The Impossible Valentine

by Jeff McMahon

We saw them first from behind, my uncle Heywood and I, as we strolled on Marsh Street near the Downtown Centre. First we just saw her. He might as well have been a pillar or a tree.
She danced in her walk as though her life were a romantic comedy. She had to restrain her dancing feet to keep up with her fellow, but the pirouette expressed itself in the sway of her hips and the small of her back and lines of her neck. Her ponytail let it loose. Her ponytail cavorted like a blonde comet.
He walked tall and square and stone beside her. He was a big, muscular crusher of mere men. He kept his chin up. Every few steps she'd perch on her toes and apply her lips to his cheek.
"The ability to make love frivolously is the chief characteristic which distinguishes human beings from the beast," said my wise uncle Heywood. "Nature made the animals fierce and single-minded about such things."
She had her arm within his, when suddenly she stopped and pulled against him like an anchor halting a ship. He spun to face her, and she placed her lips on his like a butterfly landing on a wall.
The kiss lasted long enough for uncle Heywood and I to overtake them. We turned our heads as we passed to steal a look at this ballerina's face. Better men than we could not have resisted. As we looked, their kiss broke and she caught us.
A smile spread across her face like a sunrise.
I cannot speak for this smile's impact upon Heywood, but I know it used up more than its share of heartbeats in my chest. She flashed us a smile of shameless rapture. She knew the drama she performed and she thanked us for being audience to its high moment. What's more, her smile challenged us. It seemed to ask us, "And what are you doing with this fine day?"
I found myself a little hypnotized, and I suspect uncle Heywood felt the same. Then we remembered the fellow. We remembered him the way scrappy dogs feasting at the alpha dog's dish remember the alpha dog when they feel his hot breath on their tails.
The fellow's brow had furrowed into a V, and his eyes narrowed into dark slits of disapproval. His face growled silently. His dark furrow came from a whole different planet than her sunrise smile.
Uncle Heywood and I exchanged our own glance. In unison we cocked an eyebrow to express a silent, "Aha!" For we had gone from envying them to pitying them. We had seen their life together flash before our eyes.
"I am entirely certain that he is not the young man for her," Heywood whispered. "A philosophic gulf is fixed between them, and she's too good for him."
Once the languid drowsiness of ardor indulged begins to abate, her sprightliness will annoy him—her public displays of affection, her brazen smiles at strange men. Likewise his stuffiness will smother her—his military reserve, his damned propriety.
She wants to soar. He is a boulder.
Heywood and I knew their differences would gnaw like a black jackal at the carcass of their love. She would run free one day. One of us might sweep her up then, we fancied, and cherish her as this fellow could not. Or else she would remain fenced by him and long for a rescuer.
Heywood seemed content with that thought, but not I.
Around us shuffled other couples. Suddenly they seemed alone in each other's company.
Doesn't one always love the other a little more than the other loves the one? Doesn't one consent to stay, though less than happy? Doesn't one decide, rather rationally, to fall in love and then by pretending to be in love, makes it so?
Falling in love with someone, it seems, is a fine way to lose them. Unless you fall in love with someone who is already in love with you. And how do you find someone like that? By not loving them, of course.
Is this just my curse, or does it infect the species? Since I am only me, I cannot know.
How do lovers know their love is real? It doesn't show up in blood tests. The FBI crime lab cannot detect it. Does requited love occur only in the fiction of books and the fiction of human minds?
Yet I have witnessed them, I'm sure. I have seen couples enwrapped and enraptured. From my distance, it seems possible. Do they fall in love with each other equally in frenzy and time?
I honestly don't know. Do you?
The National Society of Newspaper Columnists established National Columnists Day in 1995, dedicated the observance to slain war correspondent Ernie Pyle, and urged its members to use the occasion to remember their own mentors in print. On that prompt, this column was written as a tribute to New York World columnist Heywood Broun. It first appeared in New Times in 1997. It aspires to the style and subject of Broun’s 1925 column, “A Spring Sunday.”

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