Irrelevant. That’s what she called me . . . with an emphasis on ir. Of course I wanted to tell her irrelevancy usually applied to things, dates, historical events or thesis comments, but not to people, usually not or never to people. It was illogical. But she had already slammed the door and sent Pepper squawking from the other room, “Call the cops! Call the cops!”
I stared at the floor . . . her valentine gift littered across my linoleum . . . the one designed with sunflower patterns and easily cleaned with just a little soap and water. Now I had a three month’s supply of oven cleaner covering most of it. Okay, maybe oven cleaner wasn’t the most romantic gift for a two-year relationship, but it was on sale and I had seen her oven. She overcooked everything, so hardened grease drippings, remnants of – and here I’m not exaggerating – at least a dozen small fires were caked onto the grills, sides, coils and window of her Amana. Lord knows she could use it. Practical on all accounts. Besides, killing flowers or buying candy largely more suitable for future diabetics was never what I would call romantic.
The ring tone on my phone warned me I was now in jeopardy of being late for my first class . . . and I am never late. Grabbing my backpack and helmet, I headed for the garage. The oven cleaner would have to wait.
Bicycling to Ramona Community College usually allowed me a chance to take in the rustic atmosphere of a city built on the back of chicken farms, pig ranches, dairies and vineyards, but today I didn’t have time to notice anything but asphalt and the occasional rude pickup driver delivering his one fingered sermon. I was late, and I am never late.
By the time I reached my office, students were already waiting outside the science lecture room.
“You’re late, Martin,” my office-mate astutely noticed.
“Taia’s fault,” I murmured as I rifled through my notes for today’s lecture.
Bill looked over his laptop with one eyebrow raised in a ski lift position. “How so?”
“Valentine’s Day. Bought the wrong gift.” Here it was. Diseases of the Endocrine System.
“Ah . . . the death of many a relationship. What did you buy?”
I really didn’t have time for this inquisition, but I couldn’t find my flash drive with the power point, so for the sake of not being rude, I said, “Oven cleaner.” I found the flash drive under a stack of student papers and headed for the door before Bill’s giggles turned into an avalanche of laughter.
After the preliminary roll call, my students normally readied themselves with laptops or pen and paper, but today they chatted, whispered, or busied themselves silently on the cell phone. Putting in the flash drive, I located the power point on “Physiological Conditions Related to the Medical Field.” Proud as I was of how much material I could pack into a single lecture and how my colorful power points seemed to intrigue if not enthrall my students, today I noticed a kind of apathy edging toward boredom once I began my introduction. A hand shot up from Renee. “Yes?”
“Dr. Briggs, do you know what day it is?”
I quickly checked my record book just to make sure. “Thursday,” I said relatively sure I had answered the question correctly.
Renee shook her head.
“No, I mean the importance of today . . . you know, February 14.”
“You’re referring to Valentine’s Day?”
“Yes. It’s not a day for learning about diseases . . . it’s a day for learning about love . . . the heart.”
There was a general rumbling of agreement from other students. “So you don’t want to know the importance of how diseases can affect a person’s physiology? How that might help you in the nursing field?”
Renee gave me one of those tiny glares before responding. “It’s not that. That’s important . . . for maybe tomorrow’s lecture. But today . . . today should be about love.”
I shut down the power point. “I see. You want to know about love.”
She nodded and the class followed with a chorus of “Yeas.”
I turned on the lights and closed my notebook while students leaned forward in anticipation. “Love, well what you would call the beginning stages of love or infatuation, has nothing to do with the heart. Love is largely a product of the brain.”
No one moved or wrote a single note, so I knew I had their attention. “Studies have been done that now show when a person is in the beginning stages of love, several regions of the brain are activated. In particular, the caudate nucleus, part of the primitive reptilian brain, lights up under brain scans. Any ideas as to why that is?”
“Gotta get some.”
“Procreation for the survival of the species.”
“Bingo, Arturo!” I said putting my finger on my nose. “At least if you’re male. Early man’s first decision . . . can I eat it or screw it.”
