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Discovering Shades of Gray

by Melissa L. White



Monica discovered Peter Gray on Match.com and was delighted by his praise for her black and white profile photo in his initial message. In her online profile, Monica had listed Sophia Coppola films as one of her favorite things, so when Peter confessed that he did not care for Lost in Translation when he first saw it years ago, Monica was amused. Especially when he explained that after reading Monica’s profile, he watched it again, and was relieved to find out how very much he enjoyed it this time. Monica was impressed. For a man to take the time to seek out and watch a film which a woman had listed as one of her favorites spoke volumes to her, especially since he’d seen it before and didn’t like it.

Image of an espresso maker, and coffee cup with a woman reading a message on her cellphone.
Image credit: Samantha Borges on Unslash

No one she’d ever encountered through an online dating service had ever done that before. On the other hand, she had on several occasions looked up an author, or a book, or a film listed on the “favorites” column of a man’s profile. Monica did not find this to be a common practice on Match.com.

Peter contacted Monica one cool Saturday morning in March, and told her of his newfound respect for Sophia, and that he would love the opportunity to learn to appreciate her further— if Monica felt inclined to help him. He was articulate, concise, complimentary, and had listed two authors as his favorites with whom Monica was unfamiliar. So, she went straight to the library that Saturday morning and checked out Richard Russo’s book, That Old Cape Magic and David Guterson’s book, Snow Falling on Cedars. She also found an audio disc, David Guterson’s, The Other, which she popped into her stereo as soon as she got back home. As she lay in bed listening to this story unfold, she wondered what kind of man reads this book and discovers it’s one of his favorites.

After listening to two discs, Monica decided she had infused herself with enough courage to respond to Peter Gray’s message. She replied that she would be happy to share her Sophia Coppola film collection with him as she owned three of her DVDs. Monica also told him that she was unfamiliar with Russo and Guterson, so she’d borrowed their books from the library. What Monica was doing more than anything else was trying to find something in common with this stranger so that they could continue to communicate.

He messaged her back and told Monica that he was impressed that she’d listed “writing short fiction” as her passion. He asked if she’d be willing to send him something that she’d written so that he could read it and get to know her better.

If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to a woman’s heart is through her passion. He immediately struck Monica as being a potential match. She wrote him back— asking him for his personal email address instead of the Match.com message address. He responded so she sent him a story, explaining that although she’d been writing fiction for over 20 years, she had only published one short story and two poems, years ago, and was apprehensive about sharing her work. But he seemed so intelligent, warm, and interesting that she sent him her favorite story and asked him to send her anything that he’d written, even if it was just a rough draft, an outline, or an idea scribbled down on a napkin.

He responded the next day, gushing with praise for her writing ability and asking if she’d send him another story. He made several astute observations regarding the plot and character development. Monica responded, thanking him for his comments and asking him if he was a World Literature professor as his profile listed his educational level as “graduate degree” and his occupation as Educator. She confessed that since he seemed so articulate and well read, she wondered if he taught college, in which case she would be somewhat intimidated to send him any more of her writing.

He responded that he did in fact teach school…first grade. And that he was the last person whom she should find intimidating. He asked her again to send him another story. This time she sent him a story which was semi-autobiographical about her experience at a high school dance during her sophomore year. He wrote back saying that he loved it, in fact his exact words were, “I sort of fell in love with Miranda, your main character.”

Not only was he articulate he was courageous enough to admit that he’d fallen in love with one of her characters. He then wrote back that he was free this Friday, and was she comfortable with meeting for a drink, or for dinner. He gave Monica his cell number and said that he was looking forward to meeting her and carrying this conversation further. She replied that she was indeed free for dinner this Friday night and suggested Poggio’s in Sausalito where she lived.

He wrote back saying that he’d made a reservation for 6:30 on Friday, and that he was so happy to finally meet her. He then suggested a lingering walk along the docks where they could pretend they were in Paris strolling along the Seine. She replied that she loved pretending to be somewhere else and confessed it was a habit she developed in childhood, and that she still did it even today. She also told him that she’d be wearing a red coat.

After much anticipation on her part, and repeatedly checking her inbox for any new email from him while at work, Friday evening finally arrived. Monica drove down the hill to Poggio’s, arriving five minutes early, and as she walked across the street from the parking lot, she noticed a man sitting alone at a table outside. He wore a camel-colored cashmere sweater and khakis, with really cool-looking sunglasses. He stood up as she approached, and when he held out his hand and smiled, her heart nearly stopped.

He was six feet two inches tall, and quite slender. His smile was electric, with perfectly straight and very white teeth. He was fifty. One year older than Monica, with just a touch of gray, at his ears. Monica had started coloring away the gray in her own hair last year, and several people told her that it made her look ten years younger. Monica felt happier than she’d felt in the past eight years since her divorce. She took a deep breath, excited that Peter Gray was so attractive.

