The best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had was in the year 2000. It went down by the numbers, far better planned and executed than some covert ops. And, it was great, right up until the Fire Department arrived. So much for sophistication, grace, a certain Mati Hari style.
Harry and I had only been dating since New Year’s Eve, one of those wonderful Millennium meetings and it was just about a week before February 13 when it dawned on me, “Oh, wow! Valentine’s Day is coming and I’ve got someone to celebrate it with!” We were having drinks at the time and I was careful to keep my tone casual when I asked if I could reserve next Monday.
Harry tilted his head, thought about it for a moment, and said, “Sure.”
“Great.” My mind was dancing with ideas.
(insert: I am going to now break protocol and tell this using my real name, Peggie, because it is a part of the story.)
Harry ordered us two more drinks. “Now, Peg, I do know it’s Valentine’s Day.”
I grinned at him. “Yes. Would you mind leaving the details to me?” He looked skeptical. “No, no,” I assured him, “it won’t be going out to dinner or anything dull like that.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Just be available. If my plan works, you’ll know what I want you to do.”
“There’s a funny look in your eye.” He said indulgently. Well, it had been less than two months; he didn’t know me all that well.
“The truth is I have only celebrated Valentine’s Day twice in my life. I’ve never had the timing right — of having a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. Used to make me crazy. All the women at the office getting those flowers. Urgh.” It was a genuine growl. I was never a good sport on Valentine’s Day.
It was while I was telling him how Valentine’s Day came about and changed through the ages that the plan emerged full-blown in my mind’s eye. “It’s from the pagan days celebrating the birds and the bees. No, really. Everyone would have a feast and then go out into the fields and make wild passionate love. Later on, of course, the Church came along and, since they couldn’t squash it, they co-opted it, making it religious. Still later, in England, tradition was, the first man a woman saw on Valentine’s Day would be her sweetheart for the year.”
I took a sip of my wine. “‘Course, the women solved that by going around with their eyes closed and their married friends leading them until they saw someone the woman liked. Poof! She’d open her eyes. Now, of course, it’s dinner and flowers. Sad, really. I prefer the pagan.” (One of my first published articles was the history of Valentine’s Day.)
“Excellent!” Harry looked anticipatory.
“Um…” I said, thinking out loud and glancing sideways at him. “It might be just a little bit over the top…”
“Over the top is good.”
“So be it.”
The problem with writers, especially frustrated writers, is they just can’t keep a good story to themselves. Harry’s last romance had ended on a very cruel note. I was determined to demonstrate not all women were the same. A few days later, all of Seattle was in on it.
The second problem was Valentine’s Day was on a Monday and shops were closed on Sunday. That Saturday, I ran around like crazy, picking up everything. The florists had outdone themselves. It was a little staggering. Six bouquets, beautiful, exquisite arrangements that a woman would love. They were in pink and red paper, as well as the cellophane, and at a glance, they would curl the toes of a tough Marlboro guy, which, in all fairness, was true of Harry. Hmm. A wee bit over the top.
Harry’s roommate, Gina, rode up on her motorcycle and stared with amazement at the inside of my refrigerator. “How on earth am I going to get them all home?”
“Nope. Only three of ’em. Each has their card attached and you remember where to put ’em, right?”
She laughed. Her eyes were alight. “Oh, yes! Bedroom, stairs, truck.”
“Right. Don’t forget the two boxes. Those are to go with #2 and #3.”
Her eyes widened at the weight. Fortunately, she’d brought a friend with her, Lauren, and together, they staggered down the stairs and out the door. I heard the motorcycle take off and went back up the stairs.
My apartment is rather odd. It sits above a commercial shop, which works out wonderfully because we keep opposite hours. I have my own separate entrance from the street with a half-glassed and wooden door that opens directly upon a narrow staircase that leads up to my landing and my apartment. I’m the only one on the second floor.
Harry and I had dinner the night before Valentine’s Day and he made some crack that would ordinarily have got my temper going. “Listen. Nothing you say will interfere with tomorrow. Come hell, come high water, Valentine’s Day goes forward.”
He raised his eyebrows.
I lifted a finger in warning, “However, there’s always the possibility of Black Tuesday.”
Harry choked on his beer.
I went to bed that night, running it all through my head. Yep, that should work. A small flicker of doubt ran through me. Oh, well, it was too late to stop it now. The plan was in motion.
In truth, I missed most of the beginning scenes, so I heard about it from various sources.
Gina called me. “Well first off, he wouldn’t go to bed. I had to wait until 1:45 in the morning when he finally started snoring. You owe me.”
“Yes, I do!” I said fervently. “What happened?”
