Kelly Armstrong walked into the bustling private dining room off Magliozzi's main restaurant. She'd never been to the place, even though it was a mainstay of her small town. Her family had always chosen Garabaldi's when they were in the mood for Italian food, and she'd never considered branching out.
As she looked around, she noted with some chagrin that Magliozzi's was decorated much better and the food the servers carried looked better prepared than it did at the family favorite. A pair of women were sitting at a table near the door and one of them waved to her.
Walking over, Kelly said, "Hi, I'm here to register for the swim."
"Swim? You really think you'll be able to swim?" The woman who spoke was probably in her 70s. She was chubby and had an effervescence about her that was very attractive. "There's a reason it's the Valentine's Plunge, honey. One dip and you'll be running for the warming tent."
"That's probably true," Kelly agreed. "I'm not very tough."
"Aw, don't say that. Going into the ocean in February is plenty tough. Are you alone, or part of a team?"
"I'm alone, but I made all of my family contribute." She pulled out an envelope and extended it to the younger woman, who seemed to be in charge of the tallying.
"Well, good for you. We really appreciate you doing this, sweetie. Do you know anyone with ALS?"
Kelly's face clouded over with the always-present loss she was sure would never lessen. "My mom," she said, hoping the woman didn't pepper her with questions.
The woman was obviously able to see that Kelly wasn't in the mood to discuss her mother, since she reached across the table and grasped her hand, squeezing it with empathy. The simple gesture, and the sympathetic look the grandmotherly woman gave her made the tears escape, a few of them sliding down Kelly's face. She took her handy handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at them, shrugging when the woman said, "I understand, sweetie. I lost my husband. I'm Vivian, by the way. What's your name?"
"Kelly. I guess everyone has lost someone, or they wouldn't jump into the ocean in the middle of winter, right?" She forced herself to smile, and she realized, as she often did, that the mere effort made her feel lighter.
"I'm not going in." The old woman laughed. "Sandy here is going for both of us, isn't that right?"
"Yes, Mom," Sandy said absently as she continued to sort through the donation. She looked up at Kelly. "You did a great job."
"I've got a big family. I captured them all over Christmas when everyone was feeling generous."
Finishing up, Sandy said, "You qualify for a t-shirt, a stocking cap and a fleece robe."
Demurring, Kelly said, "I don't need the gifts. Why don't you give them to someone else?"
"Are you sure?" Vivian asked.
"Yeah, I'm sure." She smiled and started to back away, not wanting to admit that she'd never, ever wear anything that reminded her of ALS. She'd moved back about 2 feet when she bumped into someone. Turning, she started to apologize. "I'm so sorry," she said, putting her hand on the shoulder of a 40-something woman.
"That's okay. You didn't hurt me."
"Don't knock any of our participants out," Vivian said. "We need every one of 'em. Are you registering, honey?"
"Yes. Sorry I'm late, I took the train down and it took 15 minutes to have a cab come pick me up."
"You came from New York?" Vivian asked. "Just for this?"
"Oh, no, I have a weekend place down here."
"Where's that?" Kelly found herself asking.
"Belmar. Right after you cross the bridge. Do you know it?"
"Yes, I do. I sell real estate, so I know every place." She held out her hand. "Kelly Armstrong."
"Rachel Robb. Good to meet you." She cast a glance back at the women at the registration table and said, "If you've got a minute I've got a few questions about the market. Can you hang on while I finish here?"
"Sure. I'll go get a drink. Would you like one?"
"Yes. Desperately. I'll have a whiskey and water or red wine if they don't have mixed drinks."
"I'll be back in a few." Kelly started to thread her way through the crowd, murmuring apologies as she tried to slip through without doing any damage.
It took several minutes to get the drinks and return to the entryway, but the crowd was thinner there and it was easier to have a conversation. Kelly handed Rachel her drink. "I made an executive decision to go with the red wine," she said quietly. "The whiskey they had looked like it had been aged for a week."
Rachel took the wine glass and clinked it against Kelly's. "Thanks. I'm usually picky about what I drink but after the crappy day I've had I'm ready to drink turpentine."
"That bad, huh? What do you do for a living?"
"I figure out ways to sell cheap, plastic crap to kids who don't need it." She batted her eyes innocently. "I'm part of the problem, not the solution."
