Phillip was in love, though not with any woman in particular. He was in love with the idea of love. Having grown up on a diet of Keats and Wordsworth and Daphne du Maurier novels, Phillip spun his own fantasies on what love should be like. Sometimes he was young Lochinvar, dashing up on his fiery steed to rescue a damsel in distress. At others, he was Cary Grant, sweeping up a crippled Deborah Kerr into his arms and showering her teary face with kisses.
Phillip was in love, though not with any woman in particular. He was in love with the idea of love. Having grown up on a diet of Keats and Wordsworth and Daphne du Maurier novels, Phillip spun his own fantasies on what love should be like. Sometimes he was young Lochinvar, dashing up on his fiery steed to rescue a damsel in distress. At others, he was , sweeping up a crippled Deborah Kerr into his arms and showering her teary face with kisses.
At 44 though, Phillip had to admit to himself that the fantasy was wearing a bit thin. Yes, he knew a dream is a wish your heart makes, but although he wished his heart out, there was no dream on the horizon. Sure, he had dated a few women, but they all seemed so shallow; and it rarely got past two dates. When he quoted Longfellow, their eyes seemed to glaze over. When he told one bespectacled blonde that he had been privileged to see Leonardo's Mona Lisa in the Louvre, she thought he meant Di Capprio. Was he one of a kind, a dying species?
Once, when he had discussed his dilemma with his best friend Dean, the latter had told him he was a snob and a bit of a racist. That was so unfair. OK, so his ancestors were of solid Anglo-Saxon stock who had probably come over on the Mayflower; and he fancied himself a connoisseur of sorts, but that was just who he was. He did not think he put on airs. And was it so wrong to expect high standards from the woman he would one day live with? As for being racist, he had nothing against African-Americans per se. He was a big fan of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. As for black women, it was not as if he looked down on them. He was just awkward and uncomfortable around them. They spoke in this hip-hop patois that he found difficult to understand.
Phillip was an investment banker who lived in a small apartment on 14th Street in midtown Manhattan. Although he owned a Saab, he preferred to walk to his office off Wall Street. God knows he didn't get much exercise at the office; and his hectic work schedule meant that gym was not an option. Besides he liked observing people as he walked and trying to guess what they would be like. There was something different in the air this day, he noticed. Some people were actually smiling as they passed strangers on 5th Avenue – a rare occurrence for New York. It hit him when he passed by a shop window festooned with oversize hearts: it was .
Something else in that shop window struck him. A young woman was balancing on a chair, trying to adjust one of the big hearts suspended from the ceiling. He noticed her because she had the most perfectly shaped calves he had seen in a woman. They looked as if they had been sculpted by a Master. He realized he was staring; and was about to walk away when she tumbled off the chair and fell in a heap. As she picked herself up, she turned around and looked directly at him. Then she smiled. It was not an embarrassed smile, but as if she was slightly mocking him. Phillip stood transfixed. He felt something stirring inside him that was alien to him; a churning of his intestines which, strangely, felt wonderful. He decided to go inside the shop.
This was crazy, he told himself. He was not a creature of impulse; and he had no reason to go to a shop selling hearts. He did not even have a girlfriend, for heaven's sake. But it seemed his feet had a mind of their own. Before he knew it, he was standing in front of her and she was asking how she could help him. He started noticing things about her. For one thing, her skin was of a different color – not exactly black, but more of a light ebony. He was surprised that he had not noticed such an obvious feature when he was outside. It was as if that smile had hypnotized him. She was petite, with not so much curves, as gentle swells. Every part of her body seemed to merge seamlessly into the next. Before he could continue his occulatory examination, she spoke again.
"Are you here to buy something special for your wife", she asked.
"Er…ah" he choked out. What was happening to him? This was the same Phillip who was renowned in his friends circle for his biting wit and lightning-fast comebacks; and here he was stammering like a schoolboy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"For your girlfriend then," she continued, as he continued to goggle at her. "Surely you don't want to buy a Valentine Day gift for yourself." She was mocking him; and instead of putting her in her place, like the snob he was, he was smiling shamefacedly. He then tried something that had never worked before; complete honesty. "I came in because I wanted to meet you "She looked at him quizzically for a minute, then that smile blossomed again. She held out her hand. "Hi. I'm Valerie. Would you like to buy me a drink after I get off from work?" Just like that.
And that's how it started. Drinks was followed by dinner, then a carriage ride around Central Park. He found out things about her. She was 24, which could lay him open to the charge of cradle snatching, but he found he didn't care. One of the first things he discovered was that she wasn't from his "circle". She hated the opera and when he mentioned a trendy night club where he was quite well known, she had never heard of it. She lived in the Bronx, had no college degree; and her mother cleaned offices in Rockefeller Plaza. In short, she was precisely the type of woman, if he had been foolish enough to date one, he would have dumped after the first time.
But after each date with Valerie, he couldn't wait to ask her out again. What was wrong with him? This woman was totally wrong for him. She was singularly unimpressed when he dropped names of celebrities he had as clients; she laughed at him when he casually dropped references to Voltaire or Baudelaire and told him to stop showing off. She was impossible.
