Snow, Romance, and the South of France
The snowdrifts had been building throughout the day, fueled by a raw and merciless February wind and several new inches fresh powder. Gloria tried to focus on her computer screen, but she just couldn’t concentrate today. Her eyes were drawn to the window time and time again, and a nervous anxiety was slowly building in the pit of her stomach. It was one of the worst storms the Valley had seen this winter and the thought of driving home later that night was making her more uncomfortable as each hour passed. She had grown up around winter weather and had lots of winter driving experience; years ago she’d actually taken the road test in snowy conditions. What made her nervous was that her husband Tom was out of town, again, and if she ran into trouble he wouldn’t be able to come to help her.
Tom was a good husband, but he was also a salesman and spent far too many nights away from home for his job. Most of the time, she tolerated his absence. It wasn’t what she’d hoped for, but he did earn a good living and they were able to live in a nice house in a safe neighborhood outside of the city. He tried to get her to quit her job and stay home, but they hadn’t started a family yet and she didn’t want to get bored, so she kept working. Most of her paycheck went straight into their savings account; she always told Tom about how someday they would take a three week vacation to somewhere romantic like the South of France. She often found herself daydreaming about the white sand beaches and strolling along the shore with Tom; their fingers intertwined as they whispered back and forth, enjoying the tranquility.
Tom would smile and sometimes if she was lucky add a few thoughts on what he’d like to do, but Gloria usually felt he was just trying to make her happy. Deep in her heart she had the feeling that they would never get to take the trip and would likely use the money for a new car or remodeling. They had a great relationship and there was no lack of intimacy, but she craved something more; something romantic and daring. Her mind wandered into a moment of fantasy before a knock on her door dragged her back to reality like a falling tree hitting the ground. She looked up to see Roy, her supervisor staring in through the open door.
“You OK?” Roy said without much conviction. She smiled and replied in the affirmative, “just nervous about the weather and all.” Roy nodded, “Well you are in luck because HR just called and gave me the green light to send everyone home early, so shut down and head home. And be careful, we don’t need anyone getting hurt.” The thought of getting on the road before the traffic changed Gloria’s disposition immediately and she quickly saved what she was working on and shut down her computer. She traded her shoes for a pair of boots and put on her coat, hat, and gloves before heading to the parking garage.
She made small talk with a few people on her way out, but it seemed everyone was in a hurry to get out of there. Perhaps she was just being paranoid earlier and things would be OK. She took the stairs up to the second level and made her way to her assigned space. As she approached her SUV, she thought of Tomas and silently thanked him for taking the car to the airport this morning and leaving her the Beast; her pet name for the Chevy Suburban they owned. The Beast was hard to park, and sometimes tough to keep in one lane, but it was heavy and handled great no matter the weather. She fired up the engine and put the defrosters on high before backing out.
She tried to relax, but knew she’d be unable to with the blowing snow and likely poor visibility. As she left the garage, she took a deep breath and imagined herself pulling into the driveway later that night; safe and unscathed. The side roads were starting to ice up already as the temperature was dropping and she whispered a silent prayer of thanksgiving for being allowed to leave early. The traffic wasn’t too bad, but it took her ten minutes longer than usual to reach the freeway on ramp. Most people were driving defensively and they were leaving lots of space between themselves and the other cars. Gloria was fine with that and she followed their lead.
Once she hit the highway, things were much better. The plows had done a good job of keeping two of the three lanes cleared and she managed to maintain 35 miles per hour for most of the way, only being slowed down at the on and off ramps while traffic merged. She found herself going back to the vacation vision from earlier that day; not trancelike as she was then, but still deep within its delicious clutches.
French Riviera Fantasy
She had always imagines the two of them wearing white. Tom in a pair of loose pants with the bottom of each leg rolled up, exposing his muscular calves. His shirt was unbuttoned and he was tanned; almost as if they’d been there for longer. He wore sunglasses, but not the kind that made him look like a hardass, but the kind that just kept out the sun. His hair was messy from the gentle breeze slipping off the the ocean and he was barefoot. She often fantasized about Tom like that, but never told him. It was her secret. She was in a sleeveless white sundress and nothing else. The fingers of ocean breeze would slip in and then rise up to fondle her from beneath her dress from time to time, and she pictured herself seductively shivering for a moment or two. From there, the dreamy moment often took a turn that she decide against thinking about while driving in a snowstorm.