Kelly chuckled, drawn to Rachel's exuberant and appealingly dramatic style. "Let's see, cheap, plastic crap. That could be almost anything. Sales or marketing?"
"Is your company symbol a mouse?"
"No, but our chairman is a rat." She grinned mischievously. "You won't know the company unless you have little girls in your life. It's a Japanese firm that sells silly representations of animals. I'm in charge of marketing for the under-five demographic."
"Yes! You must have kids."
"No, but my siblings do. I've bought some of your stuff, and it really is cheap, plastic crap."
"Thank you." Rachel took a bow, and her straight, medium-blonde hair fell forward, then slid right back into place when she stood. "We aim to rob."
"My nieces are out of your demographic now, but they still like the toys. I bought one of them a backpack for Christmas that had some manic-looking zebra on it."
"Zu-zu is one of our best sellers. A classic."
"Well, I hope my contribution to the zoo benefits you in some way."
"Yes, it does, but I'd gladly volunteer if they weren't able to pay me." Striking another faux-innocent pose, she said, "I do it for the children."
"Do you have any of your own?"
"Children?" She recoiled mildly. "God, no!" Grasping Kelly's arm, she said, "I didn't mean for that to sound as true as it is."
"No offense taken. I don't have any by choice. They're fun to visit, but I wouldn't want to live with one."
Wiping her brow, Rachel said, "Strike the 'fun to visit' part and I agree completely."
Kelly laughed at the expression of distaste on Rachel's face. "No kids in your life?"
"No. I'm an only child and I communicate with my friends only by phone until their children can drive--away." She grinned that demonic smile again and Kelly found her mood lightening with each moment she spoke to her new acquaintance.
"So, what's your interest in the real estate market? Are you looking to buy or sell?"
"Both, maybe. My place is a little too big and a little too far from the beach. I've got a water view, but I want to hear the ocean at night, not the river."
"Right. I know where it is, but how big is it?"
"2 and 2. I'd give up a bedroom to be by the ocean."
Kelly nodded, her eyes narrowed in thought. "Can you go up a little in price? It's hard to find a nice ocean view condo with fewer than 2 bedrooms. Most of the places that have been built in the last 20 years are fairly large."
"Have you been selling real estate for 20 years?" Rachel looked her over, appraisingly. "You don't look old enough."
"Close," Kelly said, "I'm from Manasquan, but I've only been selling here for 3 years. I worked in Manhattan for 15." A vivid pall of sadness settled onto her face. "I took a real hit to move back here, but it had to be done."
"Hmm," Rachel said, assessing her again. "You've got that 'ALS ruined my life' look. Who was it?"
"My mom. I'm the only one who isn't married and doesn't have kids, so I quasi-volunteered to be in charge."
"Is she gone" Rachel asked, her voice gentling.
"Yeah. 6 months now."
"Seems like moments, doesn't it?"
"It sure does. They tell me this will pass, but I haven't seen any evidence of that."
"It takes longer than 6 months. At least it did for me."
Unconsciously, Kelly reached out and put her hand on Rachel's shoulder. "Who did you lose?"
Eyes blinking slowly, Kelly said, "Oh, God, that must have been horrible."
"Yeah, of course it was. But I'm on the road to recovery." She snapped her fingers. "A mere 2 and a half years later I can laugh and play with the other kids."
"Do you... mind talking about... ?"
"Her death?" Rachel looked Kelly right in the eye, as if she were daring her to make a comment about the sex of her lover.
Without missing a beat, Kelly said, "Yes. Do you mind?"
"No, not at all. What do you want to know?"
Kelly bit her lip, struggling for calm. "How long did it take you to be able to talk about her without crying?"
"I could cry right this minute without trying. But, honestly, I'm good now. I'd say the first year was dreadful, and the second year was difficult. Now I'm usually fine. No nightmares, no antidepressants, no binge eating or drinking." She laughed softly, shaking her head. "I sound like I was a real basket case." She nodded. "I was."
"I'm still there. My father seems in better shape than I am, and my siblings carry on as if nothing has happened. But I'm stuck."
"Probably because you were the main caregiver. It's much harder when you're there every day."
"I was," Kelly said. "We hired a private nurse, but I spent every minute I could with her."
"Did you live in Manhattan?"
"Yeah. Upper West Side." She looked like she was about to cry. "I miss it."
"Why not go back?"
"Oh, I guess I could, but I've just started to make a good living here. My parents owned a decent-sized agency in Manasquan and I look it over when I moved back."