“The alarm went off at 4:00. Nothing. He didn’t hear it. I could see him just lying there. The alarm was annoying. I finally yelled at him to get up and turn the damn alarm off. That worked. Sort of. I’d put the flowers by the alarm, but he just swatted them away. He never saw ’em because he didn’t turn the light on. While he was in the bathroom, I snuck into his room and put them on top of his shoes. But, honest to God, he never turned the light on, he was dressing in the dark. I finally yelled, “Oh for God’s sake, Harry, turn on the light!” He jumped out of his skin when he saw the flowers. “THIS EARLY? SHE’S BEGUN THIS EARLY?!” He took the flowers and the card and went down the stairs. He must have put them in a vase, actually all of them, because they were there when I got up this morning. I peeked out the widow when he went out to the truck, and he was sitting inside it with the dome light on, reading.”
Harry said, “I went down the stairs, and there’s another bouquet of flowers. I took the first and the second into the kitchen and stuck ’em in water, and headed for the truck. I about had a heart attack when I saw the third one on the seat!” He scowled, hiding a grin. “So, it’s not even light yet and I take the third set back in the house. Haven’t even read the cards yet. That was okay, you’d labeled ’em in sequence.”
The first card had read:
Ways to Celebrate Valentine’s Day (and listed four options):
1. Pagan: ancient fertility rites;
2. Church approved activities;
3. c. 1500’s England – first person you see; and
4. c. 2000: See’s candy, etc.
There was an arrow indicating he was to turn the card over. “I picked Pagan. Want to celebrate with me? (signed) Peg (an).”
Card #2, which came with a box, said, “This is for when only your shoulders hurt. P.S. There are 6 of these cards. Three are near you. Always read the card first …” The box contained a terry cloth bag filled with rice and herbs that you heat up in a microwave for sore necks and muscles.
Card #3 said, “Assuming you chose Pagan Rituals, I thought you might want to peruse this for ideas… Caveat: Choice is limited to one man, one woman. Peg (an). P.S. Be at the Kort Haus Tavern after you get off work.” It too came with a box. Inside was “Sexual Secrets – the Alchemy of Ecstasy” (with 600 illustrations).
“Well, I didn’t open the boxes. I wanted my coffee.” He always stopped for a double strength latte on the way to work. “I was paying for my coffee and Len, the guy I see every morning, said, “Hey, Harry, how’s your Valentine’s Day so far?” I told him he wouldn’t believe it.”
“What? Did you get a rose?” Harry did a perfect imitation of Len, the lip curled just a little.
“No, I got three,” Harry held up three fingers. “Bouquets of flowers, plus two boxes out in the car, and it’s not 5:00 a.m. yet.” Harry continued, “He didn’t believe me. So, I said I’d prove it. I went out to the truck and got the cards and the boxes for good measure.”
Harry shrugged. “I opened the boxes right on the counter. By now, three other customers are listening to the story and everybody leans to get a peek.
“The first one,” Harry gleamed at me, “wasn’t too bad, except for all that confetti you put in there. Everybody laughed and nodded. Then I opened the second one…” His voice died away. That was the book of erotica. “We all stared at each other and Len swallowed and said, ‘Good luck, Harry.'”
In the meantime, I received a beautiful bouquet of roses and tiger lilies with a card that said, “Thank you. You were worth the wait.” And, I finally got to have my heart’s desire of someone sending me flowers on Valentine’s Day (not to mention the message).
Harry got to work and the guys were teasing him. They, too, didn’t believe him. He whipped the cards out of his pocket and held them up. One of the guys muttered, “Jeez, all I got was a card.” Another grumbled, “I got nothing.” Another glanced around and said, “Uh, Harry, does she know where you work?”
Harry said, “She not only knows where I work, she knows the building, she knows the numbered line system…” They looked awed. “Wow, my wife just knows the name of the company. … Uh, Harry, you might want to be careful.”
He says he almost quit that day because the boss wanted everyone to work late and he knew he was due at the Tavern after work. “Well, you’d gone to so much trouble .. and the guys backed me up. They want to know what’s happening. Tomorrow, I have to finish the story. No one is going to be out sick.”
He did go to the Tavern after work and Kimbersan, one of my best friends, was sitting having a beer when he walked in. She let him settle for a bit, saying hi, how was your day. “He was busy being macho, pretending embarrassment, but he was pretty thrilled, he kept looking around for you and becoming more relaxed — right up ’til I handed him bouquet #4. At that point, he did turn the same color s the red and pink wrapping paper. He said, ‘Jeez, is everybody in on it?'”
Kimbersan nodded. “Pretty much.”
Harry opened Card #4 and inside were two tokens for two beers. The card read, “FOR YOUR PLEASURE. Peg (an). You are invited to my house at 7:00. Do not come early.”
Kimbersan laughed. “He lasted a beer and a sip on the second one and shot out of there, saying he had to take a shower and get ready.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it was the worst traffic Seattle has seen — probably everybody racing to go out to dinner. I got home with about 29 minutes to spare. Walked the dog and cat, raced downstairs, planted the #5 flowers at the bottom, and on the door, #6, threw a bunch of rose petals in reds, yellows and pinks from the top of the stairs down, added some of the metallic heart-shaped confetti for good measure.
