Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Day After Valentine's

This is a short story I wrote in February, 2003. It tells the true story of one of the most miserable Valentine's weekends I ever had. The man named Henry who I mention in the story is now a friend of mine and we were talking last night. He'd never read this story, so I decided to put it on the blog. (All names are real, what the hell.) Enjoy, Henry.


The Day After Valentine's

The depression didn't lift on Saturday. I woke up feeling neutral, but my workout didn't bring the usual endorphin high. It seemed to work in the opposite way, giving me time to remember how miserable I was. In the twisted reality of my depression, my mind kept focusing on how we 10 a.m. exercisers obviously weren't sleeping in with anyone this morning, the day after Valentine's Day. I felt impressed by how unembarrassed everyone was to be there at the fitness club that morning instead of tangled up in bedding, letting desire win out over breakfast. I wanted to approach people in the middle of their routines, touch them tenderly on the arm and murmur, "I'm so sorry." After an hour of nautilus and elliptical machines, and other weird but sad fantasies, I felt worn and emotionally ragged. It was the worst I'd ever felt after a workout.

The plans I had originally made with Henry were for him to meet me at my place at five p.m. with the salsa dance starting at nine. Henry was the first out of ten first dates since the new year that I had felt excited about. We had had four great, silver-melting dates and then he told me he just wanted to be friends. My pre-Valentine's Day bravado curdled into tears. Why had I even tried to date with a major holiday coming up? This is my pattern: breakups and disappointments always happen just before Christmas or New Year's Eve or whatever. If I had missed a dramatic Valentine's Day episode, I probably would have had one for Washington's birthday.

Since I didn't have to get ready for Henry after all, I napped for as long as possible in the afternoon, unable to avoid consciousness anymore right at 5 p.m. I lay there thinking that in an alternate world he would be arriving at my apartment, late and full of enthusiasm and affection. He'd probably bring a goofy yet tender gift, appropriately casual for our fifth date. Maybe a "hot stuff" button or a home-burned CD of Frank Sinatra songs and George Lopez comedy: romance and bilingual cussing.

It didn't feel like anything could fill the hollowness, but I called Mary Muse, one of my closest friends who strongly supported my plans to go out that night. Mary is so enthusiastic. She just says what comes to mind, unfiltered. I said heavily, "Yeah, I just need to scrape myself off the couch and get out." She could hear the emptiness in my voice.
"I know you feel bad," Mary said, "but to me you just seem so together. When we go out, I'm always so impressed with you. You're smart and funny and you're living in your own apartment and you're so independent. I mean, that counts for a lot right there: you're, like, living on your own and you're in charge of your own life. That's a big accomplishment." She made me feel like Mary Tyler Moore, when she still had Rhoda and before she changed apartments.
"Yeah, I guess so," I said slowly. I required a bit more cheerleading, but eventually she convinced me. I hung up feeling confident enough to lift the remote and turn on the television rather than return to crying. With syndicated programming, I shut my mind up until it was time to leave.

At 8:00 p.m. I left the apartment, hair newly washed and full, lipstick fresh and dark. I bought some sparkly water and headed over to the home of a friend of a friend (of a friend) who was having a party. I only stayed a couple of hours, but in that time I met Bruce, a good-looking if slightly-built guy with great dimples. He struck me as a mild-mannered, sensitive-but-earnest person who liked to travel, leaned left politically, and probably wanted to learn Spanish. When I said I was on my way to another dance, he offered me a ride and mentioned that he had taken salsa lessons, but was still learning. He smiled at me as he hinted that he was always looking for someone to practice with. Why do men think this is a good come on? Maybe it works for other women, but to me it is very unromantic to be hauling some guy across the dance floor while trying to stay feminine and yielding. The dominance and direction required to teach someone how to dance just doesn't make me feel sexy. I prefer my enthusiasm to convey how impressed I am with a man's worldliness, not how maternally pleased I am that he's finally found the downbeat.

As we pulled up to the dance, Bruce and I exchanged numbers which gave me a little more confidence as I walked into the party. So there, Henry! You've already been potentially replaced. I really didn't feel interested in Bruce, but he was nice to look at.

The salsa was great. I danced alone most of the time, right in front of the band. Every part of my body moved in its own direction to the closely knit rhythms. I was determined to dance Henry out of my head. I spun and slid and sweated and at times only opened my eyes to make sure I wasn't heading into the nest of coats and instrument cases near the bandstand.

