by Colleen Sutherland
She peered down the row of booths to the audience of the big screen TV at the end of the restaurant. The little chairs were filled with children watching cartoons. On a spring day the same children would be climbing on the play equipment outside, but this was frigid February. Cartoons were all the Jolly Burger could offer to keep the kiddies from running riot.
Her Davy was one of those children. As soon as he had his hamburger and juice, he abandoned her for the cartoons. She didn't blame him. She didn't want to be anywhere near herself either. She shoved the last melting ice around her cup. She could go to the pirates serving at the counter up front and order another, but this outing was Davy's treat. He wanted to pay for it all and she knew he didn't have any more money.
He looked back at her from his pre-school sized chair. She lifted her glass, cupping her hand to hide the lack of beverage and gave him a big smile. He grinned back and turned back to Disney.
It wasn't meant to be this way. Last week, Arnie was in the garage for hours as he worked with the children next door on some project.
“What's going on?” she asked when he came in for a beer.
“Grace and Billy are making a present for their mother. I suggested a window box and got dragged into it.”
“How sweet.” Olivia had been mooning around the neighborhood since her husband left her at Christmas. Poor thing, but then she let herself go after the kids were born. Some women did that. What could she expect? Though she had been losing weight since then and was looking pretty good these days.
“We've got the box made and now they're painting it with hearts.”
“That explains all the trips to Walmart.”
Valentine's Day. Usually, she and Arnie let the day slide by unobserved and forgotten, but this year, it looked like he was actually thinking ahead. She wondered what she could expect. Not much, but there might be chocolate, maybe even a single rose, something to prove his love. She began to think about what she should get him.
On her way home from the office that afternoon, she wandered through Walmart, looking for the exact present. She found a lovely sweater on clearance. Perfect. Not expensive, but the color was right for him and he would never notice the slight flaw in the back. As she stood in the express line, she dreamed of a candlelight dinner at the old Italian bistro down the block. They would probably have food poisoning the next day but it would be worth it.
The line moved on.
Or perhaps it would be a romantic movie at the 99 cent theater. She had better line up a sitter for Davy right now.
She thought for a moment she should go back and look for some lingerie. She looked at her watch. No time before she had to pick Davy up from after school daycare. Besides, the watch on her chubby wrist reminded her that her rolls of fat would show through the filmy fabric. They only made love in the dark these days. No point trying to be sexy.
The line inched forward. Why was there always some old lady trying to find coins to pay the bill exactly?
Finally, she was there. She handed the checkout clerk her credit card and kept on dreaming of flowers, chocolate and Valentine's Day cards.
“What?” She tore her thoughts to the present.
“The card doesn't work. It's maxed out.”
“Can't be, I paid it off last month.”
“Well, it's maxed out. You'll have to pay cash.”
She searched through her bag. Nothing but a few small bills and loose change as people behind her stared.
“Never mind.” She grabbed her credit card and rushed from the store, her face red.
Arnie was sprawled on the couch with his beer watching jiggling girls in bikinis toss around a volleyball.
No, she wouldn't start another fight about money. They had been down this route before. Valentine's Day was tomorrow. He probably used up all the money on his gift for her. The day after Valentine's Day was time enough to discuss finances.
She found some macaroni and cheese dinner in the cupboard and opened a can of green beans. Tomorrow was her payday. She would get groceries. She would make Arnie a steak dinner and a heart shaped cake, chased down with a foreign beer. The Italian bistro was out unless he had some cash set aside....but she was dreaming.
Davy ran back from the TV.
“Can we stay for another cartoon, Mom?”
“Sure honey.” She hugged him. None of this was his fault.
That morning, she whispered “Happy Valentine's Day, darling” in Arnie's ear.
“Fourteenth of February, dear.”
“Just another day dreamed up by the greeting card industry.” He turned over.
“But you were helping the kids next door...”
“Oh, that? Just doing a neighborly thing. The paint was more expensive than I thought and I had to buy a new drill to get the screws set properly. While I was at it, I got a few other tools, too. Got a good buy on all that stuff, 50 percent off.”
The fight was one of their better ones, epic, with Davy crying as they fought. Arnie slapped her around a bit. When the neighbors called 911, the cops came and dragged him off.
She calmed Davy down but told him he could stay home from school.
“But Mom, it's Valentine's Day.”
Yes, it was. They stopped at the dollar store for half priced Valentine's cards. Davy signed them in the car. They didn't address them since he couldn't remember the names of all his classmates.
She slapped on enough makeup to hide the bruises and went to work. She ignored the whisperings of the people she worked with and paid no attention when roses and chocolates were delivered to other women's desks. When Arnie called her to see about bail, she hung up on him.
When they got home that afternoon, Davy scampered into his room. She heard glass smashing. She was about to find out if he was acting out when he came to her, holding out his hand with all the quarters he had been saving.
“I'm taking you out to eat for Valentine's Day.” And here they were at the Jolly Burger. She looked down the row of booths to the screen. In each booth there was a woman, sitting the same way she was sitting, staring down the aisle at a child in a chair. Alone. Lonely. But each with a dearly loved child.
“Happy Valentine's Day,” she whispered to them all. “Love is love, wherever you can find it.”
But she no longer believed it.