Valentine’s Day. Can there be more of an elephant in the room for a couple in the early stages of a relationship? Or for a couple who don’t even know they’re in a relationship? That’s where Kim and I were the week of Valentine’s Day, 1991. We’d had one date. We had no relationship to speak of (apart from being friends), although I knew I wanted to pursue one with her. She was still trying to figure out whether it had even been a date.
Yet there sat Thursday, staring us in the face. We had agreed to go out again, but Valentine’s Day just isn’t the right time for a second date. There’s too much expectation for a couple just finding themselves, let alone love. Valentine’s Day and Prom are two things that ought to be avoided by all but the most committed couples.
But it’s difficult to avoid something that’s being flaunted, and the office is one place that definitely flaunts Valentine’s Day. Coworkers practically keep score, tracking every bouquet that’s delivered, every suitor who comes calling for lunch. This makes things awkward for two people who’d rather not acknowledge the day.
It’s a good thing Paul was onsite that day, taking notes on my upcoming projects and due dates as he prepared to fill in for me during my week at the Virginia office. He spent all Thursday in the DBA Room with me and Fran, the other database administrator who worked at the desk opposite mine. She and I enjoyed taking little digs at one another, but had a secret mutual respect. She also had a sense of humor, so the three of us tended to carry on when Paul was in from the trailer.
Paul also enjoyed the game of trying to make Kim giggle whenever she walked by the DBA Room, which was often as her responsibilities increased and she had to run from Archives to the two Managers’ office at the other end of the hallway. He and I would try to beat each other to the punch, looking up every time she tried to sneak by the door to say, “Oh hey, Kim. Dan/Paul, did you know Kim just walked by?”
I realize how pathetically stupid that must seem. Chances are, I realized it then. But Paul and I reveled in stupidity. It made Fran grumble and it made Kim giggle — two things we enjoyed. We had to take our pleasures where we could get them, because we were both miserable in our jobs. Overwhelmed, underpaid and having been stuck in a town that we didn’t really appreciate for two years.
So we did stupid things and talked about stupid stuff — like when we were hanging out with Kim in the lunch room on Valentine’s Day and Paul brought up goofy homemade valentines. We talked about the tried-and-true method of cutting half a heart on a folded piece of construction paper, so it opens up to look like a heart — or a butt. And how kids write non-committal, stoical phrases instead of “I love you.” They also misspell them and end up with things like “your cool” or “be my pale.”
We had a good laugh and agreed it was too bad we didn’t have any construction paper, or we could relive our elementary school days making valentines that afternoon. Then somebody remembered we had some colored file folders — including red. That was all the cue we needed. Problem solved…
It turns out the solution to the fear of being awkward on Valentine’s Day, is to agree to try to be awkward on Valentine’s Day. So that day, three adults made and exchanged the goofiest, most platonic valentines ever. I can’t even remember what I wrote on Kim’s — probably something like, “Half a good week working with Paul.” She gave me one that said, “Have fun in Virginia, don’t party to hard.”
As it turns out, I didn’t. Upper management saw to that. They’d been discussing my future and made a decision about it. Five minutes before I left that Friday afternoon, the project manager called me into her office to tell me that the company president wanted to talk to me while I was in the Virginia office the following week. She said my role was winding down on the North Carolina project, so they’d decided it was time for me to move back to Virginia. (Meaning, he’d decided that and told her that was the way it was going to be.)
I don’t know if she thought she was doing me a favor to drop a bombshell like that before I pulled into rush hour traffic and braced for the six-hour drive to my parents’ house in Virginia, but I’ve always suspected she did it to make herself look more involved in the decision than she probably was. Regardless, it made for a stomach-churning drive home.
For two years, all I’d wanted was to get back to my friends in Virginia. But now, Raleigh looked a lot better than it had during that time. Granted, we’d only had one date and she hadn’t even seen it that way, but I felt something promising here and I wanted to stay and confirm that feeling.
Between the stress of the drive that Friday night and the standing in the cold the previous one, I had a sore throat by the time I arrived at my parents’ house. (I was planning to stay with them for the week in order to save the company money on a hotel bill, but maybe I should have had them sign a receipt claiming that they’d charged me $500 for the week.) By the time I reported for work Monday morning, I had full-blown laryngitis, so I couldn’t scream at the president when he confirmed the “good news” as he called it.
They wanted me to start in a new role in the Virginia office as of March 4 — in two weeks. One of them would be spent in Virginia, leaving me one week to tie up any loose ends in North Carolina. Given the short notice, they were willing to put me up in a hotel for a couple of weeks while I looked for a place to live — unless I wanted to stay with my parents again. (Guess which I chose?)
Now it was time for a decision. I’d had one date with someone, but I already knew her well enough to know that I’d like our relationship to progress. And I thought I could sense reciprocation, although I knew I might be crazy in that regard. Was she worth getting upset about? Two of the admins in Virginia wanted to set me up with the cute, spunky receptionist there; would that make moving worthwhile?
I had two days of either listening to one-sided conversation or avoiding conversation altogether — two days to think. By Wednesday, I’d made a decision. You’ll find out what it was in…
…one paragraph. No more of this “To be continued” crap; I really ought to wrap the story up before Valentine’s Day is over (and before we get to more than a week out from the actual anniversary that started all this). Besides, most of you already know I chose Kim. I just had to convince her to choose me. Inside of a week.