Alone or Not
Tom was likely still in the air on his way to the Midwest and wasn’t scheduled to return home until late Thursday night; which just happened to be Valentine’s Day. With three days to wait, she realized that they hadn’t talked about their plans that day. She wondered if he had a big surprise in mind. Maybe dinner or a show and dancing, she thought. Tom was a man who preferred to trust the old stand-by ideas, so something amazing or new was unlikely. Regardless, she really didn’t mind. They always had fun on Valentine’s Day and they always woke up the next morning very tired in a tangle of sheets. The bedroom was the one area she could count on Tom to think outside of the box, and boy did he think. He always reminded her that she brought out the best in him; some nights he reminded her of that fact three or even four times.
She pulled into the driveway feeling a bit flushed, nearly giggling like a teenage girl. She had nearly crossed the invisible line from reality into some steamy and wonderful place three times today. Her mind was surely trying to tell her something, but she again brushed it off and headed towards the house. She put her key in the front door lock, and opened the door. The quiet of her dark house spilled out onto the porch. She stepped across the threshold and into the entranceway. She started taking off her coat when she picked up a sweet smell; something she didn’t recognize immediately. It was strawberry or some other fruit and it was heavenly.
And it wasn’t there when she left this morning. She went into a slight defensive mode and switched on the lights, her eyes scanning the hallway and into the dining room in curious and cautious glances. She looked up and then down, and that’s when she froze in place for a few seconds. There was a small basket sitting right in the middle of the floor. It was a beautiful dark brown wicker with a red bow tied to the handle. She put her hand to her mouth in a slight state of shock and wonderment. What looked like a small fleece blanket was folded neatly over the top, hiding the contents from her sight. And although the house was filled with a strange sweet smell, she no longer worried.
She hung her coat up, took off her boots quickly and walked over to the basket. As she got closer, she saw that there was a very small gold key tied to the handle; one that might be used for a diary or a suitcase lock. The bow was obviously hand tied, but it too seemed reveal a secret as she looked closer. In the center was a folded piece of paper; not just in a square, but an origami shape of some sort. It too was red and when she plucked it from the bow saw it to be shaped like a flower. Her actions were slow and meticulous at this point and she examined the basket for each and every detail, slowly moving around it with a jewelers eye.
She slipped her hand beneath the handle and lifted it up, feeling it to be very light she was planning on heading to the living room. As she stood up with basket in hand, a folded sheet of paper appeared in the space that was beneath the basket. A note had been concealed there and upon closer inspection she saw it contained two words......My Love. A lifetime of emotion filled her heart and cascaded across her body. Her eyes filled with something she called almost-tears; happy and excited and bubbling with joy. She picked up the folded sheet and knew without a doubt that it was Tom’s handwriting. His flight was at 10:30 so he must have left this on his way out.
Even though she hadn’t looked inside, she knew this was something special. Tom never in his life did anything even remotely close to this. Yet, the key somehow added a layer of mystery to the gift. She wondered as she unfolded the note. It was nearly blank, only containing two sentences.
The Scavenger Hunt has begun.
Follow your nose and don’t put the basket down, you’ll need it.
Follow Your Nose
A delicious smile spread across her lips as well as several naughty thoughts across her brain. “A scavenger hunt,” she said aloud, “now that sounds interesting.” She lifted the folded red blanket and looked in the basket. Inside was another sheet of folded paper, a small box wrapped in red gift wrap, a Painted Hand fan, a corkscrew, her iPad mini, and bottle of water. Alone, each item would be confusing, but together they were a puzzle of unknown directions. She wondered how this hunt would work and assumed the paper had further instructions on it. It was paper like she’d never felt before, very heavy and old feeling, but not a word to be found.
She thought back to the first note. “Follow your nose,” she said and knew what to do. She had to find the source of the sweet smell, there was her first clue. She set off in a quick pace walking around and sniffing the air like a bloodhound. She turned the corner to the living room and was greeted by a huge vase of fresh red roses on the center of the coffee table. Several dozen flowers at least, she thought. She grabbed the card and quickly opened it, thinking she was done with the first clue and ready to move on. The note said, “A rose it but a rose, while a red rose means so much more, and as wonderful as the smell, it’s not the clue you’re looking for...”
