"This is lyrical writing at its finest . . . breathtaking and beautiful, showing us the fullness of a life captured."-Foreword Magazine
For decades, Mercedes Medina has carefully navigated life's turbulent currents, and although her irascibly good-humored husband of 25 years is dying, she fully expects her elegantly ordered existence to carry on. But when a passionate affair hits her head-on-and desire collides with responsibility-she is forced to redefine her life in ways authentically her own. She knows peace will never find her here. But she might not miss it. . . .Ann Wadsworth lives in Boston, where she is the editor of publications for the Boston Athenaeum. Light, Coming Back is her first novel.
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Read an Excerpt
Patrick noticed the damage to the Whistler first.
"Here," he said one morning. "This thing looks a little wacko."
Mrs. Medina came up behind him and took off her reading glasses. "Now, how did that glass get cracked?" she said.
"The painters were here last spring."
"You don't need to remind me, Merce. They woke me up every morning at six-thirty, and that Hungarian one stole a bottle of my Black Jack." He blew his nose loudly on his red-checked handkerchief. "You should have hidden that painting away, since it means so much to you."
"It's not a painting, Patrick. Look, they cracked the glass and the paper is torn. And they never said a thing."
"Your little Venetian trifle. Well, look at it now."
"Patrick, go get on some shoes or your slippers, or something."
"What's for lunch?"
"Lunch." She sighed. "Look at this, this dirt that's filtered through the crack in the glass." She put her glasses back on. "Well, I'll just have to have it repaired."
"Is the mail in, do you think? What time is it?"
"Nearly eleven." She stood and looked at the etching, then carefully removed it from the wall. "I don't know if anyone can repair the paper."
"Oh, forget it, Merce. Put some tape over it or something. Come over here and look at this bench across the street. Someone's painting it red."
"If I don't repair it, Patrick, it will just get worse."
"Throwing good money after bad."
"Bad money? A Whistler?" She carried it over to the window to see it in better light. "Look, already the paper is discolored."
"That trinket reminds me of a very bad period in my life. I thought you had left me when you went out across the canals to buy this thing. I don't think kindly of anything this Whistler ever did, because of that upsetting time."
She looked at him in amazement. "Well, don't blame Whistler," she said. "And I wasn't leaving you."
"Well, we won't argue about it."
"No. We won't." She walked into the dining room. "I'm going to call Bonnie Friedman at the Fogg. If you want your lunch, go get something on your feet." She stood for a moment in the kitchen door. But I was thinking about leaving, she remembered. I was considering it.
"Why are they painting that bench?" he said, following her.
Bonnie agreed to let one of her crew take a look at the damage. "Just wrap old Whistler up and bring him over here," she said. "We'll get you a report in a couple of weeks. If you come over tomorrow, I'll take you to lunch at the Faculty Club. How's that darling husband of yours?"
"Still full of pepper?"
"I think you could say that."
"Not playing much now, though, right?"
"Well, he plays, Bonnie, sometimes with friends, but he doesn't perform anymore."
"That's a loss for all of us."
It was a loss for her as well.
At the age of fifty-nine, not old at all in her book, Mercedes Medina was slowly coming to suspect that most of the important events of her life had come and gone. Patrick's failing health had a lot to do with her feeling, but in fact she had been relieved when Patrick decided to retire. She had loved their travels together, his music, the concerts in exotic cities, but she wanted to unpack for good now, and put the luggage away.
Patrick had saved her, she believed, from a life of self-indulgent loneliness. Their professional lives had been separate but shared, although there was certainly more of his to be generous with. During the months she was teaching he proclaimed interest, but his curiosity extended primarily to her students, young female ones especially; that was the way he was. Until recent years his trio was on the road for more than half the year, and she was with him as much as she could arrange to be. Now that life was over.
Lennie Visitor entered her life on a day she could not decide what to give Patrick for dinner, sole or macaroni and cheese.
She hadn't expected to end up at a florist's that Thursday; she didn't have anything on her mind, in fact, except anxiety about the etching. In later romantic moments she imagined that the entire morning had been a slow progression toward an inevitable door, which was standing just ajar. Afterward, that is, she thought this. Afterward, the Whistler became unimportant.
She was wearing her Harris tweed jacket for the first time that fall, and the red and gold Hermès scarf Patrick had bought her in Zurich.
"Well, Mercedes," Bonnie said at lunch. "Here we are again." They were working on a cream of mushroom soup that had heated up the spoons. "And don't think I'm going to let you avoid the issue."
