Charlie Santoro is famous for his flowers: red velvet, sweet yellow, always roses for his Rose.
Eleven yellow roses look in the mirror for the 12th.
"Everyone should have a Charlie," sighs Sandy Healy, who admires the fragrant bouquets delivered to Our House, a mature-adult living facility in Westlake. Special delivery for Rose Santoro. The women ogle and comment on their co-worker's luck in love. They know it isn't a guilt bouquet; it's not even a holiday.
Healy teases Rose, "Doesn't Charlie have a brother?"
Little things: the ingredients to preserve romance, to ensure that a couple doesn't take for granted "what is really important." Flowers at work after 17 years of marriage" Why not, Charlie says. He prefers spur-of-the-moment gestures: a kiss in passing, an "I love you" to end every phone call.
But for the Santoros, it's not about flowers or things, not even the little ones. Spontaneity keeps their love alive.
"He's never boring," Rose says with a coy smile, nodding at Charlie in the chair next to her. "You're not."
"I'm crazy," Charlie agrees. Contentedly parked in a recliner, a quilt covers all but Charlie's shoulders, neck and bald head. The couple talks in tandem; their thoughts overlap. Mostly, they share a silent conversation and concern over Charlie's health. A scare over a "blockage" and blue feet escalated into CAT scans and an emergency surgery at The Cleveland Clinic shortly before Thanksgiving, when doctors removed a record-size 25-1/4 centimeter aneurysm that had coiled around his spine and pelvic region.
"I told the doctor, "You take care of him - that's all I got,' " Rose says. "He's my life."
Charlie clears his throat. "I think this is the hardest thing we've been through together. And we've been through a lot together." His eyes shift to a gentle blanket-covered lump - a swell of a stomach, still tender from surgery. "She's always there for me when I need her."
He rolls up his sleeves to show a family tree in the form of a tattoo: a cobra spiraling around a rose, the names of his granddaughters, a heart banded with Rose's name in cursive and, on the top of his right hand, a tiger cub. He got that idea from a picture on a cookie tin that his granddaughter gave him.
Rose's daughter, Heather Hardin, a substitute at Avon City Schools, says she thought the pair were complete opposites when they started dating 20 years ago. Hardin, who was 13 at the time, watched Charlie pick up Rose on his Kawasaki motorcycle for dates.
Rose expects her daughter notices their differences because of her mother's stature. At 5-foot-5-1/2, Charlie, 62, would need 3-inch lifts on his shoes to look Rose straight in the eye. "I always told short jokes," Rose laughs at the irony.
"I'm right where I want to be," Charlie cracks, Rose shaking her head. This type of young-love banter - Rated R, sometimes - is another reason Hardin says her mother and Charlie are an animated pair.
"I think people anymore are in a big, long rut," Charlie says.
Perhaps their spark stems from the way the Santoros embrace life - really live it. Charlie's a musician, an Elvis impersonator with a music studio in the basement where he practices and records tapes for friends. His elaborate annual show at the county fair is 22 years running. "I've been a musician all my life," he says. His eight grandchildren are his favorite audience today.
"He doesn't look like Elvis, but he sounds like him," Rose assures, attesting to the four different colored suits - one of them blue, of course - and the $5,000 price tags on his county fair gigs.
Healy says Charlie earns rave reviews from residents at Our House, where he occasionally performs. Healy even plays one of his tapes during a group exercise glass.
But during the week, he drives a truck for TL Express in Mantua. "She has her time, I have my time when I'm in the truck, and I know the next day I'll be home with her again," he says.
Rose, 58, calls herself a "top-down girl," proud of her new cherry-red Mustang convertible with a license plate that reads "CHAR-ROSE." They drove it to Maine in September to celebrate their anniversary. They take a fall road trip each year; they've crossed every continental state line together. And the Santoros don't discount small outings, either - to Wal-Mart, Amish Country or to nowhere in particular on a Sunday afternoon.
It's fair to say Rose is a "denim girl," too. With her golden hair in an updated 'do and her cherub-cheeky smile, her wild side hides safely underneath a black turtleneck. She rolls the neck down and stretches the knit fabric on her left shoulder to reveal a dainty, crimson rosebud with a letter C overlapping its stem. Her neat brow arches and she smiles, waiting for a reaction to her new accessory - her only skin ink, and she's quite proud.
"Together time," Rose rescues the digressed conversation, defining what most would consider mundane excursions.
"Every chance we have we are always together," Charlie adds.
"Yes, but it's how you spend the time you have," she reminds.
