The Minefield

Fiction
Andrew Compart


If you want to know my opinion, and I think you should, Valentine’s Day is like a minefield. For a guy, anyway. Or maybe I should say, a guy like me. So this year, even with Donna, my only goal had been to survive.

The problem, as I see it, is that Valentine’s Day is just a mark on the calendar, but it becomes this big deal in a relationship. For that one arbitrary day, every little question and action is loaded with more meaning than it deserves. Where should you go for dinner? Boom! What should you buy her? Boom! What will you say? Boom! Will you be forced to have—and I shudder just to think of it—the relationship discussion? Just pick up the pieces of my explosive-shattered body.

And all this for what? I’ll tell you what. For a holiday that’s named after a Christian martyr. That’s martyr, as in killed. Imprisoned and beheaded, to be exact. How’s that for romance?

So here is Valentine’s Day, as I picture it. The O is me, Chaz (really I’m tall, thin and a little gangly, not round like the O, but you get the point). The Xes are the mines. E is the end of the date, assuming I make it that far.

O X dinner X her gift X discussion

X conversation X my gift X cuddling E

X her card X sex X discussion

X my card X discussion

See what I mean? The discussions are the most dangerous. They can be set off by the littlest things. And as carefully as you step, sometimes you still run into the trip wires.

I met Donna one month after the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 2002.

It had been another predictable disaster. My girlfriend of three months, Valerie, bought me a card that read, “Dear Valentine. If we hadn’t met… I’d be waiting until I found you.” My card to her read, “Dear Valentine, I’ve got the key to your heart….” On the inside it continued, “Wanna reach into my pocket and try to find it?” Complete with a drawing of this wild-haired, bug-eyed sex fiend (looked a little like me, some would say, especially since my thick brown hair tends to scatter in uncontrollable directions).

Anyway, I thought it was funny.

Weeks later, unattached and still picking out pieces of shrapnel, I walked into My Place with Billy and Guy. They were my two best friends from the five years—a personal record—that I’d been in Washington, D.C. Guy is nearly my height, but bulkier and more crudely aggressive; Billy, at 5 foot 6, is more than a half-foot shorter than both of us and more of an observer than a doer when it comes to women. He could use a little more self-confidence, I often tell him. I consider us a bit of an odd trio, but it seems to work.

My Place (“Let’s all meet at My Place,” is its ad nauseam-recited slogan) has a square bar in the middle of the room with space on all four sides and standing-height tables, which makes it conducive to meeting people. It also has three side rooms filled with deep-cushioned sofas and love seats, coffee tables and other furniture and decor for lounging and more intimate chatter.

The bar was typically crowded for a Friday, filled with people ranging in age from young 20s to early 30s. I was talking with Billy and Guy when I first met Donna—or, I should say, first heard Donna, her staccato laugh ringing out clear and uninhibited through the din. When I looked over for its source, as Guy droned on about his usual bad luck with women, I saw that she was the shortest in her group of four or five women. Nonetheless she stood out, vocal, animated and gesturing with her hands. She had full, wavy, brunette hair that hung to her shoulders and, from what I could tell from my quick look, a fit and shapely body.

“Well Guy,” I said after a few more minutes of his tales of woe, “maybe you’re pushing just a little too hard.”

“What do you mean?” he replied. I stole a couple of glances over at the brunette’s group as we talked; once I thought I caught her glancing back.

“C’mon Guy,” I said, laughing. “The way you stare and whip around your head in here, you’re going to need a drool bucket and a neck brace.”

“Yeah, very funny. Like you don’t rush around after every tall blonde,” Guy tried back. But it was weak—true maybe, but weak—and Billy already was in hysterics over my remark.

After a few more minutes of talk about sex, women and, inevitably, the upcoming season of the Orioles, I offered to get the next round. Of course, conveniently for me, I would pass the pretty brunette’s group on the way to the bar. I prepared to make my move.

Some of my friends marvel at my ability to meet and pick up women, but I think it’s just because I’m not afraid to try. As an Army brat, I never spent more than three years in one town. Every few years, I had new classmates, neighbors and surroundings. As I see it, that left me with two choices: I could retreat into a shell, or I could be sociable and learn to make new friends quickly. I chose the latter. Whether all this moving had any other affect on me, I can’t say. But I definitely count the sociability as a plus.