I jumped in the shower, slathered myself in oil and dashed the confetti on my skin, and threw on the bright red T-shirt that read “PEG (AN)” (Harry liked women in t-shirts a lot. He also liked beer.)
I lit a ton of candles, got the ice into the bucket by slamming it violently onto the sink (yelling, “Come on, come on, come on!), sprinkled more rose petals from the door to the bedroom and up onto the bed, heard his truck coming, leapt for the bed and tried to look as though I’d been waiting for two hours. ‘Course I was panting, but maybe he’d think it was something else. The door downstairs opened and shut.
There was dead silence.
I knew what he was seeing. He opened Card #5, which merely said, “Follow the petals.”
Up the stairs to the front door, where Card #6 awaits. “Keep following the petals … P.S., the dog bone is a bribe for Doven.”
The front door opened very quietly. I heard him murmur to Doven and imagined him studying the rose petal path.
All of a sudden, I thought, “Oh, my God, what if this just scares him, instead of making him feel special?” It was way too late. Footsteps down the hall and he came to a stop at the door.
He didn’t say a word, just stared at me.
I was sitting cross-legged on the bed. I wriggled one hand like the signal of a plane’s wings, essayed a grin and croaked, “Ah, what do you think? A little over the top?”
He shook his head, took a deep breath, and the Macho Man said, “I almost want to cry.”
“Oh, good! then it worked!”
He came towards the bed, taking in the candles, the beer on ice, and the bright red T-shirt with black lettering, “PEG (AN)“, the rose petals scattered all over the down comforter, the metallic hearts glittering in my hair and on my skin. And he gave me a kiss straight out of the movies, where you feel it down to your toes.
Like all good stories, that should have been the end. Curtain comes down and we leave the theater with ideas dancing in our heads.
Not quite. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and, as he was falling asleep, I got up go to the other room for a glass of water. I decided I’d go nibble on him for a while and carefully and quietly opened the door. There was a lot of smoke. I thought to myself, “All the candles went out at the same time?”
I opened the door wider and saw that the down comforter was on fire, the flames licking two inches from Harry’s head. Now, that’s a man who sleeps soundly. Apparently, he had flicked the down comforter up and over his head and on the way, it snagged a candle on the night table.
I poured the glass of water onto the flames and shouted at him. “Harry, get up! The bed’s on fire!”
You have never seen anyone move that fast. He levitated and came down in his jeans — almost. Harry swears I pulled up the blinds and threw open the windows to air the room while he was still stark naked. An old woman was walking her dog and he says she winked at him. We ran back and forth with water, dousing the flames. The fire had gone sideways and burned the down comforter and the bed, not to mention the eight pillows. There were feathers everywhere; especially on the bottoms of our feet. They were coated in feathers and rose petals because we were still barefoot and wet. Once we had the comforter’s flames put out, we had dragged it off the bed and onto the floor and tackled the mattress. Since it had burned sideways straight into the bed and come out in two other places next to the wall, Harry was desperately squirting a water-filled soap bottle into the holes. The fire was out, but it wouldn’t stop smoking. I had grabbed the dog and locked her in the bathroom, so she wouldn’t get hurt. The cat was nowhere to be seen.
Finally, Harry and I looked at each other. We tried to hold concerned expressions for 10 seconds and then started laughing. “How are we going to explain this?” I asked. “All of Seattle knows about your Valentine’s Day. They want the follow up.”
Harry said, “Man, they didn’t believe me before. They’re never going to believe this.”
We studied the smoking bed. “We need to call the Fire Department.” I said.
“No!” It was instinctive on his part. He was still squirting water into the inside of the mattress. “I’ll go buy a fire extinguisher.”
“At 9:30 at night?” I dialed 9-1-1.
Harry scowled. “Don’t! Peg, they’ll wreck your whole house with axes and stuff.”
I hung up. Mistake. They called back. I answered with my name and a woman said, “This is the Seattle Police Department. We received a call.”
“Yes. I did that. I’m sorry I hung up. I know your procedures. This is not an emergency, but I think I need the Fire Department.”
“Why don’t you tell me the situation?” She said encouragingly.
Harry was staring at me, frozen with the squirt bottle still in his hands. I paused. Knowing it would go forward on its own momentum from here on out. Sighing, I said, “Okay. Go with me on this.” Sigh. “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
Sigh. “We set the bed on fire.”
“Is everybody okay?”
“Oh, yes. It’s out. Everything’s under control, but it’s still smoking. I’m concerned it will keep burning. I would feel better if we had the Fire Department come and check it out and use a fire extinguisher on it.”
“Let me dial that number for you.” There were traces of amusement in her voice.
