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. I also wanted to find the story buried within the jumbled narrative of events I had written. One of my first edits was adding “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 of my Interrogating Memory book. One thing that becomes clear in that chapter 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. I did this very thing as chair of the Fundraising Committee of the Ezra Stiles College Council my sophomore year at Yale.
At the very 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, following a terrifying full-fledged panic attack over other people knowing we had dated. A few weeks later, though, she 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. So much for not wanting anyone else to know we were dating.
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 for New Haven. The two-hour-plus ride had barely begun when she told me she was breaking up with me. Moreover, 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, despite a few near misses, although on a visit to New Haven over Columbus Day weekend 1988, we took a long walk to watch a screening of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope at the Yale Medical School. After that, we made our way to the darkened building which then housed the Political Science department, to which I still had a key. There, in a darkened 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. In a curious twist, the male friend enrolled in Harvard’s doctoral program in government the same year I did, and we became friends for a time.
Nothing memorable happened over the next 13 Valentine’s Days, seven of which I spent with the woman my wife Nell half-jokingly calls “my first wife.” Let us call her AC. She and I met when we were both students at Harvard – she was about to be a senior, while I had just finished my fourth year as a doctoral student. At the time I shared the second floor apartment of a triple-decker in Somerville, MA with three other men. My bedroom window, closer to the street, is obscured by branches in photograph below. In June 1993, AC and three friends moved into the third floor apartment for the summer. One afternoon, AC and another roommate – one I had already met – knocked on our inner stairwell door. Opening the door, I immediately recognized AC from the Greenhouse, an upscale coffee shop/cafeteria in the Science Center. Wearing a t-shirt for Squeeze’s Babylon and On tour, she was full-figured, if slightly below average in height, with shoulder-length dark hair, brown eyes behind thick glasses, and a warm open face. I smiled, pointed at AC and said, “I know you.” The attraction was palpable.
We had our first date on June 20, and what could easily 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. At the end of June 1995, I resigned ABD from Harvard then moved into an apartment with AC. It was literally three blocks from where we met. After a rocky year-plus, during which I struggled to regain my post-Harvard footing, I landed my first professional data analysis gig in October 1996. From this point on, AC and I settled into a comfortable and loving rhythm.
If this story sounds familiar, it is because I have told it before. A longer version of it appears in Chapter 11 of Interrogating Memory. I retell it here to provide much-needed context for the events of Valentine’s Day 2001 and their aftermath.
Early 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. The Cambridge team held regular conference calls with the statistical programmers in Michgan, some of whom I befriended while attending back-to-back trainings in Ann Arbor shortly after I started. Other programmers were just names and voices on the telephone. I returned to Ann Arbor at the end of July, returning to Somerville in time to celebrate AC’s birthday.
My third trip to Ann Arbor ended on September 14. With maybe 15 minutes left until my Cambridge colleagues and I needed 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 stood to my left, a blank wall to my right. Walking toward me was a tall woman whose short, dirty blonde hair framed astonishing cheekbones only partially hidden by glasses. Wearing a white turtleneck and black jeans, she walked with an odd forward-leaning gait.
In Chapter 9 of Interrogating Memory, 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 the woman we now call SP passed me in the hallway, I had the identical electric reaction, except in the body of a 33-year-old man who had been living with his girlfriend for more than five years. And in that moment, as I noted many times since then, I went from insisting that love at first sight did not exist to falling in love at first sight.
It was that sudden.
This would have been 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 dirty blonde hair wearing a white turtleneck and black jeans.
“Matt Berger, [SP]. [SP], Matt Berger.” I recognized her name as that of a conference call participant I had not yet met. Beyond that, 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 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. Learning 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, though, it does not matter.
At the end of that month, AC and I spent a happy weekend in Maine to celebrate my 34th birthday, similar to many other trips we had taken over the previous seven years. Neither of us knew at the time this trip would be our last together.
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 seminar 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 kept trying to write commentary, but my handwriting was too illegible for her to read. During the mid-day break, I asked her to have lunch with me, but she declined for a reason I no longer remember. A few weeks later, I animatedly related this conference to a close friend as we sat in a pub in King of Prussia, PA called Marone’s.
As SP herself later put it, she was 50% of the way there when I first stood in her cubicle, and she was 75% of the way there when the seminar ended. I was essentially at 100%, though I denied it for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, once I returned to Somerville, we began to e-mail and talk regularly, though only ever in our offices. My work suffered measurably from the distraction; I could no longer concentrate. I have written elsewhere about my Halloween costume, which had the effect of ratcheting up the inten
In the meantime, I was trying to carry on as usual with AC, whom I still loved and very much did not want to hurt. Still, at some point that year, likely over the summer or fall, I had awoken in a cold sweat after dreaming she and I had married and had children. I was cognizant 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 did I want to make my relationship with AC permanent.
By the weekend of November 10-12, however, I could no longer maintain the pretense. AC was beginning to pick up on something as well, as she kept asking what was bothering me. We had actually reached a similar crisis point four years earlier, with a woman we had driven to a friend’s wedding, but at the time I decided to commit to AC.
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 exactly how I felt – with no clear sense how she felt about me, only hopeful suspicions. As I recall the conversation more than two decades – and multiple retellings – later, I hemmed and hawed, terrified to say what I wanted to say. SP, concerned, kept asking me to tell her what was on her mind, her urgency increasing.
Finally, I told her.
When I finished, the longest silence I had ever experienced began.
Then SP began to speak. To this day, the only words I recall (if I even heard them at the time) are:
“…because it’s really mutual.”
My exhale of exhiliration was short-lived, though, as I finally began to pay attention to 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. What happened next defies belief.
For no sooner had SP told me, in so many words, that she was also in love with me, when AC was literally standing behind my desk chair. It was the 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.
Veering sharply away from the cliched “meet cute,” I spent Thanksgiving in Philadelphia without AC for, I believe, the first time in our relationship, 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, albeit not surprised. Unfortunately, logistics required us to continue to live together while I searched for a new place to live. In the end, I opted 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 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. The latter friend was the one to whom I had described the seminar.
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, both based upon relationships SP had described and for obviously selfish reasons.
On December 27, 2000, after spending a few nights at my mother’s house in Haverford, PA, 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 want 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.
13 thoughts on “I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 1”
Can’t wait for Part Two… life & love are always complicated aren’t they? We just have to trust we are being led in the right direction… and it seems like you were 🥰 G
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Thank you. Yes…but that is just one part of the story. 😉
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