My original assignment for last week was to do something cynical and perhaps even a bit hilarious on the subject of Valentine’s Day, as it was scheduled to run three days prior. Given the unprecedented success of my piece regarding the trials and tribulations of online dating, it was incorrectly assumed by my much younger, coat and tie wearing editor here at the Local ARTery that such a soliloquy would be right up my proverbial alley.
Well, I told him to stick that schlock up his proverbial arse (standards and practices only allows us to use an A word for derriere if in the British parlance) and I resigned immediately. Since I do this quite regularly, it was not unreasonable that Mr. Tokars assumed my resignation to be in jest. When I finally arrived back in town last week armed with a doctor’s note excusing both my absence and erratic behavior, while further explaining that I was under strict orders not to do anything stressful, he didn’t even seem to remember the interruption in my employment – perhaps because he was busy contemplating the multitude of death threats his own article on Motorworks Brewing had by this time incited (he was sweating profusely and I could see the outline of a large Bowie knife pressing through his chintzy, thrift store blazer).
Anyway, he was talking way too fast, babbling about this idiotic idea that I should stand on the corner of 1st Street and Manatee Avenue on Valentine’s Day – in a cupid costume of some sort – with a sandwich board sign offering free hugs to those who were without a significant other on this holy day commemorating the death of Saint Valentine, a third-century Christian saint from Rome. While this suggested that he had in fact remembered that I’d failed to turn in a column last week, I quickly pointed to my equally well-received piece on atheism to subtly suggest that any such assignment would very likely result in severe freedom of religion litigation.
At some point, we agreed that I would report back with some sort of commentary regarding, in his words, “the many, more modern and non-religious aspects of the Feast of St. Valentine,” sometime before our Monday deadline. This was on Wednesday and by Thursday evening I was actually contemplating the free hug angle, as I had been unable to come up with a single thing. I decided to cruise 1st Street on a little recon mission of the neighborhood, but it was pretty desolate at that hour. At some point, I ended up parking my arse on a stool at Motorworks, where I figured that at 8% ABV, a couple of Green Flash Double Stouts might ignite my creative juices.
Somewhere around pint number four, it occurred to me that there was only one real way to take on an assignment of this magnitude; I’d have to go totally gonzo – complete immersion into the seedier side of this once holy day, whose liturgical commemoration was no longer even recognized on the Catholic Calendar of Saints (I suspect it was for that reason that my request for advance expenses in relation to an exploratory trip to Rome in order to walk the Via Flaminia for inspiration was denied).
I mulled over the idea, while drinking two more of those stouty milkshakes and awoke the next morning with a head the size of an elephant’s, along with that dry and swollen sandpaper tongue which results from imbibing too many craft beers without the foresight to guzzle a quart of water before turning in.
There were three text messages on my phone; one from my mother, another from Mr. Tokars and one from my good friend Erin, a highly-successful family law attorney, whose frequent (and gratis) legal advice has kept things from going sideways for good old Ringo on more than one occasion.
Erin is that rare breed of confident and successful female, who even on a day like this wouldn’t be a Debbie Downer about not having found that “special someone.” In fact, if there’s one thing a divorce lawyer doesn’t suffer, it’s illusions about romantic relationships. It was decided. She was without question the only person I could stand on a Valentine’s Day morning like this one.
No, I haven’t had breakfast yet - the Hyatt sounds perfect! I texted in return, though no mention of either had been made.
My phone buzzed only seconds later.
Very funny jackass, but stop by the office. I’ve got plenty to eat.
A cold shower got me up and moving, and after I downed two cups of Turkish coffee I had a whole new outlook and was ready to really jump into this assignment head first. A woman’s perspective was certainly needed, so I got in my car and headed south.
I found Erin’s office festooned with flowers, balloons and other assorted V-day booty, nearly all of which had been sent by ex-clients. For whatever twisted reason, divorcées often develop feelings for their attorneys and Erin, being both wicked smart as well as that Yoga and Pilates sort of attractive, had an almost problematic string of real estate agents, police officers, accountants, gym teachers and insurance salesmen all hoping to recoup some of the dough she’d peeled off them in the form of a romantic liaison with a gorgeous woman in kick-ass heels and a form-fitting $2,000 suit.
“You want some chocolates?” she asked, opening her arm to draw attention to a table that was covered in various heart-shaped candy boxes: Lindt, Godiva, Vosges, Z Chocolat, you name it – a virtual high-dollar cocoa buffet.
Famished, I tore into some dark chocolate truffles and noticed the bottles of red wine.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got the champagne chilling,” she laughed. “Mimosas in five.”
While we chatted, I embarrassingly told her that I needed to produce a silly Valentine column.
