This story is based on the Broadway show She Loves Me, which has the same basic plot as such films as You've Got Mail (1998) and The Shop Around The Corner (1940), if you're familiar with either of those. Here's the setup:
Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack are two shop clerks who fought constantly at work while also unknowingly writing anonymous love letters to each other through a Lonely Hearts Club. When these Dear Friend pen pals finally decide to meet, Georg discovers what's going on, but he doesn't let Amalia in on the secret for two whole weeks, during which time he has a bit of fun at her expense. As he tries wooing her in person, she starts to warm up to him, but when Amalia finally invites both versions of him to have dinner with her family on Christmas Eve, he's forced to give up his ruse.
Initially, she seems delighted to discover that he's her Dear Friend, and she kisses him, but after such a bumpy beginning, the road to love is never quite that simple...
THE LONG WALK HOME
A She Loves Me story
by Rachel Smith Cobleigh
24 December 1934
Amalia stepped out of the darkened shop and laughed at the sight of the snow falling from the night sky. Holding her wrapped gifts against her chest, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back, savoring the tiny pinpricks of cold that quickly melted on her cheeks. She sighed and smiled. It seemed as if the world were being dusted in magic!
If she were to write a letter now, it would be filled from beginning to end with nothing but exclamation marks. And she would fill all the 'O's in the address with tiny smiling faces.
"Here, let me carry the cigarette box," Mr. Nowack said behind her, switching off the last, dim light over the register. "You'll need a free arm for balance in this weather."
"Thank you," she said, and held out the package.
He smirked as he accepted it. "Well, it was meant for me, after all."
Smiling, she went down the steps and turned to watch him lock the door of Maraczek's for the night.
As he tucked the box under his arm, it began chiming its tune. Selling the first cigarette box had won her a job in the shop, but it had also doomed all the clerks to endlessly hearing the little song, since it had taken them months to sell the overstock. Amalia had only bought this last one—which seemed to have a defect, since it sporadically played its tune even when it hadn't been opened—as a gift for Dear Friend, because she had forgotten to get him a present in the midst of everything else that was going on, and honestly, she had just wanted to get the thing out of her life once and for all.
That plan had backfired.
Mr. Nowack was chuckling to himself and shaking his head as the tinny mechanical notes continued chiming through the festive gift wrap, persisting to the bitter end.
"You don't have to keep it, really," she said, smiling over her shoulder at him.
"Where would be the fun in that?" He flashed her a grin.
Warmth blossomed in her chest. Oh, how lovely it was to see him really smile! Had she never seen him truly happy before? It was almost as though a new man stood before her.
Perhaps he was a new man, and his prior unhappiness had been in no small part due to her.
She frowned and looked away, adjusting her hold on the large box that contained her mother's Christmas gift. When Mr. Nowack finished with the shop door and turned towards her, she gave him a quick, covering smile.
Still grinning, he dropped the keys into his coat pocket and came down the steps, his shoes crunching on the ice and salt. Newly-fallen snow already dusted his black fedora and the shoulders of his grey wool coat.
"Now, whenever I wish," he said, "I can pick up this box, give it a good shake, and follow you around."
"Oh dear. I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"
The words had slipped out automatically, and she looked up with a stab of worry, but this Mr. Nowack just laughed in a relaxed, easygoing way. As if they were old friends, and they both knew there was nothing to fear.
She had to remind herself that there wasn't anything to fear. This was Dear Friend. They had bantered like this countless times in their letters. She loved it when Dear Friend teased her.
When Mr. Nowack teased her.
She blinked and shook her head, giving him a weak smile as she began to walk towards the bus stop. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, indeed!
To think that, for all these months, they had fought incessantly while working together in the shop during the day, and then they had gone home and written charming, adorable—well, at least his were charming and adorable—love letters to each other at night! It was too much to be believed!
But he knew what she had written to Dear Friend. Only a few minutes earlier, Mr. Nowack had recited aloud the beginning of one of her recent letters. How else could he have known? Could Dear Friend have shown Mr. Nowack her letter? The two men had spoken once, after all, but it didn't seem at all like the sort of thing Dear Friend would do...
What was she thinking? There weren't two men! There was just the one, who had lied to her about talking to another man!
—and he had just kissed her. Well, technically, she had kissed him. And he had kissed her back. And then he had—well, there had been a very definite mutual interest in kissing, and being pressed against him had felt just as good—no, better than she'd imagined it would.
She felt a hand on her arm and paused, looking up when she noticed that Mr. Nowack had stopped walking and was frowning down at her. He withdrew his hand, worry in his eyes.
"You aren't... regretting your invitation, are you?" he asked.
"What?" She blinked. "No! No, of course not." Straightening with a smirk, she set off down the busy pavement again. "Besides, my mother would never let me hear the end of it if she put herself out, cooking a proper Christmas Eve dinner for two guests, and they never showed up!"
His answering smile didn't quite meet his eyes, and he pushed his free hand into his coat pocket. "At best, only one will."
Amalia clucked her tongue and batted his arm. "You'll be more than enough."
He seemed to relax a little, but he still peered at her. "You're not..." He swallowed. "...angry with me?"
She opened her mouth to give a quick denial, then paused, studying his face a moment before looking away. Was she angry with him? He had lied to her! He had laughed at her! She felt as though she had been making a fool of herself in front of him for two weeks, still in the dark while he had known her secret and said nothing...
Frowning, she used the density of the foot traffic as an excuse to hurry along without giving an answer, guarding her mother's Christmas gift from being jostled in the streaming crowd.
She knew so little about Mr. Nowack. He rarely spoke of his life outside the shop, except to deny Mr. Maraczek's frequent insinuations that he spent his evenings romancing women at dance halls. Although Mr. Nowack had gone out for coffee with her after closing several nights this week, before he had seen her off on her bus home, they had talked mostly of the novels they had just lent one another, or of Ilona's mysterious new beau, or they had shared a chuckle about some absurd interaction with a customer. Their unexpected, newfound understanding had felt too fragile for deeply personal topics.
And as Dear Friend, he had most often written of what he was reading or listening to, and his tastes seemed to match hers so well. He made amusing, astute observations about life in the city, and sometimes expressed sentiments so lovely they made her chest ache, but he said little about his personal history. He had once mentioned that his parents had passed away some years earlier. Of late, he had begun to tell her of his hopes and dreams for the future, and had hinted at his concerns about the developing mood of things here and across the Continent. But he had always been vague about the details of his home and work life, giving her no clues that might have allowed her to identify him.
So who was Mr. Georg Nowack? Was Dear Friend his true self? Or was he the skillful, smooth charmer who convinced so many women—and men—to make purchases in the shop? Or was he the petty tyrant who found fault with her at every turn? Or the surprising gentleman of the past two weeks? In fact, the last time he had said a cross word to her was at the Café Imperiale, and that had been a disaster of epic proportions.
Her stomach sank anew at the thought of how cruel she had been to him that evening. He had come to their meeting, just as he promised he would, and she had been absolutely abominable to him. True, he hadn't told her then that he was Dear Friend, but how could he have? If he had, she would have broken both of their hearts that night.
She had broken both of their hearts that night.
And yet he had been kind to her the next morning.
Mr. Nowack was Dear Friend.
She glanced up at him. He walked beside her again, but he was looking ahead and frowning deeply. She watched his Adam's apple bob above his red scarf as he swallowed.
He noticed her gaze and looked at her. "Miss Balash?"
"No," she said finally. "I'm not angry with you. I'm just realizing that I don't know you. Not really."
His face fell, but then he looked up past her as an approaching bus's brakes squealed and squeezed to a stop in traffic. She turned to glance at the bus. It wasn't hers. They still had a few minutes to wait.
As they reached the bus stop and stood at the edge of the crowd, Amalia frowned. The thought of riding in a hot, crowded bus, overstuffed with irritable late shoppers and all their packages, surrounded by the heavy smell of wet woolen coats and unable to say a real word to Mr. Nowack until the moment they got off—and then they would have to face her mother and her formidable aunt, unprepared...
"Let's not take the bus," she said.
"Let's walk. It's not far. Perhaps a half-hour."
"In this cold?"
"Why, Mr. Nowack, I hadn't taken you for a weak sort."
He gave her a familiar, flat look that she was gratified to see, and she smiled in triumph.
"I'm not weak, Miss Balash. I just don't want you to catch your death of cold. Besides, won't your mother worry if you're not home at your usual time?"
"No," Amalia said, giving him a jaunty little twist as she set off again. He quickly caught up, following behind her on the crowded pavement. "She knows I'm closing tonight, and that I'll be later than usual because of the Christmas crowd."
He made a noise of agreement. "We did well today. You did well today."
"Thank you, Mr. Nowack, but there's really no need to butter me up."
"I'm not buttering you up! Why would I do that?"
Amalia stopped and turned on her heel to face him, making him draw up short. "I don't know! Why would you? Why have you been so nice to me these past two weeks? Is it because you knew I was Dear Friend, and you wanted to soften me up?"
"So you are angry with me!"
"No! Yes! I don't know!" She stormed off, throwing her words over her shoulder, and felt him hurrying along just behind her. "It's all happening rather quickly, don't you think? You tell me you're Dear Friend and then, just like that, swoop!—oh!" Her angry gesture made her topple slightly, her fashionable pumps slipping on the icy pavement—but Mr. Nowack caught her elbow and steadied her, his grip firm. When she had righted herself, she glared at him. "Thank you."
Was he laughing at her?
