It is as clichéd to hate today as it is to celebrate it with chocolates and roses, but I don’t let that stop me. I hate freely. I hate loudly. I hate Valentine’s Day.
“The stupid candies with the stupid sayings on them,” my coworker Molly interjects with a whine to her voice that is decidedly insulting if it’s meant to be an imitation of me.
“Well, yes. But it’s also—”
“The ridiculous amount of money people pay to have flowers delivered to someone they’re seeing later that day.” This from Lindsey, another coworker, no less complimentary in the nasal tone she adds to her nonetheless extremely true words.
I glare at them both, momentarily sidetracked from my original point.
“Do you guys honestly think I sound that way?”
“Only once a year,” Molly says, carefully selecting a purple “CALL ME” heart from the bowl on her desk that exactly matches her chosen hair color of the month.
“The Scrooge of V-Day,” Lindsey says as she pulls her long blonde hair over one shoulder to better lean into the bouquet of blood red roses that were just delivered for her. She takes a deep breath in before sitting back with a dreamy sigh.
“Look, Hal, I know you got your heart broken on this day in like sixth grade—”
“Tenth, thank you very much.”
“ — but you can hardly blame that on St. Valentine.”
“I don’t blame St. Valentine.” I roll my eyes. “I blame Hallmark.”
“Woooow,” Lindsey says low under her breath while Molly picks a white candy heart from the bowl and flings it at me. I let it bounce off my forehead and onto the floor without a reaction. It had probably said something dumb like “LUV U FOREVER.”
There is absolutely no such thing as forever where love is concerned. Molly’s been with Paul for six months now, and Lindsey got married just this past spring to Adrian, so I know better than to voice that particular opinion, but I hold it as firmly as I hold the fact that Santa isn’t real— with logic on my side. Fairy tales are wonderful when you’re young, but then you get older and discover that everything you thought was magic is actually nothing but wishful thinking and lies other people told you.
“Hallie,” Molly says patiently. I know the tone well. It’s the one she uses when customers are making unreasonable demands. “It’s just a day to celebrate love. That’s it. It’s not evil or stupid or anything else you’ve said about it for the past five hours.” Extreme exaggeration, but all right. “You love us, right? Your friends?”
I nod begrudgingly, still biting my tongue hard so as not to counter the “five hours” comment.
“Well, celebrate that!”
“I celebrate that every day,” I mutter. “Except, ironically, today. When you guys will not leave me alone about this ridiculous holiday.”
“I’m just saying,” Molly says with a shrug. “You don’t need to be part of a couple to come to Lindsey’s party tonight. There’ll be plenty of other single people there. It’s just an excuse to drink a lot of pink champagne, dip everything we can find in a chocolate fountain, and hang out.”
“Hmph.” Even I can hear the speculative tilt in that exhale. Lindsey leans forward with a look in her eyes that makes me think of a National Geographic special I saw about sharks. There’s no stopping them once they smell blood.
“Come, come, come,” she start chanting, clapping her hands slowly. “Come, come, come.”
“If I do come, it’s only going to be for the chocolate fountain,” I warn them. “And I’m not saying I’m going to, but if I come. That’s why. Not for the hearts or the flowers.”
“Of course,” Molly says with a solemn nod that is completely ruined by her ear-to-ear grin. “Just the chocolate.”
“And the champagne,” I say, spinning my chair back to face my computer. It’s a Friday, so the office is just about dead, but still, we should probably at least pretend to be working.
“And the champagne, yes, of course.”
I don’t know why they think I can’t hear it when they high five.
This was a terrible idea.
One of my worst, actually, and I once stacked one dining room chair on top of another to change the smoke alarm battery instead of going to the closet to get a ladder.
This tops that, and that resulted in a broken wrist.
I’m unlikely to break anything tonight, except my own spirit.
Still, I said I would come, so here I am, a bag of pretzels for the chocolate fountain clutched tightly in one hand and a bottle of prosecco in the other. I push the door to Lindsey and Adrian’s apartment open and am instantly immersed in music and laughter. To my right, there is a couple. To my left, there is another couple. Everywhere I look, there is a couple.
