and Alberto filled the aisle, their heads in quiet discussion. Melanie used the interlude to ponder Alberto Movado. He had that subtle sense of humor she always liked, plus he was good-looking yet there was something innocent, perhaps immature or even naive about him- wasn’t he flirting with the flight attendant right now?
He was much younger, wasn’t he? She compared his hand resting upon his knee with her own. Hers was definitely weathered more, older. Oh he had probably led a catered life leaving no moment of normalcy, no long hours in the hot sun, no salty Atlantic Ocean to dry out his skin. Yet he seemed honest, direct, no game, well, full of game but an upfront game. He was a good man, at least better than the men she had recently dated, men who resorted to sarcasm easing into banality. Men who took her to dinner then expected her as dessert. They cared nothing of an ongoing relationship that she wanted: not sex with no emotion, not dates with no future.
“No man this summer, no man this summer,” she mumbled under her breath. There could be no exceptions! How quickly she forgot! But a plane ride was a plane ride with a beginning and an end She undid her bun and pulled her fingers through her hair and into a ponytail. Why not be honest with him?
“Perhaps I was too quick to judge you the typical egocentric male, Alberto. I think you are not a man of impending boredom, but a man of distinction,” Melanie apologized almost openly flirting. Wasn’t flirting allowed on an airplane? “The road of the single woman, once young but now the older young single woman is treacherous terrain, Alberto, and I’ve been known to misjudge, stumble and fall miserably along my way.” She cleared her throat and held out her hand with a friendly smile. “Hello, I am Melanie Gray, an English Literature professor at Columbia University.”
“Hello, Melanie Gray. I am Alberto Movado from Tuscany and I make wine.” He kissed her extended hand.
“Well that is most interesting, Alberto because I love to drink wine.”
“See,” he said his brown eyes twinkling. “Already we have so much in common.”