"What?" she demanded.
He schooled his features. "What were you going to say?"
She set her shoulders and smoothed her coat flat. "Then, just like that, you... you kiss me."
"As I recall, it was you who kissed me, Miss Balash."
She pressed her lips in a flat line and hmphed. When he smiled, satisfied, she growled and stomped off again.
"Wait! Wait," he said, hurrying and easily overtaking her. Damn him and his long legs and the fact that she had to look up at him.
He put out a hand without touching her, and she slowed down.
"Look, I'm sorry," he said.
"Sorry about what, Mr. Nowack?"
He was walking backwards in front of her now. "I'm sorry that we got off on the wrong foot all those months ago—" He shot a quick glance behind him to avoid colliding with anyone, before returning his gaze to her. "—and I'm sorry I didn't try harder to make peace with you."
She arched an eyebrow and he slowed to a stop, forcing her to stop as well.
"I'm sorry for continually provoking you," he added.
"For calling me 'Miss Ay-malia Balash' when you know perfectly well I prefer 'Ah-malia'."
He dipped his chin in a reluctant, slightly exaggerated nod, and she could see he was fighting a smile. "Yes. For that."
She glared up at him. "For finding fault with my blouse."
"Well, it was a hideous—" His eyes widened and he immediately lifted his hand in a gesture of surrender. "I'm sorry for finding fault with your blouse."
"And my hair, and my voice, and my shoes, and my perfume!"
"Miss Balash, you don't need perfume," he said softly, his fingers curling closed as he dropped his hand and held it palm-up, a peace offering, towards her. "You smell wonderful without it."
"We work in a parfumerie!"
"Exactly!" he exclaimed, leaning towards her. "There are already enough scents filling the air. Adding another—" He waved at the imagined scent with a grimace. "—that isn't designed to be part of the mix only produces an assault on the senses—"
He glared at her and put his hand on his hip. "What?"
Still smiling, albeit more gently, she said, "Are we really going to have this argument again?"
He glared for another second, then lowered his hand and his features softened until he was looking down and laughing to himself. He shook his head as he lifted his gaze to her face.
"If you were so uncertain, why did you kiss me?" he asked quietly, sobering.
She paused with a frown, then sighed. "Because it was a dream come true."
He smiled even as his brows drew down and he tilted his head in confusion. People streamed by on either side of them.
She sagged, her eyes flicking to the people going past, but no one was listening to them. Finally meeting his gaze, she matched his quiet tone. "I've wanted to kiss you since the first day we met." His mouth fell open slightly, doubt and warmth warring in his eyes, and she lifted her hand, then dropped it with a sigh. "And there you were, telling me you're Dear Friend, and I was so relieved I just wanted to kiss you on the spot."
She felt her cheeks burn in the cold night air, so she re-adjusted her mother's gift box under her arm and walked around him. "Yes, relieved. After that tall tale you told me about how Dear Friend was fat and old and bald!"
"I'm sorry," he said, pivoting to walk beside her again. "I was testing you."
"You were trying to make yourself look good by comparison!"
He winced. "Perhaps a little. And perhaps I was having a bit of fun at your expense. You had Dear Friend up on such a pedestal! But when I stopped by to see you, I hadn't planned to take advantage of your ignorance. I was genuinely worried about you. You never miss a day of work."
"Of course not! And give you the pleasure of taking me to task over it?"
"Miss Balash," he said, sounding exasperated. "I wouldn't have taken you to task over staying home if you were ill."
"No, but you'd have found some other way to make me pay for it."
"Do you really think so little of me?"
Amalia sighed and looked up at him, slowing. "Honestly, I don't know what to think of you, Mr. Nowack. You've been so many different people that I don't know who you really are."
He stopped beside her, his shoulders falling. "I'm all of them," he said quietly. "You've read me at my best and you've seen me at my worst. But I'm neither the villain nor the white knight. I'm a human man who has made plenty of mistakes—which, I should warn you..." He squinted, a self-deprecating look in his eyes. "...I'll likely continue to make—and I'm trying to figure things out with a human woman who has her own share of rough edges. Can you forgive me?"
Amalia sank a little, and she gave him a sad smile. "Can you forgive me?"
"I already have."
Her smile became more genuine as she stood gazing up at his warm, handsome features, but her toes were cold.
"Let's walk," she said, inviting him with a gentle toss of her head, and she set off. "If we keep stopping like this, we'll be quite late, and then my dear mother will worry about me." She shot him a sideways smirk. "I told her I would be inviting you as well, and I don't want her to fear that only my left leg will be found floating in the Danube."
Mr. Nowack managed to look both stricken and amused.
"So I'm still invited?"
"Yes, Mr. Nowack, you are still invited."
They walked in not-quite-comfortable silence for a few moments, and then she smiled.
"'Neither the villain nor the white knight'," she quoted. "Yes, you are Dear Friend."
They smiled warmly at each other, but then his thick, dark brows drew down. "And yet you still think you don't know me?"
Amalia pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, considering.
There was a knot of pedestrians clustered around a beautiful Christmas storefront display, so she and Mr. Nowack separated and wove through the crowd before joining up again.
"You know," he said, once they were in the clear, "I used to dread it each time you opened your mouth, but now I find your silences far more terrifying."
"I cannot tell if that is an insult, a compliment, or some confusing combination of the two. Didn't you just apologize for provoking me?"
Mr. Nowack laughed. "I'm not trying to provoke you, just awkwardly express how much you affect me."
"By inspiring dread and terror. Yes, this sounds like a match made in heaven."
But her smile defused her words and he chuckled, angling himself slightly towards her to avoid someone hurrying by in the opposite direction.
"I couldn't answer quickly because the answer is not so simple," she said.
"Let me ask you a question. You want me to believe that your behavior in the shop all these months wasn't your true self, but how much of Dear Friend was merely you putting on your best face to impress me?"
He took a deep breath, nodding. "Dear Friend is the best of me. And the best of whom I hope to be..." He met her gaze. "...but clearly I fall short. Until just recently, I didn't actually manage Maraczek's, for example."
She smiled. "If I recall, you said, 'I'm in charge of the day-to-day operations of my shop', which was a more than fair assessment of how much Mr. Maraczek entrusted to you. You didn't exaggerate that."
"Thank you," he said, with obvious relief.
"When you said that you'd never fallen in love before me... was that true? Not even a youthful crush?"
"I've found women attractive, certainly, but no one has ever made me feel the way you do—in person or on paper." He chuckled. "I couldn't stop thinking about you as Dear Friend, and of course, once you were hired on at the shop you were rather distracting, even if it was for... unhappy reasons."
"You've seemed much happier these past two weeks," she observed.
"Seeing you in a new light changed everything. And you haven't picked a fight with me."
"Me picked a fight with you? Oh, Mr. Nowack, you are mistaken. Most of our fights began with you making some awful comment about my performance, or my appearance, or my attitude—"
"I know," he said quietly.
She blinked and looked up at him, deflating a bit, then spoke more gently. "But I admit that I always assumed the worst of you. You were always finding fault with me, so I was always braced to defend myself."
"By going on the attack."
"Well, yes," she sighed. "It was wrong of me. I don't know why I let you get to me like that. I'm not normally so childish."
"Neither am I."
"Yes, you always got along so well with everyone else! I was certain you were unfairly singling me out."
"I wasn't, at first. I normally give critique quietly and privately. You aren't privy to what I have to say to the others."
"Mm. I started out the same way with you, but then you insisted on making a public spectacle of it."
Amalia winced and briefly rubbed her forehead, nodding. "And once I got into the habit, I had you fixed in my mind."
"You were convinced I despised you, but I never did—unless you were insisting that I despised you, which I despised."
They chuckled together.
"Oh, how did we go so far off the rails?" she moaned. "When I'm not fighting with you, you're a lovely person!"
He smiled. "Ditto."
"Dear Friend," she murmured, frowning up at him as she shook her head. "I'm so sorry! I only ever wanted you to be happy."
His smile widened for a moment, but then he peered at her. "Are you, though? When I first revealed myself, you seemed happy, but then..."
"I know! I know, Mr. Nowack. But you must let me get used to the idea. You've had two weeks to adjust to it. I've had ten minutes."
"But you said, 'I had hoped and prayed it was you!'"
"Yes, but you have to understand: it was just an idle 'oh, wouldn't it be funny if Mr. Nowack were Dear Friend!'" Amalia gestured at him in frustration. "It was simply too good to be true. A coincidence of such cosmic proportions as to be entirely unbelievable."
He gave a short laugh of agreement and looked up at the night sky, blinking as snowflakes landed on his eyelashes. Wiping them away, he shook his head and smiled at her.
Amalia continued, her voice softening. "Well... I'm not being wholly honest. About a week ago, when you first invited me out for coffee and we made it through an entire conversation without fighting once, and you made me smile—" She sighed, the side of her mouth tugging up. "I don't know. Something changed. I remembered what you had said at the Café Imperiale that awful night, that I had never really listened to you, really looked at you. You were right." She gave him a tight smile. "And when I did start to see you, I found... that I like you. Quite a lot, in fact."
His eyes were bright, and he gave her a sad smile as she continued.
