She has a pleasant look of determination as she walks down the aisle, guided by yellow arrows. Her eyes are focused, but she’s smiling. She’s here for a reason, but that’s not going to stop her from having fun while she does it. Her pace is even and methodical as she covers the room. She scans with her eyes and hands, with fingers fanned out and combing the air as they delicately dance from one piece of furniture to another.
Until finally, they stop and land, and before she can even look to see what her hands have landed on, she knows. There’s a small moment of disbelief when she first sees it, giving away that she may have been starting to doubt her own luck today, but now she no longer has to. Her shoulders sink into the relaxation of success. She turns to her boyfriend with a quarter turn, and gently places her hand between his shoulder and chest, to let him know “Honey, I think I’ve found it.”
And she has, because she didn’t even have to let him know. This whole time while she was falling in love with this bed frame, he was also having his own moment and hoping she loved it as much as he did. Their eyes meet, then glance back at the frame one more time, and then come back and meet again, and this time their beautiful smiles lock onto each other, and they have to fight the tractor beam trying to pull them in for a big sloppy kiss right here on the showroom. Without saying a word, they both know this is the bed frame they will be building their future lives on. They will be moving in together in a brand new space, with brand new furniture, and she will never again have to wonder how many other vaginas have been on her bed, and he will never have to imagine other, possibly larger and prettier, dicks have disgraced his sleeping quarters.
They’re so beautiful and perfectly choreographed I’ve become mesmerized and have unintentionally been bluntly staring in disbelief with my mouth open, feeling like I must be watching a commercial. I look around, hoping there’s another witness of this moment I can lock eyes with and acknowledge what just happened here. But I am the only witness.
I turn to my 9-year-old son to ask if he saw that, but he’s smacking his lips, barbarically eating a snack, staring the complete wrong way, having his own moment with a lofted bed with a couch underneath, imagining his future life chilling with his bros on a sofa.
It is in this moment I realize I have made a colossal mistake, and I am becoming increasingly aware I am trapped in the middle of Ikea on Valentine’s weekend, trying to buy furniture for my son’s new room with the money I had saved up for a failed engagement last year.
Cue the horror music. I am surrounded by couples, and new families, and feeling of failure and loneliness are starting to overwhelm me.
“We have to get out of here!” I announce heroically, trying to avoid a full emotional episode in public.
“What?” my son says in confusion, unaware we are under attack.
“Look, I wrote everything you want down. I’m going to order it online and pick it up when it’s not rainy.”
“Is it raining?” My son asks as he turns to the window.
“It’s not raining now, but just imagine if we got everything in the truck and all your new stuff got rained on?!”
“You’re right, that would be terrible.”
“Quick, let’s go!” I point in a direction and start to sprint.
The nice thing about a nine-year-old boy is you can still say “let’s go” and run, and they would follow your lead through an active volcano as long as you were confident enough.
We duck and weave through the crowds. There’s a close call cutting off a stroller, and I have to look back to make sure Jax made it through.
He didn’t, he’s been lost to the crowds and has doomed us. I can feel the heavy sadness in my chest now.
But just as all is lost, he comes barreling from the left like a mini Dwayne Johnson. “Come on, Dad! We’re almost out of here!”
We sprint through the marketplace, through all the impulse-buys, and past the cash registers all the way back to the truck and hop in.
I recline my seat and breathe, focusing on getting a little bit of a grip on the situation. It’s not that I’ve never cried in front of my son, but I don’t want furniture shopping for his new room to become something psychiatric about me. It’s not his fault I don’t have enough money on my own to furnish his room and had to dip into the old wedding ring fund. I just want to be okay again. Not mostly okay on most days in most situations like I am now, but just okay. I want the money in the envelope to just be money again, and furniture to be furniture, and couples holding hands walking down the sidewalks to just be annoying obstacles in my way again.
I don’t think kids understand loneliness the way adults do. Like, why would you be hung up on a lack of romantic love when you have the love of friends and parents and animals?
DUH Kid! Because friends and parents and animals can’t complete me and repair my brokenness the way I imagine having a partner would right now!
