I've often thought that Valentine's Day is one of unavoidable absurdities. All those cards and roses bought to make the person in your life feel very special is surely diluted by all those other roses and cards you see in the shop as you buy your loved one her rose and her card. And what about restaurants, where on the same evening there are thousands of couples in the city smooching over the dinner table: their love supposedly unique and yet constantly echoed? Then there is the staff in these restaurants: are they all single, and resenting the lack of love in their own lives, are they coupled up and sacrificing themselves on this particular evening to the romanticism of others, or are they simply not themselves romantically inclined, and their partners likewise?
Anyway Paul, a good friend of mine, who is single and been unattached now for five years, recently thought he would get through Valentine's Day unscathed by not going out at all. He didn't want to see couples walking through the streets kissing and canoodling, he didn't want to see expectant young men sauntering along the road with flowers, and he certainly didn't want to pass a restaurant all candlelit and cosy.
Yet staying in was not useful either. At about lunchtime, while he was working on a corporate advertising project for which he was providing the graphics, he heard a knock on the door and wondered who it might be. He knew that the main door lock was still broken so there was no need to buzz up to his third floor flat, but the two or three friends who would visit him in his cramped, always messy apartment also usually phoned in advance. He peered through the eyehole and saw a wide-angled view of a man standing about a foot away from the door with a bouquet of flowers in his hand. Paul answered the door and the man announced he was from Interflora and that he couldn't get an answer next door: would he be kind enough to look after the flowers until his neighbour came home? Paul looked at the large bouquet of flowers, realized that by simply answering the door he had already more or less said yes, and shrugged as the man handed them over. Just after he did so, the man wrote a little note and put it through her door. She'll probably pick them up later, the man suggested.
The flowers were a mixture of yellow, red and purple roses, and Paul put them carefully down in the narrow hallway, on a small table that had space only for the landline phone and the roses that now sat next to them in a vase that had never before, he realized, been used for flowers but only as a water jug.
I got to know Paul about four years ago, not that long after he had split up with his last girlfriend, and at the time he was still mourning his ex but not without hope for something else with someone in the future: he knew when his partner wanted to move to London for work and that he wanted to stay in Edinburgh that it was over, and he also believed it was for the best. After two years together the sex life became predictable, sex intermittent, and even conversation often stilted. He may have had regrets, but he had more expectations: he didn't think it would be long before a woman at least the equal to Marie, and perhaps more lovely still, would come into his life.
But that was four years ago, and here he was still single and wondering why, apart from two decidedly disappointing one night stands, no other woman had walked into his existence. This loneliness would often lead him to think of other women whom he barely knew, as though the disappointment he often felt talking to the women he did know (he was hardly asocial, and was part of a large circle that he had known for many years) would rebound into private fantasy. This neighbour, whom he had only talked to occasionally on the stairs, was part of this private world.
That afternoon, as he waited for Angela to arrive home after work, he mused over this opportunity he had been given to talk to her properly. He had very kindly looked after her flowers, and she may even, he thought, invite him into her flat and offer him a cup of tea or coffee by way of a thank you gesture. He could conceivably begin to close the gap between the women whom he knew and the women whom he found attractive. He looked at himself in the mirror and noticed how scruffy he was, how he had spent all day working at home and reckoned that, if she were to call on him after she had finished work, he should look as presentable as possible. He hopped into the shower, washed his hair, and afterwards dressed as smartly as he could without looking like he had made an effort.
He stayed in all that evening waiting for her to call, and as eight o'clock came, and nine o'clock went, he realized that she possibly wouldn't be back that evening, and also couldn't help but wonder where she might be. If the boyfriend had delivered flowers to her flat, he presumably assumed that she would be in to receive them, or they would be waiting for her when she returned from work. As he puzzled over whether she was with her boyfriend or with another lover, he realized that once again he'd retreated back into the position of observer. Except this time he was not even observing; he was hypothesising. As he listened attentively to her non-presence, as he mused over where she might be, he exasperatedly wondered whether he would have been better off simply wandering the streets and peering into restaurants as couples ate at candlelight.
