Thursday, February 14, 2008


by Genevieve K. Waller

It was cold, snowy, wet. Again. Stella and Luke didn't have big plans, each having spent the past 12 hours working downtown at their respective offices, and via cell phone they decided to get Thai for dinner at the BYOB place close to home. They agreed to drop their stuff off at the condo, grab beers from the fridge, and walk the three blocks to the restaurant. Never mind that it was Valentine's Day. For Stella, the greasy noodles and spicy curry were comfort food to ward of the bitterness of a Chicago winter. And they needed the walk after being stuck inside at their desks all day.

The place was as dingy as ever. Grease clung to the fake woodwork, and the dim room smelled like overcooked broccoli and spices. A draft blew in every time someone opened the door and threatened to blow out the single, weakly flickering tea light on each table. A thin layer of frost lined the bottom of the wide front windows that faced the busy sidewalk. Textiles with hand sewn motifs – trees, birds, fields – sat between layers of heavy square glass, decorating each tabletop. The chairs were something out of a keynote speech at a national convention held in a nondescript assembly hall – black cushions, gold metal frames. The drinking glasses didn't match, and were scratched and chipped at their bottoms.

But tonight, Stella and Luke didn't complain. Tonight the waitress had actually brought them glasses and a bottle opener on their first request.

"I didn't realize this place actually had a waitress," Luke joked, raising an eyebrow in mock surprise.

"You do realize, however, that tonight -- Valentine's night, my beloved -- I'm going for comfort over romance, right?" Stella asked him. "Look around. This is most definitely not a romantic place. It's a place for lonely people to eat inconspicuously by themselves, a place that does a great takeout business. In fact, if we're really honest with ourselves, I think we'd agreed that it's the kind of place you don't want much brighter than this for fear of how it'd really look."

Luke nodded. "But it's still our place," he said.

It was true. In their quickly gentrifying neighborhood, the Thai restaurant was a relic of their early love. As decrepit as the place was, it had been a key location of their dates, during which conversations eventually turned serious, and which now found them in this newly married life. Given the significance of the place, they didn't mind too much if, on occasion, something was floating among the ice in their water glasses.

"Here's to us…there's no one better," she said, raising her glass as another couple entered the restaurant. Stella looked over her arm and could see a woman helping a man through the heavy door. Both of them were at the tail end of middle age, bundled against the weather in heavy wool coats, hats, gloves, scarves.

The woman returned Stella's gaze directly. She had a gray-white mane of hair that made Stella think of Susan Sontag on her old book jacket photos, before the ones of her while she was suffering a nearly insufferable death from cancer. The woman nodded at Stella, and then turned into the restaurant where she and the man slid into a booth to sit across from each other.

Then, without even taking her coat off, the woman gently took the man's hand. She leaned closer to him. Took a breath and smiled, then began to sing. And Stella immediately thought the voice that came from her should have been singing to a crowd in a smoky cabaret downtown, crooning to a crowd of Valentine's Day revelers.

"My funny Valentine…

Sweet, funny, Valentine...

You make me smile when skies are gray…."

She sang the whole song. The waitress held back, unsure of what to do. Another couple entering the restaurant stopped stamping the snow off their feet and stood still in the doorway. The woman never took her eyes off her companion, even when her voice gave a Katharine Hepburn warble, although that happened only once.

And then she was finished. She let go of his hand, and smiled again at him. There was no obvious reaction from him, and Stella couldn't see the man's face. She knew it would be obnoxious to get up and take a look at him, or to tell the woman that she had an amazing voice.

The restaurant's action picked up: customers entered, the cook called out orders, silverware clinked against plates, the phone kept ringing.

Stella looked at Luke. He was taking a sip of beer but she could tell her was smiling at her. She realized her mouth was wide open.

"Happy Valentine's Day," he said, as she closed her mouth and picked up her glass for a sip of beer.

Stella looked at Luke then, and hoped that someday, after many years filled with both the more and the less of life and love, that she could sing that song to him and mean it the way the woman meant it. And she wanted Luke to hear it the way she wanted him to hear it, the way she hoped the man she could not see had heard it tonight. Dingy place or not. She wanted to sing "My Funny Valentine" with the same expression of joy and passion. Like there was no one else in the room, no one else anywhere on a cold, snowy Chicago night but the two of them.


AlannahJoy said...

I love this! First, I totally connect with the characters in seeking out some comfort food in the midst of the bitter Chicago winter. I know way too much about bitter Chicago winters. ;-)

And second, I just plain enjoyed reading about a young couple having a simple Valentine's Day celebration at "their" place, and then having a peek at what will hopefully be their future.

If I had to pick a nit, it would be the sentence "Grease clung to the fake woodwork, and the dim room smelled like overcooked broccoli and spices." It kind of clangs for me; I don't think spices would smell overcooked. I think it would have sounded better to switch it around and say "...smelled like spices and overcooked broccoli."

Other than that, though, your description put me right there in the restaurant with them, and the characters were very engaging. Excellent work. This is the perfect Valentine's Day love story.

Kathleen Oxley said...

Great story! I love that your characters were so real. Everyone has those times when comfort beats out romance. And the other couple and the singing were a sweet addition. Thanks for sharing it with us!


Anonymous said...

I liked the begining of paragraph three. "The place was dingy as ever... " and I got it that it was spices and over cooked brocoli. The spices weren't overcooked.

However I got lost in paragraph around the Textiles.. I really didn't care about the restaraunt at that point. I wanted to read the rest of the story.

I loved the story.. it shows romance is always, Godiva Chocolate, Champagne, etc... it is feeling.

My only suggestion (but of course this just me) that you have less description of the restaraunt in paragraph three.

Thank you for posting this... it was a joyous story.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Okay, even though I'm ready to call the health department on this place (things floating among the ice? Eew!), this story really works well.

I happened to like the descriptions of the restaurant; it's a neat parallel to this couple -- especially the man -- who come in after our POV couple. Maybe you didn't intend that, but I'm seeing it.

And I like it.

William Skye said...

So, "their place" and My Funny Valentine as an analogy for them, our lovers. Very cool. Unlike several other stories in this Carnival, your lovers actually make it, or we get to hope they do. BTW, after 30 years of marriage I can attest that one of us usually smells like spices, the other like overcooked broccoli.

InderDaRaingod said...

I loved how you caught me off guard with this story. I did not expect the old woman to start singing and it made me sit up a little in my chair and lean in closer. What a great scene!

You also very quickly and effortlessly, it seemed to me, created real people. I loved that it was enough for them to spend a simple night out together, Valentine's Day or not.

I did get bogged down a little in the descriptions at the beginning of the piece. The images are good but you don't need to overwhelm us with them.

I also have to say that "after many years filled with both the more and the less of life and love" is one of the nicest, most wonderful sentences (or part of a sentence, I guess) I have read in a long time.

Thanks for being brave enough to share it.

Gwen Mitchell said...

Most of it has been said already, but that was very lovely. I think my favorite part is where she's staring with her mouth open and he just smiles and says 'Happy Valentine's Day' ... it's so real, and so sweet and speaks volumes about what is between the two of them, and what will be - the kind of love that isn't demanding, and where they're just on the same page, and where witnessing something like that is enough to fill them up inside and satisfy the 'romance' that was lacking. I don't know if that's what I was supposed to get from it - but I did. Really great job!