A Love Story for Valentine’s Day – “Juliet”

JULIET

(From the collection of short stories, Seven Tales of Love.)

v cafe

Howard Ashbury strolled along Columbus Avenue, enjoying the fine weather – autumn in New York – a welcome break from the gray of Seattle. Something about the pulse of the city, the charm of the Upper West Side, brought back his younger self, and he felt happy, hopeful. He stopped in front of a little café, and, though it was too early for dinner, he decided to go in. He would read the new script over a glass of wine.

As he entered, he took in the exposed brick walls, the long windows, the candles just being lit in the softening light. Then his heart gave a little lurch when he saw her sitting there – Anna Avilov, his old Juliet. Suddenly, the twenty years since the production of Romeo and Juliet in San Francisco vanished.

My God, he thought. She’s as beautiful as ever. There she sat, with a dreamy look in her eyes, pen poised in her hand as she searched for some word or phrase. She wore her hair loosely swept up, and the shimmering aquamarine blouse caught the color of her eyes. What was she searching for – some hidden world of beauty? What did she see?

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Howard felt the old chivalrous urge to help her.

But Anna had never needed anyone. He remembered how they were all in love with her, in love with the beauty and charm she possessed. Men and women alike took to her, as did the audience. They all wanted some of whatever it was she exuded – to possess it, to be in its presence, however briefly. He remembered how she had felt pulled down by that hungry need from everyone, and had shied away from the very attention the other actors sought.

Perhaps feeling his gaze, Anna looked over at him. Their eyes met, and her brow furrowed as she tried to place him.

Howard gave a small, wry smile. Have I changed so much? he wondered.

He walked over to her. “Hello, Juliet,” he said, hoping the name would bring back the memory of him. He waited a beat. “Don’t you remember your old stage manager?”

Anna’s eye widened as she gasped. “Howard!” She jumped up and hugged him. “I can’t believe it! Oh, how wonderful! Can you sit with me? I just can’t believe it!” In between each exclamation she searched his face, stepping back a bit to take in the changes.

He had forgotten how petite she was. She had to stand on her toes to kiss his cheek.

Howard pulled out the chair across from her, and waited for her to take her seat. He then sat down.

They ordered a bottle of wine. As Howard crossed his legs and turned the saltshaker around in his fingers, Anna clapped her hands in delight.

“Oh! You still wear red socks. You haven’t changed. Not a bit. Still so handsome and dapper!”

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Howard smiled, realizing that it was ridiculous for her words to mean so much to him. But his recent failed affair had left him wounded and unsure of himself.

They talked and laughed and caught up on the last twenty years. Howard told her that he was still working as a stage manager, the last twelve years in Seattle. He described some of the more memorable productions.

Anna filled him in on the rather haphazard path she had taken. When she moved to New York eighteen years ago, she had found work as an off-off-Broadway actress, filling in the gaps between shows with waitressing and temping. The years since had been marked by a variety of unrelated jobs, a bit of travel, and, ten years ago, the meeting of her husband.

Howard was disappointed to hear that she had given up acting after she married. But Anna said it was writing that she had always felt more at home with.

“Yes, I remember that. You were always writing during rehearsals. What was it you used to say? That you were trying to create the world you were forever in search of. Have you found it? Or have you created it?”

Anna laughed. “Neither, I’m afraid. It still eludes me.”

“And are you still interested in theater?”

“Yes, of course.” She glanced at her watch. “As a matter of fact, my husband has tickets for tonight. Dinner, and then Chekhov. He’s picking me up here. I’m so happy you’ll be able to meet him.”

She went on to say that she had written some one-act plays and was working on a screenplay. As he listened, he observed the old air of wistfulness about her.

After two hours of talking, Howard noticed that evening had crept closer to their window. The candles on the tables and the lights outside shone brighter now, against the dark. That artful thrill of early evening filled the air, and shone from the faces of the couples filling the tables next to them, and from people hurrying by outside – the thrill that the night might hold something wonderful.

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Howard knew that her husband would be there soon to take her to dinner, yet there was so much more he wanted to know. He gave a small ironic smile; she still had the power to stir up a hunger in her audience. He poured the last of the wine into their glasses and asked if she remembered William Chase.

“Of course, I do! Benvolio. Or was it Balthasar? You’d think I’d remember.” She looked above his head, scanning the stage of so long ago, squinting ever so slightly, as if the stage lights were still in her eyes.

Howard also wondered how she could forget. “Benvolio,” he said. “And so terribly in love with you.”

Anna nodded. “Benvolio. Of course.” She took a sip of wine. “Whatever became of him? Do you know?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I ran into him last year in Portland. He became a lawyer, of all things.”