It wasn't until the next evening that she arrived home, and he had given her twenty minutes after she had turned the key in her door before giving it a knock. As he stood there with the flowers in his hand, she looked half-surprised and he explained that the flower deliverer asked if he could look after them. As she held the door open she looked at her feet and saw a small card on the varnished floor. She picked it up, looked at the card and said as if to herself that it was from who she thought they would be from. Angela sighed, took the flowers from him, and said that she'd like to invite him in for a cup of tea or coffee, but she only had time for a quick shower and then she had be out again. He smiled and said hopefully another time. Yes, she replied, another time. As he travelled the two yards back to his flat he felt a mixture of deflation and elation. No invite on this occasion, he thought, but maybe the promise of another in the near future.
Over the next few days no invite was forthcoming, and none at the weekend either. Obviously he knew that she may have been just polite, and yet why offer him a cuppa at all? He believed it wasn't simply a polite response: he reckoned that actually she almost seemed like she wanted to discuss something, and he reckoned she thought he might be the person to whom she could talk.
Though I knew for a while that he had been spending too much time alone, I also knew that this probably wasn't a false impression: that he had read the situation appropriately, and that she did want to talk. Women had the habit of confiding in Paul the way men had in confiding in me - as he himself was doing. I sometimes thought that the half a dozen female friends that he had, and that he would meet up with on a weekly or fortnightly basis, helped him cope with what he perceived was his forced celibacy. Not that I thought none of these women might have been interested in him; more that he felt safe with the friendships he had acquired, and wanted a relative stranger with whom to embark on a new relationship. But where were these relative strangers? His neighbour proved to be one. Yet wasn't he in danger of turning her into another female friend? He had told me he found her attractive, told me that they even shared a profession: she also worked in graphic design. He described her as roughly his own age - early thirties - and with smooth, pale skin, grey eyes and straight brown hair always well cut if without much bounce. She was neither tall nor small, and her figure had the firmness of a gym regular. Paul had the habit of describing women precisely, without breathless enthusiasm, and I suspected that she looked more attractive than the description indicated.
As I spent time thinking about the way Paul possessed a number of female friends, and described women he happened to be attracted to, I realised there was a curious gap between what he knew about a woman mentally and what he wanted from a woman physically. The women he knew intimately he knew in mind but not in body; the women he didn't know he described not even as an aesthetic object of contemplation, more a piece of engineering.
My own approach to women I suppose was very different. I was basically a serial monogamist, as they say, someone for whom a relationship lasts a couple of years, and then, after a period of time, a new one starts. I had no close female friends, and rarely kept in contact with ex-girlfriends either. When I was attracted to someone I would get to know them immediately, and I would promptly ask them out and they would accept the invitation or reject it. I got to know them very well or not at all, so Paul's perspective on women was foreign to me - fascinating but unusual.
Yet talking to him about Angela I began to share his interest with a woman whom he barely knew, and shared it at a further remove from him: I didn't even know what she looked like. Perhaps I was beginning at the age of thirty four to go through the sort of crisis Paul claimed he had been going through for several years. A couple of months before, I had split up with a girlfriend after she had moved to London. She wanted a commitment from me or the commitment that she'd been offered down South: a permanent contract in a publishing house whose main branch was in the English capital. So off she went and maybe I was closer to Paul's position than I realised, and certainly close to it on this occasion.
