To my Valentine, my husband, my partner in crime. I love you!
(I know this is a bit long for a blog post, but if you are married, or have been, you just might enjoy the ride )
I placed a hesitant hand on the smooth metal door handle of the Hallmark store and pulled it open to the sound of tinkling bells. Ruby hearts hanging from the door jamb brushed the top of my head as I stepped inside and headed for the Valentine section, an explosion of pinks and reds. Crowded with last minute lovers like myself, we had to jockey for position as we searched for the perfect card. Studying people’s expressions with secretive sideways glances, I longed to hear the running commentary inside their heads.
I have always been a last minute Valentine shopper because I dread it. I can only bring myself to buy something simple that says “I love you’. All of the other cards in the store are stupid. With every card I read, I have to add one more sarcastic sentence in my mind. Or at the very least, a clarifier. I can’t leave it alone. It’s very stressful.
After a quarter of a century of marriage few of them ring true. Can we all please admit that many of these sentiments are, at the very least, stretching the imagination? I have long considered designing a line of Valentine cards that are grouped according to the number of years you have been married.
I long for little ditties like this:
Loving each other has been a long, hard road, but I still think you are cute.
Can’t wait to celebrate our love at Donovan’s Steak house because we got a $150.00 coupon from your client.
Let’s stay up past 9:00 PM and make out for eight minutes straight.
Love is damn tricky. An enigma. So much has been written about it that I dare not add to the rubble. But if I had to, if Cupid put a gun to my head, I wouldn’t waste time composing an essay as it would never capture the layers, the nuances. I would take a thousand noble words and nestle them in pairs with their less than noble opposites. Then I would shake them in my cupped hands like dice and toss the whole collection off of Juliet’s balcony and watch them scatter and bounce on the cobblestone streets of Verona until they landed in a mish-mash mural of the language of love. Maybe I would even take a photo of it and sell it to Hallmark for next year’s selection.
“Excuse me,” I said to a young woman with a sparkly diamond ring. She smelled of lavender and caressed a card like it held the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. “Just reaching for this one.” I grabbed one depicting a romantic table set for two. It unearthed a memory.
My husband and I became engaged at Papa Pirozki’s in Atlanta on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Who chooses to propose to his bride in a Russian restaurant on December 7th? Looking back, I think he had a subconscious yearning to personalize the Cold War, to plant it as a seed in our relationship. Though the rest of the world was evolving beyond such ideology, it was apparent that he was some sort of fan.
I hadn’t expected it to be a night unlike all other nights as we were rekindling a relationship that had been on a long hiatus. Neither of us expected the marriage proposal to play out the way it did. But maybe that was a good thing. Perhaps it’s the couples who do everything according to the Prince and Princess Handbook who don’t survive when the magic wears thin. In retrospect, I think it was better to start this union with our gloves on, in a boxer’s stance. One needs to understand strategy and battle maneuvers. It is vital to appreciate humor and build camaraderie in the unexpected foxhole. These are the necessary skills that keep a marriage alive. Flowers and chocolate are useless.
I remember sitting alone enjoying the candlelight and crystal that adorned our table for two as I held a thumb-sized glass of fruited vodka, icy and thick with raspberries. I loved the way the color matched my fingernails, the stark contrast of them against the white linens reminded me of the raspberry and cream popsicles I ate as a child. Feeling relaxed and elegant I took tiny sips as I gazed around, nodding to other couples nearby who were beginning to notice that my date had disappeared. I wondered what was taking him so long as he had excused himself to go chat up the chef, whom he said was an acquaintance.
A black door to the kitchen swung open and Tim burst back into the room, all smiles. At 6’8” he wasn’t known for quiet entrances.
“Ivan’s going to send out a few freebies. Said he’d take care of us.” Tim plopped into his chair and smoothed his blonde hair into place. He downed his fruity vodka like it was Kool-aide and motioned for the waiter to bring us another round of drinks.
“Great,” I said picturing all sorts of exotic Russian delights appearing on plates that were once served to the Romanovs. “So how do you know this guy?”
“Met him at a radio event. He’s from uhm,” Tim snapped his long fingers as he recalled the information, “Moscow. Yea, that’s it. Moscow.”
“What was the event?”
“Does it matter?”
“So what’s with all the questions?”
“It was only one question. Why are you getting agitated?”
“I’m not agitated.” He picked up the second fruity vodka and downed it. “Would you finish your first drink already?”
