It was dawn when the taxi dropped me off outside my office building.
I paid the driver, narrowly stopping myself from suggesting he use it to buy himself a map of New York and maybe some glasses. He sped off down Fifth Avenue and I detoured to the news stand on the corner for a Times and a small paper cup of coffee. Standing in the gray-black slush that New Yorkers accept as snow, I took a sip of coffee and glanced at the front page of the paper while I waited for my change. The date caught my eye: February 14.
I groaned aloud. That meant the office would be full of bouquets and bouquets and balloons and more bouquets, and the front door would buzz all day like an angry fly against the window as an endless stream of messengers brought more. Productivity would be nil. I hate Valentine’s Day.
Not that I verbalized it, of course. Let them have their fun. But I just don’t get it. I never have. Like most holidays, the earliest reasons for it have long dissolved into an orgy of cloying television commercials and gaudy plastic pink displays winking cheaply from every end cap in any store I entered starting December 26.
I also didn’t verbalize my distaste for Valentine’s Day because I knew, without ever testing the theory, that everyone would think I was bitter over some failed love affair that still haunted me. Oh sure, I had plenty of failed love affairs, but none of them were haunt-worthy. There was no bitterness in me, no poignant longing, no heartbreaking loss. I just didn’t like Valentine’s Day.
No, I decided, turning on the heel of my boot and striding up Fifth Avenue with my paper beneath my arm and the steam from my coffee warming my face, I wasn’t going into work today.
February in New York always has a feeling of suspended animation, like intermission in a play. The tourist crush of Christmas and New Year’s is gone, the glitter has been swept away, the store windows have calmed down, and everything takes on a muted sameness, waiting, waiting, waiting for so long I sometimes forget what we’re waiting for until the day the trees burst out in color and Central Park is suddenly alive with birdsong and rollerblades and laughing children and then I remember.
I passed a coffee roaster, a bookstore, and a tiny cramped shop with everything a tourist could possibly need to prove they’d braved the Big Apple. Inside a small bakery, glowingly lit and emanating the smell of warm sugar, I saw her. She was sitting at the window, a cup of coffee in front of her, staring out the window but not at me. Past me. Past everything.
I hesitated. I hadn’t seen her in years, since she’d abruptly ended our decades-long friendship without an explanation, without a word, without a goodbye. I’d tried for months to mend a fence in which I could see no break, but eventually pride had reigned me in. I had heard nothing more from her or about her at all, until today.
I dropped my empty paper cup into a nearby garbage can and walked into the bakery, past her table, and up to the counter where I ordered a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun. And with nothing but a deep breath and caffeine to bolster me, I walked up to her table.
“Is this seat taken?”
She looked up at me, her face void of anything including recognition until her mind finished connecting the dots. Her eyes went wide.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it.”
Taking that as all the invitation I was going to get, I put my cup and plate on the table and sat down across from her.
“I saw you in the window,” I said. “Thought I’d say hello.”
“Hello,” she said, studying me with a disconcerting frankness. “It’s good to see you.”
It wasn’t, of course, that was written all over here face in big, bold reality.
“You too. How have you been?”
“Fine, thanks. And you?”
It was the right response, the only response, the one we’ve been trained to give all our lives. Even when everything was as far from fine as it could possibly be, when everything being fine was such a distant memory you could barely remember what it felt like, that was still the correct response. “Fine, thank you. And you?” Bob, weave, deflect. Never let them see you sweat.
“Great,” I said. “I skivved off work today because, you know, Valentine’s Day.” I rolled my eyes in comic exaggeration. Her answering smile was thin.
“Where do you work?”
“Down the street. I’m a magazine editor.”
“Very nice. That’s what you always wanted to do.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty happy there.”
“Except on Valentine’s Day.”
“Except on Valentine’s Day,” I agreed. “Want to split this with me?” I pushed the cinnamon bun toward her but she shook her head. Her face was thin, drawn, giving her a gauntly pretty look. Her blonde hair, once her pride and joy, now hung limp and pale around her face like a shroud. The feeling she gave off wasn’t sadness or even anger. It was nothing. Her energy was stagnant. Dead. I gave a sudden galvanic shiver and took a sip of coffee.
“Chilly,” I said with an uneasy laugh.
“Yes it is,” she answered. She was looking past me again, out the window, miles away. There was a lostness in her eyes that cut into me. Impulsively, I took her hand. She looked down at it as though it belonged to someone else.
“Listen,” I said. “Are you all right? Really? I know you said you were fine but honestly – this doesn’t look fine. We were friends once. Good friends. Best friends. You can talk to me.”
She eased her hand from mine and smiled wanly at her coffee.
“Sometimes things just change,” she said. “Sometimes there are no reasons for it. And sometimes there are reasons.”
“And with us?”
“Sometimes there are reasons you don’t remember. Or don’t want to remember.”
I looked into her face then, trying to find what she wasn’t saying, looking for a thread of the connection we’d had. Seeing her again felt like a lifeline, a link to my younger self, a glimpse of the me I once was, the one I often missed alone in the unrelenting, self-evaluating darkness of 2 a.m. If I could reach that her again, maybe I could reach that me again, and our connection would help me bridge that endless gulf between the familiar comfort of yesterday and the unknown excitement of tomorrow.
A flicker of something crossed her face, and she smiled at me with warmth, her old beauty shining through for a moment. She touched my hand lightly.
“It was good to see you,” she said quietly. And in what seemed like one fluid movement, her face closed off again, she withdrew her hand, and she was gone.
I sat there for a long time, staring out the window, at everything, at nothing. Finally I pulled my coat tight around myself and walked outside. I spent of the rest of the day walking and thinking, hurting and remembering, smiling and weeping, wishing and letting go.
It was twilight when the taxi picked me up outside my office building.