Mrs. Medina smiled.
"When are you going to cross the river and teach over here? The Romance Language Department is full of holes right now. They'd probably hire you in a minute."
"They'd have me teaching Italian 101, wouldn't they, without a Ph.D. I'm spoiled. I can teach what I want now. My own schedule." She wiped her mouth. "In any case, my department head is a friend, she counts on me."
"Yes, eventually I may think about it." She thought of having nothing but her teaching, when Patrick was gone. That, no doubt, was the way things would proceed. But that part of her life hung ahead of her in the dark.
"Well," Bonnie said afterward, as they made their way back across the Yard toward Harvard Square. "I'll walk you as far as the gate." Bonnie was narrow and nearly six feet tall, and Mrs. Medina had to hurry her steps to keep up with her leggy pace. As they parted Bonnie said, "Check out the preposterous window display at Pittino's. I think Guido's already practicing for next year's flower show."
The day was soft, hazy, and full of wind. She walked along Church Street looking into the shops, and wandered on, although Patrick was on her mind. She felt oddly detached, as if it were the afternoon before a journey, and a long night flight lay ahead of her. The window display at Pittino's was even more disorienting, and featured what she thought was a 19th-century English drawing room interior in which a violent explosion of mums and zinnias had taken place. But it drew her in.
She had to push through nets of ferns and displays of rocks and falling water to get into the larger part of the flower shop. The aroma of fresh earth was overpowering, as if she had arrived on a lush, damp island that might at any moment spring forth with the echoing sound of macaws or the creak of bamboo.
And there was the heady scent of gardenias.
Behind the main counter Guido Pittino waved her forward. He was on the telephone. "Here, Len, help the lady," he said. "I've still got Waterman's on the line."
A young woman unfolded herself from underneath the counter. She was tall and clear-eyed and had a direct look about her. That is, her face was plainly pretty without frills or pretense. She had a wide mouth that was smiling as if she really had something to be happy about, as if she and Mrs. Medina were old friends and hadn't seen each other for a while. She had a flat box full of gardenias in her arms, and lifted it casually toward Mrs. Medina's nose for her to smell.
Mrs. Medina, startled, took a polite sniff.
"Too sweet, right?" the young woman said. "Too many. One gardenia is more than I can handle." She cocked her head. "Or maybe you like them."
"I don't know," Guido said into the telephone. "I don't know if I can get three dozen yellow roses by tonight."
The young woman looked around for a spot to put the gardenias down, and finally bent over and placed them back on the floor. "What'll it be?" she asked, straightening up. "Sorry you can't have the gardenias." She brushed her hands off. "I saw you looking. They're corsages for some big thing at the Faculty Club." She put her hands on her hips and smiled as if they were sharing a private joke.
What's this about? Mrs. Medina thought, returning her smile hesitantly. Have I met her somewhere?
Her hair featured several different shades of blond, with some darker evidences underneath, and wandered back over her ears to the nape of her neck, where it came to rest in a thick clump of curls. It had a sort of wet look. In her left ear was a gold hoop. Her complexion suggested that she was probably a real blond, and Mrs. Medina detected a faint spicy scent that either came from the girl or from some nearby floral arrangement; she couldn't be sure. She swayed, slightly, and put her hand on the counter to steady herself. The girl had on a white T-shirt under a gray cotton pullover.
"So, you want something delivered, or you want to take something away?" She met Mrs. Medina's gaze directly and her eyes seemed to be amused about something.
Mrs. Medina nodded, and cleared her throat. "Yes," she said.
"Yes...?" She opened her hands. "Yes?" She gave a little laugh.
A small card lay on the counter waiting to be put in with one of those overly cute arrangements that went out in footballs or red glass hearts. Someone had written, Why did you leave without waking me up? Thanks for an unforgettable night.
"Well, maybe you just came in to say hi," the girl said brightly.
"Lennie! Get the other phone, will you? I'll take care of the lady."
"Try the freesia. Just came in," Lennie whispered.
Guido came up behind Lennie and moved her toward the other telephone. "Phone," he said. "Sorry, madam. How may I help you?"
"The young..." Mrs. Medina began. "The young woman was saying...about the freesia..."
"The white roses are excellent," Guido said, smoothing his dark mustache with his forefinger and thumb. "Or a fall arrangement, perhaps? Japonica? Nerine?" He gestured to the large refrigerator behind him.