"Ahh. Are you siblings in business with you?"
"2 out of 5 are." She smiled tightly. "That always makes things interesting."
"I bet." Rachel laughed. "I don't miss having brothers and sisters, either."
"It's a challenge. But I've got things running well and I hate to start over... again."
"Me?" Kelly pointed her finger at herself, looking as if Rachel had asked if she were an alien.
"Yes, you. Who else am I talking to?"
"Me. Your question just took me by surprise. I don't know why, but I assumed you'd know I was gay."
"My gaydar isn't that good. You've got to give me a hint." Once again she looked Kelly up and down. "Very professionally dressed, nice hair. Short, but not too short for a straight woman." She nodded thoughtfully. "Nice, tasteful jewelry." Zeroing in on her ears, she added, "Real pearls."
Kelly touched one of her earrings. "They are. From my mother."
"Very nice. I could tell they were real because the setting isn't current. That's a classic. I figured they were inherited."
"You have a real eye for detail."
"Just one I'm missing," Rachel said. "Are you available for a date?"
Kelly's green eyes lit up with pleasure. "Yes, I am."
"Why don't you meet me on the beach on Sunday and we can freeze our butts off together? How's that for a pickup line?"
"It's unique, and I accept." Her smile grew wider when she said, "I never would have thought I'd meet someone at an ALS fundraiser, but it's about time this damned disease gave me a break."
On Sunday morning Kelly stood under a large tent, trying to stay close to the propane heaters that ringed the periphery. She was wearing a heavy, hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, both covered by a long down coat. She sipped at a mug of hot cocoa, provided by Magliozzi's. She was a little anxious, partially because she feared jumping into 34 degree water, but mostly because of her date with Rachel.
She hadn't had a real date since she'd moved back to Manasquan, and she wasn't altogether sure she wanted one. But Rachel had charmed her thoroughly, so thoroughly that she found herself readily accepting the date before her more cautious side could refuse.
Her heart beat a little quicker when she saw Rachel enter the tent. Rachel was a little shorter than Kelly, and her fairly slight build was disguised by what must have been 3 or 4 layers of clothing. "Hi," Kelly said, chuckling when Rachel stuck her arms out and puffed out her cheeks, looking a bit like a marshmallow.
"I hardly fit behind the wheel of my car!"
"You look very warm. Fluffy, too."
"I don't usually try to look fluffy when I'm on a first date. But in this case, it's life or death. I decided I'd rather look crazy and be able to go on a second date."
"I'm pretty nervous. How about you?"
"Not too bad. It's just cold. No matter how bad it is, it's temporary."
Brightening, Kelly said, "I suppose that's true. It's only temporary."
"Yeah. Besides, if it's awful, we can just dash in and out."
"Oh, not me. My whole family's here. I've got about 50 people here to watch."
Rachel slapped at her shoulder. "Are you crazy? Never invite people to see you do something you might want to back out of."
"Now you tell me. Where were you when I was badgering people to contribute?"
"Probably in Japan, listening to a bunch of guys tell me how wonderful the next generation of Zu-Zu Zebra will be."
"Well, I could have used you here. Try to remember that."
"It's up here," Rachel said, tapping her temple. "Hey, it looks like we're getting ready to go. Do we have to strip here?"
"Yeah, it looks like that's what everyone is doing." She gulped, shivering in anticipation. "Here goes." She took off her coat and put in on a table, then started to take off her sweats.
Rachel did, indeed, have 4 layers of clothes on. She peeled them off, one at a time, until she was standing there in a red swimsuit. She started doing jumping-jacks, her pale skin turning pink in seconds. "We're gonna die," she gasped.
"No way!" Kelly grabbed Rachel's hand and ran, waving at the crowd as they sprinted for the water. The first step into the sea felt like walking on a thousand tiny knives. The second was no better, and by the time they were in up to their knees both of them were screaming at full volume.
The ocean was now littered with people, most of them jumping around histrionically for a few moments before they scrambled back onto dry land. It looked as though the ocean were made of fire, rather than water, as people barely touched the surf before screaming and running in the other direction.
But Rachel and Kelly didn't run away. They stared at each other with saucered eyes, going deeper and deeper into the mild waves. Neither spoke--neither could. They just somehow understood that this was something they had to do--all the way.
Kelly was finally able to catch her breath. "Awesome!"