“Fine.” I threw it back like a pro. Then I picked up the second one and saluted him. “Let’s just relax and enjoy this. We only have two days before I fly back. I missed you.” He took a deep breath and exhaled through flared nostrils. I put my hand over his drumming fingers. Something was up. “Are you okay?” I asked.
A young waiter with Ricky Riccardo hair swooped over, handed us menus and then gave a run-down of the night’s specials. We each chose an entrée and Tim asked for another round of drinks.
“Tim. Maybe we should slow down on the drinks.”
“Fine.” What was wrong with him ? It seemed as if he had left his usual joking demeanor in the kitchen with Ivan. I threw back my second drink in one gulp and choked daintily into my napkin. We could take a cab home.
“So how are things at the airline?” Tim asked as he took a piece of bread from a silver bowl. Thrilled to have some normal conversation, I started into an elaborate story about a new dad who tried to change his baby’s diaper on a fold down, jump seat. As I got to the part where the dad laid the baby on her back while he held the jump seat down with his knee, Ricky Riccardo came back and placed a small salad in front of me.
“Zees is from Ivan,” he announced as he stood back from the table.
I nodded to him and smiled. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” He beamed as he retreated to the water station.
It was ugliest, driest looking salad I had ever seen so I pushed it to the side as I continued my story. Tim stared at the salad and then back at me. “That’s your salad,” he said.
“There’s no dressing. And what is this stuff? It’s not even lettuce. It’s cabbage or who knows what?”
“Have some salad.” His voice held an edge.
“I don’t want the salad.” I calmly stated, the words evenly spaced and heavy on my tongue.
“Eat the salad,” he whispered through clenched teeth. Beads of sweat were forming on his brow. I gave him my most powerful defiant stare.
“Eat – the – damned – salad.”
“Fine.” I pulled the salad over and started to pick at it with my fork suddenly feeling other people’s eyes upon me. I looked around and noticed them, whispering in hushed tones.
“What is up with you?” I could barely conceal by growing rage. “I thought we were going to have fun.” Blood was pumping through my veins, banging in my ears. I took a bite of one of the bitter greens and held up my fork as I chewed it. “This is disgusting. I thought Ivan was your friend.”
Then I saw it. A velvet box of midnight blue half hidden under shreds of carrot and radicchio. Panic gripped me like a giant hand and squeezed tight. No, no, no. I did not want this to happen here. This was not what I had choreographed in my ten-year-old heart as I picked at my chenille bedspread on sleepless nights. I could see our waiter going from table to table alerting the others to our impending moment.
“Honey,” Tim leaned on his elbows and bore into me with blinking eyes, “Stop blinking your eyes like that. Take the box out of the salad.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Open the box, Susan.”
“People are staring.” I attempted another defiant stare but it was difficult to pull off with tears plopping onto the table.
“Open – the – damn – box.”
Though I don’t remember willing them to do so, my shaking fingers pushed away the vegetables and picked up the small velvet cube. All eyes in the restaurant were on us. I opened the box and a diamond solitaire caught the candlelight. I looked up at Tim and stared as his lips moved without sound. I glanced at the staring eyes to the left and then I glanced at the staring eyes to the right, distorted faces like funhouse mirrors.
“Well?” Tim asked with a face so vulnerable and earnest that I suddenly couldn’t imagine a life without him. “Will you marry me?”
The room ruptured into cheers as Tim handed me a third vodka and held up his. And we burst into laughter, toasted each other and cheered along with them.
The whole experience did not play out the way either of us had imagined. It was not the traditional down on one knee sort of proposal on the beach at sunset, nor was the ring magically unveiled on a covered silver dish as he had hoped. It was clumsy, unexpected, and filled with nervous emotion on both sides. It was real and heartfelt and awkwardly expressed the way marriage often looks on a daily basis. In retrospect it was the perfect engagement.
“Must be a funny card,” Ms. I Smell Like Lavender commented as I giggled to myself.
“Just brought back some memories,” I sighed as I put the card back in its place, “But it’s not the one I’m going to buy.”
“I think I’m going to get this one,” she confided as she held up a photo of a sunrise on which was printed ‘Every sunrise means another day of loving you’.
I forced myself not to add a sardonic comment and ruin her choice.
She opened the card and pointed to a wall of poetry five inches long. “This poem says it all for me.”
“How many years?”
“One. Well almost,” she said with a shy smile. “You?”
“Wow. So, what’s the secret? What have you learned?”
I plucked a simple white card with a simple red heart and opened it for her to see. “This is the card I get for him every year. Because after awhile, you learn that these are the only three words that matter.”