Anxiety swells up inside of me at the thought of being, what, a— I do a quick rough count— seventeenth wheel. My flight instincts absolutely roar. They say, drop the pretzels and prosecco and run.
Nobody’s noticed me yet. I could totally do it. I start to turn, but—
I turn back around with the fakest smile in my arsenal plastered on my face as Lindsey cuts through the crowd with her arms outstretched. She looks gorgeous in a sleeveless pink jumpsuit, her hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail with not a single strand of her bangs out of place.
“Oh, I totally owe Mols twenty bucks. I told her you’d bail,” she says as she pulls me into a hug.
“Oh, I can just—” I start to back away the second her arms loosen, but she reads my intent too clearly.
“Don’t you dare.” She scans me up and down in a deliberate study that would earn a slap if it was from a man. “Especially not dressed like that. Holy moly, Hal, you are not going anywhere until everyone sees you.”
I smooth my dress self-consciously. I may hate Valentine’s Day, but I had been secretly excited for the opportunity to wear my favorite red dress. It’s a bold color that stands out far more than I’m comfortable with if I try to wear it casually, and the neckline dips way too low— and the hem far too high— to ever even consider wearing to work, but I love it. I feel like my truest self in it, like if I close my eyes and picture myself, this is what I’d be wearing.
So just for tonight, for the twenty minutes, thirty tops, that I stay here, I figured I might as well feel good.
The four-inch gold stiletto heels, on the other hand, had been an impressive error in judgement. My feet are already openly rebelling, just from the walk from my car to the apartment.
Lindsey drags me around for the next ten minutes, introducing me to everyone I don’t know, which is everyone but her, Adrian, Molly, and Paul. And with each pair of names she rattles off— Julie and Mark, Ellen and Rob, Brandy and Matt, and so on, and so on— I poke her a little harder in the side.
“Molly said there’d be plenty of single people here,” I hiss in her ear during a brief pause in the introductions.
Lindsey grimaces, scanning the crowd as though half of a pair might suddenly take ill and have to leave promptly and render Molly not-a-liar. I’m just deciding how I want to play this—- smug and make them owe me? fake anger and immediately leave? — when Lindsey lights up. She grabs me by the hand and hauls me across the apartment to the far corner.
“Carter!” she says triumphantly with a flourish of her free hand. “Carter is alone!”
I look up at the man we’ve come to a stop in front of and am eternally disappointed in my heart for missing its next two to three beats.
Just because he’s tall and blonde and in possession of a fine, fine jawline and a fine, fine chin dimple does not mean my heart needs to go and rearrange its rhythm. Honestly.
“Wow,” he says, and my heart has something to say about the depth of his voice, too, I guess. I hadn’t known it possessed this many opinions. “Hi to you, too, Linds.”
“Sorry,” she says in a tone that implies she is the exact opposite. “But it’s true, right? You’re alone?”
“You are… adamantly beating that over my head there, okay, yeah. I’m alone, you happy?” He shakes his head, although I can see the fondness layered into it. I can see it even more clearly when he swings his gaze over to me. “I’m Carter, and I’m alone. Nice to meet you…”
“Hallie,” I finish for him. I can’t help but smile back, even though my feet are killing me and I don’t want to be here and Lindsey just let go of my hand and took two steps away to answer someone calling her from across the room. “Linds? Lindsey?”
She holds up a finger, still listening to someone else. I turn back to Carter, who shakes his head in her direction.
“How do you know my sister?”
He points at Lindsey, and I see it then. In the hazel of his eyes, in the angle of his smile.
“Oh! We work together.” I resist the urge to touch my hair. I have no idea what it looks like. It had been just starting to rain when I’d arrived, and it had been windy, and I really should have checked a mirror. Is my makeup running? I feel like my makeup is running. Why do men just get to put on a nice shirt and a pair of dark jeans and call it a day?
I mean, his shirt is really nice. It’s a lilac color that I would never have thought I liked on a man, but here I am, sure as hell liking it on a man.
On this man.