She lifted her chin and adopted an exaggerated formal accent. "I, too, aspire to noble things," she said, shooting him a self-deprecating smirk before sagging and speaking normally again. "But I dreaded having to hide my disappointment when I would see my fat, old, balding Dear Friend. I found myself wishing he would look more like you. I mean, there was the outside chance, however unlikely, that you were him. You had shown up at the café, after all. And then I started... well, I don't know if 'falling in love with you' is too strong a phrase, but I—I started looking forward to seeing you each day, and looking forward to Dear Friend's letters less, and then... the idle fantasy began." She gave him a bashful look and shrugged, glancing away quickly. "On the bus ride home, or when I brushed my teeth before bed—" Mr. Nowack chuckled and nodded. "—or when you'd come into the storeroom while I was working alone back there—"
Her cheeks burned again, so she cut herself off and squared her shoulders, adjusting the gift box for her mother. "But I felt as though I was betraying Dear Friend by being attracted to you, and imagining you both as the same man assuaged my guilty conscience—until I felt guilty about that, too." She quickly cleared her throat and rushed on. "I don't normally invite men to dinner, you know."
He blinked, nonplussed, then laughed. "I would never have thought it."
"And inviting two men... well, that was my poor attempt at trying to show Dear Friend that I had feelings for you, and that I was very sorry to have to cut things off with him, but I hoped he would understand without my having to explain. He's very perceptive, you know—" Her eyes widened and then she slapped her forehead, gave a short laugh, and dropped her hand. "You are. You are very perceptive. You often read between the lines of my letters, and you ask such wonderful, gentle, insightful questions." She smiled up at him. "You make me feel treasured. Thought about."
"You are. A great deal."
He held out a gloved hand as they walked side-by-side. Smiling, she slipped her hand in his, and it felt so right. They smiled warmly at one another—then abruptly broke apart when a surly older fellow with a cane and an expensive, fur-lined coat brushed past between them, not giving them even the slightest acknowledgement.
Unperturbed, Mr. Nowack offered his hand again and she took it, sighing quietly and walking just a touch closer to him.
"So inviting both me and Dear Friend to tonight's dinner wasn't a trap to force my hand?" he asked.
She looked at him in surprise. "No, not even in the slightest. I didn't really think you were him."
"Even after all the clues I dropped?"
She sighed and shook her head. "Each time you reminded me of him, I felt I had to fight the fantasy, not embrace it. It was my weakness. But oh, how I wished you were him!"
She adjusted her mother's gift box against her side and shook her head in amused disbelief.
"Here, let me," Mr. Nowack said, releasing her hand and pausing to hold out his own, carefully keeping the musical cigarette box pressed against his side. "My arm is longer."
She smiled and transferred the package to him. Once he had settled the two boxes against his far side, he offered her his near hand again and she took it, unable to stop a smile from spreading over her features. They set off again and he chuckled, watching her.
"What?" she asked.
He shot her a sideways glance. "You really find me attractive?"
"More than attractive." She smiled up at him.
"You said that before. What does that mean?"
Amalia closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, smiling to herself when she realized that her toes didn't feel quite so cold anymore. They were still cold, but somehow, being nearer to him, she felt warm all over. She opened her eyes and bumped her shoulder playfully against his upper arm, then shrugged.
"It means that sometimes you make me feel crazy."
She shot him a look and he laughed.
"All right, all the time," she admitted. "I've never met anyone who affects me as much as you do, Mr. Nowack. When you're around, I'm maddeningly aware of you, even when I don't want to be and you're paying me no heed at all."
He sighed. "That sounds familiar."
"I did say I found you irresistible, Miss Balash."
"And yet you managed to resist me for months."
"Only at great expense to my character."
"Yes," she sighed, looking away with a nod of understanding.
"I wasn't trying to find fault with you, you know. It was my job to instruct you in how to be a proper Maraczek's saleswoman. I could hardly do that without offering criticism."
"I know," she said. "But you were needlessly critical. I had five years and eight months' experience at Hammerschmidt's! I already knew how to do most of what you were 'instructing' me in."
"I was never much impressed with Hammerschmidt's," Mr. Nowack answered. "This is no implied judgement of you. The place just seemed a bit shoddy."
She frowned. "It was. At least by the end. It was much nicer when I started there."
She shook her head. "To be honest, I'm relieved they closed."
"You are? Why?"
She cleared her throat and gave another small shake of her head. "Never mind. In any case, even if the shop was shoddy, I never was. You didn't need to criticize me so!"
"Perhaps I didn't, but how could I have known that?"
"You could have just asked what I knew."
"I did, but you took my questions as accusations and bit my head off."
"I did not!"
He adopted a high-pitched voice. "'Do I know how to polish nails? If someone held out a bottle of lily-scented soap with those fingernails in view, I'd run screaming out of this shop!'"
She laughed. "Well, it was true."
"They weren't that bad!"
"They were black!"
"It was just a little stained on one edge! I was up late the night before, writing to you, and I spilled some ink when I was refilling my pen."
Giving her a tilt of his head, he pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows.
Amalia frowned. "But none of this explains why you were so awful to me when we first met."
He gave a short growl in the back of his throat, his mouth closed. "I wasn't, if you recall!" he exclaimed. "I was perfectly friendly and even eager to help you."
"Until you discovered you wouldn't make a sale."
"That wasn't it at all! You wanted to talk to Mr. Maraczek, but you know that it's my job to handle the special customer requests. Besides, I suspected why you wanted to talk to him, and I wanted to let you down easily. You know how abrasive he can be."
"But you didn't let me down easily! You were rude!"
"Only because you refused to take a gentle hint!"
"I couldn't afford to! It's just Mother and I. If I don't work, we don't eat!"
"I know," Mr. Nowack said softly, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.
She subsided, looking down at their joined hands. It was harder to remain angry with him when she could feel him. She swallowed and looked ahead, continuing in a quieter voice, "You could have agreed to at least ask Mr. Maraczek if he was hiring."
"I knew he wasn't. There was no point, and I saw no reason to irritate him unnecessarily."
Amalia hmphed. "And after he hired me? Was your pride really so wounded?"
"No! It's as I've been telling you this whole time, Miss Balash, I wasn't upset at all that you had been hired. I admired your boldness and your skill. Professionally, you impressed me. Personally, I found you attractive. For perhaps half a minute, I actually looked forward to working with you."
"Half a minute."
"But then you immediately assumed the worst of me, and I lived down to your expectations," he continued. "I don't know why I did it, only that you always seemed to know just exactly what to say to get a rise out of me. Perhaps it was my disappointment."
He slowed and gestured for her to rest her arm within the crook of his elbow, then waited for her to adjust her stance to the new closeness. She had to double-step a bit, but she finally fell into a better pace with him, and they smiled at one another as they walked.
For a moment, he seemed as though he might want to kiss her, but then he only looked ahead, deftly steering them around an icy, slush-filled puddle that pooled in a rough patch of the pavement.
"Why did you do that?" she asked, gesturing with the arm that now rested comfortably within his.
He sighed. "I don't want my answer to drive us apart."
"It's that bad?"
"To be faced with a woman whom I was initially so attracted to, yet who seemed so intent on constantly belittling and irritating me, day after day... yes, you were a bitter disappointment. I admit that when I first discovered you were Dear Friend, I felt sick to my stomach."
Amalia looked at the ground, frowning. "Yet you still came to the table."
"You had written all those lovely letters. I had to give you a chance."
Her heart twinged at 'lovely', but she winced. "And I was at my most awful..." Feeling somewhat sick herself now, she briefly pressed her head against his shoulder, not caring that she was squashing the side of her hat.
"You were," he said, and when she finally looked up at him, he gave her a bittersweet smile. "But it was the first time I'd really talked with you outside the shop, and despite you living out my worst fears, I could see how much Dear Friend meant to you. Your meanness and desperation to be rid of me gave me reason to hope that you actually had a heart under all those spikes."
"Oh, Mr. Nowack," Amalia sighed.
"I was hardly on my best behavior," he pointed out.
"That's very true."
"Before I came to the table, I had resolved to be a gentleman, but I failed almost immediately. You see, Dear Friend had been an island of joy in an increasingly difficult year, sometimes my only comfort through it, and to discover that you, the architect of my misery, were Dear Friend!"
"The architect of your... what?!"
"I know," he said, deflating, and Amalia's pity warred with her ire as he continued. "I wrongly blamed you for the tension in the shop, for so many of the things that seemed to have gone wrong in my life. Not only was I frustrated with myself for caring about you so much," he continued, "but you had also made me begin to really doubt myself. Then to have just lost my job because I could no longer keep calm in the face of Mr. Maraczek's—well, he had his own troubles..."
"Yes," Amalia said sadly, wondering what could have driven Mr. Maraczek to accidentally shoot himself in the shoulder a couple of weeks earlier. She was fond of the older man, even when he was being a curmudgeon—he had shown her a great kindness when he hired her during the shop's slow summer season, after all—and she had a nagging suspicion that there was more to the shooting story than everyone had been told.
Bringing herself back to the present, she looked up at Mr. Nowack with a frown. "I... I made you doubt yourself? But you always seemed so smug and self-assured."
"I wasn't," Mr. Nowack sighed. "I was just trying to protect myself, rather poorly, as it turned out. And that whole day seemed to confirm your low opinion of me. I couldn't help feeling as though you'd finally reduced me to it, because even your smallest slights would echo in my mind for days and weeks afterward."
"Yours, too," she murmured.
They walked in silence for a short while, and then he said, "We must be careful with each other, Dear Friend. We can wound one another so deeply."
"I know." She frowned. "I had not realized love could hurt this much."
His eyebrows shot up and he looked at her. "Do you think this is love?"
"What else could it be?" she asked. "Mutual insanity?"