Doing so would require me to rethink my previous strategies. For one thing, I was going to be sober when I asked her out. I was also going to have to think big for the second date — her birthday was no longer off-limits. I still remember nervously calling her from the spare room in my parents’ house, hoping my voice would hold. She sounded glad to hear from me and we made it through the obligatory small talk without incident.
“So are you still up for going out again?”
“Great! Your birthday’s Monday, isn’t it? Is anyone taking you to dinner?”
“No, my parents are in Charlotte and Nancy Carol’s broke. We might do take-out.”
“How about if I buy you dinner? I know a great fondue restaurant that’s a fun way to celebrate.”
“Ooh, that sounds good!”
“Great! I’ll make a reservation and call you back with the time.”
Some time before, when the project manager had forced several of us to go to the Melting Pot in one of her feeble attempts at forced socializing, I’d resisted the idea and dismissed fondue as having to cook my own food. But I’d had fun in spite of myself, and remembered that now.
In retrospect, it was a coup. The place has a romantic atmosphere, with low lighting and secluded booths, but manages not to feel overbearing with it. Fondue is probably the best meal for people to eat when they’re trying to get to know each other, as it’s intimate, unique and lasts for several hours. It was just the two of us, cooking from the same pot, dipping in the same cheese sauce, soaking up chocolate, ambience and charm. And by the time the last strawberry had been twirled in the last bit of chocolate fondue, before I excused myself for the men’s room in order to avoid belching in front of her, I think we both knew. And every vestige of awkwardness was gone — until we reached the car and I said, “I need to be honest about something with you.”
She looked at me as if she expected me to tell her I was gay or collecting women’s fingers. (Do I really need to tell you I wasn’t?)
“The company’s going to transfer me back to Virginia; they want me to be there in a week and to move within two weeks of that.”
“I didn’t think it would be fair to ask you out again without telling you that first, but I’d like to date you seriously.”
“I’m okay with that.”
Feeling the relief wash over me, I leaned in for a kiss — and she didn’t flinch this time. Since we knew time was short, we made plans for our third date before I had to leave town. This was more casual, another movie, but I wanted to find something lighter than the sad Awakenings. A new movie had opened on Valentine’s Day; obviously it was meant for dates. So Friday night, we went to see a positively heartwarming movie called The Silence of the Lambs. I think we skipped dinner.
On Saturday, Fran threw a farewell party for me, inviting everyone from the office. Kim stayed close to me the whole time, but we didn’t let on that we were an item until everyone had left but us, Paul and Fran. Even then, we had a good time at Paul’s expense, kissing whenever Fran wasn’t looking, but stopping every time he shouted, “Fran, look!” I think she figured it out, though. Seeing a sincere smile on my face for the first time since she’d met me was probably her biggest clue.
We didn’t let anyone else know until I found a new job, less than four months later. I went to work for our client in Raleigh, never to take orders from the man-haters again. During the time that led up to that, I rented a room from some friends in Virginia, never bothering to fully unpack or even buy a frame or box spring for my bed. I slept on a mattress on the floor, counting the days ’til every Friday afternoon, when I would make the trek back to Raleigh.
Kim took over my job, working for less money but undoubtedly being billed at the same amount to the client, and I finally understood why they wanted me to move back to Virginia.
She drove up for Easter with my family, who were delighted that I was dating her seriously (they were probably astonished to learn I wasn’t gay). She withstood the insanity of my siblings — including the brother who tried to shove her face in the mashed potatoes and the sister who mooned her — and didn’t break up with me.
The months passed and we knew we were right for each other — as Paul said, she brought my mood up to an acceptable level and I brought hers down to an acceptable level. In the spring of 1992, she came to a company picnic with me and two of the women I worked with asked when I was planning to marry her — they said it looked right. I had to travel a few weeks later and being away from her, I knew it felt right, too. I bought a ring the day I came back to town and we were married the following January.
I’m sure there are cynics who will say, based on my history, that I had no choice but to marry the first (and probably only) woman who’d have me. They’re wrong. I’d dated before Kim — just never for very long. I probably would have dated after her, had she turned me down that night in the parking lot of the Melting Pot. But she didn’t, because she was the right one. I have no doubt we were meant to be together, because we lasted in spite of breaking the rules “they” make. They say not to date your friends. They say not to date your co-workers. They say not to commit after just a couple of dates. They say long-distance relationships don’t work.
But we worked, and I believe that’s because we were destined to. Other people believe that, too. Friends have been gracious enough to read this series every night and urge me to hurry up and post the next part. This means they’re either excited about our story or just really voyeuristic. But one of them — Fran, in fact — posted a comment about our relationship having been “kismet.” And she’s right.
Every relationship has a soul, and ours continues to shine after 20 years. It will shine after the next 20; it will shine after the next 200. That’s kismet.
I wanted to close with a cryptic list of things that mean something only to me and Kim, but I’m already pushing it on word count. Thanks for your interest, but you probably have your own soul to make shine. Go do it.
I’m sorry. Was that awkward?