You know how it is. Year or two later, everything seems clear, like it had been planned, reasonable enough if only you’d seen it. But we all know that’s not the way it works at all: things happen because – there’s no because. Sometimes you win the ham in the raffle – I come from a place where raffles don’t rise above hams – usually you don’t. Most of us never win anything.
We were looking on-line at work, a slow time, three-thirty in the afternoon, before the early-bird specials and after the poor bastards who get their lunch half-hours pushed back because the boss wants it that way.
“Why you looking at that?”
“Anti-Valentine’s Day Party Ideas.”
“Came up when I Googled Valentine’s Day.”
“You don’t like Valentine’s Day?”
“Fuck, Bill, I didn’t ask for these cynical sites. I Googled Valentine’s Day, like I just said.”
“OK. None of my business. Just that you don’t seem like a flowers and candy kind of girl to me – woman.”
“What do you mean by that? Like I ought to be playing pulling guard for the Browns?”
“Oh no. I never was very sure what a pulling guard was. Of course I know linemen sometimes sort of pull out of the formation to lead a running play – or something – but beyond that, I’ll admit I’m lost.”
“You’re often lost, I’d say.”
“Yeah. That’s true.”
She just looked at me. Then she said, “Anyhow.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I’m sorry.”
“Jesus on a stick, Bill, now you make ME want to apologize. Let’s start over.”
“Want to throw a Valentine’s Party? I mean are you planning one? Not that I’m angling for an invitation. Oh sure, I’d like to come, don’t get me wrong, but I hate just assuming. Besides, I’ve never been to one and don’t know if you’re supposed to bring a gift or anything.”
“When you’re stuck for ideas, a cheap bottle of wine with an obscure label always serves, Bill. Take my word for it.””
“OK, I will. Not that I didn’t know that.”
She just looked at me.
“Not that I’ve never been to a party,” I added, just to have something to say.
“Right. So, should we throw a party?”
“Really? Sure, Barbara, count me in. My Mother will clear out if I give her a little notice. I mean for the party, not permanently or anything.”
“That’s good. So we could have it at your place? That’d be fine, as my roommates aren’t sure to be so cooperative as your Mom.”
That was about when our boss came shuffling over toward us. Didn’t say anything and it’s not like there were mobs of customers clamoring for the special – spicy chili and house salad, very imaginative – but we figured we’d better not press our luck. I mean, I figured that, not having a lot of opportunities in reserve if I lost this job. I figured Barbara could get a job anywhere, but with me it was different.
Just as we were going back to filling ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers, Barbara hissed to me, “After work.”
“I’m free,” I said, like an idiot.
Customers came in trickles, then a steady stream just shortly after that. Wasn’t like our food was good or they thought it was. We were cheap, though, and the service was fast, since most stuff didn’t need preparing, not really. Just slap her on the plate and put it on the high counter separating Barbara and me from the kitchen. We were very good at carrying it over to tables, getting orders straight, and asking politely how everything was, whether they needed anything, and how about them Browns? Actually, I enjoyed the job, despite the boss, since no customer ever said the food was awful or I was awful – maybe one a month, really, but no more –and they chatted a lot with me. Nothing very personal but it was nice. And they tipped more than they should, I mean more than they could afford, especially some with kids who came in pretty often. Sometimes I almost said something about not really needing all this money, since I kept expenses low, living with Mother and all; but I figured it’d hurt their feelings. I had this plan of using the tips to buy presents for their kids and slip them in under their napkins. I had mentioned it to Barbara, though, and she told me back that it sounded like what she called a child-molesting trick, “a fucking pedophile come-on,” she called it. I didn’t agree altogether, but I saw her point, so I didn’t do anything like that.
Anyways, after work I was walking Barbara to her car. That sounds almost like we were close, but it wasn’t that. I always walked her to her car, since it was very dark in the parking lot and we were told to park in the way-back. It wasn’t as if we were in what anybody’d want to call a dangerous area. It was for sure not up-scale but also very safe. But you never know and Barbara was quite small, despite her joke about playing pulling guard, if it was a joke and not just telling me how much of an idiot I am.
“OK, Bill, here’s an original idea: let’s go to a diner and plan the party. And if you say we just left a diner, as if I didn’t know that, I’ll jam my car keys up your nose and pull it off.”
“Sure. Let’s go to a competitor, buy the most expensive thing on the menu, plan our Anti-Valentine’s Party.”
“Anti-? You serious, Bill? Doesn’t sound like you.”
“That’s cause you don’t know me.”
“Leave yourself wide-open with a line like that, Bill.”
“I’m an open kind of guy.”
“Confident, been-through-it-all, supple, give-me-your-best-shot, unshakable ego, richly experienced. . . .”
“You got me. Only I’m none of those things. I just say dumb stuff.”
She just looked at me, so I had to continue: “I am all for the party, Valentines or Anti. Let’s go get the pot-roast special.”
