The Promise of the Rose
D. J. Belt
Copyright: Original story and characters, copyright D. J. Belt, February, 2006.
Disclaimers: It’s a love story. ALT, if labels are necessary.
Comments: You can always find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Misc.: Many thanks to Mary A., who provided invaluable support. This was written for Valentine’s Day and tries to speak to the hopeless romantic buried in all of us. Enjoy!
You can’t make someone love you.
You can only stalk them
and hope for the best.
Allison Chan found a parking spot in the shopping mall’s expansive lot, then shut off her rental car’s motor. She adjusted her glasses as she checked her appearance in the rear-view mirror. God, her new hairstyle seemed dorky. Yesterday, she thought it was cute. And her business suit? Hell, what business suit survives an airline flight? None that she could afford. Only her earrings rocked her outfit. The earrings, gold against her darker skin, were a gift from her late grandmother, and were matching characters in the Chinese alphabet denoting good fortune.
Her grandmother, to her, had always personified good fortune. She had the ways of the old life about her; her gentle nature and deep spiritual sense of the order of things had been a comfort to Allison since childhood. She always wore those earrings when she needed luck, and she desperately desired luck today. She thought of her grandmother now as she considered the earrings, and she smiled. “Wish me luck, Nainai,” she said.
She emerged from the car, slung the strap of her leather attache case over her shoulder, and approached the department store’s entrance. Just before she opened the door, she breathed deeply to calm herself. “You can do this, Allie,” she whispered to no one in particular as she entered. “You’re going to totally kick ass today.”
Inside, the store appeared the same as the numerous other stores in the chain for which she bought clothing. It was expansive; the different departments within it were noted by signs hanging from the ceiling. Customers milled about and shopped, or walked briskly through the store en route to some destination. Occasionally, she could see a sales person wait on a customer or fuss over the orderliness of a display of merchandise. She found the central escalator, rode it to the second floor, and sought out the store’s offices.
A secretary greeted her and accepted her business card. She motioned Allison to a seat as she picked up her telephone and announced her arrival to the store manager. In a few minutes, the manager emerged and greeted her, then waved her into his office.
About fifteen minutes later, the office door opened again. The manager ushered Allison into the hall and said, “Would you like me to show you around the store?”
She smiled at the offer. “Let me wander around alone first, if you would. I’d like to be unobtrusive and just observe. Would that be all right?”
“Sure,” he agreed. “When you get through, come back and tell me what you think.”
She hesitated, then said, “I believe you have an old college friend of mine working here. Can you tell me if she’s on duty now?”
“What’s her name?”
He recognized the name instantly. “Oh, yeah. She’s working today. She’s in women’s clothing, first floor.”
“Thanks. Give me twenty minutes or so, if you would.”
He nodded, then retreated into his office as Allison wandered toward the sales floor. She began her stroll around the store, noting the displays of merchandise, the number and manner of the sales staff, the cleanliness of the store, and the other countless details which came to mind. When she reached the escalator, she descended to the first floor and sought out the women’s clothing department. As she found it and wound her way between the racks of clothes, she felt her heart pound and her breathing quicken. Was this really a good idea, after all? What if– ?
She halted as she spied a particular store employee at a counter attending a customer. She recognized the face, although it seemed more careworn than she had remembered it from years ago. In addition, the hair was longer than she recalled, blonde and pulled back from the face with a clip. As the employee spoke, the voice reached her ears. It was tinged with the same bubbly assurance which she had come to find endearing when she first heard it so long ago. Its unique timbre tugged at Allison’s emotions. Yes, it was Cecilia.
When the customer finished her business and walked away with her bag, Allison summoned her courage and approached the sales desk. Cecilia’s back was turned, so Allison hesitated for a moment. When she finally spoke, her voice involuntarily cracked a little.
At that, the employee froze, then slowly turned around. When she stared into Allison’s face, her eyes widened and her mouth opened in surprise. She stuttered for a moment, then said, “Allie! Is that really you?”
“It’s me. I heard you were here today. I couldn’t leave without seeing you.”
Cecilia placed a hand over her mouth to hide her shock, and her eyes became moist. She hurried around the edge of the counter and embraced Allison. When she held her again at arm’s length, she said, “Allie, you look great.”