The young woman called Lennie was standing at the large back counter to the right of the refrigerator door. She stood with her weight on one foot, one hand on her hip, talkingquite a graceful pose, actuallyand Mrs. Medina saw what she thought was a small pigtail hanging down beneath the bunch of curls at the nape of her neck. Now she bent over to write. She laughed. She looked over her shoulder and gave Mrs. Medina the briefest of looks.
"Madam?" Guido repeated.
"Freesia mix," Mrs. Medina said quickly.
"Freesia mix, certainly."
"Three bunches, freesia mix. Cash or charge?"
"I'll write a check," Mrs. Medina said. "But" she smiled. "JustI'm curious, just for the future, of course, what exactly is nerine?" She fumbled in her bag for her checkbook. "Or is it nerines? What are nerines exactly?" She saw Lennie hang up the telephone and go through the door into the large refrigerator.
"Nerines, madam. Certainly. Nerines are these. These beautiful pinks here. Similar to a lily."
"Lovely, lovely," Mrs. Medina said. The nerines had tall stems and delicate, tongue-like petals. She touched one with the tip of her finger. "They're quite nice, aren't they?"
"Plus tax." Guido attacked the cash register with a flourish.
There was a crash behind him.
"Ah, Dio!" He threw up his hands and raced toward Lennie, who had emerged from the refrigerator with pieces of broken glass in her hands. "Careless, careless girl!" He disappeared inside, among the irises. "Go," he shouted from within, "finish with the lady. I will bring the freesia." He slammed the door furiously.
Lennie wiped her hands on a paper towel. "Cold in there," she said. "My hands slipped."
Mrs. Medina looked down at her own hands, fiddled with the clasp of her leather billfold. "Are you bleeding?" she asked. "Maybe you should get a bandage."
"Nah. Happens all the time. Cheap glass, breaks easy. How far did he get with you? Oh yeah, here's your check. I have to look at your license." She sang under her breath as she wrote down the numbers. "If I didn't know better, if I didn't know..." She took her full lower lip between her teeth, then looked up. "You Portuguese?" she asked.
Mrs. Medina shook her head.
"Your name." She handed the license back. "Medina."
"Oh, no. My husband's family was Spanish, but quite a while back."
Lennie lifted her hand to smooth her hair back behind her ears. There was a small cut on her index finger, and the tiny smear of blood suddenly seemed uncomfortably intimate.
"He's from Virginia, actually," Mrs. Medina said firmly.
"The sunny southland." The smell of the gardenias rose like ether. "See something else you like?" Lennie said. She leaned back from the counter and tilted her head.
Mrs. Medina looked at her, uncertain, irritated, beginning a strange unraveling. Then Guido swept by and left the wrapped package of freesia on the desk.
"Ever seen a blue rose? Look at this." Lennie held up a rose-like flower that was indeed a deep purplish blue, the color perhaps of a vibrant bruise, or the clouds that sometimes gather low on the horizon just after sunset.
"A blue rose," Mrs. Medina said. She cast about furiously for something else to say.
"Lisianthus," Lennie said professionally. "It isn't really a rose, just looks like one. A guy in one of my classes told me about how he used them in a couple of his gardens. So I told Guido to order some. Wait a minute." She reached under the counter and got out a dog-eared notebook of what looked like class notes. "Vase life, two weeks," she said after a moment. She put the notebook under her arm. "Here, take it." She twisted a bit of tissue and paper around the stem and held it out.
"Why," Mrs. Medina said, flustered, "thank you. But..."
"Go on, take it. Look, we've got two huge boxes here full of them. Things were a little crazy in here today. We want to keep the customers coming back, you know." She moved her torso from side to side. "Don't we?"
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Medina said. She was clutching the rose in her hand. "All right."
"I'll come back."
"O-o-okay. That's cool." The phone rang. She turned away to answer it, and Mrs. Medina knew she had been immediately forgotten. "Well, hello," Lennie said in a lower voice. "Hello, hello. What're you up to?"
Mrs. Medina walked calmly through the ferns and out into the stupor of the Indian summer afternoon.
She moved quickly away from the shop as if she had some immediate purpose, walking steadily without knowing where she was going. She paused briefly and considered going back to explain why she had made that inane comment at the end"I'll come back"as if it were important! She still clutched the extraordinary blue flower tightly in her hand. Three-thirty, the clock in the Square said.
She strode toward Mount Auburn Street and went into Café Paradiso finally, and sat down. "What do I want?" she said to the waiter, and he responded with a smile, "You want a double vanilla latte." And so she got it. It was fate. She never ordered flavored coffees.