They sat at a table inside, away from the chilled night air, and he ordered a bottle of Viognier, He spoke in a soft voice, laughed easily, and talked about his daughter, Polly, who was a freshman at USC. He said that his daughter had been his greatest joy and an inspiration to him since the day she was born, and that he missed her terribly. When Monica asked him how long he’d been divorced he replied, “Several months.”

He then confessed that Monica was the only woman he’d pursued since his divorce and that he had first joined Match.com as a non-paying member, just to view the profiles and “see what’s out there.” But when he saw Monica’s profile, he immediately purchased a full membership so he could email her. She was flattered. He took her hand.

“I was married for just over 20 years,” he said softly. “This isn’t easy for me.”

She smiled.

He kissed her hand.

The waiter brought their soup.


Image of Sausalito bay in the evening with the full moon, looking over the neighbourhood lights.
Image credit: Jamie Attfield on Unsplash

After dinner, they walked across the street to the docks that lined the Sausalito marina, and he held her hand as the moon rose over the bay. They talked about their parents, their siblings, their travels, and their love of literature. He talked at length about William Faulkner’s poetic narrative, and how he’d written his master’s thesis on that subject.

“I’d love to read it,” she said.

“It’s packed away in a box somewhere in my garage.”

The wind began gusting, banging the halyards against the masts of the sailboats docked in the marina. He put his arm around her shoulder.

“Are you getting cold?” he asked.

Monica nodded, shivering a little.

“I’ll drive you back to your car,” he said then led her to a silver Toyota 4-Runner parked along Bridgeway Boulevard. He opened the door for her and reached into the back seat and pulled out a single long stemmed yellow rose wrapped in green tissue paper and tied with a yellow ribbon.

“Oh my God! It’s probably been twenty years since I’ve gotten flowers from a man.”

He laughed.

“How did you know I love yellow roses?”

“You listed lingering conversations, Coco Chanel, and yellow roses among your favorite things.”

“Oh, that’s right.” She hiccupped. Holding the rose to her nose to smell its sweet fragrance, she took a deep breath. “Do you want to come back to my place and watch a Sophia Coppola film?”

He smiled. “Which one?”

Lost in Translation. Virgin Suicides. Or Marie Antoinette. Take your pick.”

Virgin Suicides sounds interesting.”

“Great. I live just up that hill to the left.” She gave him directions to her house and then led the way up the hill with him following behind her in his truck. When they arrived, she took his arm as he steadied her while they ascended the stairs to her duplex.

Once inside her home, Monica offered him a drink. He asked for a beer then followed her into the kitchen where he studied all the many photos of her family and friends which covered the refrigerator. He saw the photos of her nieces and he asked their names and ages.

“They look like sweet little girls.” He sipped his Corona.


Image of a fireplace in background with a glass of white wine, a beer and snacks on a table in the foreground.
Image credit: Ambitious Studio* - Rick Barrett on Unsplash

After they watched Virgin Suicides, he told her he especially loved all the 70’s music. Watching that film always left Monica feeling somewhat nostalgic, but extremely relieved that her youth was behind her now. Monica’s parents were strict, and she grew up in a small conservative town in Texas. Although it was not an easy time for her, she never considered suicide as an option.

Peter put his arm around her as she turned off the TV with the remote.

“What is the worst thing you ever did as a teenager?” he asked.

She thought for a moment then said, “I spent my entire sophomore year grounded, so I must’ve behaved pretty badly.”

He laughed.

“What about you?” she asked.

“I was a model child,” he mused. “I never got in trouble.”

“I’m so sure.”

He laughed and leaned over and kissed her. She kissed him back. He pulled away after a moment and said, “How old were you when you lost your virginity?”

“I guess I was about 15 or 16.”

“That’s young. I was 19.”

“We start young in the South.”

“I was shy, believe it or not.”

“I believe it,” she said, then gently touched the dimple in his chin.

He took her finger from his chin and kissed it. “But I’d say my first sexual experience happened when I was about seven years old. My sister, who was ten, was riding in the back of our station wagon with me while we were driving from our home in Fresno to Disneyland for a family vacation.”

Monica eyed him intently as he spoke.

“We were lying down, side-by-side, rubbing each other’s rear ends and I got an erection. It scared me at first since I’d never had one before.”

“Why were you doing that with her?”

“I guess because it felt good. Why would a little kid do anything at all? Either curiosity or pleasure. That’s generally what motivates children.”

Monica immediately remembered the time that she and Sarah Albertson practiced French kissing together in her backyard. They were in fifth grade. Neither one had kissed a boy yet.

“The funny thing is I still remember that happening. But I don’t remember being afraid that we’d get caught for doing something wrong, I just remember how good it felt.” Peter sipped his Corona.

Monica watched him confess these things and thought to herself, I could love this man. No one had ever been this honest with her, confessing something so innocent, yet forbidden.

He laughed. “When I was a kid, my dad was editor of the local newspaper in Anacortes, Washington, and every once in a while, he’d let me go with him when he went out to cover a breaking news story.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Once there was a liquor store robbery where the store owner shot the guy who robbed him. I went with my dad to cover the story and observed as he interviewed the police, the store owner, and several witnesses. I watched them photograph the dead body.”