So I wasn’t at all nervous as I walked casually to the bar, near the brunette, and pretended to try to get the bartender’s attention. I turned to her to make a comment, but she beat me to the first line.

“Hi, good to see you again,” she said.

Had we met before? I didn’t think so, but I meet a lot of people, so I played along just in case. “Yeah, you too. How’ve you been?”

“Really well. But I can’t wait until summer, to get back on the beach again,” she said with a slight New York accent.

I nodded. Hmmm, the beach; I could have met her there. But her expressive green eyes and mischievous smile betrayed her as she added: “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“Of course,” I replied. I could play this game, too.

“Oh really?! Who?”

“The prettiest woman in the bar.” It was a bad line, a groaner, but she tilted her head back and laughed. I liked the sound.

“And who am I?” I challenged her back.

“The luckiest guy in the bar,” she replied, without hesitation.

Now it was my turn to laugh. From the beginning, it was one of the things I liked most about Donna: She gave as good as she got.

DONNA AND I had a fun spring, summer and fall. We hiked and biked, and Donna convinced me to slow down enough to enjoy the scenery, although it took a few outings for me to appreciate it. We shared a passion for news and politics, and although I’d voted for Bush and she’d voted for Gore, we both were cynics who considered ourselves politically independent (and, believe me, we got even more cynical after that election). With our eclectic tastes, we felt comfortable discussing books ranging from Brave New World to the latest Dilbert collection, and going to movies ranging from quirky independent films to the newest formulaic but fun James Bond flick.

The sex quickly became open and uninhibited. In three summer visits to a group beach house, we drank, danced and committed general debauchery in the bathroom, on the beach and in an outdoor shower. In winter we skied and rented movies, half of which we never saw through to the end, including “9½ Weeks,” which we emulated immediately after the scene with the blindfold, strawberries and ice.

Not that we didn’t have tender moments. Several times, late at night, we took strolls by the Lincoln Memorial and the Tidal Basin and discussed childhood memories, other safe parts of our personal histories, and the romance of the moment.

Yet somehow, all the while, we avoided the discussion I always dreaded.

We approached Valentine’s Day, 2003.

Donna, surprisingly, didn’t say much about it, but I was determined to plan more carefully this time. I scouted out the restaurants and reserved an Italian one that was romantic without being too ritzy. I spent more than a week looking for a card that wasn’t too serious but wasn’t too glib, finally settling on one that read, “Of all the places in the world I like….” On the inside it continued: “I like being with you the best.” I spent another three days deciding whether to sign it, “Love, Chaz.” (I did.)

But with a few days to go, I still had no gift.

I brought the subject up with Billy and Guy in a Friday night after-bar pizza-and-beer attack at my apartment.

I had the night free because Donna still let me have my nights out with the guys, even some weekend nights, while she went out with girlfriends. She didn’t even seem to mind when I couldn’t call for a couple days. It wasn’t what I was used to; usually I had to push to create more freedom for myself. So it was quite a deal, I suppose. It was what I had imagined I always wanted.

“Shit,” Guy yelled as he stumbled, nearly spilling his Budweiser. “Don’t you think it’s time you unpacked that one damn box? I trip over that thing every time I’m here. After two years in the same place it is OK to unpack, you know.”

“Yeah, I’ll get to it,” I said, biting into a slice. “But after two years, shouldn’t you have figured out it’s there? Anyway, let’s get back to my question.”

“Well, I don’t see what’s so hard to figure out,” Guy said. “Just get her earrings, that’s all.”

Billy scoffed.

“What? What’s wrong with that?” Guy asked.

“That is so typical,” Billy said. “He’s been dating her for more than 10 months, as hard as that is to believe for Chaz. Earrings are too safe. They’re not personal. It’s like buying a guy a tie clip.”

“Well, I think earrings are fine.”

“Naturally. And when’s the last time you dated someone for more than a month.”

“Oh right, Mr. Sensitive. And when’s the last time you dated someone for more than a night.”