She lay the flower on the table in front of her. The freesia now were a burden. Lennie, she thought. What kind of a name is that? Why did she speak to me so outrageously? As if she knew me? She thought a moment. Well, perhaps she did know her. What was so familiar about this girl? Someone's daughter, a friend's daughter? She ran some names through her mind. I would have remembered her, she thought. Surely.
Near the cash register was a slowly revolving display of Italian pastries of various sortscannoli, cream puffs, and a lovely olive-colored pear tart. "How much for a couple of pieces of the tart?" she asked the woman behind the counter when she went to pay. "Oh, just give me the whole thing, why don't you?" She smiled. "It's a beautiful day."
She circled around the Square for a while, not really knowing why, and after a half hour finally went into Au Bon Pain and bought a cup of tea. She took it outside to the terrace. The afternoon was growing chilly as the sun fell, and she leaned over her black China tea, breathing the steam. When the girl appeared, Mrs. Medina realized she'd been expecting her, and she waited calmly for her to pass by. Carrying the flat box of gardenias, now covered, Lennie crossed the Square against the light, dodging the traffic. She had long legs; a long, even gait. She had put on a black leather jacket, not new, with some faded red stitching on the back that Mrs. Medina could not read. Her face was smooth and determined in the gathering dusk, and the last of the sun glowed against her curls.
She crossed Massachusetts Avenue as the traffic eased, and passed from sight.
Patrick was surprisingly calm about her late return.
"I wondered," he said. He seemed engrossed in plotting something on one of his Civil War maps. He looked up. "What have you got there? Flowers for me? What are these, freebles? What do you call them?"
"A delicate flower for the faint maidens of old. Look a bit wilted, Merce. Find 'em in a trash can? Oh, don't draw yourself upI can see the wrapping, can't I?"
"Look what I've bought us for dinner." She displayed the tart.
Patrick had a sweet tooth. "Delizioso," he said. "What's the occasion?"
"You're jazzed up all of a sudden. Who's up your sleeve?"
She peered up the sleeve of her blouse. "No one. Sorry."
"Well, calm down. Your vibrations are disturbing my deliberations about General Beau."
"Right," she said.
"Time for my snort anyway."
In the kitchen she put the tart on the counter and got out a crystal bud vase for her flower. She took it to her bedside table.
"There," she said.
She went and fixed herself a gin and bitters, and took it back to Patrick's room with his evening Black Jack.
"Good afternoon?" he asked her. "Get Whistler into surgery?"
"Yes. Prognosis good." This was the sort of conversation she needed. And the kind that she and Patrick were practiced at having.
"How much?" he said.
"Moolah. How much will they take you for?"
"Well, I'll have to wait to hear from Bonnie. They couldn't tell me anything today."
"There'll be visiting hours, no doubt." He sipped his whiskey almost daintily.
She hadn't considered that. "I suppose I could go back and check on how it's coming along."
"Given yourself a mission again. Well, look." He pointed at the television with his glass. "There's been snow already in Montana. Bad sign."
"Well, I see it as a good sign," she said. "The seasons change. It's nature, it's natural. We're lucky things change."
He gave her a skeptical look. "You're nuts," he said.
Excerpted from Light, Coming Back by Ann Wadsworth. Copyright © 2001 by Ann Wadsworth. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A terrific novel I found hard to put down. About a 60 year old woman whose 85 year old musician-husband is dying. She unaccountably falls in love with a young female florist, and has a brief affair. Very beautifully and thoughtfully written. The ends all tie up a little too neatly, but all in all one of the best books I've read recently.
Reading this beautifully written story has made me long for more. Mercedes, Patrick, Lennie & Diana (in the later part of the book) are intricately woven and the reader savors their relationship with them. The dialogue is honest, sometimes surprising but always heartfelt. For Mercedes Medina, devotion and the excitement of a new found passion collide and haunt her as she tailspins through 'unknown territory'. I applaud Ann Wadsworth for her ability to give the reader the gift of physically & emotionally being there. If this truly is Volume I, than I cannot wait to meet with these characters again. If not, I will be saddened but pleased to have been in there company if only for a while.
this is a very satisfying story that explores the life of a woman who discovers rather late in life that her feelings are not so simple as they once seemed. The characters are finely drawn, the language precise, the ending happy but not unrealistically so.
A beautiful, funny and heartbreaking story about the transformation of a woman's life. A heroine who is wonderfully observed and understood as she goes through the fear, anticipation and triumph of breaking out of resignation into a life of authentic experiences. I loved this book.