That is especially important today after Charlie's recent surgery, which almost took his life. "They're like newlyweds," Healy compares. "It's like the couple you read about in fairy tales that, after so many years, meets again and falls in love. It really is."
But the Santoros' is a different brand of fairy-tale romance, an adventure, if you ask them. The timing and consequence that Healy speaks of twisted the plot in their very first chapters. After all, Charlie was the best man in Rose's wedding before he was the groom - and a best friend before a husband.
"It was a fifty-cent love affair," Charlie quips.
This afternoon, he leads the narrative, though Rose made the first move 25 years ago. He was singing with a band at a Moose Lodge social, when Rose asked him for a dance.
They were acquaintances then: Charlie was married, Rose recently divorced after a 13-year marriage to Charlie's business partner - a wedding in which he served as best man.
"I didn't recognize her at first," Charlie admits.
Rose, there without her ex-husband, had lost nearly 200 pounds. During a set break, the two shared small talk, and Rose popped the question for a dance. "I said, 'It will cost you 50 cents - and it has to be a 50-cent piece, not two quarters,' " Charlie remarks with his aw-shucks sense of humor.
After the break, he went back onstage. "Then Rose came up and set a 50-cent piece on the amplifier," he says.
"I had it in my purse," she interjects, adding that it wasn't such an odd coin at the time.
An intimate friendship evolved during the following year, 1982. Charlie and Rose's ex-husband co-owned a repair garage; Charlie and Rose shared coffee and conversation daily. The six children between the two families played together, and the youngest daughters grew especially close. "My daughter and his daughter always wanted to be sisters from the time they were little," Rose recalls.
The two were "just friends," but their talks of money, relationships and family mirrored what married couples discuss. With every conversation, Charlie's feelings for Rose deepened. But he was married, after all, and Rose was just a friend.
Before long, Rose announced to Charlie she would remarry her ex-husband - they would give it another shot. "That came in my back door - I had no idea until the day she told me," Charlie says, who never told Rose how he felt. "I was upset, yet I was married. He asked me to be his best man, which I did."
Their close friendship never wandered into romance. Charlie was a friend of the family, Rose was a confidante. Rose's ex-husband, who lives and works in Elyria, would not comment on Rose and Charlie's relationship or how it unraveled back then.
"It was just a talking thing," Charlie says, shrugging as he offers his side of the story.
"I wanted to hold her and I couldn't," he chokes, his palm partly covering moist eyes.
"It was bad for me," Rose blinks hard.
"This has been everything I ever wanted," he tells her, pausing as Rose picks up these pieces.
Rose's second marriage lasted a few years, Charlie on the periphery as a friend. When she told him she was divorcing her husband again, he knew this was his opportunity. "I had this spark of light that came into me," he says, adding that his relationship with his wife was brittle - functional but not passionate. "We just stayed together because we were supposed to," he says.
"I was sitting in my living room one night watching TV and [my ex-wife] was reading the newspaper," Charlie says. "She pulled her newspaper down and looked over at me and said, "Do you want a divorce"' I said, "Yeah, might as well, because there's nothing happening here.' " Charlie's ex-wife also lives in town, and she visits the couple from time to time as he recovers from surgery. She, too, declined comment.
Charlie and his wife filed for a no-fault divorce, and that night, he joined Rose and his brother for ice cream. "We were all friends," he says matter-of-factly.
Later that week, Charlie called Rose again. He wasn't feeling well. "She stopped by to make sure I was all right - you brought me soup, didn't you?" he asks his wife, who confirms it was chicken noodle. "Then, we started seeing each other almost every night. She'd stop by or I'd stop by her house."
Daily talks turned into nightly rendezvous and shared family time. The business partnership between Charlie and Rose's ex-husband dispelled, both going their separate ways.
Hardin had a hunch that Charlie wasn't just her mom's friend. "They would always sit on the porch swing and talk for hours," she says.
"It was exciting because my mom had been so unhappy for a long time, and I knew that," Hardin says. She says Charlie "is just funny all the time" and is always "doing good for other people." He was a father figure for her, still is.
Charlie's version of the story is more soap-operatic. "We just made love every chance we had we were always together," he says.
Rose quips, "I told people he followed me home and wouldn't leave."
But Charlie's ex-wife was not romanced by his fresh start. A divorce that was supposed to close months after their agreement to separate got messy, dragging on for months. Still, all four adults considered their roles as parents a priority and are congenial "for the sake of the children," according to Rose.
In winter 1987, one year after they began dating, Charlie moved in with Rose.