“All right, all right, that’s enough,” I broke in. “Let’s get back to me here. Billy’s right. Earrings are out. So what else, Billy?” I trusted Billy’s judgment on these things more than Guy’s. True, Billy’s dates were few and far between, but, unlike Guy, when Billy started dating someone, the relationship tended to last a while.

“Well, it depends on how serious you want to get. But I think, probably, some other type of jewelry is a good idea. Something with a personal touch. Try to find something a little different. But definitely not any type of ring. You’re not a ring man….” He paused. “At least not yet.”

Billy gave me a studied look. I clutched my heart in mock terror in response, but I was surprised how little it bothered me for real. How serious did I want to get? Billy was right: 10 months was long for me (for Donna, too, she once mentioned). But I was more comfortable with Donna than anyone I’d been with before.

“Hey, how about this? An engraved vibrator,” Guy tossed in.

“Right. Very funny,” I replied. But I couldn’t resist asking: “And what would it say?”

How about, “I’m really into you,” Guy suggested.

I took Billy’s suggestion—and Guy’s, sort of, although I’m sure it’s not what he had in mind. I found a black-faced watch with a string-of-hearts gold-plated band, dainty enough for Donna’s small wrists. Then I had it engraved, to make it more personal: “To the prettiest woman, from the luckiest guy.”

Thus fully armed, I left for Donna’s house on Valentine’s Day.

A RED TABLECLOTH covered our table, its fringes finely stitched with heart-shaped patterns. Donna sat across from me, talking scatter-fire and gesturing with her delicate hands. I nodded, smiled and reached for the half-empty wine bottle sitting by the flickering candle.

So far, so good. We had talked about work, politics and the relative merits of Jerry Springer and 60 Minutes, but, even by dessert, still nothing about our relationship.

While waiting for the cheesecake, we exchanged cards. I had suggested we do the cards and gifts at the restaurant, and thankfully she had agreed; I figured it would be safer this way.

“Thanks Chaz,” she said after she opened my card. “That’s very sweet.” Fidgeting, she gave me a close-lipped smile and a quick pat on the hand. What was wrong? Was that not enough?

I opened her card. “Sweetheart,” it read. “It’s Valentine’s Day. Let’s talk.” Oh shit, I’ve stepped right on a mine.

On the inside, it continued: “I’ll say ‘Oh God.’ You say ‘Oh baby.’ ” The drawing showed a couple underneath the bunched covers with clothes flying out in all directions. I laughed. Ha. Like a card I would buy. Almost too much like a card I would buy, actually.

The cheesecake arrived, strawberry topping on mine, cherry on hers, a bit of whipped cream on both. Inspired by her card, we began a ten-minute discussion about things people saying during sex.

“Hmmm, yes, give me more,” she moaned as she licked the cherry topping off her fork.

“Oh honey, you taste so good,” I said as I ate the strawberry topping off mine.

The waiter came to take away our empty plates.

We exchanged gifts.

She opened mine first. “This is really beautiful, Chaz.”

“Look on the back,” I said.

She turned it over and read the inscription. I heard that warmly familiar staccato laugh, but it seemed to end a note short.

I opened her gift.

A tie clip. Gold-plated, with my initials engraved on the front. But a tie clip, nonetheless.

AFTER THE RESTAURANT, back at Donna’s apartment, the sex was, as usual, a little wild and a lot of fun, maybe even more so.

“Oh baby,” I said as she reached down and began to stroke me. That set off a laughing fit that got worse the more we tried to hold it in.

“Oh God,” she said, as soon as I began to return the sexual favor.

All the way through, we sprinkled the love-making session with the phrases we had talked about during dessert. We finished and cuddled, kissed a few times. I closed my eyes and tried to seem relaxed, even as I wished she would just go to sleep.

She fell asleep within minutes. Was this a trick? Why hasn’t she even tried to ask me anything? It just doesn’t seem right.

We had sex again in the morning, and then Donna rushed off to the kitchen in her nightshirt to make eggs and toast bagels. We sat there eating and talking about items in the morning paper. And still, nothing. She took the plates and went to the sink to rinse them off. Why isn’t she asking? Doesn’t she care?

“Donna?”

“Yes.”