“You, too. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
A sudden sadness flashed from somewhere deep in Cecilia’s eyes. “Yes. Almost ten years is a while, I’d say.” She reclaimed her smile and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here on business.”
Allison nodded. “I’ve got a flight home tomorrow afternoon.” She looked around, then said, “I know you’ve got customers. I’ll make it short. Listen, I’m staying in town tonight. Would it be possible?” She stammered a little. “I mean, if you want to, that is?”
Cecilia laughed. “That’s the Allie I know. Come on, spit it out.”
Allison grinned self-consciously, then blurted, “Would you have dinner with me tonight?”
Cecilia’s eyes narrowed as she studied Allison’s face. Just as Allison was about to die on the spot, sure that she would be refused, Cecilia relaxed. “I’d love to,” she said. “Let’s do it. I get off at five.”
Allison breathed a sigh of relief as she fished a business card from her pocket. “Here’s my card. It’s got my cell phone number on it. Call me when you get off, and we’ll meet.” She quickly added, “It’s my treat.”
Cecilia raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Traveling on an expense account, are we? In that case, you can definitely treat. See you tonight. I’ve got to get back to work.”
As she returned to her place behind the counter, Allison asked, “You’ll call me, really?”
Cecilia nodded. “I will. I promise.”
“See you then.” At Cecilia’s nod, she smiled shyly, then turned and sought out the office of the store’s manager.
That evening, Allison waited in the restaurant’s lobby. As she sat, her eyes constantly studied either the door or her wristwatch. Near the appointed time, she breathed a sigh of relief as she watched Cecilia enter and blink at the crowd of humanity inside the door. Allison stood and waved, and her heart leapt when Cecilia saw her and flashed a smile. It was a genuine smile, not forced or contrived, and that reassured her.
“There you are, Allie,” Cecilia said. “I was worried that I’d gotten here first.”
Allison replied, “We’re already on the list. Come, sit here with me.”
No sooner did they seat themselves in the waiting area than they heard the restaurant’s hostess say, “Chan, party of two?”
Soon, they were comfortably seated at a corner table, a carafe of wine in front of them. As the waiter left, Cecilia lifted her wine glass and said, “To old times?”
“And new ones,” Allison added as their glasses clinked together.
Cecilia studied Allison for a long, silent moment. “You cut your hair,” she noted.
Allison touched her head with a hand as she asked, “Is it okay? I mean, it’s not too dorky looking?”
“No,” Cecilia laughed. “It’s darling. You look great.”
“You, too. How’s life treating you?” she asked, although she silently wondered about the careworn aura on the face in front of her.
At that, Cecilia shrugged. “I’m maintaining. How’s about you?”
“Well–” Allison began, then considered her words. She decided that the direct approach was the best. “I’ve just gotten a new job.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
She took a deep breath, then said, “I’m going to be number two in your store.”
Cecilia’s eyes widened at the news. She exclaimed, “Oh, that’s great! When did you get that?”
“Today. I was here interviewing. I got the job.”
“That’s Allie, climbing the ladder. You always had it together, didn’t you?”
This time, it was Allison’s turn to shrug. “I just fake it well.”
“Baloney. You’ve got it going. Me, I was always the train wreck.”
Allison smiled at that, then glanced at Cecilia’s left hand. “I heard through the grapevine that you got married. You’re not, now?”
In answer, she rolled her eyes. “God, that was a disaster. It lasted a year.”
“Sorry,” Allison mumbled.
“I don’t even know why I did it now. He got into the nose candy pretty hard.” She hesitated, then confessed, “I did too, for a while.”
Allison’s face fell at that. She asked, “Are you–?”
“I’ve been clean for years now. I just did that long enough to totally screw up my life.” She allowed a tight smile to cross her features. “I’m back on my feet now and I’m staying there.”
Allison relaxed. “Glad to hear it.” She raised an eyebrow as she asked, “So, are you seeing someone?”
Cecilia shook her head. “Not anymore, which seems to be the story of my life these days,” she replied. “Are you?”
Allison shrugged. “Not really.”
Cecilia laughed at that answer. “What’s that mean?”
“Nobody seriously. I date occasionally, but I live alone.”
“In other words, you’ve got a booty call on your speed dial?”
