When they met, both thought their lives were over.
After all, each had already experienced a great love -- the kind no one has a right to expect more than once in a lifetime. But Mary Barnes and Joe Beran were both luckier and unluckier than most: Each had loved, and been widowed, twice.
Back in happier times, when both were living with their spouses in Catonsville's Charlestown Retirement Community, she had noticed him with his wife. She had cancer.
"When he wheeled her in her wheelchair, I thought, 'That must be a nice man,' " Barnes remembered. "Her hair was always done, and she was always dressed so nicely. I attributed that to him taking care of her."
But Barnes never spoke to the elegant, white-haired man who once worked as a tailor; she was busy caring for her husband. He'd had a stroke.
If the two had talked, they would have discovered they shared much in common: Both were born and raised in Baltimore. Both loved to travel. And, years earlier, both had taken a bus vacation tour of the Poconos mountains -- the same tour, the same week, the same bus.
Their lives paralleled in other ways, too. Within three weeks of each other in the spring of 1997, each lost their spouse.
"One night, I was out walking ... and I saw her. I wanted to extend my sympathy," he said. But she was lost in thought and didn't notice him. He pulled back his outstretched hand as she passed by.
It might have ended there, had they not shared one other thing in common.
One day a receptionist at Charlestown asked Barnes if she'd like to meet a nice man, a true gentleman.
Barnes asked one question: "Does he dance?"
"I'd rather dance than eat," Beran had told the receptionist.
He picked Barnes up at her pink-colored, knick-knack filled apartment and took her to the Veterans of Foreign War post.
"The first Saturday night we danced together, I was disappointed in her dancing," he said.
"Because I was nervous," she said.
"The second date, she danced beautifully. I stopped and said, 'You can't possibly be the same date!' " he said.
"You know that song 'I want to dance with you' -- it's a country song?" she says, humming a few notes. "I say it should be our song."
They danced every week until one day last June, while they were eating breakfast together, Beran collapsed. A stroke.
While physical therapists helped his legs learn to move again, he worried about his dancing partner, his new love. He didn't want her to sit on the sidelines. So he asked a friend to cut in and take her dancing -- just temporarily, just until he could do so himself. In the meantime, there were memories to sustain him -- as of the time they first attended a black-tie dance at Charlestown together.
"You should have seen her," Beran says. "She was beautiful. She had on a long gown."
"It had the chiffon skirt," Barnes said. "You put that on first, then the beaded part on top."
"You spun around ..." he says, twirling his fingers in circles, staring at her.
"People applauded us," she says. "... I was a good dancer," he says.
"You still are, Joey."
As they sit talking in her living room, the Valentine's Day dance at Charlestown is still a day away. Beran uses a cane now, and he can't move as quickly, as smoothly, as before, but they plan to attend. Beran feels strong. In another day, though, who knows? His recovery is uneven. They discuss the chance that he might not feel able to dance when the time comes. His partner doesn't mind.
"Stand up, sweetie," she says suddenly. "I want to hold my guy."
As they slowly sway across her living room, she lifts her head to look at him and sings:
"I just want to dance with you,
Hold you in my arms once more,
That's what they invented dancing for,
I just want to dance with you ..."
Pub Date: 2/13/99