“Eeew. Was it gross?”

“Part of his skull had been shot away and his brains were exposed.”

“Did it make you sick?”

“Don’t laugh, but it gave me an erection.”

She didn’t laugh. “How old were you?” She felt her face flush, embarrassed for him. How could he admit something so weird on this perfect first date? Maybe he wasn’t as “promising” as she’d imagined. He’d revealed himself like the peeling away of an onion’s skin, and it was beginning to leave a foul aftertaste.

He shrugged. “Maybe 15? I couldn’t drive, so I hadn’t turned 16 yet.”

She stood up and grabbed his empty beer bottle.

“Got any more?”

She nodded, not completely sure if she wanted him to stay any longer.

She went to the kitchen and got him another beer. When she gave him the beer, he touched her wrist. “Does that bother you?”

Monica hesitated, unable to say what was really on her mind. Then she thought of the yellow rose he’d given her after dinner.

Image of a dark green couch.
Image credit: Lisa Amann on Unsplash

He moved over on the couch, and she reluctantly sat down beside him.

“It probably wouldn’t have happened but there was a lady cop there wearing these super tight police uniform pants. It was a little overwhelming for me. I was very naïve for my age. And when I got home that night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing that guy’s head shot up with his brains spilling out. So, I got up and took my sleeping bag to my sister’s room.”

Monica panicked, wondering if he was about to admit some kind of bizarre tale of adolescent incest. He took another swallow of his beer then set it on the coffee table.

“She let me sleep in her room that night, on the floor. I think she knew I just couldn’t be alone that night.”

“Did you ever sleep in her room again after that night?” Monica asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.

“No, she left for college right after that and we never lived in the same house together again.”

Monica stared at her feet. He cleared his throat.

“She died three years ago,” he said in a small voice. “She was my favorite, out of all six of my siblings.”

Monica glanced at him and saw that his eyes had brimmed with tears.

“She died of Leukemia. She had three kids still at home. It’s just so incredibly unfair.”

A tear ran down his cheek. She reached out and took his hand. He wiped his eyes with his other hand.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “You must think I’m a real jerk for crying like this.”

“Not at all, Peter. I lost my mom recently, and I still cry when I think about her.”

He nodded. “I just feel so bad for her kids. They’re courageous little souls, dealing with all this at such a young age.”

Monica took his hand and he looked into her eyes. He suddenly seemed like a promising match to her again. After all, he taught six-year-olds for a living. She could sense that he was a very good teacher.

She squeezed his hand. “That reminds me of a quote by Amelia Earhart about courage. Do you want to hear it?”

“Sure.”

“Okay. Here goes: ‘Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.’”

He smiled at her. She curled her toes inside her shoes.

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For listening to me.”

He took her face in his hands and kissed her.

Monica felt her heartbeat quicken.

He then suddenly pulled away from her. “It’s been a perfect evening. I think I could love you.”

Monica immediately felt the heat on her cheeks as she blushed— not only because he’d said something so forbidden on a first date, but because she was thinking the same thing.

He leaned in towards her and kissed her forehead. “I better go.”

He kissed her again and she made a conscious effort to kiss him back in such a way that he’d realize she wanted him to stay.

He pulled away from her and she could tell he was trying hard to restrain himself. She reached up and touched his dimple again.

He laughed. “You like doing that, don’t you?”

“Do women do that a lot?”

“No one’s ever done that to me before.”

“Not even your mom?”

“Nope.”

“Then that makes me unique.”

He laughed and took her hand.

“I’ll tell you a quote by Lawrence Ferlinghetti about love,” he said.

“Okay, I adore his poetry.”

“Great. Another thing we have in common. This is what he said: ‘Love is the strangest bird that ever winged about the world.’”

She nodded. Who was she to say what was or was not strange about human sexuality?

“Love is indeed strange.” She glanced at her yellow rose sitting in its vase on the coffee table. “But not so strange that you can’t get used to it.”

Picture of a single yellow rose in a small brown vase on top of a table.
Image credit: Canva

***

Black and white photo of the author, Melissa L. White .
Melissa L. White

Melissa L. White is a screenwriter, novelist, and short story writer whose debut short fiction collection titled, “On the Green Earth Contemplating the Moon,” was published in 2012. Her film, Catch the Light, premiered in Mumbai, India in June 2019. Melissa’s biopic screenplay about female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, was a Finalist in the ScreenCraft True Stories Screenplay Competition 2020, and a Finalist in the Chicago Screenplay Awards Contest 2021, and a Finalist in the NYC International Screenplay Contest 2021, and a finalist in four other contests in 2021-2022. Her LGBTQ+ Rom Com screenplay, Modern Marriage, won 4th Place in the Writer’s Digest Screenwriting Contest in 2021, while her latest essay, “Can AI Machines Learn How It Feels to Cry?” will be published in the upcoming issue of Front Porch Review, Issue 16, July 1, 2023.

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