But while that may be so why should all this interest the reader; what makes it a story rather than an elaboration of solitude? Well, Paul first told me the story a few days after Valentine's Day, and it was about a week after his tale that I met up with another person I knew, Michael, a womanizing acquaintance who never quite became a friend no matter if I had known him for longer than I had known Paul. This was partly because whenever we socialized I always felt our meeting up for drinks was a precursor to a sexual adventure on his part. Often at key moments in the discussion he would catch the eye of a couple of girls and invite them to sit with us. Usually at the time I would have a girlfriend, and I believed in fidelity, so this sudden interruption was a distraction and an irritation. Many a conversation that was becoming interesting was swiftly derailed. He was about seven years younger than me, and I first met him while he was an impressive but intellectually insecure undergrad; it seemed the more he gained in intellectual and creative confidence (he was a very modestly successful painter) the more he chanelled this assuredness into womanizing.
But we would still meet up; usually putting a couple of hours aside every six weeks or so. More often than not now we would meet in a caf rather than a pub: his wandering eye roved less. Anyway, one afternoon he explained that he had had a one night stand several weeks ago with a woman whom he met in a bar after work. They talked for a couple of hours, went for something to eat, and then, after another drink, went back to her flat. He liked her, and would have liked to see her again, but the next morning she left abruptly for work, saying that she had an early start, adding that he should let himself out and pull the Yale lock door behind him. He took a note of the address as he left, and a few days after that, for Valentine's Day, sent her a bouquet of flowers with a brief note. I of course asked him where she stayed, and when he told me I knew it was almost certainly Paul's neighbour: he didn't have the address on him, but he described more or less the block in which Paul lived. I asked him if he had seen her again; Michael said that he hadn't. I asked if he intended to and he said he was waiting to see if she would phone him. They had swapped mobile numbers on the night.
It would have been a couple of days after meeting up with Michael that Paul asked if I wanted to go for a drink. I said I was free for an hour after work, and as we met for a cup of tea he told me that he thought his neighbour had split up with her boyfriend, and suspected it was over the flowers. Clearly, he explained, the boyfriend hadn't sent the flowers, and obviously he must have come round one evening and she hadn't yet thrown them out. An hour after he had arrived he left, and the next morning Paul saw the dying bouquet out in the hall. I didn't know whether I should tell Paul that I knew more of the story than he did. After all I wasn't sure if his neighbour was the very woman Michael had described; it merely seemed extremely likely. But it was more than that.
I decided since I hadn't told Michael about what Paul had told me; I wouldn't tell Paul what Michael had said. On the way home from meeting Paul I mused over the problem of being a confidante, and wondered why male friends so often confided in me. Usually I felt neutral - someone to offload information on rather than an active participant in the situation. Yet here I was between two people I knew who didn't know each other, and withholding details from each. I remember some time ago talking to Paul about being a confidante, and he believed that while some may see it as an act of respect if somebody chose to confide in you; he thought it was otherwise. He said that there was life and the contextualization of it. When somebody talked to him about their affairs, their problems, their entanglements, he was not part of their life - merely the listener to the context of it. He felt the more people confided in him, the more he was being removed from life itself.
That so many who confided in him were women made him feel especially emasculated, as if their confiding in him was at the same time their way of saying they were not emotionally interested. He was merely the sounding board for their emotional interest in others. I didn't know whether I believed this, but I did wonder why I had no female friends, and that the only people who confided in me were men. I suspect I see my friendships with men as passive; the company of women as active. This may have helped explain my reluctance to go out to pubs with Michael; that he wanted someone to join in the activity of hunting women; I wanted from him no more than a conversation. Meeting women for me was always a solitary activity. I would be in a caf, at a conference (I taught art theory), at a party, and I would find somebody attractive and knew straight away that her attractiveness was for me both intellectual and sexual, and I would as quickly as possible turn that stranger into someone with whom I could get very close. I was not always successful of course, but I never failed to trust my instinct, even if on contact it turned out the woman was married, happily single or just not interested in me.
