Three of our Coffee Club Members Share Their Valentine Stories
Thank you, thank you everyone, for sending us your Valentine stories! We baristas have read your work and have tried to select works which portray different human perspectives – this in these days of a seemingly endless pandemic which has darkly colored the Be My Valentine emotions for a lot of folks.
Our first Valentine’s Day winner is Wiam Najjar’s short story,”Valentine.” Wiam Najjar is a writer at heart and a school principal in mission. She leads teachers and students then goes home to her sacred haven; writing. She’s been published in online magazines and writing blogs and was shortlisted in the 2018 Memoir Magazine #MeToo Essay Contest. You can check out her articles on MyDramaList and her blog WiamNajjar’s Haven.
“Valentine, you forgot your coffee!” She turned and smiled to her co-worker who handed her a coffee cup. As she felt the warmth of the coffee passing to her hands, the tears tickled her eyes but she refused to let go. Not the office. No tears in the office. It wasn’t because she received a pay cut notification that morning for calling her immediate supervisor “an incompetent retarded parachute” and having to explain to him the connotations of the word that she picked from her Korean shows; “a parachute in this context, sir, means that you got a job because of your connections and not because of your skills or experience.” It wasn’t because her supervisor went berserk and called her an old maid who’s gone hysterical after living alone for so long. It wasn’t because her grey hair, again, filled her fringe. It wasn’t because her nail polish looked like old house paint or that she realised she wore mismatching colours. None of those reasons would make her cry, at least not that day. It was Valentine’s Day. It was February 14th and she, again, was called Valentine by her co-workers and she, again, had to smile and respond and she, again, had to face the fact that that became, for more than half her life, her second name, her eternal nickname.
Nothing much to her accountant job. She didn’t care much about it and she always wondered why they had kept her so long. She had worked there ever since she could remember. Ever since she graduated from a university she didn’t care about and a major she wouldn’t bother with. She got into the first company she applied for and there she was, with her own house and car and nothing on earth to bother her.
There she laughed. Alone. Like a woman possessed. She didn’t receive more than a glance from her colleagues. They never knew why and they never cared enough to ask but they got used to her crazy moments all the same. She was infamous around the office for talking to herself all the time and going through mental battles that nobody but her knew about. She’d laugh alone after having a mental conversation. Oh! Just like what had happened moments ago.
At the beginning it wasn’t easy. She wanted people to ask her why she was all alone. She wanted people to care. She cared that people cared. But eventually she realised it would never work. And when she stopped caring, they also stopped.
She might be an old maid. For all she knew she was. Even in an open-minded and global country like Australia, 50 is considered old and if she was to forget the literal meaning of the word old-maid, yes, she was one. 50 and never married.
Of course she had boyfriends. In fact, too many. She had more than she could count. She was still considered beautiful. Well, beautiful in her 20s and 30s is a bit different from beautiful at 50 but up to last year, she had a boyfriend, and 15-years younger on top of that.
They broke up, last year, on Valentine’s Eve. She knew it would happen. It had happened ever since she was 15. Yes, she needed 10 years to realise that was to be her curse but she knew it was happening all the same. Her last boyfriend, Patrick, sat next to her on her bed after a steamy night she knew would be her last with him and smiled saying, “seems like we’re not spending Valentine together.” For many a year, she’d smile at that moment. But one day, she could smile no longer. So she threw her head back and looked at the chandelier above her head and said, “I know.”
People called her cursed, unlucky and unfortunate. With years, the story spun about her was getting more detailed but more boring. People had no solid information so they made things up. The last version of her tale was completed and narrated by the co-worker who handed her coffee that very day. As she was about to step into the break room the previous day, she overheard that colleague sharing “her life story”.
