Luke slipped into his usual booth at Joe’s on downtown State Street, and removed his jacket. It was their booth. His and Gina’s, near the front where she could watch the people coming and going. The server, the regular for Tuesday night, eyed the empty space across from him and pulled a knowing frown.
“I’ll have whatever’s on special, Nadine,” he told her.
He really didn’t care what he ate. In fact, he wasn’t that hungry. Ever since he’d told Gina he didn’t have time for a relationship, he’d found himself alone with absolutely nothing but time. Sure there was the fundraiser for the DA campaign this Saturday night. He knew it was going to be her last term, and he’d promised to support her whenever possible. It wasn’t just for his probable appointment to Assistant DA if she succeeded. He’d served under Lyla King as a public defender. Cut his teeth as a prosecutor on her staff for the past five years.
His cell phone dinged in his pocket. It was the event planner at the Bacarra Resort. “Whatever you think is best, Jen,” he texted for the umtieith time. Once Gina had suggested her favorite place for the dinner venue, he thought including the services of an event planner would relieve him of further responsibility. Wrong. The woman called him ten times a day with questions. Each time a message came in, he felt a little pang of regret. Without Gina to bounce the ideas off of, he had lost interest in the project. Dinner was dinner, right? Gina would laugh and then give him the answer. Gina would…
At a movement near the booth, he looked up expecting his server. Instead, a shapely woman of about thirty cocked her head and posed at the end of his table. With an ivory face, shiny black hair grazing her shoulders and a sharp, sculptured nose, she could be mistaken for Michael Jackson’s ghost.
“Prosecutor Berlin?” she asked. Her lipsticked smile spread over a squarish chin with an unnaturally deep dimple in it. “I’m Fiona Blanchard, with The Bomb.”
Luke had no idea what The Bomb was, but he assumed he was about to find out. He stood and shook her outstretched hand.
“Oh, just a second,” she said, and jitterbugged his arm around her shoulder in a practiced move. She snuggled up under his chin and flashed a selfie before he knew what was happening. “Nothing like having a friend in the DA’s office.” She eyed the empty seat in the booth opposite him. “Mind if we talk a few minutes?”
“If this is about the campaign, you need to make an appointment with Lyla’s campaign assistant.”
“I thought that was you.”
He slipped his wallet out of his coat jacket and handed her a card.
“Cal Worthington?” If her face matched her tone, it should have crinkled her brow, but nothing moved. Luke had to look away. She pushed the card back across to his side of the table.
“No relation to the guy with the tigers on the car lot. But you really have to see him.” He pushed the card back.
Silver glitter-tipped nails on long fingers pushed the card aside. “Lucky for me, this isn’t about the campaign. Well, not specifically that is.”
Luke felt a sickly prickle in his stomach. Suddenly the thought of spaghetti with sausage and clams felt like a bad idea. He caught the eye of his server and gave her the cut throat hand signal. She nodded, and he turned his attention back to the woman sitting across from him. In Gina’s spot.
“So, Ms Blanchard. You have one minute to tell me what this is about because I’ve decided against dinner.”
“Feeling a little edgy tonight? Well, I guess that’s understandable,” she said, motioning to the same server. ”Your chance to be appointed Assistant DA up for grabs and all, and then your girlfriend walking out on you. How long had you two been together? Seven years? High School sweethearts, wasn’t it?”
Nadine arrived at the table, her expression prickling with attitude. ”Can I get you something?”
“I’ll have a Grey Goose martini, straight up, with a twist.”
The server tilted her head to Luke. He shook his head and she turned without another word.
Luke sipped a little too much water, the ice cubes bumped his upper lip, awkwardly drenching his nose. He wiped it with his napkin, and tossed it a little harder than he intended on the table. “You said this wasn’t about the campaign, and my relationships are none of your business. So I’ll just—”
“Oh, but your wrong. See, The Bomb is all about relationships. And you just made the short list in the running for Most Eligible Bachelor of Santa Barbara County.”
Jesus. Thank you Miss Gina for leaving me open to this. He grabbed his coat and slipped out of the booth. “Don’t do me any favors.”
She wagged a long finger at him like the red head in the Delta safety video. “You never know. This might just be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
“It’s not going to happen.”