Now what I didn't know was whether Michael simply sent Angela flowers - if it was Angela to whom he sent them - out of keen yet still casual interest, or whether this was Michael's rationale in relation to offering the story to me: that Michael may have been falling in love with her. Michael would never admit to strong feelings for anyone, and I sometimes wondered whether his constant womanizing was his way of denying his feelings; that as long as he kept the desire general he was able to protect himself. So if he was often protecting his feelings, then I hardly expected him to share feelings with me that he wouldn't even acknowledge to himself. Yet it seemed strange that he would send a woman flowers after a one night stand, and while I always knew Michael was a sweet-talker when it came to getting a woman into his bed, I also knew that when it came to talking about his emotions, as opposed to pursuing his desires, he bordered on the incompetent.
Had he so quickly fallen in love? This would have been an idle question not expecting an answer; yet a few days later some sort of explanation was provided when I next met up with Paul. As we sat and had a pint in a bar not far from his flat, so he said that the day before he had passed Angela on the stairs and asked her how she was; she said she was fine and she asked how he was and wondered where he was going. He said he needed one or two things from the grocery shop, and she asked if he would like to have a cup of tea when he got back.
As the kettle boiled she said it was really nice of him to have looked after the flowers for her; he said that he noticed that she had put them out on the landing the other day. She breathed heavily, threw in a couple of tea bags, filled the tea pot with water, and came over to sit down on the chair opposite Paul. She explained that those flowers basically ended her relationship. Paul looked at me and shrugged his shoulders as if to say that once again a woman was opening herself up to him, and she went on to say she received the flowers from someone that she had slept with a couple of weeks earlier after a drunken work night out. Her boyfriend was in London; the young man was very persuasive and so she took him back to her flat and then he left the next morning. Paul asked if she wanted to split up with her boyfriend and embark on an affair with this new man, and she said that she didn't think so; that she actually found his gesture of flowers quite inexplicable until he texted her several times the day or two following their arrival. They were sweet, even sentimental messages, and he said he very much wanted to see her again. They met up the evening after she had argued with her boyfriend, and she slept with him once more. He said he wanted a relationship; she said that she wasn't even sure if she wanted out of the one she was no longer in.
I asked Paul if she mentioned his name, and he said that no, she hadn't. Once again, Paul said, he'd accumulated another female friend when what he wanted was a partner. Yet what I suggested to him as we sat there finishing off our pints was that maybe he not only understood women but also understood himself. So many men I knew, I said, didn't know themselves or women at all. Paul joked saying that he was maybe like a man who had passed the theory test easily but couldn't afford a car; many men were out there driving without a license and - who is having more fun? He took a glance around the bar: it was Friday night, around seven thirty, and a series of couples had come in over the last forty five minutes since we had ordered our drinks.
We didn't stay for another; Paul said the pub was going to no doubt fill up with even more couples, and, anyway, he wanted to get back home and put the final touches on the project he was working on. It didn't need to be in until Monday morning, but he wanted the weekend free: who knows maybe Angela would like to go for a walk and offload more personal information on him.
As he went off in his direction and I went off in mine, I felt despondent, wondering whether I was entering a theoretical stage in my own life, a reflective period where thought would be more present than action. As I've suggested, usually the thought to action gap when it came to women was very narrow: I was attracted and I reacted. But as I was caught in hearing about what for me was a curiously abstract mnage a trois, I seemed to wonder not only about my own desire - since parting with Susan I hadn't felt desire for anyone - but also my own desirability. When I got home that evening I looked in the mirror and saw what a man in his mid-thirties looks like. I took off my shirt and noticed that while I was still fit and healthy looking, there seemed to be the hint of love handles around my waist, and as I pulled my hair back the hairline appeared to be receding. I knew I had a few grey hairs and also crows feet around the eyes and creases along my forehead. But these were attributes I had believed were contributing to attractive maturity rather than unattractive aging. But maybe I perceived them as signs of attractiveness due to Susan and, before her, Katja's cooing comments. Now there was nobody to offer me this soothing observation and so I was harshly offering myself to the mirror. Is this partly what loneliness is I mused: an appraisal without a reassuring hug? You are old when you are no longer loved I remember hearing in a film.