When the band went on break, I approached one of the percussionists. He was young and good-looking. I asked him where the guitar player had gone since I wanted to compliment a song the guitarist had written. The percussionist didn't know, so we started talking and then danced a little to the canned music that plays during band breaks. In the course of our conversation I found out that Marvin was 22(!) and this was his first gig as a congero. We discovered our common ground: he had a girlfriend who had broken up with him so abruptly he didn't even get to give her the flowers he'd bought her for Valentine's Day. We sympathized with each other. He was surprised when I told him I was 36. I don't really understand why I look so young when I've spent so many years dealing with depression and stress. Shouldn't these things have aged me?

I paid more attention to Marvin's conga playing during the second set, but as I started to go for a drink of water, a young woman whose body was unrealistically squeezed into a short skirt and pointy pumps stepped in front of me.
"Are you interested in my boyfriend?" Oh, hell.
"Who's your boyfriend?" I asked.
"The guitar player. The one who you told you liked his song."
"Oh, yeah, it was a good song."
"Well, are you interested in him?"
"No."
"Okay."
I should have stopped there, but now I was irritated.
"Why? Does it look like I'm interested in him?" I was sure she was crazy.
"Yeah, it does. And it's not very respectful. I don't want to have to kick your ass." Oh, God. She was taller and heavier than me.
"I'm not interested in him. Really. Like zero."
"Okay," and she finally moved away.

Great. For the rest of the set I was very aware of her hunkering near the bandstand. I know it's because I'm a single woman. We're the unwanted poachers of the social scene, immediately suspect because we're not attached to a man. Single women are uncontained, like free electrons, destabilizing to the couple environment. And the more attractive we are, the more dangerous. So much for feeling lucky that I look young for my age.

I waited until the end of the set which was, fortunately, the end of the dance. I watched Marvin put away his congas as carefully as Psycho Pumps watched her boyfriend take his time coming off the stage. I couldn't lose sight of Marvin now because I needed him for protection. As he stepped down, I leaned over and asked, "Um, can I ask you to walk me home?"
"Sure." He was so nice. I didn't look at Pumps or her overrated boyfriend as Marvin and I passed them on the way out. As unempowering as the thought was, I was glad I had hooked up with another man during the course of the night.

In his car, Marvin told me about how he'd avoided gangs and drugs as he grew up and said he'd been playing music for only five years. He talked a little about his newly ex-ed girlfriend and told me not to worry about Henry. Life goes on and you can't get too worked up about these things.
"You never get worked up, do you?" I asked. "You're always calm, right?"
"Yeah, there's no point in getting worked up."
"I get all worked up."
"Really?"
"Yeah. I'm very emotional." I paused. "I don't feel like I do this dating very well. I feel broken."
"Broken?"
"Yeah, broken like a toy. Like you shake the box and there's just pieces."
"No," he shook his head. "You're not broken."
I looked at him. "How do you know?"
"You're not."
I turned fully towards him in earnest. "But how do you know? You don't know me. You don't know...how do you know?"
"Yeah, I know I don't know you that well, but I know you're not broken. I can tell." Could I trust his insight? I resisted the urge to press him until he either explained his analysis or agreed with my lower opinion of myself. I just had to accept his viewpoint.

When he dropped me off, I said I'd watch out for when his band plays again, forgetting that Psycho Pumps is probably included with each performance. I felt grateful that this (very) young man had helped me feel better, kept me company, and even made me feel safe. I leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek, but his lips were too ready for me. I figured a peck on the lips was okay, but suddenly he was Kissing With Intent. He wasn't a bad kisser, but this wasn't what I wanted. A 22-year-old?

I pulled away (after a few seconds), and he made a disappointed sound. I thanked him again for the ride, and stepped out of the car.
"Wait," he stopped me. "Here, take this." And he reached behind the front seat and pulled out the flowers he had bought for his girlfriend.
"Are you sure?" I was touched.
"Yeah, take them."
"Thank you, Marvin." I gazed at him for a long second before I closed the door.

In my apartment, I pulled the plastic off a large arrangement of lilies tied with a lavender ribbon. I had received Valentine's day flowers! I inhaled their scent. I still wept, but this time I felt grateful as well as sad. My Valentine's Day depression had finally ended with this gesture of two people helping each other. It's my favorite thing in life: when someone reaches out for help and ends up also helping the person they need. Marvin needed to get rid of a painful gift that he'd been carrying around for two days. And I really needed some flowers.

Regina Rodríguez
Chicago, Illinois
February 17, 2003

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