At around 12:30 on the morning of February 15, 2001, I sat down at my computer, opened my word processing package and began to type. I was emotionally drained, exhausted and still a bit tipsy – despite a cold night drive. A very foolish cold night drive.
I was compelled to write everything I needed to say while it was fresh in my mind. Nine-plus pages later, I concluded:
“And now I have a splitting headache. It is 3:35 in the morning, I am sobering up, and my eyes hurt from staring at a computer screen for three hours. I had planned to go out for a decaf nightcap at an all-night diner, but now I think I will go downstairs for some fresh air before taking a quick bath.
“And then I will try to sleep—and not think, on this morning after Valentine’s Day, about [woman’s name].”
A day or three later, I printed out this essay, titled “Valentine’s Day,” for editing – and to find the story buried within the jumbled narrative of events I had written. One edit was to write “and the bittersweet nature of love” after [woman’s name] at the end of the essay.
Within a few months, however, I had moved on – to a part-time job, then to a full-time job which began in early June. The printed pages, covered with penciled edits, were tossed onto the “to be sorted” pile, eventually moving to a bulging folder labeled “CREATIVE WRITING.” This folder mostly contains the bits and pieces of detective fiction I discuss in Chapter 7 (Reading Is Fundamental) of my Interrogating Memory book. One thing that becomes clear in that chapter – and in those that follow – is that I had been flirting with the idea of being a capital-W Writer since at least my early teens.
However, other than a few stories I was required to complete for a high school or college class, I never finished any piece of writing to my satisfaction until I launched this website in December 2016. “Valentine’s Day” comes the closest, though even it remains a series of musings and events in search of a throughline; I still do not know what I meant when I opened it with:
“OK, this is a story about perserverance (sic), about doing the right thing, even if it kills you. This is the story I’ve been meaning to write for years, but haven’t had either the balls…or the time (which is the same thing) to write.”
Through 1987, I was neutral on Valentine’s Day; I neither liked nor disliked it. I mostly knew it as the day we gave cheap paper “cards” to each member of our class at Lynnewood Elementary School in Havertown, PA. In high school and college, it was the time of year groups sold carnations to raise money, just as the Ezra Stiles College Council – whose Fundraising Committee I chaired my sophomore year at Yale – did.
At the start of my junior year, meanwhile, I met a newly-transferred sophomore girl. A friendship quickly evolved into a tortured romance; I lost my virginity to her nine days before I turned 20. She dumped me in December, then begged (her word, not mine) me to take her back. On Saturday, February 14, 1987, we rode the Metro-North commuter rail from New Haven to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. Ostensibly a way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, my girlfriend actually wanted to show the wife of her male friend that she was NOT romantically interested in her husband.
While my memory of what we did in Manhattan is mostly a blur, my impression is that I found myself wondering whether my girlfriend really was romantically interested in her male friend – and a sense something was…“off.”
We said our goodbyes sometime that evening, and my girlfriend and I boarded the train back to New Haven. The two-hour-plus ride had barely begun when she told me she was breaking up with me. She also told me she was telling me this NOW so she would not have to have sex with me that night. Put simply, I had served my purpose. And then…she fell asleep with her head in my lap, while I numbly stared out the window.
There was no getting back together this time, although on a visit to New Haven in October 1988, we took a long walk to watch Star Wars: A New Hope, screened by the Yale Medical School Film Society. After that, we made our way to the darkened building housing the Political Science department, to which I still had a key. There, in a basement seminar room, we hooked up one final time. I last saw her four years later, detouring to her home on the way to a wedding.
Nothing especially memorable happened over the next 13 Valentine’s Days, seven of which I spent with the woman my wife Nell calls “my first wife.” We met in June 1993 when we were both students at Harvard – she was about to be a senior, I was a doctoral student in government. She and some friends had just moved into the top floor of the Somerville, MA triple-decker in which three roommates and I shared the second floor. My bedroom window, closer to the street, is obscured by branches in this photograph.
What could have been a summer fling rapidly evolved into a full-fledged romance. In fact, it was my first relationship to last as long as 18 months. In the summer of 1995, I resigned ABD from Harvard then moved into an apartment with – let’s call her EC – literally three blocks from where we met. After a rocky year-plus, EC and I settled into a very good groove.
If all of this sounds familiar to regular readers of this website, it is because I have told this story before. I also tell a shorter version of it in Chapter 11 (A Film Noir Fan Is Born) of Interrogating Memory. Nonetheless, I retell it here, albeit in a slighly different way, to provide much-needed context.
In January 2000, I began to work as a data analyst in the Cambridge, MA office of a health services company headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI. We had regular conference calls with the programmers who managed all of the data, some of whom I befriended when I attended back-to-back trainings in Ann Arbor a month after I started. The other programmers were just names and voices on the telephone. I returned to Ann Arbor at the end of July – though I made it back to Somerville in time to celebrate EC’s birthday.
The third trip ended on September 14. With about 15 minutes left until my Cambridge colleagues and I needed to leave to drive to the airport, I decided to find some of my conference call friends. As I walked down a carpeted 8th-floor hallway toward cubicle valley, large windows were to my left, a blank wall to my right. Walking toward me was a tall woman with dirty blonde hair. She was wearing a white turtleneck and black jeans.
In Chapter 9 (The Dark City Beckons…on Television), I tell this story about my 7th grade class watching A Christmas Carol in a suburban Philadelphia movie theater:
“As we took our seats, I glanced toward the right-hand rear of the theater. Settling into her seat was a girl with long blonde hair, a classmate I had barely noticed before. Until that moment, somewhat excepting the second-grade classmate I helped get around Lynnewood after she broke her leg and a girl in sixth grade, I had never thought about girls that way. But it was as though every hormonal switch in my 12-year-old body flicked on, all at the same time, and with 11-level intensity. It was that sudden.”
