Free Valentine's Story
I, Julie Honeycutt, love how Valentine's Day celebrates romance while providing yet another excuse to purchase and eat chocolate. But I also hate it at times. My love-hate relationship with the holiday all started in the L'Air du Temps fog of my boy-crazy teen years in Savannah, Georgia. I read every steamy romance I could and dreamed of a secret admirer/high school hunk/pirate/Regency rake who'd fall in love with me while watching me solve proofs in trigonometry. Every year, freshman through senior, I anticipated something romantic happening to me on Valentine's Day.
Not that it ever did.
Then five years ago, I went on a cruise with some friends, met a sheep farmer named Russ Green, from Mossy Creek, and fell in love. At last, I would have the Valentine's Day of my dreams. I didn't care that we'd only been dating six months; I was certain he was going to propose. So I did what any self-respecting future wife would do. I tried to set the perfect scene.
I ordered a fudge heart with a cute message on it from Mossy Creek's Main Street Confections; I gave him a blank book which I filled with romantic poetry all properly attributed to famous poets. I even included some bad verse I'd written, and I invited him to a picnic at the Big Sky scenic overlook. What I didn't plan on was the cold. I mentioned I'm from Savannah, on the sultry coast, right?
That first Valentine's Day with Russ had neither proposal nor chocolate for me—just shivering. Besides discovering February in Mossy Creek is way too cold for picnics, I also found out my gifts were bad choices. Russ didn't like fudge or poetry.
And now, after five years of dating, tomorrow was looking to be another banner Valentine's Day. No sex (due to an early visit from my monthly "friend,”) no engagement ring (I had my spy at a jewelry store down in Bigelow,) and we had a town full of stranded circus performers from a small touring troop called Cirque du Europa, who needed a place to stay since the Hamilton Inn didn't have enough empty rooms.
The manager of the inn had featured an all-inclusive romantic getaway complete with champagne and chocolates in Atlanta magazine. Mossy Creek was so overrun with tourists you'd think it was leaf-watching season.
Clowns plus tourists equals circus, not romance.
At thePiggly Wiggly, I pushed aside the reduced-fat Oreos to nab a package of the real, full-fat deal and dropped them in my plastic shopping basket. . Since my "friend” had come early and I was out of feminine products, I had to stop on my way home from work as a real estate agent. Russ had met me at a spectacular log cabin I'd shown to a couple looking to retire in our quaint mountain town. He was now browsing while I fulfilled my mission. That couple would make an offer by morning. I could smell it as clearly as the Pine Sol one aisle over.
Then I realized someone was staring at me. Expecting Russ, whom I'd abandoned in the magazine aisle with a copy of Fly, Rod, and Reel, I jumped when I saw the gaze belonged to my literal worst nightmare—a clown. This one had traded in the traditional white pancake for airbrushed purple make-up. Silver sequins dotted his shadowed cheekbones. He mimed hello and bowed.
Hands breaking into a sweat, I nodded, traded my regular Oreos for a package of Doublestuff Oreos, and sped away as quickly as my boots and the waxed floor of the Piggly Wiggly would allow. I'd acquired what I considered a healthy suspicion of clowns at five while attending a friend's birthday party. The clown told me I was so cute he was going to take me home. Afterwards I even had nightmares of Ronald McDonald, who's as benign a clown as there can be. It's a quirk, though, not a phobia.
Next on my list, the women's aisle. I hid my feminine-care products under the Oreos so as not to embarrass Russ or any male I happened to stand next to in line. To be honest, the Oreos weren't just camouflage. My diet shot rapidly downhill when the hormones peaked.
I evaluated the snaking lines of shoppers with full, wheeled baskets, looked for the shortest check-out point, and was relieved to see Russ already in the Express Checkout chatting with Win Allen, alias Bubba Rice, local restaurateur and star of a cooking show on Mossy Creek's cable access channel.
Win placed a pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and a small jar of capers on the conveyor belt behind the bar separating his order from the lady in front of him. She clearly had more than ten items, including a birthday cake with a big clown face on it. I wiped my sweaty palms on my coat. It was a quirk, not a phobia.
"There's a clown in here,” I whispered to Win and Russ.
"Yeah,” Win said. "Ida convinced me to take in two clowns of the juggling and miming variety.”
"Better you than me,” I blurted.
I hadn't really meant to say it out loud. After all, I was brought up by a woman who lectured, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” But the thought of two clowns wandering around Mossy Creek gave me the heebie jeebies.
