They'd gone out a few times, but she couldn't bring herself to mention it.
How could she? Her whole life had been uprooted when the floodwaters came in. Everything she owned had dissolved and rushed away while she worked at the hospital, thinking just another storm was rolling through.
She really liked this guy. He was tall, sophisticated, had life so totally together. She was embarrassed about the few sad pieces of furniture she had scraped together after leaving the wreckage behind.
"Don't show him your Hurricane Katrina house," her friend said.
But life, she'd learned, wasn't about waiting.
• • •
Monica Stubler left Biloxi, Miss., after the hurricane with her two cats and a few belongings.
There wasn't much left for her there. She was single. Her job as a hospital dietitian was easy to transfer. Her family was split between Ohio and Florida, so she headed south and tried to start over. A fitness buff, she did triathlons and joined a swimming group that trained at the North Shore pool in St. Petersburg.
In a neighboring lane, a lean computer programmer named Ted Bradley swooped by her. He'd lived in St. Petersburg all his life, swimming since he was a little boy and going on to compete at Florida State University. He was in the faster class of the swim club, more advanced than Monica.
He noticed her first. He was entranced by her smile, her athleticism. A friend introduced them. They talked about sailing, about the website Ted could help Monica build for her dietitian business. Ted asked Monica to go boat shopping with him. She agreed.
At the last minute, he changed plans and created a date at Howl at the Moon dueling piano bar. She was embarrassed and shy, but tried to sing Piano Man anyway. Something felt right. He was composed where she was not. They liked being outside and having animals. They wanted a family.
Monica eventually let Ted into her house, showed him her furniture. She told him everything.
"You have to have an open ear and just listen," said Ted, 28. "I had never been through something like that."
They went back to Biloxi together, then New Orleans. When she got upset, he'd suggest they go relax at Pat O'Brien's. They came back with a stronger bond. But as soon as life started to stabilize, tragedy hit again.
Monica's little brother, 21, died in a motorcycle crash in Ohio.
Ted joined Monica to say goodbye, steeling her through the sadness. As he became more deeply involved in her family life, she leaned more on him.
"I relied on him a lot," said Monica, 37. "You realize how quickly life is taken away from you."
When they got back to Florida, Ted booked a room at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and covered it with candles and rose petals. He wrote her a poem. He proposed.
Monica started planning a big white wedding, but the stress quickly compounded. The days were passing.
What was the point?
"Let's do something fun and exciting," she said. "Let's try to put some fun back into life."
They packed up with nine family members and flew to Florence, Italy.
• • •
Ted wore a black suit, and Monica slipped into a gown. She brought pictures to an Italian hair salon and left with big curls.
They stood on a rooftop at the Hotel Baglioni and said their vows.
"It was really surreal," said Ted.
"It did feel like a dream," said Monica. "I remember standing on the rooftop just being speechless."
The ceremony included a toast to life.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at (727) 893-8857 or [email protected]