When this woman passed me in the hallway, I had the identical electric reaction – just in the body of a 33-year-old man who had been living with his girlfriend for more than five years. I have observed many times since then that I literally went from thinking “love at first sight” did not exist to, well, falling in love at first sight. This may well be embellishment after the fact, but only a little.
It was that sudden.
But it would have nothing more than “passing ships” had I not found the last colleague I sought hovering over the entrance to a cubicle, talking to the woman seated within. A woman with long blonde hair wearing a white turtleneck and black jeans.
“Matt Berger, [woman’s name]. [Woman’s name], Matt Berger.” I placed the name as one of the conference call participants I had yet to meet. Otherwise, I had lost the ability to think or speak. I did manage to make an atrocious pun about ears – and then it was time to leave, flushed with embarrassment and electricity.
Knowing full well what a bad idea it was, I sent this woman – let’s call her SP – an email as soon as I returned to the office. I received no response, and I thought that was that. It was only later I learned she had been asking colleagues about me. Now knowing I had a serious girlfriend, however, SP wisely deleted my e-mail. On the first page of “Valentine’s Day,” I added the word “accidentally” between the words “she” and “deleted.” In the end, it does not matter.
Carefully-archived Discover Card receipts tell me I returned to Ann Arbor the next month, leaving on October 17. This trip included a required seminar. Also attending this trip was SP. We sat together at the back of the room, quietly making each other laugh -while trying not to look at each other. I asked her to have lunch with me, but she declined for a reason I no longer remember.
In the end, it does not matter, for we now began to e-mail and talk on the phone in the office regularly. My work suffered measurably from the distraction; I could not concentrate any more. I have written elsewhere about my Halloween costume, which simply ratcheted up the intensity of our conversations.
In the meantime, I was trying to carry on as usual with AC, whom I still loved and did not want to hurt. Still, it was around this time – at least, we assume it was for narrative compactness – I awoke in a cold sweat after dreaming AC and I had married and had children. I was very well aware our 10-year anniversary was only 2½ years hence. I may not have been allowing myself to think about a relationship with SP, but neither was I eager to make my relationship with AC permanent.
By mid-November, however, it had become impossible to hide exactly how I felt from about SP from myself. AC was beginning to pick up on something as well; she kept asking what was bothering me over the weekend of November 10-12.
On Monday, November 13, I lingered in the office after 5 pm as usual to talk to SP. My emotional tension had reached the point where I needed to tell her how I felt – perhaps expecting her to tell me she did NOT feel the same way, and then it would be over. Instead, however, there was a long silence, followed by words I barely heard…other than “…because it’s really mutual.”
I had been ignoring the flashing red light on my phone telling me I had a voicemail. AC had called more than once to tell me she was going to pick me up from work. If what happened next took place in a romantic comedy, the audience would boo and yell, “Oh c’mon! Like that would ever happen?”
They would be wrong, for no sooner had SP told me, in so many words, she was in love with me as well, and I was fumbling for a response, AC was literally standing behind my desk chair. It was the first and only time she had come up to the second floor to find me without my knowing it.
I hastily said my good-byes, and we drove home. If AC had overheard anything, she did not let me know, chatting amiably the short ride home.
Cutting to the chase – and veering sharply away from the cliched “meet cute” – I spent Thanksgiving in Philadelphia without AC to give me time to think and consult with friends and family. I ended my relationship with AC when I returned; she was understandably very unhappy. Unfortunately, logistics required us to continue to live together while I searched for a new place to live, ultimately opting to return to the Philadelphia area to live.
Braving a snowstorm that dropped some 18 inches of snow on Connecticut, I drove a rented U-Haul to my mother’s house in Haverford, PA on February 6, 2001. I had already lined up a new job – or so I thought, and my mother had rented an apartment for me in the Madison Building of the Presidential Apartment complex on City Avenue in Philadelphia. I moved into that apartment the next day.
It was there most of the events of “Valentine’s Day” take place.
In the meantime, a lot had gone right – and far more had gone horribly wrong – in my relationship with SP. In fact, as I moved my stuff into my tiny studio apartment, I was convinced I was never going to see her again. Helping me move that day were my mother – who cried “throw it out” in horror at some of the items I unpacked – and my two best male friends in the area, one from college and one from high school, both recently divorced.
To be fair, SP had tried to warn me. Even before I told her how I felt, she had told me that just as there are folks who will never be good at, say, golf, no matter how much they practice, there are folks who will never be good at romantic relationships, no matter how in love they may be. I pooh-poohed this, if only because of relationships she herself had been in. Well, and for obviously selfish reasons; even then, I was unconsciously trying to keep alive the possibility of a relationship with SP.
On December 27, 2000, I boarded a Northwest Airlines flight for Detroit, anticipating a magical, cinematically-perfect six days with my new girlfriend. The flight arrived an hour late. Here is how I describe what happened next in “Valentine’s Day,” complete with penciled edits:
“I hadn’t anticipated anything so much since the first time I
ever got laid. If there is any moment I am doomed to relive over and over, it is the moment where I first came off the plane (an hour late, mind you, thanks to f uck-ing Northwest Airlines) and saw her waiting for me in the terminal. No piece of art at any moment has ever had as much beauty as SP did in that moment. Of course Sure, I was blinded by love. Not that SP is not beautiful—she absolutely is. I wish now I could remember which model a female coworker of ours compared her to. It was an apt comparison.
“Which is exactly the point.”
Setting aside the hyperbolic overwriting, I am now tempted to scream, “What exactly is the point?”
Because that is not exactly how it happened.
To be continued…
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 It may have been the next weekend, though that feels too close to Thanksgiving, which was on November 23 that year.