Valentine’s Day

I met Wendy in our Phoenix office. There were thirty of us working in Phoenix at the time. She transferred up from Tucson when her Air Force husband was reassigned from Davis-Montham to Luke. They found a home in Surprise and Wendy made the long commute every day. Our office was located on First Avenue, near Central and McDowell.

I was attracted to Wendy immediately. We both liked our work. We both looked forward to coming in every day. We laughed a lot. This was almost a year after my divorce. I had been dating, but without much enthusiasm.

I found myself thinking about Wendy when I was away from work. I knew that her marriage wasn’t going well. She was young and pregnant when she married, but not in love. Now, her son was five. Her husband was a good father. She had no complaints about that. I learned all this from her in bits and pieces.

I told her about my divorce. Annie and I were in love when we married, crazy about each other. We ran off to Vegas, shocking our families. We had a lot of fun for a while and then, little by little, the romance evaporated. One day, we weren’t in love anymore. We parted friends, but not friends enough to exchange Christmas cards, or to keep track of each other afterwards.

I spent a lot of time alone after that, trying to remember the romantic feeling that had kept me so excited about my life while it lasted. I wanted to figure out where it had come from and where it had gone, but the whole experience remained a mystery to me. I thought about Annie and I couldn’t image how it had happened.

Wendy and I usually brought our lunch to work and ate in the office. Every once in a while we’d go out at noon with some of the others, but never alone together. We did start taking a little walk almost every afternoon, up toward the library and Hance Park. In the winter months, the days were always pleasant, sky a washed-out blue, doves calling, house sparrows strident.  We always had something to talk about. Which was better, the U of A or ASU. Japanese versus Korean cinema. This became the high point of the day for me.

And then one afternoon, strolling along, we were holding hands. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know which of us started it. Neither of us said anything about it. My heart rate went up. I can’t remember a more intimate moment in my life. I chattered away as I tried to think what it meant, what we were doing, where we were heading. I remember giving her hand the smallest squeeze and her returning it.

Then, heading back toward the office, we weren’t holding hands anymore.

The next day was the same. And the next.

A week before Christmas, we walked a little farther. I remember that Wendy was telling me about the gifts she and her husband had bought for her son. Presently, we found ourselves standing in front of the Pioneer Hotel. We looked at each other. The Metro light rail passed with a clang, down on Central.

“Let’s not do this,” Wendy said, finally.

“Of course not,” I said. I don’t know whether I meant it or not. I don’t know if I was disappointed or relieved. Either way, I felt light on my feet. Floating on a cloud, just because the possibility could even arise.

In my calmer moments after that, I worried that I was repeating the romantic fantasy I had had with Annie – this time with a married woman, a mother. Our conversations began to include hints about the future and what it might hold. Always, our holding hands seemed to represent a bond and a promise between us, unspoken but clear.

On February 14th, we went to lunch alone together for the first time. We walked over to Celia’s and took a table for two by the window. The flower boxes outside were full to bursting with color.

Halfway through the meal, feeling awkward, I took a little wrapped box out of my pocket.

“Valentine’s Day,” I said.

“I’m embarrassed,” Wendy said. “I didn’t get you anything.”

“That’s OK. It was an impulse.”

She opened the box and took out the small turquoise necklace I had bought.

“That is so sweet,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s lovely.”

“Wendy.”

“This is going to sound crazy.”

I waited. I suddenly knew what she was going to say.

“It doesn’t make any sense and I couldn’t have worn it, at least not yet, but when I saw the box, I thought you were giving me a ring. I’m sorry.”

I told her then that I was afraid the wonderful romantic glow that we shared might somehow fade. That we’d find ourselves, like Annie and I had, just two ordinary people, along with her son, living together for no particular reason. How could I tear her family apart for that? I didn’t trust myself, or romance, much as I wanted to.

“The excitement is supposed to fade,” Wendy said. “It’s like those flowers. They’re beautiful for a while but they won’t last. They can’t. Something more important and more lasting replaces the infatuation.”

“But what if it doesn’t?” I said.

Wendy sat looking at me with her eyebrows raised a little. I didn’t say anything. I wanted to agree with her but I was afraid to.

“I want to get on with my life,” Wendy said. “This is romantic and crazy, but it isn’t my life.”

We remained friends. We were affectionate with each other. We spent eight hours a day together at work, five days a week. We chatted, we laughed. We stopped our afternoon walks.

I bought a ring, but it was too late; I wrapped it but said nothing to Wendy. A month later, Wendy told me that she was pregnant. She had wanted a second child and her husband was willing, so they went ahead with it. The next nine months, she spent more time with the other women in the office than she had before. I learned all about the long, slow lead-up to parenthood, but I was stuck on the outside looking in.

I was invited out to Surprise a time or two, just a coworker coming to dinner. I met the Air Force husband and Wendy’s son Tommy, now six. The husband seemed like a decent fellow; Tommy was a nice kid. Wendy was friendly with her husband but treated me with a tenderness that made my heart ache. These were the toughest evenings of my life. The baby was born in October.

I dated. In June, it seemed as if something might develop between me and the woman I was seeing, but I thought about Wendy so much that the relationship didn’t last. When I drank too much, I tended toward tears.

Work was intolerable with Wendy gone after the baby’s birth. When she finally returned, I couldn’t wait to get to the office every morning. I cared what she thought, how she felt, what she wanted. I cared about her son and her new daughter. I walked a line every day and I never crossed it, but I thought about crossing it to distraction. Sometimes I felt as if Wendy were nursing me back to health, trying to help me become as strong and happy as I was before. I had the notion that being a mother twice over somehow deepened her, increased her warmth and beauty and her feeling for life.

In December, we started to walk again in the afternoon. No hand-holding, of course.  We talked like we had before, about everything. About the baby Elizabeth. About how Tommy was adapting as big brother. We’d stop in the park by the library and sit for a few minutes on a bench facing a square of dead Bermuda grass, traffic coursing through the freeway tunnel beneath our feet. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.

On Valentine’s Day, I made up my mind. I suggested that we go out to lunch together. Wendy agreed. I couldn’t read her mood. We walked over to Celia’s again and chose the same table. The flowers were in bloom.

“You’re wearing my necklace,”  I said, surprised. I don’t know when she put it on, but for me, a year’s pain and regret lifted a little when I saw it.

She reached up and touched it. Her eyebrows lifted, challenging me.

“That crazy romantic feeling of mine,” I said. “It sort of faded away.”

“It happens,” she said

“It faded away,” I said, “but I still love you, more than ever.”

Before I could change my mind, I pulled the little box out of my pocket and handed it to her, a year late. She took it with a glorious smile.

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3 Responses

  1. I like the story but, to be honest, I’m not sure it ends like this. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

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