It was not a phobia. Not a phobia.
"Taking them in was the least I could do,” Win said. "I've got plenty of room.”
Russ shook his head. "I don't know. It seems kind of weird, considering your issues with Clifford.”
Win glared at Russ. I guess he didn't want to be reminded of his running feud with Clifford the Clown. They both were angling for the same Saturday time slot on WMOS-TV. Station manager Bert Lyman hadn't decided yet who would be gifted with the coveted spot. I only knew I wouldn't be watching if Clifford got the nod.
As you can see, Russ pretty much says what's on his mind, except when it comes to our relationship. He suffers from the delusion that I haven't set the alarm on my biological clock. Considering he's the kind of person who hits the snooze button, you can see why I shouldn't be surprised.
He's not a bad guy. He's great. It's just that he's complacent.
Russ cleared his throat. "So, Win, you have my reservations for tomorrow night?”
Win nodded, then glanced back at me and grinned, exposing the dimples that intrigued more than a few of the single thirty-and-ups in town. "Julie, this meal is going to make you happier than selling a five-bedroom with a view.”
Did Win know something? Was Russ going to pop the question at long last?
"I'm looking forward to it,” I said, my heart skipping faster than the digital register's beeping. Well, it only made sense. Russ knew I was turning thirty in April. And we had been dating for five years. Why else would Win say such a thing? Yes, Russ was going to propose.
And if he didn't? Savannah, here I come. I couldn't stay in Mossy Creek forever and continue to hope. If a man didn't ask after five years, chances were that he wasn't ever going to ask, right? And I never was the kind of girl who thought a career alone would do it for me. If only I could find some reason to stop loving the guy.
Suddenly, even my Doublestuff Oreos lost their appeal.
Win paid the clerk and headed out the door, past the red-and-pink cellophane boxes of candy, plush teddy bears, and Mylar balloons spouting "Be Mine,” "I Luv You,” and "You're a QT.” Next year, I might be back in Savannah, eyeing Valentine's merchandise in another store, swallowing a lump in my throat, remembering Russ.
As the teenage cashier popped her gum and rang up my purchases, Russ placed his hand at the small of my back. This was one of the things I liked best about Russ, the small unconscious gestures that made me feel loved . . . just not loved enough to marry.
"So, Julie, what do you want for a present?” he whispered, softly, his lips close to my ear, his breath warm against my cheek.
As if he didn't know what I wanted most in this world was to get married and start a family. I could picture myself with a little boy with Russ's dark wavy hair and stubborn chin. Or maybe a girl with his long, lean frame and hazel eyes.
I swiped my debit card. "How about a new clock radio?”
He smiled. Was it because he had a diamond ring up his sleeve, or did he appreciate the sarcasm?
At about quarter after nine on Valentine's Day night, after leaving three messages on Russ's cell, I determined that I had been stood up. I was about ready to change into flannel pajamas, pour a big glass of milk for dipping, and eat what was left of my cookies. If he'd been caught up in his Fantasy Football team hoo-ha, he was a dead man.
Five minutes later, I heard someone running up the stairs to my apartment.
I opened the door, leaned against the frame in an alluring yet aloof sort of way. "You're late.”
Out of breath, Russ managed to say between pants, "You look nice.”
One point for him.
"Sorry, I'm late. . . Betsy's lamb came early and she was delivering breech. I had to get Hank to help. Then I had to shower and shave.”
Hank Blackshear is the local veterinarian. I wondered if his wife, Casey, was sitting at home waiting for him, too.
"You smell nice,” I said. He'd finally used the expensive aftershave I gave him for Christmas. Breathing in the sexy sandalwood aroma, I realized I'd bought the aftershave for me—not for him.
One point for me.
"Are you sure it's not too late?” I asked.
"Yeah. I called Win. He said no problem.”
"Let me get my purse.”
I went to the bedroom where I'd laid out my nice coat and a beaded clutch. When I returned to the living room, Russ was beaming. He handed me a card and a box wrapped in pretty pink-and-white paper. A box not only big enough to contain a clock radio, but also heavy enough. He took me literally.
Blinking away the stupid tears, I placed my card and gift down gently on the coffee table next to the present I'd purchased for him. A digital radio service for his truck. I guess all these years of getting my hopes up have taken their toll. I'm not very romantic anymore, either.
"We're already late. Let's open presents when we get back,” I said, sticking to my mother's rules about only saying nice things.
