The Second Time Aroundbyslow_n_gentle©
"Another Valentine's Day," mumbled Millie as she slowly walked toward the diner to start her shift, "now I can spend the next 6 hours smiling, wishing everyone a happy Valentine's Day.
There wasn't much to be happy about in Millie's life when at age 52 she worked 2 jobs to make ends meet and save for retirement.
She did grin for an instant when she remembered the gift left by a secret admirer for the last 2 years; a little heart shaped box containing six scrumptious chocolates truffles.
The candy was always accompanied by a single red rose, and a handwritten note card with "Millie" on the front and "from your loving admirer" on the back beautifully written in a flowing calligraphy.
Both years in the same writing and always left at an empty table. Millie made a mental note to watch her usual customers to see which one he is.
Millie didn't always feel this way about life or Valentine's Day in particular. She use to cheerfully embrace each day as a new and exciting experience, and Valentine's Day made her laugh thinking about some of the outrageous gifts Tom, her husband of 25 years, had purchased because some cute saleswoman said his wife would love it.
Until 4 years ago. Valentine's Day still brought back the memory of her life suddenly falling into an abyss.
Tom was a laborer in the trades before they even met. Work was slow like it was most winters and he was on unemployment. What was different about that year now that Millie thought about it was he didn't go out and pick up the cash jobs like he did every winter, instead he told her he was going to the labor hall and wait for work.
He would usually return home smelling of beer and smoke from sitting around the labor hall's next door bar sometime before she left for her second job at the grocery store. The last few weeks though, he hadn't come home before she left. She had meant to ask him about it, but always forgot by the time she did see him.
It was after 10:00pm when she got home from work that Valentine's Day night. It was strange because all the lights were off and Tom always left the front porch and Kitchen lights on for her.
She unlocked the door; flipped on the light switch and came to a complete stop in stunned silence with her mouth hanging open.
The TV and Tom's recliner was missing in the living room and the complete dining room set of her grandmothers was gone.
She found a quickly scribbled note on the kitchen table from Tom saying he was leaving. Their bedroom set was gone, and her clothes just dumped in a corner of the bedroom. The bedroom set in the guest room was untouched.
It was like someone, definitely not Tom, was picking what to take. Evidently they didn't cook because all the dishes and cookware were still in the cupboard.
Millie saw the blinking light on the answering machine and pressed play.
"Millie," said an upset voice, "this is Marge at the credit union. Please call back as soon as possible. This is extremely important."
Millie walked through the house in a daze as the gravity of the situation struck her. She firmly held Tom's note in her hand wondering what she did to make him want to leave. Somehow, she managed to curl up on the bed in the guest room and cry herself to sleep still clutching that note.
She woke up dreaming she heard a phone ringing until she recognized Tara's voice from the diner leaving a message on the answering machine. Tara was worried something was wrong because Millie had never been late for work. Millie called Tara back to tearfully explain why she would need a couple of days off.
The sadness quickly changed to anger as she remembered walking in to the credit union and talking to Marge.
"I knew something was wrong," said Marge, "when I saw your husband and that other woman climb out of this large rental truck towing a car. They both came in and he wants to close out your joint savings account.
I lied and told Tom his wife would have to also sign to either close the account or on any amount over 50%. The woman started to say something but he cut her off and said half was fine.
Then he wanted to do the same with the checking account until I told him he would have to write a check to do it. He claimed he forgot it at home and would have to come back later. I could tell they weren't happy when they left.
"What did she look like?" asked a furious but curious Millie.
"Like a cocktail waitress," Marge said frowning, "young, skinny, blonde, with big boobs and a short skirt."
Marge helped Millie transfer everything into new accounts in Millie's name only, canceling the old debit cards.
Millie thought back to the Valentine card she was going to give Tom that night. Millie had taken the second job at the diner over 7 years ago to save for their 25th anniversary.
She and Tom had dreamed of traveling to Europe someday and Millie's card was letting Tom know that dream would be coming true. She had been saving part of the money from the diner in an account Tom didn't know about and had saved over $20,000 in those 7 years. She had worked and scrimped hard so they could take their dream vacation that summer long ago.
Today Millie's morning at the diner was going as expected. Her regulars wishing her a happy Valentine's Day and she smiling and saying thank you. It was nearing 10:00am and the secret admirer hadn't shown yet this year. Maybe it was all a joke because only two of the regulars were absent.
Jim came in exhausted and upset. He had just walked ten blocks from the hospital. Ben, his morning coffee companion, the other missing regular, was in the hospital. Ben was fine when they met on the corner this morning, even happy and smiling. He became pale and started coughing when they were about 5 blocks from the diner.