Nadine served the martini with the bill. Luke dropped a twenty on top of it.
Blanchard took a long sip, leaving a red smear on the lip of the glass. “Ooooh,” she said, holding the glass up in a toast. She snapped another picture. “It already has.”
What better day to launch a new romance authors website than Valentine’s day. But not everyone loves that rat bastard cupid.
It’s the last thing I think of when the bright reds and greens of Christmas come down in the stores, and the blush pinks and rose reds of Valentine’s Day come gushing in on flights of fancy paper doilies.
I find myself avoiding the mall.
It’s only January. Must I be bombarded with red foil wrapped heart-shaped boxes on the way to the White Sale at Macy’s?
My husband raises a doubtful eyebrow at navy bean and beef jerky soup. I tell him I am practicing my annual see-how-long-you-can-eat-from-what-you’ve-got-stored-up-in-your-cupboards kitchen clean-out. What I’m really doing is avoiding the grocery store. How can I be expected to go there when I break into an icy sweat at the checkout counter?
Boxes of Valentines cards are already on clearance and it’s only January 9th. The lady in front of me has lost her debit card in the bottom of her purse and I’m forced to stare at rosy-cheeked cherubs exchanging vows of love and two-for-one sale on boxes of re-written conversation hearts (Tweet-me, Friend-me, Bite-me) until I’m ready to pay for her entire basket of groceries just to get through the line and back to the safety of my car where I can hyperventilate in peace.
I admit it. I have a problem. Call it Valentine’s anxiety.
For me, love never came wrapped in red cellophane and drenched in chocolate. Since I was small, it seemed to me that love was a matter over which I had little choice.
You’re six years old and all week long, your teacher has worked you into a frenzy preparing a decorated paper lunch sack with your name on it for the first grade Valentine party. Now it’s Scotch-taped up to the chalk tray under the blackboard. The kids are filing by and Butchie Zollin is hovering over your bag. You know this kid. He punched you in the arm every day by the coat rack and then had the nerve to put the one ‘I Love You’ valentine that came in his packet in your bag. He was obviously suffering some kind of Jungian projection mistakenly leading him to believe that I liked my arm punched and wanted more…
In the Middle Ages, we might have called this courtly love. No expectation—or in Butchie’s case, knowledge—of sex. The lover (idolater) tries to make himself worthy by performing some kind of heroic act, such as leaving a very beautiful, but dead beetle in your rain boot. Thus he pledges his undying loyalty. He might go to the ends of the earth–follow you home from school– in the name of the object of his affections in order to perform his acts and never expect anything in return; his satisfaction coming in the knowledge that he accomplished his task. If that doesn’t work, he promises to pound you on the way out of class.
But that’s not the source of the anxiety. No. I’ve come to realize. The bigger anxiety. Oh, lets, call it what it is. Fear. The bigger fear was, that I would be skipped over all together. That kid after kid would file past my Valentine bag and not choose to leave anything at all. That a Valentine from Butchie Zollin was better than no Valentine at all.
I learned to settle at an early age.
My first encounter with the full force of what nature has in store for lovers happened in my Junior year in high school. It grabbed me by the throat, knocked me down, took over my mind and had me speaking in tongues. I could not have a pencil in my hand without writing his name, over and over and over. There was not a moment during the day that I didn’t want him near and my nights were filled with dreams of his hands on me and of the new found joy of physical connection between lovers. It lasted for a year, ended when he graduated, both of us agreeing that what we had was not a lasting love, but infatuation, and not something to be taken seriously.
We were wrong.
1965 was tough year for young men. A year of classification, draft, and death. Unless he was a student, a farmer, a last surviving son, or just plain useless, a young man of 18 either joined up or was drafted into the service, most likely in Vietnam. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 young American men would give up their girlfriends, their education, their parents, their dreams and their lives.
Twenty years later, preparing to attend our high school class reunion with my husband, I would find my old sweetheart’s name written in my school annual. I felt a tug of longing as I ran my fingers over his name. What had happened to him? Did he go to Vietnam? Did he marry that girl I’d heard he’d knocked up? Was he alive?
Did he remember me?