“Busted!” Cecilia waved a dismissive hand. “I can’t imagine a gal like you being by yourself for very long. I mean, look at you, Allie. You’re a catch.”
“You, too. You just sell yourself short.”
Cecilia snorted, “Nah. I’m a train wreck, remember?”
Allison considered the face before her. The careworn little lines around the eyes were merging into a tight crinkle of amusement. The eyes themselves seemed to sparkle, a twinkle that she remembered fondly from so many years ago. Until this moment, though, she had not seen that twinkle today. She said, “You weren’t a train wreck when we were together. You were the fun one, the adventurous one, the one that brought me out of my shell. God, I was such a hopeless nerd in college.”
“You just needed a little push,” Cecilia teased. “It must have worked; look at you now.”
The waiter appeared, and they interrupted their conversation to order dinner. After he left, Allison sipped her wine, then nervously asked, “Cecilia?”
“Do you have a problem with me being at this store? I mean, if you do, I can always turn the job down. I just don’t want it to be awkward for you, us working together.”
Cecilia leaned forward. “Don’t you dare turn this job down because of me. This is a great promotion for you. I’ll support you a hundred percent. I won’t be a problem to you, I promise.” In a softer tone of voice, she added, “We can pretend like we never had a history.”
Allison considered the statement. “Can you really do that?” she asked. At Cecilia’s shrug, she added, “Because I can’t. What we had will always be a part of me.” She hastened to add, “A really nice part, too.”
Cecilia smiled as she agreed, “Yeah. Ditto.” The smile turned into a broad grin. “It was the affair of the century, wasn’t it?”
“Of the millennium,” Allison corrected.
Cecilia’s expression sparkled impishly. “Do you remember the first time we hooked up?”
Allison rolled her eyes. “Like it was yesterday. You kissed me, I kissed you back, and then – ”
Cecilia laughed. “Clothes flew everywhere.”
“And your dorm roommate walked in on us right in the middle of it all.”
“Oh, my God!” Cecilia exclaimed. “Do you remember the look on her face? I thought she was going to have a cow right there on the spot.”
Allison laughed at the memory. “She was a little straight-laced, wasn’t she?”
“A little?” Cecilia gasped. “She went to confession twice a week. Why, I can’t figure. She never did anything to confess about.”
“Nothing that we knew about, anyway.” Allison leaned forward and teased, “I always thought that she was secretly hot for you.”
“No, she was hot for the whole swim team.”
“Who wasn’t? You have to admit, you guys were a pretty hot swim team.”
After a mutual snicker at the thought, Allison said, “Ah, college. Those were the days, weren’t they?”
“Yeah.” Cecilia’s smile faded as she noted, “I sure didn’t go far with my degree, did I?”
“You had a career,” Allison said. “What happened?”
“The drug thing took away my teacher’s license. They caught me on a pee test and I ended up in ‘rehab’.”
“That was a long time ago, you said. Can’t you teach now?” Allison asked.
“Nope. The state doesn’t want me. I guess I’m just tainted goods anymore.”
“Well, your sales figures at the store are great. I saw them.”
Cecilia smiled wanly and joked, “That’s me. Once, I was going to save the world. Now, I’m selling overpriced clothes to soccer moms.”
The subtle undercurrent of dejection in her voice stabbed Allison. She placed a hand over Cecilia’s. “You’re great at anything you try. You always were.”
Cecilia looked down at the hand covering her own. Its warm, soft touch pleased her and reminded her of a time long ago, but somehow it seemed intensely recent and familiar, very comforting. It was a touch that she remembered from years before, a touch that she had taken for granted so many times when she was younger. It was a beautiful, expressive hand, and its closeness now caused a smile to cross Cecilia’s face.
Allison muttered, “Sorry,” and lifted her hand, but Cecilia caught it and held it in her own.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said, as she grasped the hand. “I always loved your touch.”
In reply, Allison said nothing, but allowed her hand to be held. She looked up. Above the flickering of the candle on the table’s center, her eyes met Cecilia’s, and they perused each other’s faces. The two hands gripped a little more tightly, the fingers interlacing, and no words were spoken. None were needed. They remained that way for a long moment, only surrendering their touch when the waiter approached with their food. At his arrival, they quickly dropped their hands into their laps and sat self-consciously as he served them and left.