He just leaned against a building to catch his breath, and then slid down to the sidewalk. The paramedic said he was having difficulty breathing and transported him to the hospital. There they found he had pneumonia and told Jim that Ben will be hospitalized for a few days.
As he sat down at the diner he told Millie that Ben was in room 245 when she asked.
Ben Murray was one of Millie's first customers when she started at the diner. He was a medium height, quiet gentleman with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eyes. She came to know Ben because his smile faded and the twinkle disappeared.
He finally explained that as soon as the day nurse arrived, he would come to the diner before work to relax in the noise of the conversations around him and escape the quiet at home as his wife slowly lost her battle with cancer.
They have been partners for 30 years and now he felt so completely helpless because there was nothing he could do for her but sit by her side every evening. She was at the point that it was too painful for him to hold her anymore.
Millie had held his hands as tears fell down both their cheeks as he told his story. After that day, she saved a table toward the back for him and made an effort to spend a little time listening to him whenever he came in. When his wife died, Millie went to the wake to express her sympathy.
Years later, it was Ben listening to Millie when her husband left her. Ben was the one that advised her to contact a divorce attorney to protect herself. It was good advice; the attorney got the joint credit card frozen before her husband charged more than $200 on it.
He had her file the missing persons report, and a year later file divorce papers with the court for desertion. She was awarded everything he left that they jointly owned including the house and her car.
Millie finally used the vacation money to pay off the rest of the mortgage on the two bedroom brick town house they purchased when they first married.
When Millie's shift ended, she was tired and slightly sad the secret admirer didn't leave a gift. As much as she tried to convince herself otherwise, she was excited to have had someone thinking about a 52 year old woman. Millie smiled as she thought about the song lyrics "Love is lovelier the second time around" and "I'm oh so glad we met the second time around."
Before she had to go to her second job Millie went to the hospital to visit Ben. She stopped at his doorway and looked at her frail friend resting in an elevated position with an oxygen line running beneath his nose and an IV in his arm. She walked to the side of the bed and rested her hand on his.
"I pray you get well soon," Millie softly said, "I missed that soft smile and those twinkling eyes today."
"You're Millie." Said a female voice behind her.
Millie jumped and dropped Ben's hand before turning to look at a lovely woman in her early 30s smiling at her.
"I'm sorry to startle you," the woman said as she walked toward Millie, "I'm his daughter Anita. I'd know your face anywhere. Dad captured your exact likeness in his painting."
"Painting?" Millie questioned, "What painting?"
"He didn't tell you?" said a surprised Anita. "Dad is a professional artist for a publishing company. He does illustrating and many of the book covers. He has pencil drawings of everyone at the diner he goes to but you Millie.
You.... he has an oil painting of in his den above the fire place. He sits in his chair in front of the fire and looks at you for hours.
He has told me all about you from the beginning when you helped him cope with mom's dying. I kept telling him to ask you out now that you are single woman, but he is shy and afraid you would reject him and that it would ruin your friendship together.
I finally convinced him to take a chance this Valentine's Day. He decided to put his name on your gift today. If you smiled, he was going to ask you out. If you just said thank you, he would say nothing."
"What gift?" as Millie, "his friend came in today to tell us Ben was in the hospital with pneumonia. I just got off work and stopped by to see him."
"Oh! I completely forgot he didn't make it to the diner. "Said Anita as she looked through her father's personal items. "Here they are."
She passed Millie a little heart shaped box of chocolates, a wilted red rose, and a white note card with "Millie" on the front and "from Ben, your loving admirer" on the back in that beautiful flowing calligraphy.
"He's the one!" exclaimed a smiling Millie as tears filled her eyes. "I always hoped it was Ben, but didn't know because he never said a word about it." Millie started chuckling, "I never said anything to him about it, because I didn't want to lose his friendship if I was wrong."
Millie and Anita talked about her father and became better acquainted until Millie noticed it was time to go to work. She excused herself for a minute to freshen her lipstick in front of the bathroom mirror. Walking over to Ben she kissed his cheek, leaving a pair of bright red lips for all to see.
"When he wakes up Anita," Millie said smiling, "tell him that is my partial gift until he is better. I will see him tomorrow after work. You can also tell him I smiled because of his card."
Ben recovered and asked Millie out.
Their love for one another bloomed like the rose Ben gave her.
On Valentine's Day a year later, their shared Valentines gift was when they said "I do."
For Millie, Love is Lovelier....The Second Time Around.