He scratched his head. "Okay. Oh, and just to warn you, the clowns staying with Win are helping him out at the restaurant tonight.”
My hands tingled, then moistened. I wiped them on my coat. Clowns. Tonight. Could the evening get any worse?
Ida and her handsome boyfriend, Del Jackson, stepped out as Russ was about to open the door to the restaurant for me. I did a double-take. Word was all over Mossy Creek about Ida kissing Amos Royden, our police chief. And Del had caught them. So the last thing I expected to see only a few weeks after that drama was Ida and Del looking happy and in love. Ida even winked at us.
"Amos can't be too happy with this situation,” Russ whispered after they walked by.
"Maybe it's his fault for not telling Ida how he felt, sooner.” I forced myself to look away from the happy couple and sighed.
"Nothing. I'm just tired.” Tired of being the proverbial bridesmaid. I quickly counted in my head the multitude of bridesmaid dresses hanging in my closet, a veritable rainbow from ivory to eggplant. I'd been in seven weddings in the past three years. Not a cousin or friend remained single. My kid sister, Angela, who'd married at twenty-two, had called tonight wanting to know if I thought Russ would be popping the question. Some fun that conversation had been as I assured her that it wouldn't happen and I was okay with it. I know. I'm such a liar.
I stifled a shriek when I saw the clown at the hostess stand. He mimed his joy about our love, I think. It was hard to tell, but he pointed to Russ, then to me, then drew a heart in the air, and placed his hands on his chest and mimicked a beating heart. Either that or he was trying to tell us he was having a heart attack. I wanted to turn and run. But I didn't. Okay, so maybe it is a phobia.
The restaurant, known for its down-home southern cooking with a twist, was done up like a fancy French bistro for Win's Valentine dinner special. He'd gone all out. Swaths of red velvet and gold cording were everywhere. Lots of gold and brass candle sticks and gilded mirrors, too. Very Moulin Rouge.
Win came out of the kitchen, dressed in his chef's whites, to greet us. "Bon soir.”
I smiled as best I could, considering my boyfriend didn't want to marry me. Not only was this the worst Valentine's Day ever, this was the worst day of my life. "The place looks so . . . romantic.”
"Thanks. I told Josie I wanted the restaurant to scream romance. I probably shouldn't have used the word scream, though. She calls it Parisian Boudoir.”
Josie Rutherford and I were friends of the acquaintance sort. I didn't have friends of the "Let's go to the movies or drink a pitcher of margaritas,” sort. Not here, anyway. They were in Savannah. It wasn't that Mossy Creekites didn't try to include me; it was that I spent all my free time with Russ. I went to the movies with Russ, Christmas-shopped with Russ; I had even taken care of him when he got bronchitis in November. I wondered again how after only a few months of e-mails, phone calls, and weekends meeting half-way, I'd decided to move here to see if this was the guy I should spend the rest of my life with.
Oh, God. Not only was I going to dump the man I loved, the love of my life, but I was also going to lose my best friend.
Another clown came up to me. This one was in white tie and tails, and he sported pink, white, and red air-brushed make-up. I suspected he was the same one I'd seen at the Piggly Wiggly yesterday; he had the same beady, brown eyes. He bowed low, sending a shiver down my spine.
As he paraded us in a circuitous route to our table, we passed the only other couple there—Hank and Casey Blackshear, eating what looked like chocolate cake. Casey was completely gorgeous in a tomato-red dress and matching lipstick. She set down her fork and sent me a look of encouragement as she waved. Her traditional Tiffany solitaire and matching wedding band in yellow gold flashed in the candlelight.
Hank had on a nice suit and tie. He nodded to Russ, who smiled, undoubtedly proud that they'd delivered Betsy's lamb safely.
When the clown finally stopped at an intimate table in the back of the room and pulled a chair out for me, Russ knew better than to let him seat me. "That's okay. I'll do it,” he said.
Once the two of us were seated, the clown took hold of the salt-and-pepper shakers. He started juggling them, rather than hand us menus. When he felt sure he had our attention, he put down the shakers and began miming the dinner choices.
I think one was duck á l'orange because he was flapping his arms, then pretending to be a hunter shooting into the sky. The other choice was salmon (yes, he pretended to swim upstream to spawn). A tart sauce came with the salmon, maybe lemon from the way he puckered his mouth. I chose the fish and Russ chose the duck, and that pretty much summed up our dating life. Sour. And shot down.