For twenty years I’d tucked the memory of our year together deep down, a tattoo in my heart, unvarnished by reality, safe from the wear and tear of everyday life. Yet with one brush of my fingers across his picture in the pages of the annual, the remembered force of our passion shook me to the core. My husband and I had two great kids, a nice home, had made a decent life for ourselves. Sure, we’d hit rocks along the way. Who didn’t? How can one, after all, compare the euphoria of first love to the long lasting kind that develops in marriage and raising a family?
I closed my eyes, piling up all the good I could find in my marriage against the images: his skin sparkling with sunlit droplets of ocean water; his eyes, staring into mine, the warm summer sand on our near bare bodies. Just a dream, I told myself, remembering stories of love affairs born in class reunion, ending in disaster. My marriage was not what I’d dreamt it would be. We ‘d hit all the rocks modern society could offer. But it was solid, wasn’t it? And with two children to get through school, it was much better than none at all. My husband had his weaknesses, but it could be worse. So, I settled. I had beautiful children to show for it and that was good enough.
I smiled to myself, closed the book. My first love probably wouldn’t be at the reunion anyway.
But he was.
We had exchanged polite conversation with he and his wife. “A nice couple,” my husband commented back at our hotel room, clearly unimpressed with the encounter. “Yes,” was all I could say.
I proceeded to drink too much wine, remembering how his eyes had locked onto mine when we’d approached their table. A flash of recognition leapt across the space between us and electrified my soul. Yes, he was alive. He’d been saved from Vietnam by a shot-gun wedding and the birth of a daughter. He’d graduated college, divorced, moved north, remarried. And yes, by the look in his eyes, he remembered. Everything.
The letter came in the mail a month after the reunion.
Friendly. Innocent. What a clean, simple time those days before Vietnam had been. Seeing me had reminded him of all that was free and simple and light in the years before 1969 when everything would change. Seeing him reminded me of the high-spirited young man I believed would one day make his mark on the world. We were lucky, all of us, to have made it through tough times. It was a thoughtful commentary, a reconnection crafted for family ears. The return address was to his work.
The next two letters, for our ears only, revealed the man I had glimpsed in the boy; strong, competent, sure in his belief that he could help humanity. He had never forgotten the feeling of discovery and joy we found together, had never loved so deeply or had it returned in the same way. Our correspondence on and off over the years maintained a tone of fun and hinted sex, but always preserved the reality that we had obligations to good people who could not be damaged or broken. After all, responsible people don’t just run into old lovers at class reunions, leave their prospective spouses, run off together and live ecstatically ever after. Do they?
Time passes, things change. As my youngest neared her eighteenth birthday I was caught up in the drama of teenage angst which seemed to spread to every corner of my life. One day my husband tried to reassure me: “Don’t worry, she’ll soon be gone and it will be only us.”
The thought hit me like a dead weight falling through a gallows. It felt like a sentence. One that I had been serving far too long. On the advice of a friend, I looked at my dilemma from a new perspective: What if I had only six months to live? Would I want to spend it in my present circumstance or would I want to change something? And if I chose change, what would that be?
The moment I put the wheels in motion, I felt a burden lift from my shoulders. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick. And yes, he came into the picture. To borrow a line from The Titanic: “He saved me in every way that a person can be saved.”
Eventually the barriers to our own special reunion were removed. We were free to get to know one another again as though no time had passed. Our respective exes–who we both know would never have taken the first step away from us–are both in new, loving relationships, as healed and whole as we are.
We have been together for seventeen years. Each of us has grown in our love and respect for one another, and the spark has never dimmed. That boyish look that captivated me years ago still reminds me of warm sun and sparkling water and the promise of love.
We’ve hit some bumps and we scaled some heights, always tightly linked. Now we face our sixties with young hearts, free spirits, and enduring light.
At last the lady in front of me swipes her debit card and moves through the line. I grab two chocolate covered marshmallow hearts on my way through the candy gauntlet and throw them in my cart. What I have learned in my lifetime is the best way to beat Valentine’s Day anxiety is to choose your own Valentine.
This essay originally appeared in The Whole Person Calendar, Santa Barbara, California, February, 2011
My latest romance novel, Borrego Moon: Love on the Fault Line, answers the “what if” inspired by my love story: What if the girl is pregnant herself when she learns her first love is headed for a shotgun wedding?