“Oh yeah? You in marketing, too?”
“I am,” I nod. “More of the print side than the social media side Lindsey handles, but same department.” There’s a two second lull in the conversation as he nods, which I immediately feel the need to fill. “What about you?”
“How do I know my sister?” He looks amused, and if it wasn’t at my expense, I’d be awfully enamored by the sparks dancing in his eyes. Okay, even at my expense, I’m a little enamored.
“No! No, I mean, uh, what do you do? For a job?”
“I’m in finance,” he says with all of the enthusiasm you’d expect to find from someone in finance, which is none. “Mostly. I’m into music, though, too. That’s my main thing. If I could drop the finance and work full-time as a music producer, that’s the dream.”
“Oh,” I say, super eloquently. Lindsey has fully drifted away now, either because she forgot about us or because she’s pretending she forgot about us. With her, it’s hard to tell. Either way, I’m not mad. “That’s really cool. Are you working on it at all?”
“Nah,” he says with a lift and fall of one shoulder. “No time right now. Maybe when things slow down at work.”
He doesn’t sound as though he has much hope of that happening anytime soon.
“I draw,” I say abruptly. He tilts his head at the barest of angles, and I can’t help but notice that if I took two steps forward, the top of my head would tuck right under his chin. I clear my throat and mentally shake the image free from my mind, though it fights me on it. It’s a really nice image. “That’s how I got into marketing, actually. What else can you do with a design degree that actually makes money? But I carve out three hours a week to work on just… drawing. Nothing related to my job, just for me. So maybe… I don’t know, maybe you can find an hour or two, just for you and music?”
He’s looking at me so intently that I’m sure I made a misstep. It wasn’t my place. Who am I to give advice to this guy I met all of five minutes ago?
“That’s a really great idea,” he says, his voice lower than it had been a second ago. He sounds half-pulled under the weight of his own thoughts. “Really. Thank you.”
I shrug self-consciously. “No problem. I just think… you know, it’s hard to ignore your dreams.”
“It is.” He nods slowly. The music pulses behind us, above us, all around us, but it feels like there’s a space between us that it does not penetrate. A space just for us, just for this weirdly weighted moment with Lindsey’s brother who I hadn’t even known existed. “Can I see your drawings?”
“Oh, no.” I laugh. “No. Nope. No.”
He laughs, too, and my heart says, yes, that’s just how I imagined it would sound. It says it in some sort of Morse code of skipped and fast beats, but I understand it clear as day.
“So, that’s a no, then, huh?”
“That’s a hell no,” I say, smiling to lessen the harshness of it. “If I actually show people my drawings, then they’ll feel obliged to say something. And if they say something nice, I’ll think they’re lying. And if they don’t say something nice, I’ll think they hate it.”
“A catch-22,” he says, nodding sagely. “Definitely an impossible situation.”
“So you see why the answer is hell no.”
“What if I promise not to say anything or react in any way? Like, I’ll just look at it, and then look away, and that’s it?”
I squint up at him. “I don’t think you can do it.”
“Ha! Try me.”
“Zero reaction? Like, not even a twitch?”
“Zero twitches. I won’t even blink.”
With my eyes still narrowed suspiciously, I tug my phone free of my wristlet. I pull up the album of recent drawings I’ve made and pick one I’m particularly proud of. One I even considered putting on my Instagram before I remembered my policy of never showing anyone my artwork. It’s a waterfall, nothing but a waterfall, but in the water, there are the shapes of people if you look closely enough, people who look like they’re laughing, like they’re crying, like they’re drowning.
How I felt drawing it is like how I felt when I put this dress on tonight— like it was me. Like there are cracks in my heart and this is what I pulled out of them.
“You promise?” I ask, clutching the phone to my chest. I can’t read my heart so well just now. It is either saying, don’t you dare, or, do it do it do it do it.
“I promise,” he says, and I believe him. It doesn’t matter what my heart is saying, I believe him, and I turn the phone around so he can see the screen.
And he doesn’t so much as blink. He stares blankly at the picture for a long moment while I stare at him, and when it feels like an eternity has passed, I quickly pull the phone back and slide it back into my wristlet.
