The New Yorker
Talk of the Town
1988 Feb 29
By Katy Butler
A FRIEND IN CALIFORNIA writes:
On the morning of Valentine’s Day, not only did I discover that my car battery was dead but my husband gave me no flowers, and I had a pretty strong suspicion that none would arrive before night fell. We have been together for five years, and the gestures like that dried up soon after the wedding, perhaps on the drive out to the beach cottage where we spent our honeymoon. It’s not tha tmy husband doesn’t love me; it’s that he isn’t comfortable with expected displays of feeling. I think we are settling into rituals similar to those of my childhood, when once a year my mother would say to my father, “You forgot my birthday,” in a tone at once reproachful and triumphant.
Before the wedding, of course, things were different. On the morning after our second night out, I found a postcard wedged into my doorjamb with a poem by the Japanese poet Setcho on the back: “Night comes and the moon floods the water with light; within the dragon’s jaws we find many exquisite jewels”. On our first Valentines Day, a poster-size handwritten poem by Anna Akhmatova was on my desk in the morning: “Sunset in the ethereal waves: I cannot tell if the day is ending or the world, or if the secret of secrets is inside me again”. It was illustrated with a Sanskrit character tended to invoke peace; near the bottom was painted a red heart, the size of a thumbprint , over a smudge.
I never framed the poster, and after we married and moved out of the city it ended up in the walk-in closet where my husband stores his car tools and camping gear. The next Valentine’s Day, nothing. The third year, well before the day, I put a chocolate truffle iced with little red cherries in the freezer, so he wouldn’t miss it. We shared it on Valentine’s Day. The fourth year, I bought him purple irises. This year, when gray printed hearts began to appear in newspaper ads for diamonds, chocolates and Nautilus workouts, I began a campaign of not quite subliminal suggestions. My last attempt came the night before V Day, while we waited at a traffic light on our way to a party and I pointed out a big, embarrassed looking man in a baseball jacket and heavy boots standing at a bus stop with a fragile bundle of flowers. Even as I spoke, I knew that my husband would not appear next morning with roses or a heart shaped box. So I, too, did nothing.
It was with these thoughts that I walked into Mill Valley for a coffee on the morning of Valentine’s Day, leaving my deadbeat 1974 Mercedes, with its nonfunctioning battery, parked back home, where a plum tree had scattered pink blossoms on the hood. (we’ve been having weeks of what I’d call a false spring except that the flowers and trees are taking it quite seriously.) I sat on a bench in the town square and drank my cappuccino out of a plastic foam cup, among dogs and Hacky-Sack players and people reading newspapers in the sun. A pale young girl strode across the street dressed in a black leotard, a white skirt, and a bowler hat, carrying roses- undoubtedly to someone who would be delighted to see her. A young man in shorts, holding a tissue-wrapped bouquet of irises, roses and narcissi, sat down next to me on the bench. “Has anyone given you flowers for Valentine’s Day?” he asked, without preamble.. “Don’t you have anyone who loves you?”
“Well, yes, I do—but no, he hasn’t”, I said, at a loss to explain married love.
“Well, here”, he said, handing me his flowers. Then he gave me his business card (he was a certified massage therapist), wished me a happy Valentine’s Day, and walked away.
At home, I put the flowers in water and carried them to the kitchen table. There, in a tangle of black and yellow cables, I found another token of love, and my heart melted: my dead car battery was getting a trickle charge, it’s terminals gripped tenderly in the dragon’s jaws of the alligator clips connecting it to my husband’s 4-amp Sears charger. A message from my Valentine was on the battery’s side: “A-R-C, Extra Power, Long Life, Auto Truck Marine”.
©1988 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.