A Florida Love Story
“Hello.” The voice on the phone was cultured, lyrical, hinting of a warm Mediterranean climate.
“I’m interested in renting a room,” I said. Standing in an uncomfortable phone booth, clutching my purse, I was desperate to leave my current living situation, a room in Mr. and Mrs. Scully’s two-bedroom apartment.
Mrs. Scully was furious. Why had I dumped that wealthy lawyer? A young man, whom I met at work, would pick me up to go out. Mrs. Scully adored him. She began making plans a garden wedding in her church for this lucky man and me. After several weeks of dating, I lost interest in him. Soon enough, I found a man I was really attracted to. Mrs. Scully did not approve of this new flame. The wedding plans were off.
“What if I marry my new boyfriend?” I said.
“He’s just a salesman,” she said. “He’s not for you.”
How did she know what either of these men was like? I did not want to marry anybody, no less in her church garden. Where was the church? Who were the members? What denomination? As a tenant, I did not think it wise to ask, nor argue.
Back then, husband hunting resembled a foxhunt, a successful young man the target. According to Mrs. Scully, Mr. Scully was sent packing two years after they wed. He had become lazy. Fifty years later, now retired, she took him back to enjoy two pensions. No wonder she could not understand why I dumped the lawyer. There would be no church garden wedding.
“Give him a chance,” she finally said. She meant the lawyer.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I don’t want him coming around here,” she said. She meant the salesman. Her tone was cool. The matter was closed.
I had to move.
“Oh yes,” the Mediterranean voice on the phone was soft. “I am Mrs. Bellini.” In a charming accent, she gave me directions to her building on Zamora Avenue. It was about ten blocks from Valencia.
Excitedly, I clip-clopped to Zamora in my three-inch heels. Paychecks for women were small then. I only had one pair of shoes presentable for the office. My job was a ten-minute walk. The heels wore down quickly. I bought one pair of shoes a month, never thinking to have the heels repaired. It sounds wasteful now, but then it made perfect sense.
Zamora was a far cry from Valencia Avenue. Instead of well-maintained duplexes on large, green lots, Zamora was older, the lawn brown. The three-story stucco apartment house of Old Spanish style had seen better days. Several mailboxes in the hall had been jimmied open. Papers littered the floor. I climbed to the second floor, breathing the musky summer air. There was no air conditioning in those days. Many buildings in South Florida had a mildew odor so common, people hardly noticed. It combined with tangy, sharp smells of little cloth bags hung in closets to protect from creeping, ever-present fungus.
I walked down the musty, dimly lit hall. Most doors were scarred, paint peeling. To the right, a freshly painted sign read ‘224 – Bellini.’ A ceramic potted plant sat on the floor nearby. I barely raised my arm to knock. The door opened.
“Hello,” she said. A refined, slim woman, Mrs. Bellini welcomed me as if I were a guest in a Venetian palace. Her understated, yet elegant clothing went well with a cordial, to the point manner. There was no grilling for background, no hint of suspicion, no mention of any other prospects. Had I a VIP reservation in a five star hotel, I could not have felt more at home. Safe at last.
After a few polite remarks, she gestured toward what would be my room. I glanced at the living and dining areas. Everything was immaculate. Authentic looking Greek pottery and antique bowls accented a few well-placed pieces of furniture, each hand rubbed to a rich sheen. There was no dust anywhere, no clutter, no magazines strewed about.
“This was my son’s room,” she said. Her son peeked out from the other bedroom. He was thin, about eight years old, serious.
“I need the money,” she continued. Apparently they would both be sharing the other bedroom.
“Here is the bathroom,” we squeezed into a small tiled cubicle between the bedrooms. An amphora jug, the kind I had seen in museums, rested on the windowsill. No shampoo bottles, sponges or tubes of toothpaste marred an effect of tranquility and order.
I thought of Mrs. Scully, of her bathroom filled with mats, towels, toilet paper cozies and every kind of toiletry known to a drug store, most in plain view. A compulsive talker, she kept me hostage over breakfast. Now that I think of it, perhaps she purposely threw in breakfast along with the bed. How else would she hold anyone still for her long talks? I had been late for work almost every morning. Mr. Scully had held me captive in the evenings, typing stories of a bear in the Colorado mountain sky lodge scene. It seemed very boring. He never paid me for this work. When my eyes were doubling over with fatigue, they would both invite me to their bedroom, filled with comforters, bedspreads and pillows. I would sit on a chair while they spread out on their beds.