“Why haven’t we talked about us?”

Silently, for a few seconds, she kept rinsing the cleaned plates. As she set them aside and turned off the faucet, she answered nonchalantly. “What do you mean?”

“I mean us, this relationship, where it’s going.”

“Do we really need to talk about that, Chaz?” she asked as she dried the dishes and placed them back in the cupboard. “I mean, it’s going fine.”

“Fine? We’ve been going out for more than 10 months, and it’s going ‘fine’? What does that mean?”

“That means ‘fine,’ ‘great,’ we’re having a lot of fun. Now can we just drop it?” Her voice had turned shaky and higher pitched, and she turned to look at me for the first time since the discussion started.

“No, we can’t.” I was determined now. “Why don’t you want to talk about it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” she insisted. “It’s just….” She stopped. Her eyes pleaded.

“Just what?” I demanded.

Donna sighed resignedly and plopped down onto the kitchen chair, facing me. She looked down at the table as she talked.

“We’re having a lot of fun, Chaz, we really are. I like you a lot. But you know this is about the longest relationship I’ve ever been in and it’s just, you know, I still have doubts. I’m not sure yet what I want. Why can’t we just have fun? Do we have to talk about this now? I mean, you seemed to be fine with it before. You weren’t exactly pushing for more.”

“Yeah, Donna, it’s fun. A lot of fun,” I continued, oblivious to the warnings. “But maybe it would be more fun if we spent even more time together. Ten months is long for me too, you know. Maybe that should tell us something.”

“Yeah, tell us not to mess with it,” she said. The words were flat and stern. For the first time in a while, she made eye contact, giving me a hard stare.

“Oh, and what. Just keep going on like this forever? Not getting too casual, not getting too serious?”

“No, not forever,” she said more quietly. Her eyes looked down again, with her right elbow on the table, her head bowed and her right hand pressed hard against her forehead. She sat that way, staring at the table, the silence broken only by her sniffles, for what must have been at least 60 seconds. I waited.

“I just don’t know,” she said.

“Don’t know what?” I demanded.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she repeated, her voice quavering. She moved her right hand and ran her fingers roughly through her long brown hair. Somehow, the anguished look made her even more attractive. Her shoulders slumped.

“Maybe we need to take a break for a while, just a while,” she said, “so I can see how it is to be apart.”

“Take a break?” I exclaimed, running blindly through the minefield now. “How can you say that? How can you say that? On Valentine’s Day, of all days?”

She still didn’t look up. “It’s the day after Valentine’s Day,” she corrected me. “Anyway, I know I never mentioned this Chaz, but you never asked me and, it seemed so important to you. I mean, you reserved the restaurant weeks in advance and everything. But I have to confess: I really, really, really don’t like Valentine’s Day. I hate it actually. I hate it with a passion. I always have.”

IN THE MILITARY, they have what they call “after-action reviews.” My Dad used to help with them at the Pentagon, analyzing what went wrong or right during various missions. They call that part of the report “lessons learned.” I never joined the military, but I guess some of that carried over. So I’ve been reading and rereading my story, diagramming it, trying to figure out what went wrong and what I can or should do about it.

Donna hadn’t done anything. After all, I could have said nothing, and everything would have been fine, such as it was. I planted my own mine, then set it off myself. Was this what I wanted? I didn’t want the relationship to end, that’s for sure. So I guess I needed something more.

At least that’s my current theory. The only thing I know for sure right now is I really miss Donna, already, and it’s only been 72 hours. We have news and politics to discuss, hikes to take, movies to see, jokes to tell. I want to hear her laughing.

I know that, after another three weeks of anguished discussion and tortured dates, we agreed to a break, to wait a few weeks and see “how it is.” But as I sit here, unpacking my last box, that doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. So I figure, before the end of the week, I’ll pick up the phone and give her a call. I’m thinking of how great it would be if it all worked out. I’m thinking that, if it did, I might even look forward to next Valentine’s Day.

pencil

Andrew Compart (acompart[at]ntmllc.com), 39, lives in Vienna, Va, and works in Washington, D.C., writing about airlines for a travel publication. He was a quarterfinalist in the New Century Writer Awards 2001 short story category.

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