The following piece of creative nonfiction is part of a series I started on my personal blog a few years ago called “Alphabet: A History,” which is a collection of short, autobiographical vignettes. This one is dedicated to all the members of the lonely hearts club this Valentine’s Day.
Alphabet: A History (V) Valentine’s Day
It’s Valentine’s Day, 2004, and for some extra money, I’m pitching in at the flower shop where I worked full-time until a few months ago. It’s only early afternoon and I’ve already made 60 arrangements of long-stem red roses. I line up the vases ten deep on the counter and then fill them, one-by-one, with greenery — Myrtle, Eucalyptus, Bells of Ireland, Snake Grass, and Lemon Leaf — before dropping the roses in their place. We use Black Magic Roses, the most expensive, and in my opinion, most beautiful variety of roses.
“It’s like a red velvet room,” I sigh, stepping into the cooler two years earlier on my first Valentine’s Day at the shop. An army of Black Magic Roses stands at attention, waiting for its orders.
These days I’m less impressed. Roses are pretty, but they’re the last thing I’d want to receive on a day like this, my fingers rubbed raw and red by their thorns. I prefer the flexibility of tulips instead, the way they bow in submission, almost humbly in their vases, against the aggressive presence of heartier flowers.
But it’s not really roses or tulips on my mind today. My boyfriend moved out exactly four weeks ago — my ex-boyfriend, I mean — and I’m single for the first time in four years. Three years earlier, we’d moved together from Missouri to Chicago when I was 24 — and the apartment we shared, the place where I’m still living while I look for something smaller, something cheaper, feels enormous in its emptiness, feels empty against the aggressive presence of mass marketed love. I don’t really want to go home today.
But I do. After 10 hours at the flower shop, I send my last arrangements out with the delivery driver and go home alone. I order Chinese food and listen to Nina Simone. I wait for the phone to ring. I wonder if anyone is thinking of me. I wonder if my ex-boyfriend is thinking of me. I wonder how long it will be before I find someone else, if I’ll still be alone next year and the year after and the year after that. I wonder, suddenly, if it’s possible I might always be alone, if maybe there really isn’t someone out there for me, and if maybe I should have just stayed in my relationship after all. Being with someone — anyone — seems better than this right now: an empty apartment and a half-eaten carton of Chicken Lo Mein.
The next morning I wake up and go to school. I go to school and come home and go to school and come home and I do this again and again and again. Some evenings are punctuated with dinner or drinks out with friends. Some days I stay in and study. On weekends, I worry about my solitude. I find a new apartment and move; I decide I don’t like my living situation and move again. I date a little, have another failed relationship, watch a couple more Valentine’s Days come and go.
And then it happens: I do find someone. And it’s good. And it lasts. And those lonely years were not in vain. And I want to go back in time, back to 2004 and say: yes. Yes! It will be better.
But I’m still sitting in the dark, listening to Nina Simone and waiting for the phone to ring. I’m not ready for yeses yet.