Just for you, my dear readers, a Valentine’s Day short story with a happy ending.
SOMETHING SPARKLY IN A LITTLE VELVET BOX
“I have bad news.”
Henley’s voice faded in and out, the cell service in that part of Florida spotty. I pressed the phone against my ear. “What did you say?”
“I’m not going to make it home tonight.” He said something unintelligible. “. . . sorry.”
“But Henley,” I said. “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
I’d met him five years ago at a 5K fundraiser for a local Alzheimer’s organization. He’d been passing out water bottles printed with the project’s logo. I’d liked the look of him, the way he grinned at me out of his friendly, Irish-looking face. After some flirtatious banter, he asked if I wanted to meet up after the event. A few dates later, we fell into bed and discovered, to our delight, an incendiary sexual chemistry.
“Wow,” Henley said. “That was, uh, unexpected.” We stared at each other, dazed, catching our breath.
“Yeah,” I said. “But let’s not question it.” I reached to hook my arms around his neck and pulled him down to kiss me again.
We fell in love right away. We found an apartment and moved in together. We adopted a dog, Mr. McMuffin, a fiercely loyal miniature schnauzer who slept at our feet and reveled in ball-chasing at the dog park on 7th Street.
Henley wasn’t a romantic, but he did things like take my car to have the oil changed or set up a workout space for me in the spare bedroom when the shutdowns started. He did his own laundry and scrubbed the shower tiles without prompting.
It never occurred to him to bring home a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of champagne or order something lacy and silky from Victoria’s Secret. I considered myself a feminist and bought my own lingerie. But this year, after suffering through two bleak years of pandemic and more introspection about my looming thirtieth birthday in September, I found myself craving a real Valentine’s Day. Perfume. Flowers. A bath full of bubbles. Maybe even something sparkly in a little velvet box.
I’d planned out the whole evening, determined to add a little romance into our oh-so-practical life. I knew I sounded immature and spoiled, but the disappointment felt crushing. “But, Henley, I bought pink champagne. And a pink nightie. And crab rangoons we can heat up in the toaster oven. You love those, and they’re pink, too. It’s a whole theme.”
“I know.” He said something else but his voice cut out again. “ . . . weekend instead.”
“That’s not the same. Are you sure there’s no way you can make it home tonight? I can check online for alternate flights.”
The phone beeped a few times and went silent. The connection had broken. That, or he’d hung up.
I bounced my cell onto the couch and stomped into the bathroom to take a shower before firing up my computer for the first online meeting of the day. I was lucky to have a marketing job suitable for remote work, but I missed people. Like everyone, I needed the masking and social distancing to be over. I wanted to get back to the office and to go out to lunch with my co-workers and stop off at our favorite bar for drinks after work.
Henley’d been laid off during the lockdowns, but they’d brought him back on board as soon as things opened up down south. He flew once or twice a month to run events at lush, green golf courses and came home lightly tanned and energized from the face-to-face stimulation, while I was pale and listless as sandwich bread.
Not for the first time, I wondered what I was doing, waiting around for a man at home while he went out into the wide world. The pandemic had turned me into a post-WWII housewife, waiting by the door with a cocktail and a how-was-your-day-dear smile on my face. Why was it always the woman who had to give up what she wanted? Scowling beneath the shower spray, I thought of Sylvia Plath and angry-sad poems and gas ovens.
And then I thought. If you feel like this about marriage, why do you want Henley to buy you a ring?
I had no answer. I hated the idea of convention, the expectation that if two people fell in love they would get married and pop out a couple of children, buy a house in the suburbs and an SUV. That’s why when Henley asked me, off-hand, two years ago if I thought we should get married, I laughed and said, “Are you crazy?” He’d never broached the subject again.
We were happy. At least I thought we were. We lived with McMuffy in a revitalized, artsy, formerly-industrial neighborhood in a northeasten city. Before the pandemic, we’d bicycled to work, hiked on the weekends, ate sushi and brick-oven pizza, drank craft spirits, and attended the readings and gallery openings of our literary and artistic friends. Now I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Had I given up my chance at romance and commitment? Had I wasted five years of my life thinking I wanted one thing when really I wanted the usual thing?
After my shower, I felt depressed and headachy, so I called in sick.
Outside the floor to ceiling windows of our apartment’s open kitchen/dining/living room, fat flakes of snow plopped down like wads of wet tissue paper from a cold, gray sky. On a balcony across the street, a neighbor had strung pink, heart-shaped lights along the railing. Where was Henley this week, anyway? Jacksonville? Tampa?
Slipping into the silky pink nightgown I’d ordered in preparation for the special Valentine’s evening Henley had promised me, I flopped onto the couch. McMuffy whined and jumped up beside me. I scratched under his collar, and he rolled his eyes in utter bliss. Finding my phone in the crack between the cushions, I looked up the hotel address Henley had texted me two days ago. Jacksonville. Again.
I clicked on the address and found the website of the hotel, scrolled through pictures of bedroom suites, poolside palm trees, and small plates served in the hotel’s lounge. So many trips to Jacksonville. Third one since Christmas.