She laughed out loud, not at the little poetic ditty Tom had written, but because she was truly in a state of unbelief that this was really happening. Her day of fantasy was taking on a life of its own; one where Tom was weaving the story line and she was along for the scrumptious ride. She continued her sniffing and proceeded to the bathroom. There she found a marionberry air freshener plugged in by the sink. Hanging from it was a Christmas gift tag, the kind with a string attached. She gently turned it over and read the words on the other side. “You needs to take a HOT shower after a long day - no time like the present”
Her mind raced as she tried to decipher the message. “A shower, a HOT shower, why is HOT capitalized,” she said aloud. Was it code for something or was it literal? Maybe she needed to take a hot shower. Gloria put her basket on the toilet and started undressing, carefully folding her work suit to minimize the wrinkles. She rarely used the guest bathroom to shower in, but today was not exactly a usual kind of day, so she just went with it. She closed the bathroom door and opened the shower curtain to turn on the water, but before she turned the knob, a glimpse of pink caught her eye. In the back of the tub sat another basket.
This one was made of stainless steel and uncovered. It was filled with luxury bath products; exotic scented soap, organic shampoo and conditioner, an exfoliant with Dead Sea salt, a soft back brush, and even a loofah. She turned on the water, hot as she could stand, and stepped inside. Tom was right, the hot water felt amazing and she languished under the spray for longer than usual. She rarely showered in the dinner hour, but today the word routine meant just about nothing. She tried everything in the basket, exfoliating her arms and legs and washing her hair twice. It was a unexpected pleasure trip and she enjoyed every moment.
The water started cooling so she shut it off and stepped out. The room was filled with steam and she breathed it in again and again. In her haste she had forgotten to put a towel by the tub, so she had to take a few quick steps across the room to grab one from the shelf. As she did, her eyes were drawn to the vanity, but specifically to the mirror, where the steam had revealed a hidden message. “Tom, you have outdone yourself...” she dried off quickly and wrapped herself in the towel before reading the message.
Dressing the Goddess
“A reflection of beauty, oh that I see, her eyes wide in front of me, a woman fresh from her pamper, now turn and look inside the hamper.” Gloria spun on her heels and headed to the hamper, ironically thinking that it had never held any dirty clothes. She looked inside and there was a box, wrapped in red paper just as the small box in her original basket. She slowly opened it, savoring each moment as if it was her last. Inside was a gown, not just any gown, but a luxurious,silk, full-length, masterpiece in alabaster white. It was sheer and hugged every inch of her body, almost as if the Goddess herself had designed it just for her. Also included were a pair of fleece booties with tiny pink bows on their heels.
She slipped one on and then the other, but one seemed to not fit so well, so she pulled it off to adjust the lining and almost on cue, another note revealed itself.
“To the kitchen you must go, do not dally to and fro, the fridge needs opened for the next lesson, take the wine and a lemon” The wine she could understand since her basket had a corkscrew, but the lemon perplexed her. She wrapped another towel around her hair and admired the gown for another moment before setting off to the kitchen. Heading directly to the refrigerator as the instructions said, she opened the door and found herself staring at a more than just a lemon and wine. Inside was a plate wrapped in plastic wrap with a note taped to the top that said -keep covered, microwave for 3 minutes, open the wine while you wait for it to cook.
Dinner and More
Since she’d come this far on faith, Gloria saw no reason to deviate from the plan and she grabbed the plate and put it in the microwave and opened the bottle of wine. Tom was a wine guy and he rarely refrigerated his wine so she was a bit curious, but upon seeing it was an Italian Valpolicella she recanted. She filled a glass just as the timer went off and she eased the hot plate onto the table. A sumptuous lasagna with yellow squash and broccoli meal awaited her; the smell alone made her stomach rumble so she sat and enjoyed the food, drank a few glasses of wine and did her best to keep from getting any sauce on her new gown.