He laughed. "Only of the most exquisitely painful—and exhilarating—variety." His eyes were a little bright, and they shared a tentative smile until he chuckled and glanced away. "I feel as though the longer I know you, the more poetry I begin to understand."
She chuckled. "Oh, so true! 'But love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit.'"
"'Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear; when little fears grow great, great love grows there.'"
They sighed in bittersweet agreement, then noticed their identical reactions and laughed together, but as she relaxed, her foot suddenly slipped, and she slowed.
He helped support her as she stepped around an icy patch that made the cobblestones dangerously uneven. With the cold and the uncertain footing, they were walking at something less than her usual brisk pace. The crowds had thinned a bit, but there were still enough people ahead to slow their progress. They had some distance left to go, and time enough to make a proper, better start of things. She smiled. They were in love! True, she hadn't actually told him that she loved him yet, but that seemed a small detail in the vastness of it all. Surely he must know by now!
"Tell me of your home and family," she said, giving his arm an encouraging squeeze. "You never say much about them in your letters."
"There's not much to tell," he answered with a shrug. "You already know of my parents."
"So who raised you?"
"My uncle and his wife." This was said in such a flat tone that she looked up at him.
"Were you unhappy there?"
He pressed his lips together in a bitter smile. "I was another mouth to feed."
"Surely they weren't cruel to you!"
"No," he said with a sigh. "Not my aunt and uncle, at least. Their children could be... unpleasant."
His brow creased. Drawing in a deep breath, he looked at her and said, "My parents were arrested and executed during the White Terror."
She covered her mouth with her hand, staring at him with wide eyes, and her tears welled up without warning.
He looked away, lines of pain in his features.
"How old were you?" she asked.
She swallowed, blinking back the tears and frowning. He was not crying, so she would not either. Burning with curiosity but unwilling to ask anything, she looked away from him. Normal business went on around them, even cheerful business, and the new-fallen snow gave everything a sparkling edge. It was beautiful, briefly covering up the reminders of the past in a peaceful blanket.
Mr. Nowack's voice was soft. "My father was a prominent professor at the Music Academy, and my mother a violinist with the Philharmonic. They were Communist sympathizers—but they had no love for Kun. They only wanted to improve the lower classes' quality of life."
Amalia winced. "Let me guess: they wanted the farmers to be able to own the land they worked?"
Mr. Nowack nodded. "Afterwards..." He paused and swallowed before pushing on. "...my uncle's family took me in, but they considered my parents partly to blame for what had happened, and for bringing reprisals down on the whole community."
Still frowning, she asked, "And do you... have any siblings?"
"No." He pressed his lips together briefly. "There's just me."
She blinked, rapidly revising her estimation of him, then looked up with a tentative smile. "Do you play an instrument?"
His answering smile was warm. "The violin, a little. But I prefer the piano. My mother taught me. I remember sitting on her lap as she helped me learn the names of the notes."
Amalia fought back tears again, watching him as he spoke, his gaze far away for a moment. Then he returned to her.
"I haven't played in many years, though. I don't have room for a piano in my small flat."
"What about you?" he asked. "Do you play an instrument?"
"No," she said. "But I can sing and knit and I make a delicious chicken stew."
He laughed. "I'm glad to hear it. And how are your dumplings?"
"Mother says they'll do."
"I look forward to trying them," he said, then chuckled softly.
He shook his head. "Just the way you can turn a sad memory into a moment of joy." He gave her arm a brief squeeze. "I can cook well enough for a bachelor, but the thought of sharing a meal—making it, eating it—with you..." He smiled warmly down at her, and she returned it in full.
"Speaking of which," she said, "thank you for accepting my invitation, but won't your family be upset that you're not spending Christmas Eve with them?"
Something passed over his features, and then he looked away. "No."
"Oh. So you're estranged?"
"Not really, no." There was a small crease in his brow. "I'm welcome. We've long since put our differences behind us."
"I'm glad to hear it."
He nodded, but seemed distracted. Clearing his throat as he looked at her, he shifted his mien and gave her a quick smile. "As much as I look forward to cooking with you, we'll have to wait. My flat's kitchen isn't quite big enough for two."
Amalia nodded. "My mother and I are comfortable and we could perhaps accommodate a third, but Aunt Réka is growing frail—she's my mother's oldest sister—and we will probably take her in by the spring. You'll meet her tonight. I might look like my mother, but I think I have more of my aunt's temperament."
"Ah." He had relaxed beside her once more and he smirked. "I'm eager to see what I have to look forward to."
"Hey!" She gave him a playful slap on the arm, her movement easily absorbed by his thick winter coat, and he just grinned at her. "So do you live with a cousin?"
"No, I live alone."
"That sounds..." Lonely. "...quiet."
"Not really," he said with a chuckle. "I have plenty of loud neighbors. The family above me has young children who like to run back and forth late at night." He released her arm and pantomimed the pounding overhead. "Bam bam bam bam."
She laughed as he re-offered his elbow, and she slipped her hand easily into the crook again. "So I take it your mood at work is worsened by how little sleep you normally get?"
"Hah! Sometimes. But not usually. I don't mind it. I like the sound of children. It makes me appreciate being alive."
"You're an unusual man, Mr. Nowack."
"I always wanted a little brother," he said with a shrug. "But my mother—she couldn't—I don't know. My parents never wanted to talk about it. Do you have any siblings?"
"No, but I have several cousins. They're all at least twelve years older than me, though, with families of their own." She smiled. "I was the surprise baby of the family."
"Will they be joining us tonight?"
"No, we'll see them tomorrow." She shot him a look. "That is, if you want to. Does your family expect you to spend the day with them?" She quailed a little at the thought of meeting his whole family...
"No," he said, an odd tone in his voice, and she blinked away her fear to look at him in question.
He cleared his throat and abruptly slowed, drawing her to a stop beside him. Frowning, he glanced up and down the street, and she followed his gaze. A few streetlights illuminated the pavement, helped by the candles flickering in many of the windows, but there were fewer pedestrians and bright shopfronts here, farther from the city center and the Christmas market. Wreaths decorated the lampposts and doors, and cars trundled slowly by in the growing slush, their windshield wipers squeak-flopping laboriously. The falling snow made Amalia smile as she imagined all the families reuniting in the warmth of their homes, wreaths and stockings hung from mantels and stair railings, people young and old cradling mugs of mulled wine and enjoying warm walnut bread pudding fresh out of the oven. Her mouth started to water.
"I have to be honest with you," Mr. Nowack said, and she looked up at him. He was staring past her, his brow furrowed. "I've had enough of secrets between us."
"I agree," she replied, but when he didn't continue, she frowned at the worry in his eyes. "Whatever it is, Mr. Nowack, my dear friend, you can say it." She gave him an encouraging smile.
He answered with a weak one, which quickly fell away, and he turned to fully face her, dropping her arm. "I'm a Jew."
She blinked, her eyes widening.
"It's why my family isn't expecting me this evening. We don't celebrate Christmas. It's why I leave work early every Friday evening, and why I don't work most Saturdays, unless I'm really needed in the shop, as I am at this time of year."
Her mouth had fallen open, and she could only stare up at him.
"Mr. Maraczek doesn't know. He just assumes I'm out—" Mr. Nowack's face wrinkled in distaste and he gave a wide-armed, dismissive gesture. "—cavorting on weekends. But I'm not. I'm observing the Sabbath, either with my cousin and her family, or I'm at our synagogue for services, especially on the high holy days."
"Oh," Amalia said, wishing she could think of something better. But she had too many questions to know which one to ask first, or to even decide which ones were reasonable to ask.
Jewish people were around, of course—her normal commute took her past one end of Dohány Street, and she was accustomed to seeing that massive synagogue's distinctive spires standing out above the rooftops—but she had never made a point of mixing with them. They kept to themselves, practicing their ancient faith, and she hadn't given it much thought since she was a child. It was just the nature of living in the city.
But apparently she had been mixing with them, for here one was, standing before her, and she'd fallen in love with him.
She found herself re-evaluating him once again, realizing with a sobering clarity how little she had ever truly seen or listened to him. Faith, spiritual reflection, and a beautiful depth of character had always permeated his letters. It was one of the things that had endeared him to her most; she had always felt that deep called unto deep between them. He perceived life's beauty and its brokenness, speaking of it with a sharp-eyed grace, and he had forever left a mark on her soul.
Mr. Nowack swallowed. "Say something, anything, please." His voice was dry, nearly a whisper.
She stepped close to him and rose up on her tiptoes, grasping his shoulders, and pressed a kiss to his lips.
He gave a small moan, twisting the ache in her chest tighter, and wrapped his free arm around her back. The brim of his hat pushed hers back slightly, and she smiled at this small sign of passion, the promise of so much more to come, she hoped.
She broke away gently with a little smile, settling back down on her heels and adjusting her hat. "I'm sorry," she said, as she met his gaze. "I didn't know what to say."
He chuckled, his eyes bright as he resettled the packages under his arm. "That was good."
She looked down at the black buttons on his coat. Her experience with men was limited; she was pleased that he seemed to like her boldness. But she had more pressing concerns right now. Her head swirled with questions, not to mention with fears of what her mother and aunt would say...
"Shall we?" Mr. Nowack asked, and she looked up to see that he was holding out his elbow for her again. With a smile, she fit herself against his side and they resumed walking.
They were silent for a short while, until he asked, "What are you thinking?"
"I... don't know." She frowned. "Does this change anything?"
"In what way?"
"What do you expect of me? I'm a Christian."
