When Jorge met Fabiola, a Florida love story

It all started at the exercise bike, after he approached her. He had a feeling.
Jorge Zambrana and Fabiola Montealegre listen to the music at the Town 'N Country Senior Center. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
Jorge Zambrana and Fabiola Montealegre listen to the music at the Town 'N Country Senior Center. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times
Published October 21
Updated October 21

The couple sat hip to hip on their couch, watching a Puerto Rican news broadcast, waiting to leave for their date.

His hand rested on her knee. Her thumb stroked his knuckles. A copy of their wedding certificate poked out over the edge of the end table beside them.

“Let’s go now,” Fabiola Montealegre said as she fidgeted with the hem of her white dress.

Jorge Zambrana looked over at the wall clock. It read 12:30 p.m.

“It’s early.”

“Yes, but I want to arrive early for the pizza,” she said.

Jorge chuckled as he turned his attention back to the TV.

Five minutes later, Fabiola leaned against his arm.

“Let’s go now my love,” she cooed.

“Not yet,” he replied, flashing a wide grin. “We’ll go at a quarter to one.”

After a while, Fabiola patted Jorge’s knee.

“It’s time, papasito.”

“What?”

“It’s a quarter to one.”

Jorge laughed as he stood to help Fabiola up. She grabbed her flip phone. He went to fetch his straw fedora. They were off to lunch and a dance at the Town 'N Country Senior Center.

Jorge and Fabiola are relatively recent newlyweds. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
Jorge and Fabiola are relatively recent newlyweds. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times

***

They met two years ago at the center, inside the cardio room, at the second stationary bike.

Fabiola was pushing down on the weighted pedals when Jorge approached her. They started talking. She came to the center every day. He only stopped by once in a while. She’d been a widow for two years, after being married for 61. He’d lost his wife 11 years ago, after fighting Alzheimer’s.

As Jorge introduced himself, she thought he was a younger man, maybe 70, the way he kept a straight posture and walked with ease. He thought she was elegant and sociable, there was something special about her.

The meeting led to phone calls at all hours of the day, every day, which turned into her requests for help with errands here and there.

To him, she was a beautiful colombiana. To her, he was a charming boricua.

To the world, they were a 94-year-old man and an 83-year-old woman falling in love.

***

At the center, on a late September afternoon, Fabiola searched for the volunteer carrying the $1 tickets for pizza slices. Jorge followed, greeting friends in the hallway.

They regrouped just outside the doors to the main hall, where a live band prepared for its weekly audience.

Fabiola, a full head shorter than her husband, held on to Jorge’s belt for balance. Jorge in turn wrapped his arm around her, gently squeezing her shoulder every so often. As Fabiola caught up with a friend from her single days, something caught his eye.

He turned her toward him and cupped her face.

“Open your mouth a bit,” he said.

He used his thumb to swipe off lipstick that had stained her front teeth.

“Ah, thank you,” she said, smiling up at him.

Then the doors opened, and the seniors shuffled inside.

As Fabiola and Jorge set their bag of snacks and her purse aside, the dance floor cleared. The first guitar strums began, a familiar song. Historia de Un Amor. “A Love Story.”

Jorge stood, offering his hand to his wife.

She slowly rose, leaning into his embrace.

The band leader crooned about the meaning of true love. The couple swayed in rhythm, not too far from their seats, their bodies close together.

Clasping her hand, Jorge held it over his heart as Fabiola mouthed the lyrics.

At the senior center, Jorge and Fabiola dance to familiar music and enjoy time with friends. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
At the senior center, Jorge and Fabiola dance to familiar music and enjoy time with friends. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times

Friends looked on, some with their own late-life love stories, others waiting to begin theirs.

As the song came to an end, and the room filled with applause, Fabiola and Jorge stood there for a moment, lost in each other’s eyes.

***

While their first meeting may have been serendipity, their courtship and marriage was decidedly driven by Fabiola.

After weeks of spending time together, only as friends, she made herself clear: invite her to the Hillsborough County senior prom as his date or stop calling.

So on June 22, 2017, they went to the dance.

Jorge later asked Fabiola to join him in his favorite pastime: taking a cruise.

Fabiola again set the rules: no wedding, no cruise.

They were married a little over a month later, in a civil ceremony.

The Catholic ritual Fabiola wanted posed challenges. They had to prove they were widowers. Their adult children had to sign affidavits attesting to their sound minds. And they had to overcome the concerns of the priest, who wanted them to wait, encouraging a longer courtship.

Photos of them together, shot in front of cruise ships, now decorate their living room. The kitchen counters, left bare when Jorge lived alone, are covered with cooking supplies and Tupperware. A blender Fabiola brought with her takes up a full corner.

Taped to the fridge is a calendar of events and activities at the senior center.

***

Back at the dance, the band picked up the pace with a more lively tune. Fabiola and Jorge, fresh off eating their slices of pizza, sat watching others, some in walkers, shake to the beat.

Fabiola needed to rest her legs. But she asked Jorge to dance with her single friends. He spun the women around, keeping them a respectful distance away. Then he returned to his wife’s side, his hand sliding into hers.

He’s 96 now. She turns 86 in December. They’ve traveled together to Colombia, Puerto Rico and Canada. They have more trips, more dances, more moments planned.

Here, side by side, they sang along to a promise of loving each other until the end.

Si te quiero mucho

Mucho mucho mucho

Tanto como entonces

Siempre hasta morir

Jorge, ever the gentleman, walks his wife down the driveway so he can back the car out of the garage.  MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
Jorge, ever the gentleman, walks his wife down the driveway so he can back the car out of the garage. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Maria Carrillo at mcarrillo@tampabay.com or call (727) 892-2301.

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