She carried the empty plate to the sink, when her thoughts returned to the lemon. In her haste, she had failed to get it from the refrigerator the first time around. She rummaged around for a few moments before realizing that there were no lemons in the refrigerator. Her hopes sunk momentarily for fears this magical fun would come to an end because Tom forgot the lemon. After all this work, he couldn’t have forgotten, so she looked harder, this time opening the cheese drawer, looking behind everything, and even opening the small butter storage door - she was rewarded for her perseverance at the bitter door. Inside sat a shiny lemon with a note stuck to it with a bent safety pin.
“What lies hidden in plain sight, coupled with the heat of night, a secret revealed when the fruit is peeled, over the sink you’ll see the ink, only if you welcome the secret vellum” She studied the lines again and again. Tom had certainly outdone himself on this riddle, she hoped to be able to figure it out quickly. She didn’t recognize the word vellum, but since her mini was in the basket, did an internet search and found her answer. Vellum was parchment, a heavy writing medium made from calf skin and she grew excited as she put the pieces together. She had a piece of parchment in her basket.
She also remembered her and Tom watching a movie where a message was written in invisible ink on a piece of parchment and it could only be seen after applying lemon juice. Tom watched that movie a hundred times. It had to be the clue she was looking for. She peeled the lemon and gently squeezed the juices from it. They dripped slowly on the paper, sliding down the smooth unblemished surface. Her eyes scanning for any changes to appear, it nothing happened. She was stumped and went back to the clue. Every step was followed, but one. The heat of night line reminded her again of the movie and she gently exhaled a warm breath on the page and like magic a faint phrase appeared.
Walking on Sunshine
“My dear, my love, look up above, take the key and you will see, a cooling fan, a master plan, secrets hidden in the sand.” She set the paper aside and grabbed her basket. “Above must mean upstairs,”she said as she made a beeline for the staircase. She reached the bottom step and was once again enchanted by what she saw before her eyes; the steps were covered, not just sprinkled, but covered in rose petals. White, red, pink, and every color in-between were piled like the snowdrifts in front of the house. They were so thick that none of the wood was even visible on any of the risers. She carefully stepped up each step, trying not to disturb the random beauty of the scene.
As she neared the top step, she started shaking her head in awe. Another basket sat at the top of the landing, this one wide with side handles. As she got closer she corrected herself as it wasn’t a basket after all, but a wicker bed tray. On it was a small book, locked of course, and she had a strong idea what her key was for. She untied it carefully and slid it into the lock. A small click and the latch sprung open. She opened it to the first page and was rewarded with another clue. “‘‘Tis the eve of enchantment, when the riddles are solved, you’ve made it this far with none else involved, your basket near empty but enough still remains, for just a bit more to find and the prize you can claim”
“Open the box, open it now, a clue with some challenge to make you say wow”
Message in a Bottle
She had forgotten about the small gift box, and she left no time to waste. She shook it gently but had no idea what was inside until she opened it. Her world came to a standstill of head-scratching confusion when she saw that the tiny box was filled with sand; white sand. She touched it and swirled her finger around for a minute before realizing something was hidden within the sand. A tiny glass bottle with a tiny slip of paper rolled up inside was there. Her message in a bottle per se. She gingerly worked the paper free from the bottle and slipped it free, slowly unrolling it. It only had a single word...”bedroom.”
How Did He Know
She almost broke into a sprint, covering the few steps to the bedroom in seconds. She pushed opened the door and there he was, Tom, the architect of this amazing evening, sitting on the bed with a huge smile on his face. He was wearing a collarless white shirt, unbuttoned of course, and nothing else. She raced to him and hurled herself on the bed. Her lips hungrily kissing his mouth. He responded with a passion she’d never even dreamed of and they both devoured one another without saying a word.
After an eternity of passion, they lay side by side with arms touching, sweat beads glistening on their foreheads, and a peaceful calm surrounding them completely. Tom remained quiet, smile permanently affixed, heart still racing, and content beyond his wildest dreams. Gloria was just about to drift away into a sumptuous slumber when she thought about the basket once again. There were still two unused items inside she thought. She whispered to her husband softly, “water and a fan....what are they for?”
“I knew you’d be thirsty, so I packed you a drink.” “And the fan,” she playfully enquired? “That’s for later...an unexpected breeze might slip in from the south.” He pulled her close and kissed her passionately and closed his eyes. She thought about it, and as she drifted off herself, she wondered....how did he know?
© 2018 Ralph Schwartz