“A lawyer?” Anna asked, surprised. “Good for him.”

Howard had always wondered if Anna was aware of the effect she had on people. He thought it unfair that beauty could so effortlessly cause pain to others. He recognized his buried resentment, mixed with admiration, for all the things she represented to him. He had never wanted to sweep her into his arms, or make love to her. Rather, he had wanted to be like her, to move through the world with such power and beauty and ease.

Howard would later blame the wine for making him press on as he did. His words came out almost accusingly. “William told me that he never really got over you.”

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Anna leaned slightly back, as if in defense. Her full lips shaped her words as she spoke.

“Well, there was never anything between us. I certainly never encouraged him. I guessed he had feelings for me, but you know how that is – how often that happens in an emotionally charged cast.”

Howard nodded and looked down. The image of the beautiful Roberto filled his mind: how their eyes had met across the stage, how their love had developed, those first perfect months. With bitterness, he remembered the torch he had carried for Roberto, long years after being rejected.

“You know,” said Howard, allowing some of his resentment to creep into his tone, “William always thought it was because of his height. He thought you never took him seriously.”

This was actually Howard’s belief, but he assumed this must be the case since William had been strikingly handsome. “That was one of the reasons he went into law, he said. More weight – or height, in his case.”

Howard waited for her answer. He wanted to know whether he had been correct all these years in attributing to Anna a certain small-mindedness; or whether he had ungenerously projected onto her the reasons for his own unrequited loves.

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Again, Anna squinted into the past. “Yes. I remember him saying something about that once. He invited me to dinner, but I just wasn’t interested. He asked if it was because of his height. I think I laughed out loud at such a ridiculous notion. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was his whininess that made him unattractive. It was so off-putting. Do you remember? He complained about everything and everyone.”

Anna swirled the wine around in her glass and smiled. “Besides, I’ve always preferred short men. A better fit, you know.”

Howard snapped upright in surprise – both by her candor, and by his mistaken assumption. He had always believed that height was one of those universally desired attributes – attributes that he, for the most part, did not possess.

He responded with a simple, “Oh?” and began turning the saltshaker around again. His thoughts tripped over themselves as he attempted to reorganize them, realizing that he had indeed misjudged Anna – and perhaps his own beloved – all these years.

Anna spoke as if merely stating a fact, but a sly seductiveness played about her lips.

“Yes, whether kissing when standing, or cuddling at night, or…” Her aquamarine blouse shimmered in the candlelight as she gave a light shrug.

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Howard quickly replayed the arguments with Roberto. He had always assumed that Roberto had rejected him because of his age, ethnicity, or some other quality over which he had no control. For the first time, the thought gripped him: What if Roberto had simply found him boring? Or, God forbid, whiny?

Then, as if on cue and choreographed to maximize the insight into his own failed affairs, in walked Anna’s husband – short, if not shorter, than William Chase. He was equally as handsome, though, Howard had to admit, in a more genial manner.

Anna’s whole being surged with pleasure at the sight of her husband’s flashing smile and warm eyes. She stood to embrace him – in a comfortable fit, Howard noticed – and introduced them.

As she slipped on her wrap, the three of them spoke briefly and exchanged business cards. Howard declined the invitation to join them for dinner but promised to stay in touch.

Anna and her husband waved good-bye and left the café.

Howard sat back down at the table and tried to put his ruffled thoughts back in order, tapping the saltshaker up and down. As he shook his head at life’s vanities and wretched misunderstandings, the beautiful Anna Avilov tapped on the window and blew him a kiss, her arm linked with that of her Romeo.

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https://www.amazon.com/dp/1946229105/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_5I0rCbK1RQTQ7

Paula’s gift store – Valentines Day

In The Garden House, Miranda’s friend and neighbor, Paula, is the owner of several gift shops. They are filled with vintage jewelry, antiques, and old china from flea markets, garage sales, and estate sales, as well as a few hand-crafted items.

Throughout the year, Miranda contributes wreaths and bouquets from her garden to add to Paula’s displays,

and at certain holidays, like Valentine’s Day, she creates mini-bouquets to be given as gifts.

Valentine’s Day is Miranda’s favorite time of year to shop at Paula’s gift stores. She always discovers some small treasure to add to her home,

or to give as a gift, especially to her daughter, Clara.

Paula’s shops offer a sense of discovery, and delight in adding small touches of beauty to the home.

painted glass bottle

 

Happy New Year!

In the Christmastime series, Lillian collects Victorian cards and displays them on her mantel for the holidays. Below are a few cards that might have been part of her collection, along with a few Victorian sentiments ushering in the New Year.