As Cecilia lifted her fork and began poking at her food, she asked, “Allie?”
“May I confess something to you?”
Allison studied her dinner companion, then nodded. “If you like.”
“I would like.” Cecilia paused for a moment, then spoke very softly. “I never stopped loving you.”
Allison paused in mid-chew of her first bite of dinner and looked intently at Cecilia. Her reply was not accusatory or bitter, but only matter-of-fact, laced with a hint of sadness. “You sure had a strange way of showing it.”
Cecilia shrugged as she picked at her dinner. “My fault, totally.” She looked up. “I’m sorry for what happened so long ago. I still ache for how it turned out.”
“It takes two,” Allison said. “It was my fault, as well. Please don’t blame yourself for what happened. I don’t. Honestly, it was as much me. I’m sorry for how it turned out, too.”
Cecilia’s eyes warmed at the words. From their depths, an unspoken message of gratitude twinkled at Allison. “Jeez,” she said. “And here, all these years, I thought it was just me that screwed up.”
“Nope. We were partners in crime.” Allison snickered, then pointed at Cecilia’s plate. “Eat. This is costing our bosses money.”
They proceeded to attack their dinners. Neither spoke for a few minutes as they savored the taste of the meal. After sipping at her wine, Allison paused and watched Cecilia from across the table. The crow’s feet at the edges of the eyes, the deeper lines of the face; they were scars indicating painfully-earned maturity and wisdom. In college, she recalled, Cecilia was adorable. But now? Now, Allison decided, she’s beautiful. She gathered her courage and said, “By the way...”
Cecilia looked up from her meal. She cocked her head quizzically and asked, “Yeah?”
“I never stopped loving you, either. You always were the one for me.”
Cecilia rested her fork on her plate, then held her hand over her mouth. After a moment, she lifted her napkin and touched her eyes with it. When she lowered it, the light eyes were sparkling. She sniffed, then said, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to get all teary, but–”
Allison smiled. “You always were the sentimental one, too, crying at the drop of a hat. That’s one of the things that I love about you.”
Cecilia laughed, then sniffed again. She rested her napkin in her lap. “Present tense?”
Allison squinted in question. “What’s this, an English lesson?”
“I was an English teacher – once upon a time.” Cecilia leaned forward and said, “You used the present tense. You said ‘love’, not ‘loved’.”
Allison thought about it, then nodded. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Do you really mean it?”
“I told you that I never stopped loving you, Cici. I meant that.”
“Cici,” Cecilia repeated. “Only you ever called me that. It’s good to hear it again.”
An aura of warm, familiar silence descended upon them, enveloped them. For a moment, it seemed as if they were the only two people in the world. They took no note of the bustle and conversation about them, of the controlled chaos of a busy restaurant at the evening hour. Those sounds did not register with them; the near presence of other tables no longer held any meaning. There was only the two of them, and that was enough. For the first time in years, it seemed, they each felt a strange sense of joy settle around them, a joy to which they scarcely dared give voice. Finally, Cecilia broke the silence as she attempted to articulate the thought which had, unspoken, risen to consciousness within both of them.
“Do you think that true love never dies, even after ten years?”
“I’m sure of it,” Allison answered. “Do you?”
“Until I saw you today, I wasn’t sure.”
“Now? Oh, hell yes!” Cecilia’s expression suddenly became earnest as she added, “That is, if–”
“If?” Allison asked, suddenly apprehensive at Cecilia’s tone.
“If we’re thinking the same thing here. Are we, Allie? Thinking the same thing, I mean.”
“I’ve been thinking about it since I first saw you this afternoon.”
“You bet I have.” She spoke softly now.
“I have, too,” Cecilia said.
“Do you think that we can do it again, that we can make it work this time?”
“I know we can,” Cecilia insisted. “I’m older and a hell of a lot wiser than I was back then.”
“Me, too. I’ve grown up a lot,” Allison agreed.
“I always thought,” Cecilia said, “that you were the perfect one.”
“Are you kidding? Me, the uptight, neurotic little ‘everything’s-got-to-be-just-this-way’ basket case? Me?” Allison laughed. “I must have been horrendous to live with back then.”
