There weren’t any cards left at the drugstore. It seemed surreal, that each place under the “Valentine’s Day!” emblazoned on the shelf was empty. Natalie was looking for a card, and she had to settle for an ambiguous wedding-anniversary card. It had a cartoony couple on the front and the words “I love you” on the inside in pink script, but nothing else. That would do. She wasn’t going to give it to him, anyway.
She and Jim had been doing that dance for months now – that dance of sneaking glances and blushes. The one where one of them would ask “to hang out” and they would both wonder if it was a date the whole time. They’d been not-dating for nearly three months. She wasn’t even sure they were, though. Jim could actually think they were only hanging out. It was very hard to tell, when neither of them said anything outright.
It was late when she started to walk home from the drugstore. Nearly five, and she’d started out in early afternoon. The town was dimming around her, and the shadows stretching long and cold across the snow. She tucked the card into her purse and clasped her fingers around the cup of coffee. It was cold by now, mostly, but she hadn’t seen a trash can since she’d stopped drinking the dregs left at the bottom. She walked slowly, placing each foot deliberately. There was hardly anybody around, and she was in no hurry. The flower shop loomed ahead, pink and red balloons festooning the sidewalk in front of it. It looked to be winding down. By late afternoon on Valentine’s Day, the only people buying flowers anymore were the last-minute husbands who’d been too harried to think about flowers and chocolates and pink bouncy hearts. She was before the shop now, and she paused. There were an awful lot of pretty flowers. They were mostly perfect spiraled roses, some in bud and some spread into full curling bloom. There were carnations too, and some of those big colorful daisies. She’d always liked those. There was an orange one hanging off the side of the can, away from the rest of the clump, and she plucked it out. Orange was a good color. Cheerful, and determined. Something like that, anyway. It wasn’t pink, at least. She went inside to buy the flower, and grabbed a chocolate bar at the counter. Even if she didn’t have a not-date today, she could at least have a flower and eat chocolate.
The woman behind the register smiled at her, one of those pitying smiles you give to strangers who are doing pathetic things like buying themselves flowers on Valentine’s Day. Natalie smiled back at her tightly and left. Her face felt hot. She was probably blushing. The corners of her mouth wanted to pull down, despite her firm instructions to herself. She was very certain that she didn’t need a date, even a non-date. Things like flowers and chocolate weren’t important. Valentine’s Day was a silly holiday anyway. If anyone were to love her, she told herself, they had better do it every day and not just when ordered to by Hallmark. Even so – her thoughts went, unbidden – it would have been very nice to have one good Valentine’s Day. Maybe next year.
She could be strong-willed. She thought hard about other things as she walked back to campus. It was only a ten-minute trek from where the flower shop sat on the corner of the main streets. During that time, she managed to recollect her homework, her shopping list, and the three phone calls from her mother that she hadn’t returned. She wasn’t going to call her mother on Valentine’s Day, though. She was only a block from her dorm now, and the shadows were stretching toward her. It was nearly dark already. She didn’t like winter much.
She was just considering tearing open the chocolate bar wrapper when she heard her name. The voice was strained, as if it had been calling her and she hadn’t answered. She hated when people did that. She hadn’t heard, though. The voice sounded again, and she stopped. Jim was hurrying up to her, breathless and red-faced. He looked very beautiful there, catching his breath in the cold. She smiled at him, uncertain. Her fingers were still locked around the stem of the orange daisy, so she held it out to him.
He took the flower and, after a puzzled moment, he grinned. They started to walk, his steps turning to line up with hers. Neither of them said anything, but Jim reached out to hold her hand.