My mother always did her best to raise me to loathe the “Hallmark holidays” like Valentine’s, and to consider them as hollow and meaningless as the “Going Out of Business Sale” sign that one business in every town keeps in its window year round. But it’s never stopped me.
When I was my son’s age, I built the most elaborate Valentines box for school to get the attention of a girl I liked. I remember clutching a Valentine from my crush after school and reading it over and over, wondering if even though she was technically required to make this valentine and a similar valentine for every student in the class, that maybe she would have made this one anyway, just for me. Perhaps she was thinking about me while writing all the other valentines like I was thinking about her while I made all of mine.
Maybe it’s the feelings of abandonment from my father, or that my mother rarely had a partner growing up, but to be in a serious relationship, to have a partner in life, to be a unit, has always had a veil of magic around it and felt more important than everything else. It’s always felt like my holy grail.
And I’ve acted on those feelings. I’ve been shacked up with someone ever since I lost my virginity at age 18.
It feels like I’m always doing better, more confident, and happier when I’m with someone, and I don’t think that’s my mind playing tricks on me. I’m not saying it’s healthy or sustainable, but I think I allow a hole to be filled by that person, that I make them the missing piece to my life.
That feeling scares me. The belief that I probably shouldn’t be with someone until I feel whole, while not feeling whole unless I’m with someone.
Well, there’s that and the fact that heartbreak is the closest I’ve ever come to suicidal, and for my son’s sake, I’d love to string together a few stable years without completely falling apart.
Maybe it’s shopping the weekend before Valentine’s day that I feel bombarded by all these happy couples and more overwhelmed than I usually would.
Maybe it’s the little white envelope with a hand-drawn wedding ring in my chest pocket. A cache of cash that was supposed to buy the symbol of my commitment for a love that someone ended more suddenly and unexpectedly than it began.
Who am I kidding? Of course, it’s the wedding ring stash!
I throw the damn thing in the glove compartment and drive to the mall down the street, still holding it together, and take Jax to the new Lego movie. And it turns out it worked, a couple of hours in a dark theater with my son, laughing, I’m feeling better already. I throw my arm around Jax on my way out, and we’re talking about our favorite parts of the movie, when we hear “Sam?” Coming from behind us.
I turn around to see Karen (I’ve changed her name), a beautiful love interest from earlier this year.
Goddamnit, of course it’s Karen, with her stupidly pretty face and lack of visible damage.
Get out of here, Karen! Run for your life!
I politely reintroduce Karen to Jax and hightail it out of there before the emotional wave can sink in. I text her when we get to the car, apologizing for the awkwardness. I try to explain I’m in the middle of a Valentine’s -Day-broken-engagement-happy-life memories emotional mess and she replies with a very casual, “I get it.”
My kind of person.
“What do you want to eat?” I ask Jax
“No spaghetti,” I say. I can’t afford the carbs now. “What else?”
We drove to the nearest seafood restaurant, a large and upscale establishment on the bay, only to find an insanely cramped and busy waiting area. They asked if I had a reservation and gave me a pretty clear look that we should try somewhere else, even as they tell us there’s at least an hour wait.
The next place advertising seafood on our way home was a comfort-food restaurant in inner-city Richmond, CA. The windows were barred, and the eating area was the size of a tiny studio apartment with two sets of mismatched lawn furniture and a communal condiment area on a shelf. A talkative 16-year-old was surprised we were coming to eat in—he told me they get a lot of business, but it’s almost entirely delivery. The walls had old news articles about the grand opening of this place, and later ones about how important this little family restaurant is to the community. There was a picture of the talkative kid when he was younger, and the rest of his family. One of the old men in the photo was in the back, preparing our assorted deep fried fishes, Mac and cheese, and greens.
And it was here in this barebones restaurant, in the middle of an impoverished city, with a talkative kid in the front and a quiet older man in the back that I looked over to my son and saw a really happy kid staring back at me.
It started to rain, and I turned to him and said, “Aren’t you glad your furniture isn’t in the back of the truck right now?”
He looked up and took a break from his loud eating, unaware that anything had even gone wrong today. He said, “That would be terrible, Dad.”