"Must I convert? What would that involve?"
"Well, a meeting with the rabbi, to begin with, but let's not jump to that yet."
"Are you willing to convert?"
"Is that important to you?" he asked, watching her closely.
She tilted her head with a slight frown. "I don't know. Father Benedek won't... allow the ceremony if you don't."
"Do you want it to be in a church?"
"I had always thought it would be," she answered, "but if it means something wrong to you... I don't know. I only know I don't want it to come between us."
"Neither do I."
They walked close together, stepping down over a curb to cross a quieter street. She briefly wondered how he seemed to know where they were going, then remembered that he had come to her home the morning after their disastrous date at the Café Imperiale. Mother and Aunt Réka had allowed him to see her despite her being clad only in pajamas—thanks, Mother—and they had been thoroughly charmed by him then. But what would they say to this? Her whole family faithfully attended Mass each week, and the thought of being separated from them pierced through her.
But Mr. Nowack probably felt the same way about his faith and family. Could they make separate observances work over the course of many years? And what of children?
The two of them stepped up onto the pavement on the opposite side of the street, continuing along, albeit more slowly, and she rested her head against his upper arm.
Mr. Nowack chuckled softly.
"What?" she asked, straightening.
"I'm just enjoying growing accustomed to this quiet, thoughtful you."
She smiled. "I'm enjoying feeling safe enough around you that I can be."
Now it was his turn to smile.
She looked ahead. They had a few more blocks to go before they turned down her street. "How do you feel about a civil ceremony?"
"I could be content with that."
"Your family wouldn't disapprove?"
He arched an eyebrow and gave a quick gesture with his lips. "They probably would, even if you converted."
She looked up at him. "You would defy them... for me?"
"'Defy', that's such a strong word. There would be some sadness and I'd probably get a few worried lectures, but it's not as though they're going to ostracize me, or you. As long as you are open to learning about our ways and traditions, and you would support any child who wanted to pursue the faith, you would be welcome enough."
"Is that important to you?" she asked. "Encouraging any children we might have to be... Jewish?"
"I would hope that you wouldn't stand in their way, if they chose it."
"I don't know how I feel about that. Christians baptize their children as infants, and expect them to remain forever in the faith."
"I know. It's the same for Jews, but without the baptism. The infant rite, for eight-day-old males, is circumcision."
"Is that still practiced?" she asked, her eyes wide, suddenly aware of the implications.
She winced. "On helpless babies?"
"I imagine it would be a far more traumatic experience for someone older," he replied. "The upside of having it done in infancy is that the child doesn't remember it."
"And it must be done?"
He tilted his head, raising his eyebrows and pressing his lips together. "It's a mitzvah, a commandment from God. So, yes."
She frowned. "If I converted, I would have to agree to this."
"And if I didn't convert... you would have to agree to baptizing our children instead."
"Assuming I converted."
"Well, even if you didn't, I doubt Mother would be happy if our children went unbaptized."
"We could choose a third path: teach our children our shared values, let them explore the differences in our faiths and, when they are old enough to decide for themselves, support whatever they choose."
"Even if it is neither?"
He shrugged. "It would be their choice."
"Part of me is sad at the thought of not sharing our faith, of you going off to your observances alone, and me doing the same. I had hoped to share our whole lives."
He smiled warmly, meeting her gaze. "Let's explore them both, together. I'll attend Mass with your family tomorrow—if I'm allowed to."
"Oh, yes! I don't think anyone would object. And I would like to attend services with you," she said. "I've always been curious."
"You would be welcome," he answered. "You would have to sit up in the balcony, though."
"Oh. Is that where the gentiles sit?"
"No, that's where the women sit."
He shrugged. "It's tradition."
He looked at her. "You don't approve."
"I don't know enough to decide either way."
"But you don't approve," he repeated with a smirk.
"Men and women aren't separated in church. We are all equal before God."
"It's the same in Judaism." He made a brief face. "Well, for the most part." She shot him a worried look and he laughed. "No, it is. In fact, women are seen as having a deeply significant role, sometimes more important than men's. I was just thinking of the daily morning prayer for men that includes 'Thank you, God, for not making me a woman.'"
Amalia made a face. "Really?"
"I'm grateful to be spared the realities of childbirth, for example. And... all the rest of that business."
"Hah. You should count yourself lucky!"
"I do. The prayer reminds me to be appreciative of all that women do, especially in the private sphere of the home. It may be less visible, but it's no less important."
"If I were to have children, I couldn't continue at the shop," Amalia agreed. "My mother would help, of course, but she's not young anymore. I was born to her late in her life. Could we really afford to support a growing family and possibly two elderly women without my salary?"
"I've been saving for years," Mr. Nowack answered. "It's why I took the smallest flat I could find. I don't need a great deal when I'm by myself, and you know I've been hoping..." He cleared his throat. "Before I lost my job, I had been hoping that our evening at the Café Imperiale would end in a... new understanding."
Amalia's heart leapt at the thought of what he might mean, but she quieted herself and focused on listening to him.
"I had put off agreeing to meet you until I knew I could offer you more than a mere clerk's salary. Before you came to the shop this summer, things had been going so well Mr. Maraczek had even hinted that I could expect a significant promotion by Christmas."
"And then things went so badly in the fall," she murmured.
He nodded. "But I couldn't put you off forever. I so wanted to see you face to face! —and I was petrified at the prospect."
"So was I!"
He pressed his lips together in a smile as their eyes met.
"Now, though," he continued, his frame relaxed. "I'm confident I can support a family on the manager's salary. It won't be a life of luxury, but we'll be comfortable."
A smile tugged at her lips as she looked away. "How many?"
"How many what?"
Their eyes met, and she was sure that the depth of emotion in his gaze was matched by her own.
He blinked and swallowed. "Three?"
She hummed happily and he grinned.
"How many do you want?" he asked.
"As many as God blesses us with."
He laughed. "I think I'll need to be more ambitious if He decides to be generous on this point."
"He'll provide," she said. "He always does."
Mr. Nowack nodded, smiling warmly at her. "Even if His methods are sometimes immensely frustrating."
"So frustrating!" she echoed, shooting a fond glare up at the night sky. "But His direction seems clear."
"Quite," Mr. Nowack said with a chuckle. "Our life together might be a challenge—"
Amalia moaned in amused agreement.
"—but I wouldn't trade you for anyone easier."
She grinned up at him, then squinted. "I might be tempted to..."
He smirked at her.
Relaxing with a grin, she said, "Truly, you have been such a dear friend. When I answered your Lonely Hearts advertisement, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't have very high hopes. Mother didn't approve of me forming such an attachment with a stranger, but I had had enough of—" She faltered, then pushed on. "—of the men I knew. I wanted a real connection. Your letters touched me from the very beginning and, like you, I found an 'island of joy' in our correspondence. Your advice on how to handle, well, you—"
Mr. Nowack exhaled a laugh, briefly squeezing his eyes closed in self-reproach.
"—was very helpful."
"Really?" he asked, giving her an incredulous look. "We only seemed to fight more bitterly as the months went on."
"But your letters taught me to ask myself why you were so ill-tempered. I still fought with you because you insisted on being so awful—no, don't give me that look, you were—but I found myself pitying you."
"Pitying me? Why? I never told you to do that."
"No, but whenever I complained of 'my annoying coworker' in my letters, you made me feel heard, and you helped me grow. You once speculated that perhaps 'this tedious fellow'—" They both laughed. "—was unhappy at home, or suffered some chronic complaint that made him miserable. The implication was that I should have sympathy for your plight. It was such a good thing to be reminded of, especially because just about then, I had started to notice how Mr. Maraczek was treating you, berating you in front of all of us and so on.
"It didn't explain why you'd treated me badly before he began doing it, but I still didn't want to see you attacked like that. You worked so hard, and you're an honest man. You didn't deserve it."
"Thank you," Mr. Nowack said quietly.
"I'm sorry about the Mona Lisa tubes leaking out the back end. I hadn't known I was filling them badly."
He laughed, an exasperated sound. "After you told me that you had been filling them according to my instructions, I went back and filled one, myself. It wasn't your fault, or mine. The tubes were defective. But just the first lot; the rest were fine. And it turns out we weren't the only customers who complained. When I called Ernő, he apologized and offered us credit towards a new lot."
"Oh!" Amalia exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me this earlier? I've been ashamed ever since, blaming myself for you losing your job!"
"No, it wasn't your fault! I'm sorry. With everything going on with Mr. Maraczek, and the shop, and you—" Mr. Nowack raised his eyebrows to make his point. "—it slipped my mind."
She frowned. "So why did Mr. Maraczek take so much out on you? I could see he was unhappy, but even so, he was always polite to the rest of the us. Ilona said that he used to treat you almost... almost like a son."
Mr. Nowack pressed his lips together for a moment, then said, "He still does. But he thought I was the one..." Mr. Nowack shook his head in disbelief. "...having the affair with Mrs. Maraczek."
Amalia stopped and pulled back to stare at him. "What?! Mrs. Maraczek was having an affair?!"
So the shooting hadn't been an accident while Mr. Maraczek was cleaning his gun!
Mr. Nowack had also stopped, turning to face her, and he looked uncomfortable. "Yes. But please keep this in confidence."
"Of course." She blinked and frowned as she tried to fit all the pieces together. "But why would he think you were—?"