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“Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow…”
― Alfred Tennyson

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“Only a night from old to new! Only a night, and so much wrought!” ―Helen Hunt Jackson

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“So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you!” ― Charles Dickens

NY9

NY5

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

NY1

 

Mrs. Kuntzman’s Kitchen

In the Christmastime series, Mrs. Kuntzman, the elderly babysitter for Tommy and Gabriel, plays a role from beginning to end. Her presence and her cooking infuse the books with a sense of holiday coziness and warmth.

They saw [Mrs. Kuntzman] standing at the door of her brownstone, waiting to welcome them. She was in her late sixties, gray-haired and a bit stooped, and utterly grandmotherly in her affection for Tommy and Gabriel. Even though Lillian had told her it wasn’t necessary, she often had pancakes or cobbler…freshly made for the boys. (Christmastime 1940)

“And,” said Mrs. Kuntzman, holding up a finger – she went to the kitchen and returned with a plate covered with a red and white checked napkin – “I have extra strudel for youse. Still warm. I always make too much.” (Christmastime 1940)

“We brought apples for you from my sister’s orchard. And some cherry preserves.”

“Ach, good! I make cherry krapfen for Tommy and Gabriel. Those boys love donuts best of all.” (Christmastime 1941)

“[Mrs. Kuntzman’s] been supplying me with strudel and cherry krapfen for the spotters all week.” She dropped her voice to add, “Though we’ve renamed them Yankee Cobbler and Allied Donuts. In the same way the restaurants have renamed spaghetti – Liberty Noodles, they call them.’”

“Yes, I’ve seen that,” laughed Lillian.

“And she’s promised one of her famous Christollens. Hmm. I’ll have to come up with another name for it.” (Christmastime 1941)

stollen

Lillian looked at [Mrs. Kuntzman’s] knobby hand against the flour-dusted red apron, the smiling eyes and nearly white hair, and felt a rush of affection for this woman who had become like a grandmother to Tommy and Gabriel – watching over them before and after school, baking treats for them, praising their schoolwork, offering words of comfort.

“And the soup will help,” Mrs. Kuntzman added. “Love in a jar. I don’t want our Tommy sad.”(Christmastime 1942)

Mrs. Kuntzman opened the door, wearing a red Christmas apron with a pattern of poinsettias. The smell of butter and cinnamon and cloves greeted them. (Christmastime 1943)

When Lillian knocked at the babysitter’s door, Mrs. Kuntzman greeted her with a tin of freshly baked cookies.

“These are ones we didn’t eat,” she said, laughing along with Tommy and Gabriel. (Christmastime 1943)

Mrs. Kuntzman opened her door to the young playwrights, and they were greeted by her smiling face, her flour-dusted green apron, and a warm waft of cinnamon and apples.

“Come in, come in! I have apple strudel for youse all, fresh from the oven!” (Christmastime 1944)

Annette’s orchard — seasonal charm

orchard dinner

In the Christmastime series, Lillian Hapsey visits her sister, Annette, in upstate New York, close to where they grew up. Annette and her family live on an orchard, which provides Lillian a welcome change from the bustle of Manhattan. Though Lillian only visits once or twice a year, the orchard offers her a wider scope of seasonal beauty and an opportunity to be with family.

Lillian and her boys, Tommy and Gabriel, have fond memories of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas at Annette’s. Depending on the weather, they take hikes through the woods, sometimes taking the logging roads. The boys and their cousins explore the woods and run wild through the orchard, and with the help of their Uncle Bernie, they gather firewood to make bonfires at night, sometimes roasting marshmallows. If there is snow, they go sledding and take sleigh rides.

When the sisters are together, they take long walks along the country roads, gathering bunches of bittersweet and pine cones. At night, they fix a cup of tea and stay up late talking in front of a crackling fire.

One of the things Lillian most looks forward to is preparing wonderful meals with Annette. Part of their tradition is to make dishes that their mother used to make when they were girls.

To the delight of the children, they also make special seasonal treats — apple cider donuts and caramel apples, holiday cookies, and snow ice cream.

And every time Lillian visits, Annette packs a basket for her to take back home with her, full of wholesome goodness from the orchard: honey and beeswax candles, maple syrup and jars of apple butter, bottled pears, jellies and jams — and apples.

When Lillian returns home to Manhattan, she often adds Annette’s orchard gifts to her breakfast and dinner table — besides being a tasty addition, they serve as a reminder of their days up at the orchard.

Annette’s orchard is a haven for Lillian and her boys — a cozy, welcoming place, full of good food and adventures. For Lillian, it gives her a sense of stepping back into her beloved girlhood days, and is a lovely way for her to enjoy the seasons.

