Valentine’s Heartbreak

Heartbreak at Valentine’s could be painful

The text alarm woke Johnny on a Saturday morning when he was anticipating sleeping in.

Janet was in the shower. It was her damn phone. He could hear the muffled water splashing and her humming one of those oldies ear worms that can’t be easily eradicated by normal pest control measures. Janet liked music all the way back to Junior High before the days when the seventh grade was not politically corrected with terms such as middle school. Johnny thought for a moment how those songs were different. You could understand singers actually pronounce the words. Even if the lyrics were about heartbreak, the melody would draw out your affection for the song. This morning the tune sounded like that song about drinking Pina Coladas in the rain. He thought if it is true that art imitates life, he should probably read the text; the one on her phone. So, he peeked and saw, ‘Are you ready for next weekend?’

There was no indication of who the mysterious writer had been; just a phone number from the out of state area code, 904. The water running in the shower turned off. It would be just a matter of moments before Janet emerged with her smooth skin still moist from the steam. Johnny turned over quickly and acted the sleeping lump in their king size bed.

She, in her way of showing care and comfort, quietly departed the room insuring the sound of the door did not wake her husband; after all he deserved a rest. He noticed the emptiness of the room, felt the sheets she had left warm with her imprint, and when he turned, the small cell phone on the bed stand loomed large. He wondered about the caller with no name. “Where the hell was that area code?” he wondered. His mind did contortions. Memories of the time they were kids and she would leave for the summer vacation with her parents. Those long days in June when he had to watch their packed car head off to the mountains where Janet would ride horses, swim in natural lakes, see the moon come up over the edge of a jagged horizon, and do who knows what with who knows who. The days became longer in July as her letters became less frequent, and he wondered if she would still be his girl friend when school started again.

One such fall day, she did tell him about the nice boy that would ask her to dance on Saturday nights at the country club. It had been innocent according to her reports as both sets of parents were just barely out of sight at the dinner table they shared. Johnny always wondered about the guy, and the way Janet said he was just a good listener and more like a girl friend. After seven years of marriage such alibis failed to ring true. The story about one of her girl friends getting pregnant under that mountain moon didn’t help. What Johnny imagined as some half baked story smoldered trying to catch fire in his mind, but he failed miserably at any attempt to get Janet to fan any flames of some teenage romance. Now, an out of state area code flashed in his mind. The possibility this guy had tried to stay in touch. Maybe Janet had written him infrequent letters during the winter the way she penned Johnny back home in the summer. Thoughts of Janet and another guy then began to fly at Johnny faster and faster.

He kicked off the sheets and fumbled his way downstairs to the kitchen where Janet had awakened Alexis with an order to play Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger; What Doesn’t Kill You.

“Hey, good morning,” he greeted.

She responded with a dance move and said, “Remember that?”

“Should I?”

“That was number one seven years ago the week we got married.”

Johnny pondered the lyrics blabbing on about getting over some guy, breaking, up, and moving on, “Not what you would call a wedding song is it?”

“True,” she agrees.

“Seven years,” he opines, “Doesn’t seem that long.”

“Some call it the seven year itch,” she says; then asks, “Any regrets?”

Johnny thought how strange to see a conversation twist into something sinister before sipping the first cup of coffee. If he did not fall under the seven year superstition, however, maybe Janet was suffering from the malady made famous in the 1955 movie when Marilyn Monroe let the wind blow up her white dress while Tom Ewell stood with hands in his pockets smiling with his Fedora cocked back. Some old man gawking at a hot young blonde seemed normal in the abnormal happiness of the fifties. Johnny thought that casting goofy looking men with beautiful women really is an example of art imitating life since most every couple seen in malls, on the street, in the car next to you, endless family pics on Facebook, and even in the movies makes the image ring true. The thought was reassuring, not only to Johnny, but also to men everywhere that most pot bellied good old boys do not have to be James Bond to get the girl.

“I have no regrets,” he answered and caught his reflection in the sliding glass doors to the patio that made him wonder again about that text and who had become his competition. Who wanted to know about her upcoming weekend? As he watched the clouds of lactose free melt into his coffee he could not resist asking, “What about you? You have any new itches that need scratching? Maybe some old boyfriend?”

“What old boyfriend? Have you lost your mind?”

“Statistics are on my side.”

“What stats?”

“I Googled it,” he said. “Divorce rates show couples, on average, divorce around seven years.”

Janet stops everything she had been doing. The look in her widened eyes showed her shock, “Divorce? Why would you bring that up? Is that what you want?”

“No way, it’s just the statistic I was using about the seven year itch.”

“Are you aware about what date it is?’

“Yeah it’s February … something.”

“Today is the eleventh. You remember what the fourteenth is?”

“Oh, yeah. Valentines.”

“Bigger than that, Johhny. Our anniversary is coming up this weekend.”

He stares blank back at his bride.

“I have been planning a special weekend for some time for us. My friend Jessica told me about the Casa Monica Hotel and Spa in Saint Augustine. So, I have been working on reservations. The desk is supposed to text me back with more info.”

“Text?” asked Johnny, “What area code?”

She looked perplexed by such a question, but answered, “904.”

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A Reunion at Christmas Time?

He looked familiar in some way when he tapped on the microphone on the band stage, “Testing, testing…” the general buzz of conversations dissolved to hear the guy, “If you are wondering why you are in a room full of old people, you’re in the right place. Welcome to the 1965 class reunion of John Marshall High School… Christmas edition”

“Wouldn’t you know it,” an old lady chuckled in the crowd, “He’s still the class clown.”

Bill, the guy that looked like the cover of Mad Magazine back in the sixties was now a skinny old man. What was a goofy kind of face now just blended in the herd of unrecognizable faces distinguished by Magic Marker name tags. He stepped off the stage and a three piece light jazz group with a bass guitar, drummer, and lead piano started tinkling some white wine and brie music.