Mr. Nowack gave a heavy sigh. "Because he knew she was being unfaithful, and he saw how warmly she and I treated each other when they had me to dinner each week." Mr. Nowack frowned. "But it's only because she has been like a mother to me. They never had any children, and they lived next door to my uncle and his wife. So when I arrived, a well-behaved, newly-minted orphan, and they found out about my situation, they took an interest in me."
He shrugged, offering his elbow, and Amalia took it. The two of them set off again as he continued, "Mr. Maraczek offered me a job as a delivery boy. It was a good position. I've spent the last fourteen years working my way up to head clerk, and now store manager. He made me feel like a son. The way he speaks at times, it's almost as if he's grooming me to inherit the shop someday."
"Hence why you said that you could not work harder if you owned it yourself," she murmured, recalling the last fight between the two men.
Mr. Nowack nodded. "It was a poor choice of words."
"Oh, how awful," Amalia sighed. "It must have been such a relief when he discovered that it wasn't you."
"Yes, for both of us."
"What will become of Mrs. Maraczek?" she asked.
Mr. Nowack's brow furrowed. "I don't know. I only know that I wish her the best."
"Yes." Amalia pressed close against his side a moment, watching as a car rolled slowly past in the growing slush. What could drive a woman with a wealthy, devoted husband so far as to betray him? Amalia had never met Mrs. Maraczek, and she didn't wish to judge, but it was a disturbing thought. Amalia wanted to believe that she would be true to the man she loved until death parted them.
She stumbled on a rough bit of pavement and Mr. Nowack quickly steadied her. The snow now clung to her pumps and was starting to wet through her stockings. Her toes were numb. She paused to shake her feet and knock snow off her shoes, frowning.
"Perhaps we shouldn't have walked," he said. "Your feet must be freezing."
"They are," she replied, pulling her warm collar a bit farther up around her neck. She grinned at him. "But you're keeping me warm."
He gave her a skeptical smile, but it was still a smile.
As they set off again, something occurred to her. "Wait, if the Maraczeks were that closely connected with you and your family, how does Mr. Maraczek not know that you're Jewish?"
Mr. Nowack sighed. "He's... rather opinionated about such things. My uncle cautioned me to be careful. And Mr. Maraczek has made a comment to me, once or twice... I don't think he would be pleased to discover it."
"Oh." Amalia frowned as she watched a family with young children walk past in the opposite direction. "I'm sorry."
"It is an unfortunate part of being a Jew," Mr. Nowack said. "You grow accustomed to it."
"But you shouldn't have to," she said.
"No. But we do."
She walked beside him, wishing she could protect him, wishing the world were different. Wondering if it ever would be, and whether their children would forever face the same pain. But even if that was likely, she would not give up her Dear Friend for an easier life. He would be a good father, and he deserved to be one, and the only way to change the world was to defy it and love anyway. Perhaps they could make a better world for their children. She squeezed his arm and laid her head against him, smiling when she heard him sigh. He sounded content.
Mr. Nowack at peace. What a lovely, unusual thought! It filled her chest with warmth. Two weeks ago, this moment would never have occurred to her as a possibility, never mind a wish, and now she couldn't imagine wanting to be with anyone else. He was a man of unusual grace, considering all that he'd been through!
She blinked. "How do you do it?" she asked, lifting her head to look up at him.
"Not be bitter about it all. If I had lost my parents that way..."
Grimacing, he inhaled through gritted teeth and gave a short, sideways jut of his chin. "I was. I was filled to the brim with it. Ladislav—Mr. Sipos—he befriended me. He listened, and he understood. He'd lost a brother around the same time, and for similar reasons. Mr. Sipos always underestimates himself, but there's a lot more to him than meets the eye. He helped me see that the bigotry only wins if I let it poison me. I, for one, am going to keep living, and loving, and treating others as I want to be treated."
Their eyes met. She saw clear-eyed resolution in his, and she both ached for him and admired him. Then she smirked.
"Well, you certainly didn't treat me as you want to be treated."
"I struggled to treat you better than you deserved, Miss Balash, but I did try. That was how I wished you would treat me."
She gave a short laugh, directed mostly at herself. "I didn't try as hard as I should have." Gazing ahead at the familiar street that was made anew by the falling snow, she smiled. "Treating others as you want to be treated... isn't that something Christ said? Do your people have a similar saying?"
"Well, he was a Jew," Mr. Nowack pointed out, "and there's 'love your neighbor', which probably inspired it. But I've read the Christian Bible. I've read a lot of things. Have you heard of the Bhaghavad Gita?"
"No, what's that?"
"It's a Hindu religious text. From India."
Amalia thought of her father's book from India and looked away quickly, her neck hot. She fussed with her collar.
"What?" Mr. Nowack asked.
"I once saw something from India," she said, her skin prickling with heat despite the cold air. "It was after my father died. I was helping my mother sort through his things, and I found a book stuffed under his mattress."
She chanced a glance up at Mr. Nowack, but he was only waiting patiently for her to continue with no suspicion in his eyes, and it struck her just how pure-hearted he was. He really had no idea she was referring to the Kama Sutra. Even the thought of it made her feel warm. And the thought of sharing it with him made her feel as though she were blushing down to the tips of her numb toes. But there he was, walking beside her, patient and curious. She suspected that when he did eventually understand what she meant, he was going to be a lot of fun.
"What?" he asked, a playful light coming into his eyes. "What are you... smiling about?"
She couldn't bring herself to name the book, in case he did know it, and then what would he think of her? The images from the book were suddenly overlaid with thoughts of him and herself, and—Dear Mary, Mother of God, she needed to speed up and focus on walking!
But he had a good grip on her arm, pressed as it was against his body, and he stayed firmly at their—arguably safer—current pace.
She sighed, then readjusted her arm in his when he loosened his grip. Lifting her chin and drawing in a breath through her nose, she said, "I believe it is a book properly read only by married couples." She glanced up at him.
His eyebrows twitched in confusion, and then the light in his eyes changed and yes— There it was, the certainty that he was going to be a lot of fun. Was it really December? It didn't feel like it...
Now he was actively fighting a smile. "Or 'business associates'?"
She laughed. "Yes." Covering her eyes, she moaned, "Oh, what must that waiter have thought of us?"
Mr. Nowack was chuckling. "Well, he mistook us for a married couple..."
"Yes, because we were arguing too loudly!" Shaking her head, she dropped her hand.
"And you made it so much worse when you made it sound like you were a high-class lady of the night."
"I did not!"
He raised his eyebrows at her. "'Business associates'?"
"Oh no, really?" She covered her eyes again and gritted her teeth while Mr. Nowack shook with laughter beside her. Then she lifted her head and glared at him in mock anger. "You were no help at all!"
"I didn't need to be. You were doing just fine on your own."
"No thanks to you," she ground out. "It's not my fault we fight like an old married couple."
They both grew silent for a long moment.
"Never mind that waiter," Mr. Nowack said in a tortured-sounding voice. "What must the rest of the shop think?"
Amalia laughed nervously. "Ilona's been giving us looks lately."
"So have Mr. Sipos and our young Mr. László." Mr. Nowack squinted and tilted his head, frowning. "Although they've been doing that for a while, now..."
Amalia and Mr. Nowack moaned and sagged at the same time, then noticed the shared gesture and giggled.
"Are we the last two to figure this out?" she asked, straightening and trying to regain some dignity.
Amalia sighed, half in amusement and half in exasperation, then opened her mouth to speak—but stumbled with a wince. Mr. Nowack immediately drew up beside her, frowning down in concern.
"I'm all right," she said, shivering a little as she held onto his arm and tried to knock the accumulated snow off her pumps. "My heel just caught on something."
"When we get inside, you're drying off and wrapping yourself up, and I'm going to make sure you've got a hot mug of something while I rub some warmth back into those feet."
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "You'd rub my feet?"
"Of course I would. You need to get some circulation back into them."
She straightened and tugged on his arm, and they began to walk again. Smiling at the surprisingly appealing mental image of what he offered, she said, "This morning, that was not how I imagined this evening going."
"Oh?" he asked with a smile. "What had you imagined?"
She shrugged. "That we would have a pleasant chat on the bus ride home. Then Dear Friend would arrive, all round and wrapped, and although I'd be very happy to meet him, he wouldn't shake my certainty that I wanted to be with you. We would all have a nice dinner together, and the familiarity between you and me would hopefully make it obvious that I was spoken for. And..." She blushed and shot Mr. Nowack a chagrined look. "...hopefully you would notice that another man was seriously interested in me, and perhaps the next time we had coffee after work, you would ask me to have dinner with you."
Mr. Nowack gave her an amused look. "You had this all planned out, I see."
"And nary a kiss or a foot rub in sight."
He laughed, but when she only gave him an uncomfortable smile, he quieted and looked carefully at her. "Why not?"
She shrugged. Why had she imagined such a chaste evening? Now that she had kissed him, had pressed herself against him—was doing it even now—why hadn't she hoped for more? She had wanted this for so long...
She groped for words. "I... I've been in the habit of not letting myself..." She swallowed. "...think those sorts of thoughts... about you." She stuffed her free hand deep into her coat pocket and hunched her shoulders.
Mr. Nowack had slowed beside her. They were still walking, but he was angled slightly towards her, frowning in concern. "Why?"
She cleared her throat, giving him a quick glance before looking away. "Ah." She pointed ahead and smiled. "Just one more block." She could see her street sign.
He followed her gaze and nodded, but turned back to her.
"What happened?" he asked.
She shot him a sharp look. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know," he answered. "You keep... avoiding something." His brows pulled down.