“Seriously, Ringo? Valentine's Day? When are you going to start working for a real paper and writing about things that actually matter?”
“What could matter more than this???” I screamed in defense as the champagne cork erupted from the bottle, just missing a flat-screen computer monitor bigger than my TV.
“It’s a commercial holiday, pure manufactured consumerism,” she retorted in her $300 an hour esquire voice, the one that drove weak men (like me) crazy. “It’s good for the restaurants, good for the florists and good for the pharmaceutical companies when it helps drive women to antidepressants.”
“Interesting,” I mused, turning on my tape recorder as not to miss a word.
“You know, your phone can do that,” she said, casting a condescending glare on my micro-cassette recorder, circa 1989.
“Really?” I asked in amazement, pulling out my flip Motorola to ponder how that might have gone unnoticed.
At this, she laughed and told me to enjoy myself while she did a client consultation back in her office.
By the time Erin returned to the firm’s marble and stainless kitchenette, I was passed out on a ridiculously-comfortable, overstuffed leather couch, crumbs and wrappers from approximately 70 truffles strewn about, the bubbly bottle empty, a half-drained petite syrah nearby.
“Ringo!” she screamed in the sort of faux disappointment a pet lover offers their beloved Fido when he chews up tissue paper from a gift bag.
The pungent mixed aroma of flat champagne, dark chocolate and long-stem roses filled the room and for a moment I thought I might be sick, but a big glass of water and some fresh air did the trick.
Erin poured me into a cab and planted a platonic kiss on my unshaven cheek. “Stay out of trouble jerk-off. I’ve got a date tonight and will not be bailing you out.”
She tucked a bottle of something called Apothic Dark into my breast as she settled me in the back seat.
“It’s from that winery you liked,” she said with a chuckle, “the one that makes those gaudy blends that taste like fruity blood. It’s their reserve apparently. Some guy sent it with a box of “dark” chocolates and “dark” red roses. Clever, huh?"
“Is he Nubian or something?”
“No, I suppose he was going for some sort of Gothic thing.”
I fell back asleep in the cab almost immediately and soon I was back at home, but even though I’d fully caught my second wind thanks to the shut-eye and another Turkish coffee, I was no closer to having discovered the true meaning of this holiday – plus my car was now 30 minutes away and probably parked inappropriately.
I could have called Messr Tokars, but he would have pressed me for details on a yet-to-exist story, and my roommate was unwilling to give up his lunch break to chauffeur me around, probably because he was planning some sort of romantic picnic with his horribly ill-mannered and narcissistic girlfriend – before he took her to Marco Island to blow half a month’s pay doing exactly what they did every godforsaken night here. I was left with one option.
“Bright Mike, what’s the word?”
“What do you need Ringo?”
“I understand it’s Valentine’s Day, but don’t be so cynical. I just need a ride.”
“That’s in Sarasota!”
“Really, I'd never noticed?”
“That’s like 20 minutes away. I’m working.”
“You’re playing video games in your underwear," I chided. Bright Mike has a sweet little side gig writing reviews for a prominent gamer mag.
“It’s a weekday, I’m working-working.”
“Suddenly journalism isn’t real work??? I’m on deadline you fool! And I need to interview you for the piece,” I pleaded.
20 minutes later I was stretched out on another comfy swath of leather, this time the backseat of his 2012 Maxima, which now had me seriously rethinking my career decisions.
“What does Valentine’s Day mean to me?” he asked, looking at me in the rear-view mirror with raised brows. “Are you even serious? What kind of paper do you work for?” He shook his head and I tried to mentally assuage my ego. “It means I’m glad I’m single. I’m glad I don’t have to suffer the 400 percent markup on roses or try and get a reservation for an expensive restaurant I don’t even want to eat in and hope my date doesn’t expect me to order an $8 bottle of wine that’ll cost me 60 bucks. That’s what it means to me ... and why are you recording this?”
“There’s your clunker bro. You’re lucky they didn’t tow it, unless you’re a senior partner at Erin’s firm all of a sudden?” he said, pointing to the sign above my spot.
Bright as Mike can be, he has zero appreciation for classic American automobiles, in this case a white 1986 Pontiac Fiero, that even with a primer gray front quarter panel, one pop-up headlight stuck in the up position and mismatched rims remained a sick ride.
Back in my car, and only after the portable breathalyzer Erin kept in her office gave me the green light to leave, I contemplated my options. It was already 4:00 p.m. The holiday was in full swing and I had deuces. I put the pedal to the metal and arrived at TBT headquarters shortly before 4:30. Tokars was out, but the boss’s boss was in.
Tucked back in the only office without windows, Dennis Maley was typing furiously when I sheepishly knocked on the door. He looked up without saying anything as if the pause in his manic typing was all I needed to know. I tried to sound cool.