“So she was sexually abused as a child by her father and had to live with him as his lover until he died when she was 30. After that, she chased every guy she ran into and turned her apartment into a brothel. The reason why she’s still in this company despite her indifference and carelessness is because she’s been sleeping with the executive manager for years. They even say she owns a sex chamber. I saw her buying wires the other day! I mean, how else would a 50-year old woman with no outstanding performance keep such a job and have her own house and car?”
She suppressed her laughter and the urge to call that co-worker “the most pathetic person she’s ever met”. Not because she couldn’t, she did call her supervisor names, but because she would have to explain the real events and she had no plans whatsoever to do so. But she was so curious and she couldn’t resist asking that co-worker what was on her mind. She stepped into the break room and watched the faces of her colleagues change from momentary surprise to anticipation as they watched her walk towards Danielle, the story teller.
“I’m sorry to intrude, Danielle. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but there’s only one break room and I had to drink some water. Anyway, I know you wouldn’t mind me asking a few follow-up questions about the story you just told.”
Danielle stared fixedly at her without blinking which made it really difficult for her to hold her laughter. Danielle needed a minute to recollect herself and reply that it would be perfectly okay for her to ask any question.
“I was wondering if you’ve been reading 19th century literature lately!” she asked sarcastically.
With confusion all over her face, Danielle replied, “What? No, I haven’t! Why?”
“It’s just that nobody has used the word ‘’brothel’’ in ages.” She could hear her colleague’s chuckle behind her as she muttered the words and it also didn’t matter. She added in the same mocking tone, “one more question. Would you like to visit my sex chamber? I would tie you really tight!”
More chuckle. Danielle gaping at her with no verbal response.
“Oh! The last thing,” she whispered, “our executive manager is gay.”
She saw the colour dry out of Danielle’s face and the chuckle turn into hysterical laughter as she headed straight out of the office, to her car and directly to her house. She threw her bag on the floor as she reclined on her big green sofa and stared at the ceiling. She looked away from the ceiling to the corner of her room and back to the ceiling. In that very corner, her first boyfriend hid to surprise her on Valentine’s Day when she was 15. In that very corner, she saw him holding a red teddy bear and asking her to spend the rest of the Valentines with him. In that very corner, she said yes. And in that very corner she cried when he, right after he left her that night, was hit by a truck and died on the spot. It was in that corner that she vowed one more time to never have another Valentine. It was that corner she’d return to whenever her date broke up with her on Valentine’s Eve or another guy hit on her after Valentine with the same pick-up line, “I can’t believe you spent Valentine alone.”
Was it their promise? Was it her vow? Was it fate and the stars? Or was he just there? Always present? His spirit hadn’t left her world and had lingered around to make sure she never had another Valentine?
She put on a red coat and walked out. She came back holding a cake. She placed the cake down in the corner and sat there all night, staring at the ceiling and singing eternal love songs.
Our second V-Day winning writer is Robert Pope, a frequent contributor here at the Café. Bob has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020) and a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has also published stories in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology. Bob has a new collection of short stories, entitled Not a Jot or a Tittle, due to be published next month. Herewith his Valentine’s Day flash fiction.
Flowers, Beaches, and Clean Hotel Rooms
Mildred was right when she told me marriage was the next step, but I could not entertain the notion of a long and boring life with one woman beside me through thick and thin. She wanted to take me to dinner at our favorite restaurant for Valentine’s Day, where we could speak of the future in comfortable surroundings. All right, I thought, I will enjoy the dinner more because she is paying, and I will inform her of my decision to exit the relationship before it got more serious.
She had something to tell me that could be the making or breaking of any future plans. She made me promise no flowers, no candy, no silly cards. I wanted no hint as to what she had to say. The savor of not knowing made the evening as promising as first dates before we knew when or if we would end up in bed together.
She wore the black sweater I love on her and a scent of flowers, beaches, and clean hotel rooms. Candles softened angles that might have otherwise impressed themselves on us, in her face, in mine. Never had her long dark hair, her lovely brown eyes, or extraordinary skin looked as enticing. But what would a lifetime with this same hair and eyes and skin, this lovely personality, this intelligent mind, come to at last more than the splat at the bottom of a cliff after a long fall?