"I'm not avoiding..." She sagged, then inexplicably felt like crying, so she shoved that back and straightened. Clearing her throat, she said, "It's nothing."
"It's not nothing," he insisted.
When she didn't look at him, he finally drew to a stop, forcing her to as well. She frowned and dropped her arm from his. Her feet were cold. Now didn't seem a good time.
But they could hardly talk about this with her mother and aunt present, and when would she and Mr. Nowack next have a moment alone together? Besides, he had just revealed something potentially vulnerable about himself; she couldn't do any less. She looked up at the night sky, raising a hand to shield her face from the falling snow. She couldn't see any stars.
Drawing in a deep breath of cold, stinging air, she dropped her hand and looked at the man standing before her. "If I promise to tell you, may we keep walking?" She stamped her feet to try to keep feeling in them, and he immediately looked chastened.
"I'm sorry. Of course," he said, quickly falling into step with her again. "You don't have to tell me, if you don't want to."
"I... do," she said, feeling the night's cold seeping through her coat and wrap and gloves. "I should." She pushed her hands into her pockets and hunched her shoulders again. "I just haven't really told myself."
Mr. Nowack watched her with concern. "Is it something I did?"
"No! No. No, Mr. Nowack. You have been... the most lovely, respectable gentleman. It's me. I'm the one who..." She cleared her throat, frowning as she tried to gather her thoughts. "You have never once made me feel unsafe, even when we were alone together, working after hours in the storeroom. Whenever you said, 'Miss Balash, would you help me with inventory?', you really just wanted to work on inventory."
He frowned. "What else would we be working on?"
She sighed and gave him a bittersweet smile. Why hadn't she fallen in love with him long ago? She should have known from that first time in the storeroom, but she—
She cleared her throat and continued, "Nothing. We wouldn't have been working at all."
His frown deepened, and then, slowly, understanding dawned on his face. "I would never—"
"I know, Dear Friend." She gave him a real smile and laid a hand on his arm. Now it was his turn to give her a bittersweet smile. "But not every man is as much of a gentleman as you are."
He was silent, and he swallowed, watching her.
She looked ahead, drawing in another deep breath of cold air. "Even if Hammerschmidt's hadn't closed, I would still have left," she said. "I couldn't face him anymore."
"Young Mr. Hammerschmidt."
"Ah." Mr. Nowack was looking closely at her. "Did he hurt you?"
"Not permanently," she answered, lifting her chin. Then she swallowed and looked up at the man walking beside her. "It's why I insisted on 'making a public spectacle' of our interactions, as you put it. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I was afraid to be alone with you. I couldn't bear another repeat of what had happened, and I needed this job!"
"Lord," Mr. Nowack breathed, staring ahead. "I had no idea!"
"You should have said something. I would have gladly asked Ilona to teach you how the shop worked."
"But how could I?" Amalia asked. "What could I have said? 'Oh please, Mr. Nowack, I don't trust you not to take advantage. You see, I've been... mistreated in the past.'? You would have taken offense. I would have had to explain. And how do I explain? When a woman receives this kind of attention, everyone assumes that she must have invited it! And what would you have thought of me then? I would have been dismissed before I had been there a day, because no one wants such trouble, and I couldn't afford that!"
"Oh, Miss Balash," he said sadly. "I'm so sorry. I've been such an ass."
"Yes, you have, but you couldn't have known. And I should have handled it all so much better."
"You were afraid. It's understandable." Mr. Nowack closed his eyes, his features pained. Then he stumbled, quickly opening his eyes and flinging out an arm. Amalia had automatically grabbed it, and he shot her a grateful look as she released him and he re-adjusted the packages under his other arm.
"No," she said, as they started walking again. "It's not." She looked up; they were nearly at the corner to turn, and they needed to cross the street. Despite the pain and numbness in her feet, she paused beneath the street sign and tugged him to look at her. "Once it became clear that you were a gentleman and I was safe, I could have stopped fighting with you, but I didn't. I didn't, Mr. Nowack, because, oh—!"
She pulled her hand from his arm and covered her face, taking a deep breath for a moment to screw up her courage. Dropping her hands, she said, "I became just like him!"
Mr. Nowack looked confused. "Who?"
"Young Mr. Hammerschmidt!" she exclaimed. "This time, when I went back into the storeroom alone with you to work, I was the one who—who— Oh, I can't say it!" She turned away, waiting until a car had driven round the corner and gone past, and she stepped down into the street, hurrying quickly across. Her home was the second door from the far end of the block. They were so close to warmth and safety and her family—
Mr. Nowack's hand on her arm got her to slow down and turn to face him, and she dashed at the tears that were starting in the corners of her eyes, making her skin cold. She would have run away again, but for the look of pain and confusion on his face.
"I'm sorry," she said, trying to draw in a deep breath of the stinging air and compose herself.
"Why?" he asked. "It doesn't sound as though you've done anything wrong."
She stared at him, mute.
"Help me understand," he said gently. "Please."
With a sigh, she sagged and looked past him, and when she spoke, it was in a voice so quiet it hurt. "I hated him. I dreaded being around him. My skin crawled at his touch. I avoided every possible opportunity he might have taken. I wasn't always successful. The last time, I was in the storeroom. I had been working with Valéria—another clerk in the shop—but she had gone out to fetch something and I didn't realize she hadn't returned yet. Young Mr. Hammerschmidt had left earlier that day, so I thought I was safe. My back was to the door. Someone came in. I thought it was her. I turned to say something amusing, and suddenly he was there, pressing me against the shelves, forcing himself on me— I was so scared, I couldn't move. I couldn't move. I didn't— I—"
Amalia made herself keep going, couldn't stop it from pouring out. "His breath was hot and he was so strong and— And then old Mr. Hammerschmidt came in and saw me and I felt so... so dirty and used and as if it were my fault for... for using my position to seduce his son— I ran. I ran across the shop to the coatroom, took my things, and ran away. Everyone was looking at me. I couldn't— I couldn't look back. I just ran. I didn't cry until I was alone in my bedroom."
She had turned away from Mr. Nowack, hugging herself and almost hoping that he couldn't hear her. She didn't want to hear it. She shivered, feeling sick just thinking about it. And cold. Her toes ached. Why had she agreed to tell him? She hadn't ever wanted to tell anyone.
"It still doesn't sound as though you've done anything wrong," he said quietly, behind her.
She wished he would touch her, but she couldn't even feel him close by. She frowned, turning to see him. He stood just beyond arm's length, watching her with warm, bright eyes, his expression pained.
"But it feels like I have," she whispered.
He took a step closer and slowly lifted his free hand. She watched the movement, willing him to continue, and after a moment, he gently cupped her elbow.
She squeezed her eyes closed. "Yes, I have."
"What do you mean?"
Her eyes still closed, she forced out the words. "It's what I wanted to do to you when we were alone in the storeroom!"
"You wanted to assault me?"
Amalia flung her eyes open in horror. "No!" But then she quailed under his gaze and dropped her face into her hands with a moan. "I don't know..."
Her eyes stung and her chest was tight. She took in a deep breath, then let it out with a slight shudder, dragging her hands down her face until she could look at him over the tips of her fingers, her eyes wide.
Mr. Nowack was frowning. "Why not?"
She looked away, her hands still covering the lower half of her face, until she finally dropped them with a sigh. She couldn't meet his gaze. "What if... the—the things I imagined doing with you were no different from what he had imagined doing to me?" She squeezed her eyes shut. "I couldn't let myself do them, or even think them, because I knew how awful it felt when he had, and I never wanted to make you feel that way!"
"Thank you," Mr. Nowack said gently. "But they weren't the same things at all."
She opened her eyes and met his gaze. "How can you know that?"
"Because you took my feelings into account."
There was almost a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, but his eyes were warm and serious. She couldn't bear to be looked at, so she clenched her fists, took a deep breath, and turned towards home, trudging along in the snow and trying carefully not to slip, since she didn't have a hold on him.
Now that she had started, it was easier to keep speaking. She could sense that he had caught up and was walking just behind her, so she kept her voice low. The neighborhood was quiet, everyone else already warm inside at this late hour, but she knew from experience that voices carried on this street.
"At first, I only watched you to make sure you weren't going to approach me. But then I watched you because I wanted to. You're very nice to look at, Mr. Nowack." She said this in a flat tone, trying to hide exactly what she meant by that phrase. Certainly not that she had spent far too much time admiring his backside when she should have been sorting and labeling boxes. It was too humiliating to admit. Although— She smiled. Perhaps someday soon, she would be free to enjoy him, perhaps to even tease him...
Straightening, she cleared her throat and continued. "I just absolutely could not approach you, and I couldn't give you any hint that I even wanted to."
She glanced at him in surprise. "Because I was there to work. And I didn't want to make you uncomfortable. Even though you and I were always at each other, I couldn't do that to you. I know you think I looked down on you, but I didn't really. I cared about you, just as much as everyone else in our little shop. I fought with you to make sure I didn't commit the sin that someone else had inflicted on me."
"But did you have to be so... vicious?" he asked.
"I wasn't trying to hurt you," she insisted, glancing back. "The things we fought about, they were all silly. They didn't cut deep."
"Some of them did," he said, looking away.
Amalia's face fell, and she reached out to touch him. "I know that now. I'm sorry. Really, truly, I am."
"I know," he said, smiling as he drew up beside her. He offered her his arm and, relieved, she took it, gratefully drawing herself against him. He looked down at her, warmth in his eyes. "To be honest, I think you took the best path. If you had tried to approach me, I don't think I would have believed you were genuine. I would have suspected that you were trying to use me to get special treatment in the shop."