We regard each other silently for a continuation of the long moment.
“Can I move my face yet?” he asks in a stage whisper.
He makes a show of rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands and stretching his jaw from side to side. Then, he looks at me.
“I can’t say anything?”
“You can’t say anything.” Though every bone in my body wants to hear what he thinks. If he likes the colors. If he thinks the water looks alive, like it’s more than flowing, but breathing.
He looks like every bone in his body wants to protest, but instead he runs a hand through his head and nods. He looks down at me with his lashes lowered and a spike to one corner of his lips that incites my insides to do dangerous things like flip and fall and hope.
“So, shall we check out that chocolate fountain?”
By the time we’ve doused everything the table has to offer in chocolate, with pink champagne as a palate cleanser between each item, I have forgotten that anyone else is at this party. There’s a lot of laughter coming from the living room, and the music is getting louder and louder, but Carter and I perch on the kitchen island with what remains of our plates of pilfered items, as though we have formed our own party.
I check the time on the microwave and see that nearly two hours have passed since I got here. Nearly two hours to go from strangers to his hand resting on the countertop between us, close enough that I can feel the warmth of it, close enough that if I leaned a little to the right, his thumb would graze my knee.
It is a challenge not to lean.
We give the pretzels a B+ and the strawberries an A-. The minus is only because we are trying not to be cliché, not because they weren’t delicious. The marshmallows get a solid B from me, though he insists upon an A, and I can’t believe it when he only gives the rice crispy treats a C.
The more glasses of champagne I down, the more I feel as though someone has loosened a corset I’m not wearing. An internal corset, perhaps, one that I usually keep as tight as possible so that my laughter isn’t too loud and my smile isn’t too wide and my words go through at least two filters before they ever see open air. There is no room for self-consciousness here, not when Carter’s laughter is also loud and his smile is also wide and his words trip over mine so that he has an answer to every question and a question for every answer without ever needing to stop and think.
Lindsey peeks in once and gives me what I think is meant to be a secretive thumbs up, but as Carter is sitting right there, we both send a thumbs up back and then exchange looks lined with laughter.
It’s then that I don’t lean.
No, I don’t lean.
But his hand is touching my knee, then, and I know that if I didn’t lean, that means he did.
We notice at the same time, both looking down at the contrast of his tan, broad hand against my winter-pale leg. Something quiet and careful settles over us in place of loud and careless, and I wonder if he can hear it when my next swallow is half-gulp.
If this was a dance, its choreographer would deserve a promotion, because there is no deciphering who turns to whom first. One moment we are looking down at his hand and my leg, and the next, we are turned at the waist and his hand is on my cheek, his pinky resting lightly against my neck. I’m sure he can feel my pulse. I’m sure he can feel that it is frantic, a flutter, a pull. It says please because I can’t. I’ve run out of easy words and cannot seem to pull any others free.
And then his hand falls away, and he turns to face forward once more, and I process those two things at the exact same instant as he says, “Amanda.”
I turn then, too. I turn, and there she is. I don’t know her, don’t recognize her, but she can only be Amanda, said in that tone, in the tone that says it’s a name he’s said many times, so many times, and when I slide off the counter, I don’t even feel it when my feet scream their protest. I don’t even feel it. I’m too busy watching her eyes dart between him and me.
“Carter. I’m sorry I’m late, I—”
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” he says, and his voice is quiet and careful and I am suddenly, remarkably sober. Maybe I was never actually even drunk. Maybe that was all something else. Something else that made me feel more free than I’ve felt in years, a decade, more.
I don’t let the thought stay. I grab my plate off the counter and start for the doorway. The doorway she’s still standing within, neatly framed, her hair as dark as night and perfectly wavy, her lipstick the same shade of red as my dress.
“Hallie—” Carter starts to stay behind me, but I’m already smiling at Amanda, already gesturing past her, already saying, “Excuse me.” in a voice that sounds just like mine, just like how mine has always sounded, careful and measured and like there’s a wall it passes through on its way out of me.