"I'm hyperventilating," Rachel gasped. "I can't catch my breath."
"Slow down," Kelly soothed. "Take a deep breath and try to let it out slowly. You can do it."
Rachel did, managing to regulate her breathing after a pair of long, slow exhales. "Okay, okay," she said. "I'm good."
"Now we dunk ourselves and get out." Kelly's expression was pure determination, and for some reason, Rachel agreed. "One, two, three!" They both squatted down, letting the ice-cold water swirl around their heads. They popped out like jacks-in-the boxes, their heads shaking crazily as they emerged.
"Run!' Rachel yelled, and she started scampering as quickly as her legs would take her, almost skimming across the water. She was pulling on Kelly's hand, and they ran right into the heated tent, their giddy smiles and bright pink skin glowing. "That was so cool!"
"It was cold, not cool," Kelly agreed. "Want to go back in?"
"Never! I'm done." She grabbed two beach towels and wrapped one around her shoulders as she rubbed her legs with the other. "Damn, I can't feel my feet. Can you?"
"No. I'm pretty numb from the neck down." Kelly was doing her best to dry off as quickly as possible, but it wasn't fast enough. "My towel's getting stiff. It's freezing!"
Rachel took a dry towel and tossed it to her. "I'll never complain that the water's too cold again. I've seen the light."
"Me, too. This year I'll go in before the 4th of July." She gave Rachel an impish smile and added, "Maybe."
"Yeah," Rachel laughed. "I'll forget all about this in May and June. I'll still whine when it's below 70."
"I'm going to go take off my suit. I think my fingers are working now." She dashed behind a drape and emerged a few minutes later, clad in her sweats again. "That's much better. Not having that wet suit on really helps."
"My turn." Rachel put her dry clothes on, and when she emerged she wasn't shivering any longer. "I feel so energized. Like I used to when I ran."
"I know what you mean. It's a real high, isn't it?"
"Yeah. A real high." She looked over at the crowd. "Do you want to go talk to your family?"
"Sure. Come with me. I told them I was going out as soon as I was finished, but I have to go thank them all for coming."
"No," Rachel said. "You go. I'll wait here."
Kelly looked like she wanted to argue, but she could see that Rachel had made her mind up, so she jogged over to her crowd and was nearly swept into a group hug. Rachel watched Kelly interact with her family, smiling at the outpouring of affection. Kelly wasn't gone long, and when she returned her eyes were red-rimmed. "Thanks," she said, acknowledging that seeing her family had been emotional enough alone.
"No problem. Are you ready to go?"
"Yeah. Where are we going?"
"My house. I'm going to make a nice, big brunch for us. You drink champagne, don't you?"
"As often as possible. But you didn't have to go to so much trouble."
"I like to cook. I've learned that the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach."
Kelly smiled at Rachel, giving her a wink. "That's one of many ways to my heart."
"Well, well, let's get going. It sounds like I have a lot to learn about you."
They walked briskly to the parking lot, where they decided to take Rachel's car. Kelly had just fastened her seatbelt when Rachel put a hand on her arm and looked into her eyes. "Your mom would have been proud of you."
Tears immediately sprang to Kelly's eyes and she whisked them away with her glove. "Thanks. I'm sure the same is true of your lover."
"Janet," Rachel said, misting up. "Her name was Janet."
"I'm sure Janet's proud of you."
Rachel laughed, ignoring her tears. "She would have said I was insane. She hated cold and physical discomfort."
"So did my mom. She forced my father to go to Florida every winter, and he hated it there. She would have lectured me for a week if she'd known I was going to do something like this."
"So why did we do it?"
Looking like she'd just had a revelation, Kelly said, "We didn't do it for them. We did it for us. It's a way to remind ourselves that we're still alive, even though they're gone."
"I think you're right," Rachel said, a little bit in awe in her voice. "It's a way of moving on."
"A celebration of life."
Rachel turned the key and sat quietly for a moment. "I think I've been in a state of suspended animation since Janet died." She looked at Kelly. "But I think it's time to remind myself of how much I have to live for."
"That's a wonderful thought. Let's go break open that champagne."
"Are all of your ideas that good?"
"You're going to have to wait and see. I can't reveal all of my secrets on our first date."
Rachel tapped Kelly on the tip of her nose and gave her a winning smile. "As Humphrey Bogart said, 'I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.'"
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