A male voice said, “Fire Department. What’s your address?”
I said, “Are we all three here?”
She piped up, “Yes, I am here.” Definite amusement. “I can’t hang up. I called you.”
The man ignored this. “What address are you calling about?” I gave it to him. “What’s the situation?” I repeat it.
“Look, it’s not an emergency. You don’t need to hurry or use axes or anything. Take your time, in fact.”
“We’ll be there shortly.”
Within a few minutes, loud sirens. Harry said, “Here they come.”
I march down the rose petal strewn stairs and go outside. Huffing and puffing like a gigantic red dragon, the truck pulls up. I gesture who I am like an umpire signing defeat. They pull into the parking lot next door. My neighbors are walking their dogs and stopping to watch. I walk over to the truck. Four firemen, dressed in full regalia, jump down. I growl, “I told you sirens weren’t necessary.”
“Yes, ma’am, you did.” They are trying not to laugh. Quick conference and they start grabbing fire extinguishers and what looks like hoses, but turns out to be a folded tarp. “Hey! Wait you guys!”
They all turn to look at me. My hands are raised in plea. “Could I just take one of you to scope out and assess the situation? There’s no need for hoses and things.”
They got that look of, “Don’t tell us how to do our job.” One of ’em says, “No, ma’am, all four of us have to go.” I looked at him. They were having too much fun for any of ’em to miss out. Probably hadn’t had a call all night. Everybody out to dinner.
“Okay.” I growled and spinning around, tried to stalk with dignity to my door. All four followed. I stopped and held up a hand. “Just a moment, please.”
They all stopped and looked at me. A fearsome awesome sight in heavy-duty fireproof yellow outfits with helmets and protective visors flipped up. And they were big. “Just remember,” I warned, “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
They shrugged, and began climbing the narrow steep staircase, filling it completely. It was funny when they realized what they were stepping on. In cadence, each began gingerly lifting their feet to not tread too hard on the rose petals. They reached the top and the leader looked down the staircase at me, since I was the last in line. I waved him on. “Just follow the rose petals.”
As I came last through the door, I saw the scene truly for the first time. Two bouquets of flowers rested on the table, footprints of feathers in a direct path from bedroom to kitchen and from the bedroom to the bathroom (water sources). The cat up high on a bookcase, the dog whining from the closed bathroom door. And, amongst all the debris, rose petals and feathers drifting lazily or smashed to a pup. It’s a small apartment. All four firemen crowded into the bedroom with Harry and I standing outside in the hall, looking in.
They studied the scene, feathers and all, not to mention the king size smoking bed. They took out a fisherman’s knife and gutted the mattress. Charred inside and burning all the way across. Carefully using the extinguisher, they surgically spritzed and spit on the mattress. Harry told me later that it ignited in the stairwell and that one of ’em was very fast with the extinguisher.
They continued gutting it until only springs and wet stuffing was left. No Dumpster. Nowhere to put it. Because of the insurance company, it would remain there for a week, just so all my neighbors would know it hadn’t been a kitchen fire. The firemen took the report and Harry called to me he was going home to get his shop-vac. Everybody left. It was quiet in their absence. I was sitting on the couch in the living room, just contemplating the mess. Throughout this, Harry had tried to be sensitive. “How are you doing? Are you ok? Why aren’t you crying?”
Harry came through the front door. The shop-vac looked like R2D2 out of Star Wars. “Enter the hero with his mighty weapon.” I whispered softly to myself.
I started to get up, saying, “I was going to begin cleaning and decided to wait for you.”
He was plugging the weapon in and waved me down. “No, you sit down and just relax, Peg. You’ve done enough good deeds for the day. I’ll take care of this.” He was not even sarcastic. I obeyed, settling back down.
He took the hose, turned the shop-vac on and began following the petals, sucking them up, as well as the feathers. He disappeared down the hall, the machine trailing behind him, looking like the great white hunter. I watched as it began to snow feathers in my living room, on the carpet and the hardwood floors, the machine creating enough of a wind to blow hundreds, then thousands of feathers out the back and throughout the living room. Everywhere. I finally got up and tapped Harry on the shoulder. “I don’t think this is working.” I yelled over the noise of the shop-vac.
He frowned, having almost jumped out of his skin at my tap, fully focused on the task at hand. He turned to look at me, thereby seeing the snowstorm. “What the hell!” He opened the shop-vac. The casing inside was clogged with wet feathers. In the end, it was on our hands and knees, picking them up, over and over again. If they were wet, they stuck to you, and if they were dry, they just flew all over, evading capture.
As we kissed goodnight, I said, “Well, I did want to give you a Valentine’s Day to remember.”
Harry pulled back, spat out a feather, and grinned. “What are you going to do next year?”
This post was submitted for the Weekly Writing Challenge in honor of Valentine’s Day.