“Hey big guy, what’s crackin’?”
“You look like warmed over dog crap Khan. What the hell is wrong with you?”
I reached for my doctor’s note, but got the feeling that excuses wouldn’t mean much to a guy whose office decorations consisted largely of military regalia, boxing titles and pictures of his mohawked little kid, who was named after some bare-knuckle champion from the turn of some previous century.
“Thanks for covering for me while I was … um, indisposed last week sir. That piece you did may have been the finest zombie story by a political pundit in … well ... forever.”
He poured us two glasses of Scotch and asked again what was wrong with me. When I told him I’d had trouble focusing as of late, he asked if I’d tried Adderall. I told him that it wasn’t my bag and he shot me an arched eyebrow that seemed to suggest I reconsider.
“Can I ask you a question sir?”
“What does this day mean to you … Valentine's Day that is, sir.”
“Are you kidding me Khan? Is that what you’re working on?”
“It’s my assignment sir,” I stammered, sphincter tightly clenched as I spotted a vein quivering on his shaved temple.
“I’m 39 years old Khan. I’ve been married and divorced … twice … EACH! Valentine's Day means I finally don’t have to buy anyone anything and that maybe, just maybe, I can run into some broad who's even more desperate than myself and leverage her loneliness into a good time.”
“So, suffice it to say you’ll be trolling Old Main tonight looking for low hanging fruit? … If you a ... need a wing man sir … I mean, I’d be honored.”
He looked at me like I was a retarded puppy.
“No you idiot, I’ll be with my 9-year old son making chocolate tacos and watching something on Netflix. Now, get the hell out of my office. I’m working on a real column in here!”
I gulped my Scotch, figuring that leaving a half-full (yes I’m an optimist) glass would be worse than hanging around an extra two seconds (he's known to be thrift) and then took off. Two minutes later, I was again passing Motorworks. It’s like this brewery is the center of the universe all of a sudden. You can’t make a left turn without passing the damn place!
I pulled up a stool and ordered a Breckenridge Vanilla Porter while I planned my next move.
The place was empty except for a cute girl riding solo three stools down.
Our eyes met on my cursory sweep, and she offered a nod.
“Hey” she said in a cute and raspy voice.
I nodded back.
“Enjoying Valentine's Day?” I asked, instantly realizing how dumb it sounded.
“Yeah, don’t even,” she warned with a shake of the head and a light, if frightening cackle.
“Buy ya a beer?” I asked passively.
“Sure, why not. It’s not like I’ve got other plans.”
She edged down the bar until we were on neighboring stools.
“I hate this holiday,” I blurted out, immediately sensing that I now sounded a bit creepy as well.
She extended her palm for a high-five.
“THANK YOU!!!!” It is the worst day to be single! My single girlfriends wanted to do a “girl’s night” of cheap champagne, expensive chocolate and a Lifetime movie marathon! I was like no way! I’m getting drunk – by myself – and I’ll eat the chocolate tomorrow when I’m good and hung over!”
“Well, it’s cool that you like craft beer,” I offered. “Not many girls I know are into it.”
She studied the pint of dark porter.
“Well, I’m more of a wine girl, but if I’m going to drink a beer and all of the calories that come with it, then I want a real beer, ya know?”
“A woman after my own heart … and on Valentine's Day yet.”
Our eyes locked and I arched a brow to emphasize the passion which was clearly mounting from some inspecific and very well generic origin.
“So,” I continued. “What kind of wine do you like?”
She smiled and pursed her full lips, as a Mazzy Star song began its entrancing beat.
“I’m by no means an expert. My girlfriends all like white zins and chardonnays, but I like real wine. I want something robust, something with body. You know what I mean?”
“Oh we’re on the same page,” I assured her.
I really like this California blend called Apothic Red, but around Christmas time, they came out with like a special blend called Apothic Dark. It was so good. I bought one bottle for Christmas Eve and I loved it, but when I went back, they were all out, and it hasn’t been around since.”
Ding, Ding, Ding - Winner, winner, chicken dinner!
“I have a bottle of it!” I screamed loud enough to call the attention of everyone in the place.”Seriously, a friend gave it to me just this morning. It’s on my mantle as we speak!”
“Really?” she asked with a coy smile. “Got any romantic movies?”
“Tons,” I said through a devilish grin. “Wanna watch a movie and drink some wine? Maybe toast St. Valentine?” I asked in a voice that dripped with desperation.
“You bet your sweet arse I do."
This girl was going to be a headache to be sure. There were obviously going to be restraining orders involved before all was said and done. But on this glorious holiday that speaks to the American way of life perhaps better than any other, we were perfect for one another. Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for and far more than enough ...
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