A wave of panic rolled over me as it occurred for the first time that Henley might be seeing someone else. Someone in Florida.
Huddled beneath a crocheted blanket my mother gave me my freshman year at UMaine, I whimpered and clicked the television on. For the rest of the day I dozed and watched old episodes of Friends and tried to reach Henley every couple of hours to no avail. I pictured him poolside with a Jennifer Aniston look-alike, shapely in a sleek white one-piece bathing suit with cut-out sides and perfectly pedicured toenails.
By 7 p.m. I’d worked myself into an existential crisis. Not only that, I was craving take-out lo mein. McMuffy needed to go outside for his evening constitutional. Sighing, I plunged my feet into snow-boots and shrugged my black, shin-length puffer coat over my nightie. I pulled the pink knit hat from the 2017 Women’s March over my snarled hair and headed down Lindon Street, McMuffy tugging on his leash.
I trudged along the sidewalk, head down, tangled strands of hair flopping into my eyes beneath the hat. McMuffy pranced a few steps, stopped to lift a leg, sniffed, pranced, lifted, sniffed, repeated.
At least he was happy, I thought, watching his bright, black, curious eyes scanning passersby on foot and the cars slisching down the street through the slushy snow. We passed couples, arms slung around each other; they wobble-walked toward me in that way couples do, trying but not always matching footsteps, stumbling now and again, laughing up into each others’ eyes. Restaurant boards advertised special Valentine’s Day Dinner takeout menus. It was too cold for outdoor dining, but some restaurants had opened indoor seating. I could see servers in black masks gliding around tables while unmasked patrons tucked into their meals.
Nothing about this made sense. I scowled and trudged on.
I scooted into Ming Duck Two and asked for a large order of vegetable lo mein to go, keeping my eye on Mr. McMuffin who I’d tied outside to a lamp post. I checked my phone. Still no word from Henley.
“Your order’s ready!” the woman at the counter called out. I handed her my credit card, grabbed the handles of the takeout bag, peeked inside, and asked for chopsticks. With a sigh, the woman reached beneath the counter and pulled out a paper-covered set of wooden chopsticks like it pained her to do so. “Thank you,” I said, sarcastically.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said, her voice equally insincere.
I went outside. I untied the dog’s leash, and we trotted down the slushy sidewalk toward home. When we arrived, I took off the fancy nightgown, folded it carefully into my top dresser drawer. I pulled on my favorite sleep outfit, an old pair of Henley’s boxers, soft and faded from frequent washing, and the shapeless Violent Femmes t-shirt I’d rescued from my mother’s Goodwill donation bag a couple years ago.
I missed Henley. I missed his smell and his crinkly-eye smile. I didn’t even care about the hearts and flowers and champagne. I just wished he was there so I could snuggle up with him and watch the snow fall and eat lo mein and kiss for a long time and then fall asleep before 10 p.m. like the old married couple we weren’t.
Depressed, I climbed into bed, started reading a new novel while slurping the lo mein noodles down to the last squiggly brown piece, and fell asleep with Mr. McMuffin snoring beside me, my pillow a little damp from tears.
It was after midnight when cool air and a stirring of the covers woke me. I opened my eyes and dragged myself to a sitting position. “Henley?”
“Shhh, go back to sleep,” he said. He held the covers up so I could slide back down to face him in the warm cave of the sheets. The dog grumbled and turned around between us.
“I thought you weren’t coming back tonight,” I said. “You didn’t answer your calls or texts.”
“I could tell you were upset,” he said. His eyes held a question. Are we okay? I could see the uncertainty on his face. “I found a couple of connecting flights. Three, actually. I wanted to surprise you. I thought it might be…romantic, I guess.”
“Three connections? You didn’t have to do that. Now I feel terrible.” I put my hand on the side of his face, felt the rough stubble beneath my palm. “I was upset, but then I just missed you. I got takeout.”
“I’m sorry I ruined Valentine’s Day.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Realizing I meant that, I propped myself up on one elbow. “Henley?”
“I love you.”
He leaned over the dog and gave me a kiss. “I love you, too.”
“That’s not all.” I took a deep breath and expelled it. I kept my eyes on his. “I want to marry you.”
Henley went still. He frowned. My heart sank. I said, “I’m sorry I said no before. I didn’t know what I wanted. I . . .”
“Stop talking.” Henley put a hand gently over my mouth. He rolled over to the side of the bed, reached down toward the carpet.
I craned my neck. “What are you doing?”
“Shhhh.” He rolled back toward me, opened his hand, and showed me the little velvet box nestled in his palm.
My heart beat fast. I looked into his eyes. “Is there something sparkly in there?”
He pressed the box into my hand. “Open it and see.”
There was. He slipped the ring onto my finger, kissed me again. “I think we’ll have to celebrate After-Valentine’s Day every year from here on out,” he said. “You and me, midnight, February 15, ‘til death us do part?”
I launched myself into his arms. Mr. McMuffin protested and moved to a less volatile spot on the mattress.