This piece was the first thing I ever submitted to Wordsmoker (R.I.P), for their Valentine’s Day Contest, many years ago. It won the Bucket of Salt Water prize, the requirements of which were that it “literally had to squeeze a gallon of tears from the reader.” In this case, I think the judges may have fudged these parameters just a tad; but it was an honor to receive the award nonetheless. Besides, during the writing of it I probably could have filled two or three tear-buckets myself– so maybe that counts.
They say it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never have loved at all. I’m tempted to say that anyone who says this has never lost shit. But what do I know? Loving and losing is sort of my default modus operandi. This battered heart has done more than a few grisly tours of duty, but after each one, no matter how horrific, and regardless of the collateral damage on both sides, it always seems willing to sign up for another. We’ll reach V-Day or die trying, I say.
Happy Massacre, drunks. Be good to each other out there.
* * *
I don’t know how it went down at your school, but at mine, if you brought in any valentines, you had to bring them for the whole class.
So that no one felt left out.
I’m still not sure what they thought they were teaching us. But I know damn well what they weren’t.
In Basic Algebra, when it came to the concept of finding the square root of a negative number, our teacher turned to the class and declared that it was impossible. Two years later, in Trigonometry, the same teacher gleefully confessed a few days into the semester, “Well gang, I’ve been fibbing all this time. The truth is, you can find the square root of a negative number. It’s called an imaginary number.” He scratched an i on the chalkboard. “Mathematicians, when they find they can’t do something, always eventually work out a way to do it”.
Well, gee, Mr. D, why the big secret? Seriously. I mean, if I’d known a lot earlier that there were such things as imaginary numbers, math might have become bearably interesting, and I wouldn’t have trudged home on so many endless death marches, black moths chewing at my stomach lining, the crimson ink on my report card bleeding through my back pocket like a stigmata.
If my crush hadn’t been obligated to give me a valentine in return for the one I gave her, I might have learned a lot sooner about the cruel, unstoppable forces of the universe.
As it was, I took whatever crumbs I could get. A picture of a rubber duck, saying “Exsqueeze me… will you be mine?” With my name written in neat block letters inside.
That was encouraging, yes? It was, after all, a direct proposition– albeit a mass-produced one.
At least I had countered with my deadliest possible salvo. Despite our school’s attempt to smooth over the sharp angles of a merciless, pre-adolescent hierarchy, and even more fruitlessly, the unpredictable, seismic jags of the human heart, there were still ways to distinguish yourself among the flood of chopped up construction paper and candy hearts and gobs of rubber cement. For instance, a particularly cool flourish to your signature, and a painstakingly rendered sketch of the Union Jack, because you knew she loved Def Leppard, and therefore, by proxy, so did you.
Nothing explicit, of course, like, “Dear L, I love tetherball too, and also… I love you. “
Not unless you were comfortable with a gaggle of your so-called peers huddling around the sad, earnest little missive, sniggering like jackals and solidifying your pariah status for the indefinite future.
No, the only acceptable course of action involved months of yearning, spying through various fences and windows, your voice cracking every time you said her name, your face flushing with fire those few times you were close enough that her mere proximity made it feel like she was squeezing the breath out of you, drowning you in the best, most painful way imaginable. Or the even rarer times when she turned her gaze on you and uttered an actual string of words, every one of which seared itself right into the soft flesh of your brain– “It’s my turn next,” or “Do you know when the bus comes?” or your personal favorite: “That OP shirt is pretty cool.”
That one kept my entire soul afloat for weeks. It also eventually forced my mother to demand that I surrender the disgusting, soiled rag which had been hanging from my bony frame for as long as she could remember.
Needless to say, it all came crashing down when the inevitable news got around that she was “going” with some denim-clad, shaggy-haired dickwad a year above us. Not only that, but they’d officially sealed the deal by “frenching” at a party, an act confirmed by no less than a dozen witnesses.
I didn’t cry. I did however go home and shatter my Pyromania record over my knee and fling the pieces into the neighbor’s yard.
If only that pink, lacy kleenex mailbox had reflected actual reality. If only it had been empty. Or maybe had just contained J’s valentine, and that awesome dragon drawn on the inside, and You’re Cool written in elaborate, purple letters, and which I had tossed in the garbage with all the others, except for L’s.
Hadn’t I missed something? How badly had I been led astray by a single, fantastic lie?
* * *
The first time you told me you loved me was on Valentine’s Day. I was 36 years old and it was the first time that that had ever happened. It had been a little more than two months, and I myself had felt those same words pressing hard against my vocal cords for a long time, but I knew better than to say them first, given how much trouble they had gotten me into before.
You gave me an envelope, on which you had pasted a bagel cut from a magazine, the hole in the shape of a heart. Inside was a green piece of paper with a poem on it, still the most beautiful thing anyone has ever written me. In it you outlined the various shapes and incarnations of the loves in your life– your mother and father and brothers and nephew and friends, and then you said “Now that I love you, its shape is pears ripening on the bedside table and the steep, wooden stairs that lead up to you and the smile lines which I can see all the way across this dusk-laden room…”
As ever, eternally before and since, I had no words anywhere near as graceful and piercing as yours, with which to reciprocate.