"Did you really trust me so little?" she asked sadly.
"I didn't know you," he answered. "But more than that, I didn't think a woman as beautiful as you would be interested in a man like me, unless she was trying to get something."
"What do you mean, 'a man like me'?"
"Well, you know," he gestured lamely at himself with his one free hand.
"No, I don't," she said, stopping to put her hands on her hips and glare at him, which brought him to a stop beside her. "You're not old, fat, or bald. Is this some Jewish insecurity thing?"
He blinked. "What? No!"
He almost looked angry at the insinuation, so she quickly dropped her hands and softened her expression.
"So what did you mean?" she asked.
"Well, I'm thin, and—" He did a funny sort of elbows-and-knees gesture. "—a bit awkward, and not very good-looking."
"Who told you that?" she demanded, angry again. She wanted to go give them a piece of her mind right this instant, which was utterly ridiculous, but still. She would defend this lovely man. Her lovely man. She smiled at that.
"Well, no one, exactly, but—what's so funny?" He frowned in confusion, sounding a little defensive.
She paused, settled her features, and slipped her arm back through the crook of his, giving him a tug to get them started down the street again. They had nearly reached her front door, and she was eager to be warm.
He looked as though he wasn't sure which way was up.
"I'm sorry," she said, giving him a gentle smile. "I wasn't laughing at you. I was just happy to be with you, and the thought made me smile."
He took that in for a moment and she felt his frame relax, until he was smiling down at her.
"Being with you makes me happy, too," he said softly.
They paused to kiss lightly, and when she drew away, enjoying the glow in his eyes, she smiled and they continued on.
"I think you're very handsome," she said in a firm tone. "One of the most attractive men I've ever met. And the most beautiful, far and away, because you're not just a pleasure to look at." She grinned up at him. "I happen to know that you've got a beautiful soul. I fell in love with you-on-the-inside first, and then I fell into a mad crush with you-on-the-outside, and now I'm just hopelessly lost, and only you can save me, Mr. Nowack."
He chuckled, briefly squeezing her closer against his side. "And there's the poet I fell in love with. Since I visited you at home, I've been head-over-heels in love with you. Then it was a matter of figuring out how to win you back, after treating you so badly for so long."
They drew near the steps that led up to her door.
"So how are we going to explain this to your mother and aunt?" Mr. Nowack asked, his easy pace slowing beside her as their shoes crunched on the icy, salted pavement. A slight frown crinkled his brow and she smiled at the picture he presented, with his strong features and the falling snow sparkling on his dark felt fedora and the shoulders of his coat. His thick eyebrows gave him such a serious look.
"Come on." Amalia tugged at his hand as she turned to go up, unfazed. "They'll love you!"
"I'm not so sure this is a good idea..." He resisted her tugging with a gentle pull of his own, swinging her around to face him. "I don't know why either of me agreed to this. Our first real date, in the presence of your intimidating female relations?"
"They already love you," Amalia said. "You don't need to worry about a thing." She started to turn away, but he tugged her back again, now giving her a lopsided smile.
"You seem oddly certain, Miss Balash." His eyes glittered with challenge and curiosity. "What have you told them about me?"
"Everything." At his stricken look, she hastily added, "Well, nearly everything. Except for the part about how you're both the same person. But you can hardly blame me for leaving that out."
When she attempted a glare, he merely gave her a look and said, "You didn't make it easy, you know."
"Of course I didn't. Would you have wanted it any different?"
He pursed his lips, regarding her, but there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. "No, I suppose not. I did enjoy it once or twice."
"You tortured me and laughed at me!"
"No more than I tortured myself," he returned. "I never enjoyed causing you pain. But can you imagine how horribly things might have gone if I had appeared at the Café Imperiale with a rose in my lapel?"
"I would have taken one look at you and left," she whispered.
"I made such an effort to hide my attraction to you all these months, you would never have believed me if I'd attempted an about-face in one evening." He looked down. "Particularly since I was freshly out of a job and was in no mood to declare my love for anything."
Amalia sagged. "I was so horrible to you."
He looked up. "Let's not go over all of that again. You are fully forgiven, and I can only ask for yours."
"You already have it," she answered softly, squeezing his hand.
His answering smile was sad around the edges.
"Come on," she said. "Let's go up."
But still he resisted her pull. "Seriously though, what did you tell them about me?"
"That Dear Friend is the most wonderful person in the world, and that Mr. Nowack seems to go out of his way to find fault with me and irritate me."
"And they actually want me in their home?"
She smirked. "Very well, if you must know... after you brought me the vanilla ice cream, they've been on me constantly to drop 'this silly Dear Friend fantasy'—" Amalia rolled her eyes. "—and just fall in love with you, instead. To them, you weren't half as bad as I made you out to be. 'At least you know he has a job and he's not married.'" She quoted this last in a higher pitch, waving her hands in imitation of her mother's gestures, then huffed a sigh.
Amalia frowned. "'Yet'?"
He took a step closer and she suddenly found that one of her hands was covered by his larger, warm one. He held her palm against his chest, and their winter coats pressed together. Looking up at his hazel eyes and affectionate smile, her hands weren't the only part of her that suddenly felt warm.
"I'm not married yet," he said, and paused, his expression changing subtly. Her heart flew up into her throat. "I know what will make this evening much easier." He said the words with a smile, then blinked and looked a bit horrified with himself. "But that's not why I want to do this! I mean—I—"
She pressed up on her toes and touched her lips to his, and his whole frame relaxed into her. Releasing her hand, he pulled her closer and deepened the kiss, and when she finally parted from him, his sigh was filled with regret and a certain palpable physical longing. She giggled, feeling as though she and her Dear Friend were so perfectly matched. The sounds he made were echoed by her own soul. Looking up at his closed eyes and parted lips, she marvelled at how he could have worked beside her for so long and she had never seen him there. Now she could never unsee him, and she never wanted to. She giggled again when, his eyes still closed, he dropped his forehead with a groan and bumped the edge of her hat with his own.
"I love you," she murmured, freeing one hand to reach up and straighten both of their hats.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, something warm and glittering in his expression. "I love you, too, Miss Balash."
"'Amalia'," she corrected. "And 'Dear Friend' for when you are cross with me."
He half-frowned, half-smiled. "Why when I'm cross with you?"
"So we'll both remember."
He chuckled. "Then 'Georg', and 'Dear Friend' when you forget."
"Hah! As if I would!"
But she said this with a grin, and they both laughed. He renewed his one-armed embrace and drew in a deep breath, and she tingled, watching as he exhaled, white wisps drifting upwards from his nose and lips.
"Miss Ah-malia Balash," he began, and her chest tightened with joy, "would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"
Joy exploded in her chest. "Yes!"
They grinned at one another for a long moment, and then Amalia pulled her arms free and flung them round his neck. With a laugh, he straightened and squeezed her so tightly that he briefly lifted her off the ground and her own laughter came in dizzy gasps. When he finally released her, she steadied herself against him, still grinning.
"Since it's official," she observed, stepping back and taking his hand, watching as he re-settled the packages under his arm. "Now you have to come to dinner."
Georg laughed and followed her up the steps to the front door. "Well, perhaps we can distract them from all of my less desirable qualities with this news."
"Not in the least! We're going to have to tell them the whole story!"
Georg blanched and hung back a moment, but Amalia only laughed and tugged him forward, willing her eyes to sparkle with the promise of a kiss, and his expression changed to one of fond, exasperated acceptance. She squeaked and did a happy little wiggling dance as she pushed open the door and crossed over the threshold—then winced in the rush of warm air and stamped her cold, painfully-numb feet, making him laugh.
But once he was all inside and the door was closed, she pushed him back against it, knocked off her hat, and kissed him thoroughly, giggling with him against his lips when she heard her mother and aunt start shrieking behind her.
This was going to be the Best. Christmas. Eve. Dinner. Ever.
I welcome all feedback, including critique and suggestions for improvement, so feel free to tell me what you think, and thanks for reading!
Many thanks go to my beta readers, Jean, tbborrell, huffellepuff, Jen, and Josh. Their help was absolutely invaluable! I'm also grateful to my friend Dave and his Hungarian-speaking friend János for answering my linguistic questions. And Jen gets extra thanks, because I wouldn't have fallen in love with this show if it weren't for her giving me a free ticket and inviting me to see the live stream with her in a local movie theatre.
So, so many kudos and thanks to Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi, whose performances inspired this story, and to the whole cast and crew of the fantastic 2016 Broadway revival of She Loves Me. Brilliantly done, all. And thank you, PBS, for making it possible for me to watch and re-watch all the bits I needed to write this story!
Finally, much love and gratitude to my husband and daughter, who endure my distraction when I'm writing and who show me lots of grace; and to God, who inspires me to tell all these stories in the first place.
I drew on the following sources for this story:
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Act II, scene 6, line 3.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Act III, scene 2, line 181.
(The Hungarians do love Shakespeare, and his translated works are a mainstay in Hungarian theatre.)
I do not own any She Loves Me properties, nor do I make any money from the writing of this story.
Story excerpts and characters are taken from:
She Loves Me. Book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock. Based on the play Parfumerie by Miklós László. Perf. Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, and Jane Krakowski. Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, New York City. 30 June 2016. Performance.
This story is released under the GPL/CC BY: verbatim copying and distribution of this entire work are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided attribution is preserved.