The concert would begin. Picture two old people, white haired, wrinkled, in modest, cotton clothes carefully ironed by Mrs. Scully, looking at me with glowing eyes, singing ‘When It’s Springtime in the Rockies.’ That was one of the many songs, the only one I remember now. They did not hold a tune very well and old age had cracked some of their vocal chords. Their eyes, however, shone in some wonderful, romantic place. I was somehow included in their dreams. Was I the daughter they never had? Did I remind them of youth? I don’t know. In the daytime, especially the morning, reality would set in. They became an ordinary old couple, with quite a practical bent.
The new living arrangement did not include breakfast. I was sure there would be no free typing or long stories about times past. My salesman boyfriend would be impressed. Surely this gracious Italian (she told me she was from Rome, a divorcee) would not criticize my dates.
Mrs. Bellini bent down to a cabinet in the spotless bathroom.
“I made some room for you here,” she said. I resolved to keep my things hidden, too. The serene feel of this apartment made me believe I could keep my things in order. I had never been orderly, but I would try.
Mrs. Bellini bent down, gently closing the cabinet door. That’s when I first noticed it. Her hair was red, an unusual shade of deep henna. In those days dyed hair was not common; peroxide blond labeled ‘cheap,’ red, suspicious. Not prevalent at gossipy bridge parties, the glamour-enhanced girls did, however, get male invitations.
Things changed through the years. Hair today is many shades of purple, green and most bizarre, a coal black talking mop.
‘I come from a bottle. The brain upon which I sit is clueless. The skin belongs to light, attractive brown, obviously. At that age, (give me a break), no single strand of hair on the body can possibly be this color.’
Desperate to move from my old room, I overlooked that confusing detail of the hair. The woman was charming, friendly. How lucky I was to find such a lovely place, with such a refined landlady. Mrs. Scully, in contrast was large, rough, speech peppered with salty expressions.
Mrs. Bellini’s kitchen showed no pots, toasters, cutlery or other gadgets. Macrame hangers hung from the ceiling, filled with avocado plants sprouting in bowls of water. Two lower shelves of the refrigerator were cleared for me.
That night I told Mrs. Scully I was leaving.
“Make sure you clear out your things and leave the room neat,” she said. I did not give her my forwarding address.
My new boyfriend who had a big car, helped move the few things I owned. Mrs. Scully sat primly in the living room, watching everything.
“She’s a bitch, isn’t she,” my new boyfriend said as we pulled out of the Scully’s driveway.
“I don’t care,” I said, grinning, wrapping my arms around him. “Wait till you see my new place. You’ll love it.”
The Florida winter was much like summer; except it got dark early by the time I finished work. When I came to the apartment, Mrs. Bellini would usually be sitting at the glass and wrought iron dining room table, fairly close to the entrance. She would introduce me to a friend who sat with her. The man would get up and greet me politely. There would be different men, each nicer than the other. The son must have spent most of his time in the other bedroom. I seldom saw him.
My boyfriend had come upstairs several times to take me out. Mrs. Bellini was always gracious to him. He was not into courtesy. A salesman can’t afford to fool with the niceties of life. Niceties don’t part people with their money. It takes an attack on the jugular vein. He would tell me about how he never smiled when a customer walked into the sales office. At the time I thought that was a strange idea.
“Can we stop and pick up some groceries?” I said one day. My boyfriend tagged along as I filled two large bags of food for my corner of the refrigerator.
We walked past Mrs. Bellini and a friend, both sitting at the dining table. I stacked the food in the kitchen.
Downstairs, in the car, my boyfriend sat behind the wheel. He did not turn on the ignition.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Aren’t we going to the movies?”
“You’re out of there.” His voice was hard.
“She’s running a racket.”
I didn’t want to know anything about rackets or anything else from that cold, cruel world he seemed to know so well. He would be my shield against all that. Though I had only known him less than a month, my heart told me this salesman, not very likeable by church going people, was the only person I could really trust. He didn’t smile much and he certainly wouldn’t let some old people hold him captive with their lonely wails. I knew then and there, in that car, this was my soul mate. He was the ying and I the yang.
“Go get your stuff,” he ordered.
“I just got the groceries,” I protested. “I’ll just leave them there.” I felt bad that I was moving out without notice.
“Get the groceries, get everything,” he said. I obeyed.
We never left Florida. Years later I rummaged through his old briefcase and found a photo of an old girlfriend from up north. She had red hair.