After six weeks, she invited him home for dinner. Phillip had mixed feelings about accepting, especially after he discovered that she still lived with her parents. Strangely, he found himself desperate to impress them. Strange because, all his life, he waited for people to impress him and, in truth, few made the grade. As was his wont, he tried to analyze the reasons for this bewildering state of affairs. He came to the conclusion that, more than anything, he wanted to be with Valerie. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out why. He enjoyed her company, of course. She wasn't nearly as well read as him, but he found himself eagerly anticipating her street smarts and homegrown wisdom.
But was he in love with her? Could he be in love with her? His mind told him she was all wrong for him, but his heart did not seem to be listening. For one thing, she did not fit into his idea of love. Once, when he told her, her neck was like a stately tower, where love himself imprisoned lies, she started giggling. She had never seen An Affair to Remember. She did see Sleepless in Seattle, but thought – horrors – that it was too "mushy." No, he couldn't be in love with someone like that. He was merely fascinated by the novelty of her.
Phillip approached the day of the dinner with some trepidation. The first dilemma was what to take as a gift. Normally, he would have selected an expensive bottle of Pinot Noir or Chateau Lafitte, but he wasn't sure. For one thing, he had never been to the home of a black family before. Would they find expensive wine too pretentious? He admitted to himself that he was falling prey to a stereotype, but he could not help himself. He settled on a Chianti and Camembert. Then there was the business of taking the subway – Valerie had strongly advised him not to bring his $40,000 Saab to the Bronx. He hadn't done that in years, but he supposed he would survive it.
As it turned out his fears were groundless. Valerie's parents may have lacked some of the social graces, but they made up for it with their genuine welcoming smiles and their desire to make him feel at home. He appreciated the fact that they made no reference to his skin color, or asked about his job, or his religious affiliation. Their daughter liked him and that was enough for them. They fussed over his modest gifts as if they were the crown jewels. During the meal, which Valerie admitted she had no part in making, he found he could say what he wanted without calculating the impact or consequences of his words. It was an exhilarating experience. Yes, it was a bit unnerving to have Valerie's 14-year old kid sister stare at him adoringly throughout dinner, but that was a minor irritant. Besides, it flattered his ego.
When he took Valerie out to dinner at an Italian restaurant the next day, he was as nervous as a schoolboy awaiting his SAT scores. Valerie, being Valerie, kept him dangling. She knew he was desperate to know what sort of impression he had made on her folks, but she talked about her day, what she had for lunch – everything but that. Finally, he grabbed her hand and told her to shut up. She pretended to be shocked at his effrontery, but he could see the mischievous smile in her eyes. He asked the question; and she became serious.
"Is it so important to you to be approved by my family?" she asked. When he nodded his head, she asked him why. He tried to think of one his witty remarks, but the words came out of their own volition.
"I don't know why" he started out. "I don't know what I feel, or even why I feel it. All I know is that no other human being has spoken to my heart the way you do. I had my life partner all mapped out; and you don't fit the mould. You're too young and…so many other things. I didn't set out to fall in love with you; and I'm still not sure that I am. What I do know is that if you were to leave my life now, you would create a void that would be impossible for any other woman to fill."
Valerie's eyes misted over and she gripped his hand hard. "You're not my type either…wrong color, for one thing." There, that flash of impulsive humor he had become addicted to. "I know I shouldn't make jokes at a time like this," she added; and the smile gently disappeared. "I appreciate it that you're never condescending towards me, like some men I've dated – even though you're so more cultured and educated than I am. Sometimes, when I say something particularly silly, I've seen a retort spring to your lips, but you suppress it so beautifully. Why do you do that?" she asked, changing gears again.
"Believe me," he replied, "I'm as surprised as you are. I've never suffered fools gladly and been proud of it." He realized what he had just said and blushed a deep red. "Not that you're a fool," he stammered, "I just meant…I…" he stopped abruptly. She leaned forward and patted his cheek affectionately. "I know what you meant," she spoke softly "and I love you for being patient with me; and for changing the subject whenever you sense my discomfort. I love it that we've been dating and you haven't asked me to sleep with you, because you sensed I wasn't ready. There, I said it. I do love you. Does it frighten you?"
He looked at her for a long moment, as if he was coming to a decision. "No," he said, I thought it would, but it doesn't. A lot of the comfortable assumptions I made about my life have been turned on their head since I met you. And you know what, I'm glad? You've made me realize that my "life" wasn't living at all; just a passive existence. Where is the adventure if everything is laid out for you according to a plan? Where is the excitement? So what if our love is never immortalized in legend? It is the little things; the quick kisses, the secret smile that shows we understand each other without speaking – even the silly fights: that is what makes up lives. I want to throw the dice and let them land where they may. But I want you to first blow on my hand for luck."
Valerie looked at him for a very long moment, her face expressionless. He started to get mildly panicky. Had he said too much? Had he come on too strong? Was it too soon? Then, suddenly, that luminous smile broke out again; and so did the sunshine. Without a word, she leaned forward and opened her lips. He kissed her softly, tenderly, without extending his tongue. It was the most sensuous experience of his life. If he was religious, he would even call it spiritual.
Valerie leaned back in her chair and held out her hands. Phillip enclosed them in his. It felt so good. She said softly, "I'm remembering that doofus in a pinstripe, goggling at me like an idiot through the store window. I'm remembering how he came inside and forgot his pick up line." She smiled. "There I was propping up that ridiculous kitschy heart. And now, you're propping up mine. For me, this day, each year, will be the true Valentine's Day."