You know how it is. Year or two later, everything seems clear, like it’d been planned. But we all know that’s not how it works: things don’t 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 net-surfing at work, a slow time, three-thirty, between lunch and the early-bird specials.
“Why you looking at Anti-Valentine’s Day Party Ideas?”
“Came up when I Googled ‘Valentine’s Day’.”
“You don’t like Valentine’s Day?”
“Damn, Bill, I didn’t ask for cynical sites – came up unbidden.”
“So you’re all for it. You don’t seem like a flowers and candy kind of woman.”
“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 what guards are; beyond that, I’m lost.”
“You’re often lost, I’d say.”
She looked at me. Then she said, “Anyhow.”
For no good reason, I said, “I’m sorry.”
“Jesus on a stick, Bill, now you make ME want to apologize. Let’s start over.”
“You throwing a Valentine’s Party? Not that I’m angling for an invitation. I’d like to come, don’t get me wrong, but I hate pushing. I’ve never been to one and don’t know if you’re supposed to bring a gift.”
“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.”
She looked at me again.
“Not that I’ve never been to a party,” I added, just to have something to say.
“So, should we throw a one?”
“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.”
“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 customers clamoring for the special – 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 knew Barbara could get a job anywhere.
Just as we were going back to filling ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers, Barbara hissed, “After work.”
“I’m free,” I said.
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 and the service was fast, since most stuff didn’t need preparing. Just slap her on the plate and put it on the high counter separating Barbara and me from the kitchen. We were good at carrying it 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, and they chatted a lot. 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 needing all this money, since living with Mother kept expenses low; but I figured it’d hurt their feelings. I formed this plan to use tips to buy presents for the kids and slip them in under napkins. I ‘d mentioned it to Barbara, though, and she told me it might be presumptuous. I didn’t agree altogether, but I trust her judgment.
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 dark in the lot and we were told to park in the way-back. It wasn’t what anybody would want to call a dangerous area, for sure not upscale but very safe. Still, you never know and Barbara was quite small, despite her joke about playing football.
“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, I’ll jam my car keys up your nose.”
“Yes! 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, richly experienced…”
“You got me. Only I’m none of those things. I just say dumb stuff.”
She looked at me like she did, so I had to continue: “I am all for the party, Valentine’s or Anti. Let’s go get the pot-roast special.”
We slid into a booth and I grabbed a menu. I’m not sure why, as they had just what we had at our place, though these prices were even lower. I noted that, as I thought it was only right that I pick up the check, though this diner had been Barbara’s idea. Come to think of it, that made it much more important that I pay.
“What looks good, 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. Wanna hear them?”
“Yes!” I was, of course, expecting lines about love, passion, and undying things, so when she started reading, it took me a minute to catch on.
“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. 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 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. I don’t have a single idea.”
“We can poach others. Here are some. You ready?”
“I’ll just let ‘em 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 her way.
“No, no. What should I buy for the party? Mother won’t mind clearing out, and she’ll help me hang balloons before she goes.”
“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 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.”
She seemed ready to go on, but I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting. “I see,” I said, I hope not too rudely.
Barbara looked at me, more kindly maybe.
We were quiet for 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.”
“We don’t need a party, Bill.”
“Not at all.”
“Will you be my Valentine?”
A little about JAMES: James Kincaid has published many non-fiction and academic books, several short stories, and two novels, one of them A History of the African American People by Strom Thurmond co-authored with Percival Everett, the other Lost. He taught for several years at The University of Southern California and is now at The University of Pittsburgh.