They say opposites attract, and maybe they do, but there was such a thing as being too different. Maybe Russ hadn't asked me to marry him because we were too different.
Win came over with champagne and an ice bucket. He popped the cork and filled our glasses, then stood back looking at us as if we were a slab of babyback ribs and he was debating whether to use a dry or wet rub. "You two are awfully quiet tonight.”
"Tired,” we both said in unison.
So maybe we were alike in some ways. We didn't want to admit that as much as we loved each other, this relationship wasn't going anywhere. We didn't want to talk about why we weren't talking.
Win winked at me. "Enjoy the bubbly. Russ told me to spare no expense tonight.”
Tonight? My heart warmed with a flicker of hope. Maybe the clock radio had been a decoy. Maybe tonight was the night Russ would finally ask me to marry him. An engagement ring could be hidden in my food! One of my friends in Savannah found hers nestled in the garnish on her dinner plate.
"Is there something special about tonight that I should know?” I asked.
Russ squinched up his face like he was trying to solve a quadratic equation, then he shrugged. "Um, it's Valentine's Day?”
I was not entirely convinced that he was clueless. So I made a show of unfolding my napkin and placing it on my lap. I had thought a ring might fall out, so I tried not to let my disappointment show. It could still be in the entrée or the dessert.
"Are you feeling okay?” Russ asked.
"I'm fine. I'm great. I'm . . .” The champagne flute! I brought the glass to my eye to scrutinize the bubbles, looking for my ring. No ring, dadblameit. I chugged down the champagne and pushed the empty flute toward Russ for a refill.
Frowning deeply, he poured more of the golden nectar into my glass and handed it back. "Take it easy on the bubbly. Are you sure you're okay?”
"Did you lose a sale today?”
"Are the clowns freaking you out?”
"No. I'm fine.” I took another big swig, emptying half of the glass. I'd hardly eaten anything but Oreos all day, so I had a delicious little buzz going. I'd make it through the evening just fine, ring or no ring. But how would I act surprised if one suddenly appeared? I debated the merits of an all-out squeal versus a halleluiah chorus as the clown fake-stumbled his way toward us with a tray of hors d'oeuvres.
Ahah. That's where the ring was. How clever to throw me off with the mime.
"Thank you,” Russ said and pushed the tray of stuffed mushrooms toward me. "You'd better eat something.”
I scoped out the mushrooms. No ring.
"Are you insinuating that I'm getting drunk?” I pretended to be all indignant. "'Cause I'm not. Well, maybe a little.” I giggled, then felt like crying because his eyebrows drew together in worry. "Gosh, how did you ever get stuck with such a lightweight?”
"I'm not stuck.”
"Yes, you are. We are the poster children of relationship inertia.”
Russ didn't even bother to argue.
Fortunately, the clown didn't juggle our entrees. There was no ring in my salmon or rice pilaf and roasted asparagus. The highlight of our romantic dinner was when the clown mimed the dessert choices and I managed not to scream. We could select Cherries Jubilee, where he pretended to singe his eyebrows, or Chocolate Death, where he fell with a loud thud to the floor and expired all too slowly, clutching at his neck and chest. I wished he wasn't faking it, then felt guilty for wishing death on the man just because he'd chosen clownhood as a profession.
When dessert arrived, I stabbed my Chocolate Death to no avail.
"You'd better tell me what's wrong,” Russ said.
"It's nothing. I'm not hungry.”
I shouldn't have listened to Mom at Christmas. "Stick by Russ,” she'd said. "A proposal will happen.” When? When I was ninety and I couldn't wear a strapless wedding gown because my upper arms were too flabby?
I snapped my fingers to call our clown garçon. "I need a to-go box.”
Steeling myself against the sweet concern in Russ's eyes, I knew what I had to do. Even though it'd break what was left of my tattered heart, this had to be the end. I was going to tell him goodbye when we got back to my apartment. I guess the time had come to stop believing in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and Cupid.
Russ helped me into my coat and surprised me by brushing my neck with his lips. I'd miss the unexpected affection. I'd miss how he just seemed to know when I needed a night of snuggling on the couch.
The clock above the hostess station showed that it was nearly midnight as he paid for our dinners with his credit card. He put his arm around me, and we headed down the cold, nearly silent street to his truck.
He was helping me in when we heard frantic running. Our clown friend rushed down the sidewalk with my to-go box. I held my ground. Cringing, I accepted the Styrofoam container. He presented it with a flourish, like it was the crown jewels. He mimed something about cuddling with Russ. If I hadn't been afraid of him, I might have smacked him across the face.