Over the next week or so I met up once again with Paul and once again with Michael. What was unusual was that in each instance I phoned them to arrange to meet. Very occasionally I would suggest meeting up with Paul; very occasionally with Michael. Yet the friendships have probably lasted as long as they have due to their efforts much more than mine. I can't remember ever phoning them both up in the same week to try and see them. Why was I so keen to meet up now? Ironically it was not to speak about myself, though I had a pressing need to communicate, but rather to listen to them. I wanted to know if they were talking about the same woman, wanted to know more about this little emotional triangle that may have developed, and that also in some way included me. I felt somehow, obscurely, emotionally involved.
I met up with Michael first and asked him how things had developed with the young woman he was fascinated by; I also asked what happened to be her name. Usually when Michael talked about his conquests names were irrelevant; and I never quite worked out whether this was because they were psychologically anonymous and physically vivid to him, or that he wanted to respect an aspect of their privacy, and divulging the name violated that. When he talked of women he did so as a genuine Don Juan: as someone who, like Don Juan, suggested that the most thrilling moment was as he went up the stairs; in the accoutrements of seduction as opposed to the details of sexual intimacy. By forgoing both the name and the sexual specifics, he would relate his experiences rather as if he were narrating a novel from a previous century.
Even though as I've suggested, I'm more of a serial monogamist, Michael's stories were always lightly engaging. On this occasion though it felt for me more deeply intriguing, and when he looked at me in surprise that I wanted to know the young woman's name he didn't quite say that he wondered why, but his face suggested it. Let's call her Angela, he proposed, and continued by saying he had seen her once since that evening of the one night stand, but that he would be seeing her for a drink in a couple of days' time. I asked him if he expected anything to happen; and he said he didn't know, but that she had definitely parted from her boyfriend. As he said this he smiled and folded his arms, his paint spattered T-shirt and his muscular biceps momentarily reminding me of the vitality I would see in pictures of Jackson Pollack. As he passed a hand through his dark, thick hair, I suddenly hoped that he would not get the chance to sleep once again with this woman Angela.
The following afternoon I met up with Paul and looked at him as I had looked at Michael. I saw a figure who though only several years older than Michael looked many more; someone who was close to bald and who kept his remaining hair cropped, and yet he obviously didn't have the skull for baldness. The face though was still in many ways young, or rather suggested youthfulness As I observed him, and as I asked whether he had been in touch with Angela, he said that they had arranged to go and eat out in a couple of days' time - presumably the evening after she would be meeting Michael. As we were saying goodbye I wished him the very best of luck on his meeting with Angela, though I didn't say that it was almost certainly the same woman the much more striking, generally charming and confident Michael would be seeing the night before.
As we parted and he walked off, I shouted after him and again wished him luck, knowing that I really did want the best for him, and knowing that it might require luck for him to get it. It was the first time I had really given the phrase much thought, thinking where Michael barely seemed to need it, and Paul appeared to require it, where did that leave me? That I'd shown so much concern to so apparently minor an episode not even in my own life, but in the lives of a couple of friends, did not seem to augur well for my own future. Maybe for too long I felt lucky, lucky in work and lucky in love. But of course now I'm single, and though I've also held onto my job for a number of years I have no permanent contract. Somehow I felt that if the next time I talked to Paul he would be telling me about his next girlfriend, and the next time to Michael about a rare failed conquest, my own life will feel more secure rather than less. This may seem no more than superstition, and wishing (for something to happen in someone else's life) rather than willing (in my own), but maybe something in this tale demands wishing over willing. Maybe a happy life demands the two in balance. For many years my wishing and willing seemed as closely linked as cause and effect; now, strangely, I feel there might be more wish than will, and is it perhaps for this reason I so hope Paul is successful and that Michael, for whom wishing and willing seem almost interchangeable, won't be?
© Tony McKibbin