“You did have your moments,” Cecilia agreed. “A couple of times, I thought I was going to have to hold you down and sedate you.”
“Especially during midterms and finals, huh?” Allison shot an apologetic glance at Cecilia. “Sorry about the panic attacks.”
“Hey, it’s always funnier in retrospect.” Cecilia softened. “But you seem pretty laid-back and well-adjusted now.” Her expression twinkled in humor. “Is it all just an act?”
“No, it’s genuine. I am much more laid-back. It took a fair amount of therapy, though.”
“You and me both.” Cecilia leaned forward and asked, “Do you honestly think we can make it work? Do you want to try it again? Do you really want me, Allie? Tell me the truth, before I get my hopes up too much. If you’re going to let me down, let me down now before I completely lose my heart to you again.”
Allison considered the earnest face before her, the light eyes wide and inquisitive, the unsure, albeit hopeful, expression on the face that she had loved. She opened her mouth to speak, but found no words. In the momentary silence, she studied Cecilia’s face, a face lined with the memory of a painful past and with the aura of hard-won maturity. Her logic and her fear wrestled with her heart, and it was a short contest. She had known all along which one would win. She said, “I don’t ever want us to hurt each other again like we did, Cici. Let’s do it right this time. This is all that I can promise you, that I’ll love you and treat you much more gently than I did so long ago.”
“And I promise you on my soul that I’ll never, ever cheat on you again. Please trust me, Allie. I learned my lesson very painfully when I lost you.”
Allison felt a tug of emotion at the confession. She noted, “You’ve seen a lot of pain, haven’t you?”
“Haven’t we both?” Cecilia asked. “It’s been a long ten years.”
“Too long.” Allison raised her wine glass and said, “Should we drink to the next ten years?”
Cecilia clinked her glass against Allison’s. “And the twenty after that.”
As they sipped their wine, their hands met across the table. They sat that way for some time, hands clasped, fingers intertwined in a medley of white and brown, their eyes never leaving each other’s faces. Their interlude was interrupted only when the waiter’s arm appeared and placed something on the table between them.
They both looked down. Next to the check was a bowl containing a piece of chocolate cake and two forks. A single red rose rested on the dish beside the bowl. Their eyes traveled up to him. “It’s on the house,” he said. “After all, it’s Valentine’s Day. Lovers get free dessert.”
“Do we look in love?” Cecilia asked.
“Are you kidding?” the waiter said. “I can see it from across the room. Enjoy!” With that, he left.
As they considered the dessert, Allison said, “Valentine’s Day. That’s the perfect day for us to start again, isn’t it?”
“Can it be our new anniversary?” Cecilia asked.
“Forevermore,” Allison said.
After they finished their dinner and dessert, Allison paid the bill. The waiter chatted with them for a minute, then scurried away to tend another table. As they rose to leave, Cecilia picked up the rose. She held it against her chest as they left the building and walked into the chilly evening air.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Cecilia insisted. “Where is it?”
Allison grasped Cecilia’s hand and led their way as they wound among the parked cars. When she stopped and pointed, she said, “This one – I think.”
Cecilia teased, “Allie, you don’t know? Did that Chardonnay go right to your head?” She studied the car. “You always made bad car decisions. That’s a real piece of junk.”
“It’s a rental car.”
“Oh. Thank God,” Cecilia said.
“Clothes, I can buy,” Allison joked. “Cars, I can’t.”
Cecilia’s eyes sparkled in the light of the street-lamp. “So you choose my clothes for me and I’ll choose your cars for you.”
“We’ll take care of each other?” Allison asked.
“Like we always did before,” Cecilia reminded her.
“Yes. We sure did, didn’t we?”
Their conversation drifted into a pregnant silence as they stood next to the car. Their hands remained tightly clasped, their faces close in the haze of the street-lamp. The air between them seemed thick with unspoken promise; the electricity was palpable. For a moment, neither said anything. Finally, Cecilia leaned forward and kissed Allison on her mouth, a tender, lingering kiss. Allison reacted at first with surprise, but quickly relaxed. When they parted, Cecilia whispered, “That’s my Allie, too shy to make the first move.”
“Good thing you’re not, or we’d never have gotten together.”
“So, when are you moving here?”