(Photos from Pinterest. You can visit my book boards at: https://www.pinterest.com/lindamahkovec/)

The Making of a Book Cover — Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series

I was lucky to find a great book cover designer, Laura Duffy, for all my books. The Christmastime series, in particular, required several drafts.

Laura patiently added snow, made streetlights glow, erased modern buildings, and cropped and colored and added details until I had the image I wanted.

The cover for Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series posed the most challenges. Early on, we decided that it would have a few subtle differences. As a prequel, it would not be part of the color sequence of the other books — green, red, blue. And Laura suggested that the “photograph” be vertical rather than horizontal.

I wanted the cover to evoke a sense of happiness and hope, with just a hint of the shadow cast by the war in Europe. After searching and searching for a photograph that would capture the main character’s (Lillian Hapsey) longing to move to Manhattan and start life anew, I found an image that might possibly work — with a little magic from Laura Duffy.

The photo had certain elements I was looking for: snow, a source of light (a lamppost), and it was immediately recognizable as Manhattan, with the Empire State Building in the center of the photo.

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But it needed some work.

First, the lamplights needed to be “turned on.” It took a few attempts to get the right shade of soft gold. Then we looked at several Christmas wreaths, pine boughs, and red ribbons to attach to the lamppost. We decided on the one below. I purchased the photo and Laura added and aged it.

Next, the Empire State Building needed to be more pronounced. The original photo depicted a foggy day (I wanted snow), and the outline of the building was obscured.  So Laura found and superimposed a clearer photo of the Empire State Building and added a light snowfall.

Empire State Bldg superimposed

We were getting closer, but it didn’t yet capture the charm and promise of new beginnings. I imagined a scene at dusk, people hurrying home after work, the Christmas season in the air — and Lillian pausing to look at the view of the Empire State Building and having a visceral feeling of connection — Manhattan embodied everything she wanted.

So Laura turned day into evening, showing lights in the office windows, and patiently adjusting my requests for “less blue, a little grayer, more dusk-like, a little darker, more snow?” — until finally, it clicked — and I entered the world of Christmastime.

The image captures a moment in the story when Lillian becomes a part of the city she so loves. I could see her dressed in 1930’s shoes and coat, her face raised in happiness, knowing that her two little boys would also love the magic of the city. I felt the image now had charm, a sense of excitement, and the feel of Christmas.

1939

Thank you, Laura!

Check out the variety of Laura’s covers here: https://www.lauraduffydesign.com/ 

Christmastime 1939 is now available (the softcover will be available any day now).

(The final book in the series, Christmastime 1945: A Love Story,  will be published in 2019.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miranda’s garden — autumn days

“The sun shone on the garden, thick with late summer flowers and early autumn blooms.”

Though most of the story of The Garden House takes place over summer, the book ends with the beginning of fall, and a sense of change. I imagine the main character, Miranda, strolling through her garden at this time of year, gathering a few autumn leaves that have fallen to the ground and clipping blooms for displays around her home.

She would use certain flowers and berries and turn them into wreaths,

fall GH wreath 2

or pair them with candles to create a cozy fall ambiance.

fall branches

Most of the cut flowers would become arrangements that Miranda would place on bookshelves, counters, and tables throughout the house, with one special bouquet for the dining table.

fall bouque Paula

I imagine her preparing one of her special meals for her children who would visit over the weekend, or perhaps her friends next door would stop by for dinner.

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Miranda would add leaves and moss, or branches of berries and a few apples to the dining table to give it an autumnal feel.

And if the weather was mild, she would choose to have dinner under the trees on her beloved deck.

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As the autumn days grew cooler, Miranda would take a moment in her garden to curl up on a bench with a shawl, or find just the right spot to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa and good book.

reading and cocoa

Beauty. Meaning. Books.
http://amzn.to/2x8QhNp

gardenhouse_kindle_hi

 

 

 

 

 

The Asking

A 1

Following is the shortest story from my collection, Seven Tales of Love.

The Asking

It had been more than twenty years since she had danced. Dancing wasn’t a part of her husband’s character, along with many other things she used to delight in. In the early days, they had moved to music in her apartment. He had tried, for her sake. And yet, in him she had the security that she had never found with anyone else. Before him, there were always the betrayals, small or large, that spoiled her relationships and made her unsure of people. Her marriage was not what she had dreamed of in her youth – but then, neither were the betrayals. At least he was true, devoted, loyal. Rock solid. It had been easy to give up the superficial accessories of love.