But I did say the three that mattered most.
We spent the afternoon lazing on the mattress on my floor, eating Mike n Ikes from the box and drinking champagne. At one point you told me to close my eyes, and when I opened them you were naked and had pulled the full length mirror off the wall and laid it next to the bed. I remember every contour of us together– pale, muscular limbs, the swivel of your hip bones and smooth, divinely round ass, watching myself slide in and out of you, as I caressed the tiny, dark mole at the base of your spine…
It still makes me choke with desire just thinking about it.
Actually, I’m choking on all of you right now.
Later, on one of the few sweltering summer days we get in our city, you lay on my cool wood floor as I rubbed an ice cube over your ribcage, your stomach, down between your legs, and you writhed and gasped through your teeth until I pulled it away.
You immediately snatched my wrist and pulled it back.
We used to joke about those “sex coupons” that people give each other. We imagined the whole pitiful scenario of the wife, dolled up in her teddy, fidgeting with anticipation, the coupon resting on the pillow next to her, as the husband barges through the bedroom door, yanking at his tie, and discovering the scene that awaits him, let’s out a long, horrified groan…
You gave me some last Valentine’s Day. Cut from red construction paper, with swirly writing, and pictures taped into them. Every flavor from Ye Olde Vanilla to That Which I Must Be Really Drunk/ On Drugs To Agree To, to Let’s Make a Baby, with my favorite photograph of you as an infant, your little squash-sized head with a perfect miniature of your face stamped right into the center of it.
Ah, if I only still had them. The only one I ever redeemed was the Special Ten-Minute Massage, which you even punched with a hole-punch to officially validate it.
The rest, unfortunately, I tore up several months later, after one of our screaming fights, when you were pulling books off shelves and then lied and told me you’d fucked somebody else, just to drive a dagger through my heart. (“Twice!” you yelled after me later as I stormed down the back stairs.) I grabbed the bookshelf in a rage and nearly toppled it over. You always thought I had tried to crush you, which of course I hadn’t, but I left anyway once you threatened to call the cops.
I spent the night in a shitbag downtown motel, drinking vodka straight from the bottle and listening to a pack of meth heads next door climb the walls until the sun crept in through the filthy, orange curtains…
* * *
The last time we stayed in a hotel together was the night before Thanksgiving, as our lives were completely falling apart around us. We were bruised and torn to pieces, hanging on to each other by whatever meager threads we could find.
First we drove to our favorite inn on the river, which had been our place, but we found it closed for the season, or perhaps indefinitely. We never got the full story. That should have been our first sign.
But we found one we liked almost as much just down the road, and we sat out in the freezing, clear night by the stone firepit, drinking Jack Daniels and playing the word game where each person says a letter, and you try not to be the one who spells a word. You got mad because I refused to say the final letter out loud when I knew I was going to lose. Maybe that should have been the second sign.
It was so cold in the room we tried to take a bath, but the tub was too small and narrow for both of us, so we crawled into bed and you fell asleep while I watched a John Lennon documentary called All You Need is Love.
I got up early, you still sleeping, and went into the brightly lit office, where I drank watery coffee and chatted with the owner and an old biddy who was up to see her grandson for the holiday.
Back in the room, you tried to convince me to leave you there by yourself, but I wouldn’t, and finally you relented and we went to bar at the golf course. We sat and smoked in a cold patch of sun and talked about your novel. Later, we made the long haul to your dad’s, where I dropped you off for dinner. I made a quick loop through the house, saying hello to the various scattered souls I was abandoning you to, and then left and drove alone across the looming, darkened bay to my own family’s house.
I didn’t see you for the rest of the weekend.
Or much at all after that.
* * *
I still have the envelope with the green letter in it. It’s in the box with all the rest of the detritus from my life, old pictures and love letters, which you rightfully resented finding in our living room when we first moved in together.
It’s right there on top. First thing you see. Every fragment of you, the whole mess of it, right there covering up all the rest.
I read the poem again a few days ago and was reminded that every word I write is a mere shadow of yours. And since you no longer write to me, that is all I have left. All I have become.
Clinging to a ghost.
Love is the least egalitarian emotion. Compassion, fear, selfishness, even hate– none of them nearly so fickle and elusive, so subject the whims of the wind, the pull of the stars. And what of these mysterious pheromones I keep hearing about? Perhaps all this anti-bacterial soap I’ve been using so obsessively might just wipe them out for good, eh? Fingers crossed. So far they’ve done me few favors.
They can invent something impossible like the square root of a negative number. They can calculate the trajectory of an asteroid down to the centimeter. They can map the entire human fucking genome.
But they still haven’t figured out how to divide by zero.
And, well my love, I’m guessing they never will.