“Probably in a month.”
“Oh.” She looked at the ground for a moment, then back up at Allison’s face. “It’s going to be a long month.”
“It’ll fly by. I’ll have to come back and find a place to live in a week or two, anyway. We’ll see each other again soon.”
“It’ll still be too long,” Cecilia said. “I’m missing you already. It was great seeing you tonight.”
“In my book, the night doesn’t end until the sun comes up.” Allison raised an eyebrow. “Hint, hint.”
Cecilia gasped in mock surprise. “Allison Chan, are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting? You shameless hussy.” She leaned close to Allison. “Go ahead. Suggest away. You can even talk dirty if you want.”
In reply, Allison laughed. “Want to go to my place for a nightcap?”
Cecilia’s reply was immediate. “Absolutely. I thought you’d never ask.”
She pointed across the parking lot. “I’ve got a room at the hotel right over there.”
“Oh, God,” Cecilia said. “You know what hotel rooms do to me.”
“I’m counting on it,” Allison said. “Come on, climb into my piece of junk here. I’ll drive.”
Cecilia’s hand on her arm gave her pause. Allison looked into Cecilia’s face, then felt a sudden stab of fear. Something was wrong. What was it? Guessing at the reason for Cecilia’s hesitation, she slowly nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. Maybe we’re taking this all too fast. Maybe tonight’s not a good idea.”
Cecilia quickly replied, “No, I didn’t mean that.” At Allison’s questioning expression, she suggested, “Maybe I can meet you there? I mean –”
“What’s wrong, Cici? If you don’t want to stay with me tonight, if you want to take things more slowly with us, I’ll understand.”
“No, no. I just mean –”
Allison felt her heart begin to pound as she studied Cecilia’s face. Her doubts screamed at her, told her that something was dreadfully wrong, that her hopes were about to be dashed. Of course, she thought. This was all too good to be true. She was stupid to think that her luck would hold, that Cecilia could be hers again. It just wasn’t meant to be, that’s all. The hammer’s about to fall, and here it comes.
“What, Cici?” she whispered, a sense of dread evident in her voice. “What’s wrong? Tell me.”
Cecilia’s face broadened into a grin; her nose crinkled in humor. “That’s my Allie, always so serious. I was just going to say, let me go home and get an overnight bag and my work clothes for tomorrow. Then, we can spend tomorrow morning together, too. Breakfast is on me.”
Allison breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “Oh, yeah. Good idea.”
Cecilia laughed. “You thought I was going to turn you down, didn’t you?” At Allison’s hesitant nod, she reassured her, “Not for all the world, Allie. I’m just too crazy about you. I always have been.” She shrugged. “I guess I always will be.”
Allison touched Cecilia’s face with a cupped hand. “That goes double for me. I’m in room 205. I’ll count the minutes until you come to me.”
“I’ll be there, I promise.”
“I know. I believe in you.”
Cecilia leaned forward and kissed Allison again. “The quicker I go, the quicker I’ll get there.” She turned to leave, then paused and handed Allison the rose. “Put it in some water for me?” With that, she winked, then headed toward her own car, a few spaces away. As Allison watched Cecilia leave, she held the rose to her face and inhaled its fragrance. It had a wonderful scent, a scent which reminded her of love, of past, bittersweet memories, and of the whispered promises of the future.
“It’s been a very good day for me,” Allison whispered. “Thank you for the good fortune, Nainai.”
As if in answer, a snowflake lit upon the rose. It sparkled in the yellow glow of the street-lamp. Allison looked up. In the halo of light around the lamp, snowflakes began drifting down around her, a soft and gentle hand upon the gritty steel and concrete of the city. Here in the artificial, unnatural turf of a hectic, modern world, nature was lending her a reassurance that some things would never be lost, and one of those things was love. Like the rose, it bloomed, then withered, then bloomed again, but always it was perennial. And like the rose, even with its thorns, it was a beautiful thing to behold. Perhaps, with tender, loving care, its bloom would remain this time around. As she touched the rose to her lips, Allison whispered a vow to her grandmother that she would do everything in her power to make it so.
She watched Cecilia’s car tail lights fade into the distance. “I’ll count the minutes, love,” she said.
-djb, February, 2006; revised, 2016