We slid into a booth. I grabbed a menu. I’m not sure why, as they had just what we had at our place, though these prices were a tiny bit lower. I noted that, as I thought it was only decent of me to pay, even though this dinner had been Barbara’s idea. Come to think of it, that made it much more important that I pay. You’ll agree there.
“What looks good to you, Barbara?”
Then I noticed she was studying her IPAD, not the menu. She looked up at me, smiling a little, and said, “The best they got to offer. Spare no expense, as you’re the one paying.”
“Shit, Bill, I was kidding.”
“No, no, this is on me. After all. . . .” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“We’ll settle all that later – best two of three falls – but now we have to get serious about this party. I got some great quotes for invitations. Wanta hear them?”
“Yes!” I was, of course, expecting wonderful lines about love and passion and undying things, so when she started reading, it took me a minute to catch on. It was an “Anti-Valentines Party” she was talking about.
“I don’t think I’ll get married again. I’ll just find a woman I don’t like and get her a house.”
“Whenever I date a guy, I think, is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?”
“The only difference between the men I’ve dated and Charles Manson is that Charles Manson has the decency to look like a nut case when you first meet him.”
“You know that look women get when they want sex? Me neither.”
She was on a roll, reading these quotes. They had me laughing so blindly I spilled my water. Barbara just pulled out some napkins from the dispenser – luckily full, good staff here – and wiped up without even looking up from her Ipad. But she did stop reading then, stopped speaking altogether.
I didn’t think she wanted me apologizing for the water, so I waltzed right into the invitation idea with the one quote I remembered: “The only difference between sex for money and sex for free is sex for money costs a good deal less.”
“That’s not something I would have thought was in your arsenal, Bill, not that it’s not a good one.” She looked, I don’t know, maybe hurt.
“Jesus Christ, Bill. Let’s move on. We can use any of these for the invitations. What will we actually do at the party?”
“Eat, play games?”
She looked at me as if I had just spelled calliope wrong at the sixth-grade spelling bee. That’s not really what she looked at me like, but I can’t think of anything more accurate.
“Right. Let’s get some inspiration from others who have registered their feelings and suggestions, very helpfully, on-line.”
“OK. I need inspiration, Barbara, to tell the truth. I don’t have a single idea.”
“Well, we neither one need ideas, as we can poach others. Here are some. You ready?”
“I’ll just let em come in a flow: set up a market featuring gifts from ex-lovers or possessions of theirs you have lifted, watch the movie “My Bloody Valentine,” light Betrayal Candles (whatever they are), play dart games onto faces and bodies of people you thought loved you, use voodoo dolls in the same way, make cupcakes with inventive slogans (supplying guests with materials, I guess), do a can-you-top-this on the subject, “Why I Hate________.”
“OK,” I said.
“You don’t seem enthused.” Barbara was again looking at me in a way I couldn’t decipher.
“No, no. What should I buy? Want to have this at my place? Mother will be happy – I guess I said that back at work. Anyhow, she won’t mind going away, I’m sure, though I haven’t asked her before or anything.”
“First things, first: you cannot hide your lack of enthusiasm, so let me attend to that right away. Here’s a site, several sites, which feature people giving good reasons why they detest Valentine’s Day.”
“”I know this’ll get that party fever burning inside you. I’ll just quote directly, not in any order:
“It’s just a time for retailers to rape and pillage.”
“It’s a trap for unwary people, make that unwary men.”
“You’re forced into cheesy professions of love, whatever that is.”
“Just buy some flowers and hope to get laid. It’s not rocket science.”
“It’s a day for pathetic insecure people who need validation.”
“It’s a holiday of stress and fear, depression and guilt.”
“It’s all the pressure to be part of a couple, to be romantic, to be thoughtful, to be generous that makes people hate the day.”
She seemed ready to go on, but I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting. “I see,” I said, I hope not too rudely.
Barbara just looked at me – like always, in a way that might mean anything. I for sure didn’t know.
We were quite a minute.
“Here’s a couple more, Bill. Different. Maybe more honest, though one tries to be funny about it:
“On any other day, hanging out with your parents and eating an entire pie is considered festive. On Valentine’s Day, it’s a sign of desperation.”
“That’s a good one, Barbara.”
“It’s sad, but not so bad as several like this:
“I don’t like Valentine’s Day because I don’t have any friends.”
“Barbara. . . .”
“You really want. . .?”
“To do an Anti-Valentine’s Party?”
“You know what, Bill?”
“I don’t want to do a regular Valentine’s Party either.”
“Sure. I guess.”
“We don’t need a party, Bill.”
“Not at all.”
“Will you be my Valentine?”
James Kincaid has published many non-fiction and academic books, several short stories, and 2 novels, one of them co-authored with Percival Everett. He taught for several years at Southern California and is now at Pitt.