The wine bottle stood sentry, my glass half full, hers half empty as we engaged in what might be called chit-chat. I wanted to know what she had to tell me, and I planned to let her down slowly, explaining what led to my decision not to pursue our relationship. Our orders placed, the hors d-oeuvres consumed, we leaned into the meat of the conversation.
“If you recall,” she said, “when I told you I wanted to take you to dinner so we could discuss matters of mutual concern, I mentioned I have something to tell you.”
Never had her voice sounded softer, more luxurious. Never had she seemed so considerate of my feelings, assuring me that she would understand no matter how I responded.
“Many years ago,” she said.
I have not mentioned our ages. Both of us in our late thirties, we had come to this passage honestly, through the painful trial and error of single people who are no longer young.
“You must understand how difficult this is. I don’t see how I can escape it. There is nothing I can do but tell you.”
I could not have been less willing to interrupt.
“You know I was married before we met. He appeared in the guise of a good man early in our relationship. I did not suspect it would be nothing more than a guise.” She leaned back in her chair. She took a breath. I watched it enter and leave her with a slight rise and fall of her breast.
“So, I killed him,” she said.
I did not understand the words at first. When I gathered my senses and understood she was perfectly serious, I knew I had to say something. “You literally killed him?”
She did not acknowledge I had said anything for a moment, and then, as if she had thought about it, “I literally killed him.”
She had let me know a few awful things her husband did, but she didn’t like dead issues between us. I never pursued any deeper knowledge than offered, imagining routinely difficult areas in any marriage, followed by a stressful dissolution.
“May I ask how you killed him?”
“I shot him. Once, in the forehead. He died immediately.”
“And before you shot him, he was . . .” I trailed off.
“If you want to know what he was doing before I shot him, I will tell you at some time in the future. A lengthy trial resulted in acquittal, his family dissatisfied, mine vindicated.”
I poured us both another glass of wine. We sat back in silence, gazing at one another without any change of expression for several minutes, which, in conversation, turns out to be quite a long time. At some point, I reached out and took her hand. I told her I didn’t have a ring, but we could pick one out the next day.
At this point, dinner arrived. It looked wonderful. Beyond that, we all need something to look forward to. This constitutes hope for many of us. Far from a long and boring life with Mildred, I would have to be on the look-out for the moment she decided to kill me.
This new information put teeth in our promise to love, honor, and be faithful as long as we both shall live. I never asked what he did to deserve his bullet, and I’m still dizzy in love with her after all these years. For her part, I’m still alive, and that says it all.
The final selection, for those of you who are brave enough to listen to a portion of a Valentine’s Day college radio show from like 20 years ago, can be found below. One of our baristas found it, a cassette (anybody remember cassettes?), in a shoebox in their uncle’s garage and passed it around. Everybody loved it: a story about a spurned lover leaving messages on her lover’s answering machine, interspersed with the music of The Pretenders (the band of which Egmont Davison remarked, “Heartbreaking Music by a Band of Staggering Genius”), The Cars, Roy “Dum-dum-dum-dum-de-do-wah) Orbison, The Stones, and many others you won’t hear in this clip (sorry, WordPress has filesize restrictions).
The “Dark Valentine” image at the top of the blog was hand-drawn with a Crayola on the cassette case; we had it re-engineered for tonight’s show (thanks, Mike!). The DJ, who calls himself “The 2000 Man,” must be a real loser at love, but boy oh boy can he segue the musical sets together with the audio clips. It’s a mixtape of an emotional mosh pit of life, love and love lost — sad, brutal, raw, even funny at times, but always a dark valentine.
If you like what you hear, let us know. Maybe we can figure out some way to chop up the entire two-hour broadcast (yes, it was a real radio show; listen for the FM static in the background) like we did this clip for ya.