Just like it has always sounded, except for the past couple hours when it sounded like something else.
If I thought I was the seventeenth wheel earlier, now I’d be more like the thirty-first. The living room is filled to bursting, with the couches pushed aside to make a makeshift dance floor and plastic champagne glasses lifted high in the air and only love songs, nothing but love songs, playing through the speakers. I see Molly through the crowd of people, but I duck before she can see me and make a beeline for the door.
I’m all the way down the hallway, outside of the building, and down the steps before I realize that the earlier drizzle has progressed to a steady downpour. I’m soaked before I take two steps.
And I’m all the way to my car before I realize that my wristlet is still somewhere in the kitchen, with my keys and my phone and Carter and Amanda and my racing pulse and the scattered remains of all of the wants I hadn’t known I possessed.
I stand beneath the streetlight, staring dismally into the window of my car, the rain sliding down the front of my dress and sending shivers through me from head to toe so that I’m half-sure I won’t ever be either warm or dry again. And all I keep seeing in my mind is Carter turning away. All I keep thinking about is the way her eyes had darted between us. All I keep hearing is the way he’d say—
It takes me a moment to realize that it was said out loud, behind me, and that it isn’t a memory. I turn around to find him standing there, my wristlet in one hand extended toward me, the lilac of his shirt already fully transformed into dark purple by the rain. His hair is plastered to his forehead, and everything on his face says exactly what my pulse had been saying to him earlier.
It says please.
I hate how badly my hand shakes as I reach for my wristlet. I blame the rain, the cold, him.
Him more than any of it.
I tug on it, but he doesn’t let go.
“I…” He trails off and shoves his free hand up into his hair, pushing it back off his face. “Can I just explain really quick? Please?”
“That’s really not necessary,” I say, the start of my words overlapping with the end of his. “I’m just going to go. I need to go. I wasn’t going to stay this long anyway, and I really have to get back—”
“Amanda is my ex-girlfriend,” he cuts in. “We broke up a few months ago. I honestly had no idea she’d be here, but she’s been to this party the past couple years and I guess she figured it was going on again.”
The rain keeps taking his words and slamming them into the sidewalk between us, so I’m not sure I’ve heard him correctly. I take a small step closer, straining my ears.
“Ex-girlfriend?” I ask tentatively. It shouldn’t matter, he’s a stranger, I just met him, it would do nothing for me to go back to my life right now and forget all about him, except right now I’m not sure anything has ever mattered more.
“Ex-girlfriend. Like, a really hard emphasis on the ex.” He takes a small step closer, too, so that now the wristlet is wedged between our bodies. I have to tilt my head back to see his face.
“She was looking for you.”
“She was, yeah. But I… I was looking for you.”
He says it like he means more than just tonight, more than just right here, right now. He says it like he means forever, and I want to scoff at the thought of it, at the thought of forever, but it’s also painted in his eyes, also embedded in the hand he lightly cups around my elbow. It’s in this moment. Somehow, forever found its way into this very moment.
“I was looking for you, too,” I say, or someone inside of me says, because I would never say something this cheesy, this ugh, Valentine’s Day, gross, but hell if I don’t mean it with every fiber of my being.
“Can I say something now?” he asks.
“What do you mean?” I shake my head, confused.
“Can I say something about the drawing?”
It’s the last thing I’d expected him to say, standing here in the rain with both of us looking for each other, both of us finding each other, a breath away from one another. A breath that is stolen by proximity, by the barest of downward leans from him, so all I can do is nod.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he says, and I catch every word on my lips, every word in my soul. I stand on my tiptoes, but I can’t fully close the distance. Rain is dripping down his face and into my eyes and there is no longer any space between us and I can’t remember where he ends and I begin. “It’s like it’s alive. Like it was something else and then you drew it and made it alive.”
If some tears mix in with the rain, at least he wouldn’t know it. At least he can’t tell. At least he seems satisfied with the only answer I give, which is my hand clutching the front of his shirt so tightly that it’ll be hell to get that wrinkle out, and—
At least he finally, finally leans down the rest of the way and kisses me.