The bell tower at Mount Gilead Methodist Church tolled twelve as we drove toward my apartment. Russ hadn't asked me again what was wrong, but I knew he wanted to. Or maybe he didn't ask because he'd figured it out.
As soon as he parked and turned off the engine, I hopped out and took the stairs two at a time. I opened the door and waved him inside, then went to adjust the thermostat. I tried to rub the chill from my arms.
"Let's open presents,” his said, his voice far less enthusiastic than when he'd barreled up my stairs late and out of breath.
"Sure,” I said, too sad to even pretend to be excited, which wasn't right. I wasn't raised to be so rude. I just needed a moment to compose myself. Too bad I didn't have any air-brush make-up like the clown to paint myself a believable smile.
I grabbed my to-go box and headed to the refrigerator.
"Don't you at least want to read the card?” he asked.
I was so angry and upset I wanted to scream "No.” Maybe I should have mimed my disappointment. I carefully shut the refrigerator door, where the card he'd given me last year caught my eye. A homemade valentine he'd made from copier paper that he'd quickly scribbled with a heart and "Happy Valentine's Day, I love you,” in black ink. It had meant the world to me, for some reason. I reached out to trace the lopsided heart, then with a smile pasted on my face, returned to Russ and his present.
In a matter of moments, I would calmly explain that as much as I loved him I couldn't wait forever, and I wasn't the kind of woman who would issue an ultimatum. I wanted marriage and family, and if after five years with me as his girlfriend, he couldn't decide that's what he wanted, then we'd be doing each other no favors staying together.
Carefully, I started to open my clock radio.
Russ sighed. He thinks it's funny how I try not to tear wrapping paper.
I opened the box, expecting to find what I asked for, but instead found a bunch of packing peanuts. For a moment, I couldn't breathe. Was there a beautiful velvet box inside, too? Had he been fooling me?
I jammed my shaking hand down into the peanuts and hit a hard, heavy, bubble-wrapped rectangle. My gift wasn't a clock radio. It was a very pretty, frosted glass frame. He hadn't even gotten the present right. I glanced at the huge frame that required an 8x10 photo. Like I had a bunch of those lying around. He'd re-gifted. It had to be a leftover Christmas present.
Oblivious to my displeasure, he grinned. "You know, you still haven't opened your card.”
I doubted I'd like it as much as the one he made me last year. That was so Russ. Last minute, but affectionate and true.
This year, the card was heavy, expensive, watercolor paper painted with deep red roses, trimmed with tulle ribbon, and embossed in gold. "To my Valentine . . . ” So very unlike Russ.
"Did you make this?”
He shook his head. "I bought it. Do you like it?”
My tears blurred the words on the inside. If I could see them, I probably would like it.
I began to read the sentiments he'd never spoken aloud. How I'd become so important to him he couldn't imagine life without me, how beautiful I was, how he loved to watch me when I was sleeping, how I was the best part of his day.
It was lovely; but it wasn't enough. Not after five years.
I swiped at my eyes, so I could get to the end. I blinked, tried to focus.
At the very bottom, he'd scribbled an asterisk and the words, "Will you marry me?”
At least that's what I thought it said. Maybe it wasn't "marry.” Maybe it was many, mummy, Murray? None of those made sense. It was marry. It was marry!
I couldn't squeal or sing halleluiah. My vocal chords were frozen. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out.
"Close your eyes,” he said.
Thankful that I still had control of my limbs, I covered my eyes with my hands and waited for further direction.
"I'm ready,” he said. "Look.”
In full-fledged proposal stance, Russ mimed something involving my hand and his heart. It was bad mime technique, but that didn't matter. He loved me enough to make me Mrs. Green. Mrs. Julie Honeycut Green.
He grinned and sat down next to me on the couch. "You should have seen your face when you pulled out the frame. I can't believe you didn't guess. It's for a wedding portrait. Oh, and I almost forgot.” He dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a small robin's egg blue box with a white satin ribbon. Tiffany's.
I took several deep breaths to make certain I didn't hyperventilate, then opened the tightly hinged box. It was a Lucida. Rectangular cut, three-quarters-carat diamond in the bold, new-style platinum setting. Simple, graceful, elegant.
"Aren't you going to give me an answer?” he asked.
Still speechless, I showed him the answer was yes, tenderly, my lips to his.
Mimes aren't the only ones who get their point across without words.
Story by Maureen Hardegree