One of the few men with a full head of hair, let’s call him Joe, escorted an attractive fit lady a full six inched shorter through the crowd, “Damn, I don’t see anyone I remember. I remember the kids the way they were fifty years ago clear as day.”

A bald man with thick black eyeglass frames nearly runs up, “Joe! Can’t believe you made it.”

“Of course I made it. I ain’t that damn old.”

“I mean you made it here. Never have seen you at any other reunions.”

“It’s hard to leave Florida for all this cold weather,” Joe answered. “Why on earth plan a reunion so close to Christmas?”

“They figured old people refuse to travel without a good reason, and visiting family around holiday time would be a draw. And, damn, look here, it worked. You’re here.”

The cinderblock cavernous gymnasium had been so large back in the sixties when the architectural style was modern. Just as with so many places in our memory, they aren’t so large anymore as buildings and dreams shrink with time. Now the experts call this style of building mid-century on one of those tear down a house and build it over shows on cable TV. The shiny maple hardwood floor still had the thick polished glaze of the basketball court turned dance floor for feet in socks at the high school senior prom. Along the walls the retractable bleachers were tucked away in long rows of polished pine coffins.

Joe moved through the crowd narrating events and people to his wife, “That fat guy over there you see laughing, he hasn’t changed. He was such a wannabe ass kisser to the popular kids.”

“Was he a friend?”

“No. I wasn’t a cool kid that drew followers.”

As they browsed through couples who chatted as if they were once again teens trying to solve world problems like protesting Vietnam and deciding which acne cream works best, Joe and his bride amused themselves eavesdropping conversation to conversation.

“You went to VCU right?”

“It was RPI, Richmond Professional Institute back then.”

“That guy you dated, I hear he became a lawyer up in DC.”

“Damn, you look almost the same,” as one lie led to another.

“So,” Joe’s wife asked, “Which one of these girls did you date?”

“I asked a lot of them out, and they all turned me down, so I dated a few from other schools. However, there were maybe two girls I took out maybe once.”

“No crushes?”

“Oh, plenty of those.”

She poked his side and teased, “Any familiar faces?”

“Who can tell? They’re so damn old.”

“There was one in particular favorite crush I knew since elementary school. Prettiest and most popular girl in school. She was my first rejection.”

“What happened?”

“We were in something like the fifth or sixth grade and I got up the nerve to go to her door. They lived around the corner.”

“Did she break your heart?”

“No her mother did when she refused to let her go to a movie with me. Too young to date.”

“Is she here now?”

“That would be something, go back in time.”

Just saying that line snapped some time warp as if he had uttered a secret word to call the Gods to attention and grant do-overs. The Jazz trio morphed into the high school Beatles sound like band. Kids with hair too long to be football players strained their adolescent voices to hit notes only the nasal tweaking Brits could pull off. The old became new and young again. Gus, the school superintendant stood guard at the door checking pocketbooks for alcohol. The laughing fat kid with fat feet stuffed into shinny Weejuns penny loafers could not wipe the smile or his sweat from his face as he brought two cups of punch for the quarterback and the prom queen to sip in front of him. The class clown made faces and did some stupid dance move. Future lawyers, bankers, hopeful politicians, and young hopefuls that would more than likely end up in sales jobs played important as if the prom was their proving ground. Joe stood on the sidelines off court on the other side of the lines drawn in the wood floor for basketball players to obey the rules. The gym had been transformed at the hands of the art department that hung long streamers of crepe paper from the rafters back and forth across the ceiling. Hundreds of feet of the crinkled ribbons had been strung over untold hours of giggling girls coaxing boys up tall step ladders to dare the heights. Suspended above the bodies swaying to the music, the web mimicked a large net hanging above a swarm of teenagers whose main mission was not to dance but to get a first kiss, feel up someone, or get felt up. The lights dimed for the slow songs, the girls teased during the fast ones, movers to look up to, and hangers on to hope for the best. All the while our young Joe stared and listened. He could hear their comments culled from the band and noise and laugher and clatter from across the room, “What’s he doing?”

“Just sitting there,” but Joe thought that strange since he was clearly standing.

“Maybe he’ll get to his Christmas presents.”

“All he does is stare.”

“Joe,” someone addressed. “Joe.”

He thought maybe it was the girl with brown hair and dark eyes; the one from elementary school. The one who stared at him in her compact mirror from her desk in the front row as he day dreamed from his desk in the back row. She had not aged.

“Joe,” he heard again.

He smiled. Then, felt someone tug at something he held in his lap. “It’s okay, Joe. I’m just taking your book so you can open a present.”

Joe opened his eyes and the scene was no longer a gymnasium decorated for dancers. A bald man in a buttoned down Ivy League pink shirt came into view as he pushed an aluminum walker toward him, “Hey, Joe. You awake?”

The nurse helping him smiled with dark brown eyes as her brown hair caught some reflection of late afternoon sun from the tall windows that stood as a backdrop to a circle of wingback chairs stuffed with old people wearing outlandish Christmas sweaters.

“The group is all here, Joe.”

He took in the view like a tired old man waking from a long nap.

“Let me take that,” he heard and the nurse tugged his book.

“What’s that?” The man with the walker asked.

“That,” the nurse answered, “is his high school year book. He looks at it everyday.”

“That must get old.”

“That’s where his memory is. He can’t remember breakfast or that this is our Christmas party. But, he seems to remember 1965 just fine.”

As the nurse closed the yearbook, Joe held on to the last page he was looking at, the last page in the book with the headline, And Thus, All Good Things Must Come to an End.  And a photo of Gus, the school super, pulling down the metal gate to close off the hall that led to the gym.