"I remember saying to him, 'Are we going to ruin a really good friendship?' " Rose says, adding that she hesitated to date Charlie at first, but his persistence and confidence - mostly fueled by years of longing - made it impossible to say no.
He laughed and answered her, "Well, it could get better."
The timing of Charlie's proposal to Rose surprised them both. "I didn't plan it," Charlie admits, describing the April 1 evening in his Elyria body shop. He remembers the notorious calendar date as the anniversary of his mother's passing.
"Rose used to bring me dinner - grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup," he says. "One day, we were sitting in that tiny office and I had a toasted cheese sandwich in my hand, and I got down on one knee," he recalls.
"I remember that, too," Rose remarks. "You knelt right in an oil spill. I thought, "Oh God, we'll have to clean those pants.'"
Charlie didn't have a ring; neither of them had extra money in the bank, let alone a wedding budget. Before Charlie proposed, his heart and mind feuded. "I was looking at her, thinking we didn't really have anything," he says. "Is this something to ask now" Or do I need this?"
The answer was I Do for Charlie - he did need Rose and wanted to support her. He also knew he wouldn't let this love burn out like his first marriage. This was something to ask now.
"Of course" she said, "Yes," Charlie grins.
Wedding plans were simple: an outdoor ceremony at Rose's parents home. But her father was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma shortly after their engagement and died quickly after. "I was daddy's girl," Rose nods.
So Charlie planned Wedding B, checking often with Rose's co-workers to see if she would approve.
Pictures show off Rose's red dress and a buttercream frosting-bearded Charlie, who "got it good" from the cake. Pomp and circumstance was replaced with spunk and spontaneity. "We actually got married in my brother's back yard in front of his Freightliner in red T-shirts," Charlie says. "Mine said 'groom,' his said 'best man,' " as he points to a friend in the photo - not Rose's ex. Charlie was relieved not to be wearing the "best" title this time around.
Charlie's friend, who played in a band called The Links, supplied the wedding music for free. Their wedding song was a country tune called "What's Forever For" by Michael Martin Murphey.
"Big Ed from Big Ed's Tattooing is the one who married us," Charlie adds, noting that Ed promised Rose his nuptial services included a free tattoo for her.
But it was just the start.
Charlie wasn't walking so well, not joining Rose on the beach during their September vacation to Maine, and sitting every few minutes to rest his feet at work. They were turning blue. He blamed a "blockage" for the pain and finally agreed to see a doctor.
"I just knew something was wrong," Rose says. "We have a connection that way."
Tests eventually led to surgery on Nov. 17, 2005. Doctors removed an aneurysm the size of a bowling ball - the largest his doctor reported seeing at The Cleveland Clinic. The record had been 18 inches, 7 1/2 inches, smaller than Charlie's.
Charlie and Rose were especially thankful for their unspoken rule - to never go to bed without a kiss and an "I love you." "The doctor said I could have just fallen or sneezed, whatever, and the aneurysm could have exploded," Charlie says. "It was life-or-death."
The family joined their parents in the hospital, not sure whether Charlie could endure a surgery that would leave a 2 1/2-foot scar above his groin. The operation, which was to last five hours, turned into six, seven and finally nine hours. The only thing Charlie remembers was the epidural and Rose kissing him on his forehead after he was out.
Surgery was successful - a miracle really, Rose says. She spent nights curled up in the recliner in the intensive care unit, where he stayed until he was released the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
"This is the hardest thing we've ever been through, I think," Charlie reaffirms. He lost his appetite for meals at their favorite dinner spots - Roadhouse Grill and Smokey Bones in Elyria, and he rests in his chair most of the time; a nurse visits daily. They expect him to recover in a few months.
"This operation was the icing on the cake for bringing everyone together," Rose acknowledges, brightening a somber-faced Charlie, a hard worker whose spirit sometimes sags because of bed rest. He replies, "There isn't a thing she wouldn't do for me. Not a thing."
Charlie laughs and confides, "I could talk about her all day."
Rose rehashes a memorable road trip to Iowa, where they visited the actual bridges of Madison County their favorite book and movie. They ate three times in the Northside CafÃÆ'© in Winterset, Iowa, where the movie was filmed. They toured the home and took pictures, dancing in the kitchen like the actors did, even crawling into the bathtub, where a tour guide snapped a memento.
"We made a promise to each other," Rose says quietly. "We have a copy of the movie that is still sealed. We agreed that whichever one of us outlives the other would open it and watch it."
The movie is still securely shrink-wrapped and stored in their upstairs bedroom.
"We still have a lot left to do," Rose says of this particular happy ending - there have been many. "We've had some wild times."