i was sitting in my favorite tea house, ostensibly reading the paper, but really studying the crowd. We were all sitting at our little individual round blond wood tables, and, like me, most of the people here were alone. All were occupied with something: a newspaper, a laptop, a book, a journal. Some were scribbling furiously, others were engrossed in The Living Arts section of the New York Times. Do real men not drink tea? This x-y group seemed more womanish, less aggressively caffeinated, more introspective than the frenzied maleness of neighboring Starbuck's.
I thought about Julian, who, not surprisingly, was an avid fan of this place. He and I had parted company for good that week in our amicable, non-communicative fashion. It was less of a breakup than simply a petering-out, a nonverbal fizzle marked by dwindling phone calls and a mounting lack of things to say to one another. Finally I'd called and left a polite if slightly formal message asking if he could give the clothes I'd left at his house to a mutual friend, since I wasn't sure when we'd be seeing each other. He graciously took my lead and the jeans, T-shirt, boxer shorts and sweater arrived via my friend the next day, freshly laundered and neatly folded in a brown paper bag. The smell of the fabric softener had left me a little wistful, wondering if I'd precipitated things unnecessarily, until later that day when I was turning my wall calendar to the winter scene of February. Well, of course we'd break up now, at the end of January it all made sense. It was only two weeks before Valentine's Day.
Valentine's Day is a holiday I have always truly loved. I associate it less with grand passion and more with plain old garden-variety love, whether it be motherly, platonic, familial or friendly. My mother usually sends me a valentine and gives me some underwear sprinkled with hearts or Cupids. Usually I get a call or two from some close friend living abroad. The years that I'm feeling industrious, I construct some kindergarten-style valentines out of doilies, red construction paper, glitter and Elmer's glue and post them off. And naturally, if I'm in love, I shower my boy with presents, kisses and gooey sentiments.
Julian, who owns a flower store and is not normally a complainer, had been grousing about Feb. 14 since December. We'd sat in this very tea house, where I listened to his proclamations of anxiety and despair about the Satan of All Holidays.
"I have to start thinking about this," he said, his fingers drumming on the table. "I have to start preparing. This is horrible. Every year, the same. Now, I was thinking about doing arrangements involving twos: two roses, with two stalks of lavender and two ferns. Is that corny?"
"Absolutely not," I said.
"Or maybe two bouquets for the price of one. No, that would be weird like, one for the wife, one for the mistress. But I could charge for delivery. I can't stand those deep red roses. Ugly, ugly. There'll be a rush on them. Oh, God," he moaned. "I'm sorry, I just hate Valentine's Day." He suddenly looked at me. "You're not a fan of Valentine's Day, are you? No, not you. You couldn't be."
"Well," I began slowly. This was tricky. We hadn't been going out very long, and if I said yes, then he'd think I was expecting some little token, which of course I was, which in turn might make him feel hemmed in and resentful. But if I said no, I'd be disappointed and hurt, not to mention annoyed that he couldn't suspend his cynicism for one day. After all, I saw "Evita" at his request. We all had to make sacrifices.
"I like Valentine's Day," I said. "Yes. I do."
"Oh," he said, looking crestfallen. I could see the emotions flicker over his face, like the bouncing ball in a spinning roulette wheel. This had happened before, when I'd given him a present, completely out of the blue. Surprise, then fear, then suspicion, until finally settling into the groove of uncertain gratefulness. "I guess ... oh ... I would have thought you'd see it as a Hallmark Holiday."
"Like Father's Day?"
"Yes!" he said, pleased that we could finally agree on something.
Well, of course now there was nothing to worry about, I thought, as I watched a man with round glasses, tapping away on his laptop, reminding me again of Julian. I wondered if this guy had thought about Valentine's Day, if he had a significant other, and what he'd planned for her. My waiter friends all hated Valentine's Day too, since to them it meant a series of deuces all night with bad tips and demanding customers.
I thought about Julian, and I thought about my waiter friends, and it filled me with so much irritation that I almost marched right up to Mr. Laptop. I'd say, in my best Cupid voice, "Listen, buddy. Drop the sneering attitude for a night. Stay at home and make your lovey a great romantic dinner. Open up that '79 Chateau Lafitte. Buy her some flowers, any kind will do. And when you kiss her, make sure you hold her face in your hands and gaze into her eyes with deep love and affection."
And then, my duty done, I'd kiss him on the cheek, and point my arrows elsewhere.