So what was this desperate stirring inside her now? This night as she danced to the rhythms of the music, with the man whose hand gently held hers, moving together as if in long familiar ease? Delight, excitement, the thrill of the dance, as in her youth. That dream was supposed to be long dead, long ago replaced with more reassuring, dependable matters. What was it doing so achingly awake in her now – in all of its glittering, hopeful youthfulness?

An alarm shot through her. This feeling did not belong to her, the fiercely loyal woman of unshakable convictions. It was because of the music, surely, the warm breeze, the Old World balconies, the tiny soft lights in the night.

It wasn’t the kindness in his eyes, the flashes of laughter, the protective arm around her shoulder, the earthy connection to the rhythms of life.

No, it was the soft crashing of the waves, the shimmering pink and melon sunset. It was the sly promise that night weaves into its beginning. It was all that – and he was just a part of it, surely.

Unexpectedly, life was offering her a choice. All she had to do was embrace it. The choice was there, offered to her with simple outstretched hands – no demands, nothing but the sweetness of human warmth. The choice to connect with life one more time before age and plodding routine took over for good.

Or, to stay true to her old self, to the woman she thought she was.

This sudden feeling was not part of her code of living. Such a breaking of that code would leave her unsure of anything ever again.

Or, would it open her up to a whole new way of being – once more connected, once more happy and hopeful, her old buried self awake again, bursting into blossom after long dormant years?

Would it be sadder to give in? Or sadder to deny?

Either way was crushing. The question kept rolling in the surf of her mind, along with the feeling that she had recaptured her beauty, her liveliness, the agility and freedom of movement that she thought she had lost.

A 14

Then, slowly, there in her mind, was her husband’s face, there with his gaze – the eyes that always asked, that always expressed love and desire for her. Her heart was pierced with tenderness for him, for all their faults and failures over the years. They were bound, bound – no matter what dreams of beauty might cross her path.

Her excuse was sore feet and age when she declined to dance further, when she took her seat, and watched the other dancers dance under the tiny lights.

A 4

***

Rather than a vacation to a tropical location, as the story would suggest, the inspiration behind this tale came from a song. One cold winter’s day, after a dull day at work and a frustrating commute home on the subway, I stopped by a Thai restaurant to order takeout. As I sat waiting, staring through the rain-streaked windows at the traffic on the boulevard and the hurrying figures under black umbrellas, a song began to play — Sea, Sand, and Sun (Arnica Montana). And it took me far away — stirring up feelings and images of younger days, beautiful beaches, and the romance of life.

SevenTalesOfLove_Kindle_hi_v2

 

Seven Tales of Love
by Linda Mahkovec
Amazon Link: http://a.co/20rApfG

Summer Evenings in the Garden

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Long summer days mean that we can spend more time out of doors. And one of the best places to linger in the summer twilight is in a lovely garden. There’s something about candlelight and dinner in the garden that is absolutely magical.

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Though I can count such dinners I’ve experienced on one hand, they stand out in my mind. Some memories shine more than others, like tiny jewels in an inner treasure chest — clearer, sharper, more durable.

One such memory is of an impromptu dinner I once had with friends in Seattle. A guest was visiting from Switzerland and we decided to have our dinner outside, just beside the flower garden.

We pulled out the kitchen table, draped it in a lace tablecloth, and added details to make the dinner even more special — fresh flowers from the garden, antique water goblets and an Art Deco silverware set that belonged to my grandparents, and a tiny salt and pepper set — green and white enamel owls. One of my roommates, who was attending a culinary arts school, created a sumptuous meal full of summer freshness — I remember a cold blueberry soup with creme fraiche swirled on top and a salad with orange nasturtiums from the garden.

I never made the connection before, but surely that evening found its way into my novel The Garden House, which is set in Seattle. There’s a scene where the main character, Miranda, sets a beautiful table on the garden deck and enjoys a lovely summer evening with her husband and a few friends.

The Italian poet and author Cesare Pavese said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those words came to him as he sat in a summer garden at evening.

GH eve book

Amazon Link: http://a.co/hsncwXs

 

 

 

Tea in the garden

In my novel The Garden House, the main character, Miranda, often takes a cup of tea out into her beloved garden and curls up on a bench as she takes in the beauty of her flowers. Her garden offers both solace and pleasure.  It’s the perfect place to read a good book, to visit with a friend, or to sit quietly and enjoy the simple tranquility of nature.

GH tea 6“Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company” ~Author Unknown

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GH tea 10“Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things.” ~Saki

“Tea is quiet and our thirst for tea is never far from our craving for beauty.” ~James Norwood Pratt

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“You can’t get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ~C.S. Lewis,

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“Where there’s tea there’s hope.” ~Arthur Wing Pinero

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