Sunday, February 14, 2021


Amy and I have never been a Valentine's Day Couple; we generally ignore it. In the COVID era of compromised intimacies and cautious physical distancing, I'm reminded of a time nearly thirty years ago when we experienced a surprise intrusion into our lives on a February 14 evening.

We were asleep in our home in Athens, Ohio. At three in the morning we were awakened by a loud banging on our front door. We opened it to find a young guy—student-aged—wearing a desperate look. There'd been freezing rain and sleet that night, as I recall, and when he gestured over his shoulder I saw that he'd driven his car off the road and flipped it over on its top in our front yard, into a ditch. Disoriented and in shock, he'd staggered to our front door. We invited him and he sat on our couch, his shoes and lower legs soaking wet. He stunk of alcohol. Trembling, he told us that his girlfriend had broken up with him that night—or she'd rebuffed him or ignored him, I can't remember, and I'm not sure even he was clear about it—and he'd driven out of town in a miserable state. Nearly all roads leading out of Athens end up winding, in places precariously, through hilly country; at that time we lived several miles west of town on a major state route but a curvy one; he'd hit a rough patch and, wasted, lost control of his car and it careened onto our lawn where it sat, having spun to a rest. Amazingly, he wasn't hurt, just badly shaken up, in agony over the state of affairs with his girl. Sobbing, he cycled over and over again through intense anger, bitter sadness, and boozy, shell-shocked glumness. Amy made some hot chocolate, and as we waited for the police he calmed down a bit. The tow truck arrived swiftly, and we watched from our window as his car was pulled from the ditch. 

A couple of days later, the doorbell rang. We opened it to find our boy again, hung over but cleaned up, wearing a contrite, bashful expression. He was clutching a basket of fruit; just behind him his mother stood looking stern and twice as embarrassed as her son. We accepted the basket and his gratitude for our having taken him in. We said, Of course. He offered a hand, and we shook. The whole thing seemed pre-staged by his mother, whose insistence that he visit us again, contritely, we felt was unnecessary yet also very moving. The tough, lucky lesson the kid was learning was nearly visible over his sorry head. 

For the remaining time we lived in Athens, I thought of him nearly every time I approached our house. A year or so after we moved friend of ours flipped his car in nearly the same stretch of road, emerging relatively unscathed; in retrospect, winding State Route 56 feels a bit cursed. But what has really stuck with me all of these years later is the way a Valentines Day went horribly wrong, the dark, desperate anti-sentiment you don't see in the Hallmark cards, commercials, and TV movies. To this day I can smell the booze on the guy, and his despondency. The features of his face are slipping from memory, but not his sobbing tears and shoulder-slumped pose of defeat on our couch. He was lucky, and no doubt recalls the crash, if in a blur, and the morning after reconciliation, far more vividly, in some blend of shame, bafflement, and gratitude. His car, spun onto its back in our yard in the dark: the flip side of Valentine's Day.

"sad anthropomorphic heart tattoo" via Pinterest

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