“Of course the brain also dumps a number of other chemicals into the mix . . . dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin . . . chemicals associated with pleasurable activities, excitement, and bonding.”
Renee slumped in her seat. “You’re making love sound like a factory made product.”
“In essence, it is. The brain is a drug factory. Take eating chocolate for example . . . it can be pleasurable and addictive. That’s love.”
“Like cocaine,” someone snickered.
“Very much like cocaine,” I said. “Dopamine is released when using cocaine. That’s the high you experience. The same chemical is produced when you fall in love. That’s why a bad breakup is like kicking a drug habit.”
With her head resting in her two hands, Renee made one final attempt. “Have you ever been in love, Dr. Briggs?”
The question took me by surprise, not because I didn’t have an answer, but because it was so . . . so personal. “I’m currently in a relationship,” I said.
“A relationship? You even make that sound clinical. But have you ever been in love . . . truly, madly, deeply in love?”
I looked at my watch. “Look at the time. Class dismissed.” There was the typical snapping close of laptops and unzipping of backpacks as students hurried to their next class, and, I thought, maybe to the candy store for Valentine chocolates. Renee struggled to her feet and walked slowly to the door before turning. “Madly, deeply in love, Professor Briggs.” Then she shouldered her backpack and ambled out into the flow of student foot traffic in the hallway.
“Put the Debois against the far wall. Don’t put anything else there. I want it to stand out, catch the eye,” I said to Maria.
Oven cleaner! The nerve of Martin! The incredible, audacious, unthinking nerve of the man! I watched as Maria had Kyle and Bernardo carefully hang Debois’ Lunar Landscape exactly in the middle of the freshly painted gray wall. I tried to focus on the stark lunar terrain, so lonely, so distant without a familiar element except for the splash of sunlight on the far crater’s edge. That’s where he should be. In the kind of environment so sterile it screamed of insanity.
“More to the left,” I said to Maria. “I don’t want it perfectly centered. It should be . . . it should be . . .” I was struggling with the right phrase as my head swirled with images of Martin caught in a sand maelstrom, slowly whirling, slowly sinking below the surface of a lunar crater.
“Asymmetrical?” Maria offered.
“Yes. Off balanced. Alien in nature and not conforming to our expectations.” That was Martin. As alien as they came, even for a Physiologist.
Once the oil was arranged, I took a step back to get a feel for what everyone else would see in its inaugural viewing. Closing my eyes, I imagined myself entering the gallery, taking a glass of champagne, and then coming face to face with this incredible masterpiece. I opened my eyes. No. It was too dark. It would go unnoticed when it should shout out its originality. “Maria, I need a couple of spots to focus on the painting.”
Maria adjusted the lights until they literally bathed the Debois in spectacular energy. It sent a chill up my spine. “Perfect,” I told Maria. “No, better than perfect. Wonderful!”
“Is Martin coming to the opening?” Maria asked. “I’d like to hear his opinion of this piece.”
“I doubt it.” And when I said it, I had already regretted my tone.
“Uh, oh. Sounds like a problem in paradise.”
If I had a female soul mate, it was Maria. She read my emotions better than I did, but sometimes, not often, but sometimes I wish she couldn’t. “We had a misunderstanding.”
“He didn’t like your gift?”
And then it dawned on me. I had been so . . . so horrified . . . no, humiliated . . . no, dispirited . . . I hadn’t given him his Valentine gift. I rummaged through my purse until I found the leather book wrapped with a red ribbon. “I don’t know? I forgot to give it to him.”
“A first edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and you forgot? Taia, you’ve got some explaining to do.”
She took me by the arm and led me to a viewing seat nearest the Debois. “Okay, so what happened? What did he do?”
My whole body trembled with the memory of that moment. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share it with Maria, but I would. I knew I would. “Oven cleaner happened,” I said.
“He gave you oven cleaner? As a Valentine gift?” Maria sat back on both her hands and stared at the eight by ten foot spectacle in front of us. “That sounds like something Martin would do.”
She didn’t laugh. She didn’t giggle or frown or get angry . . . all of the things I thought she might do. She simply stated the obvious. That was Martin. That’s how he saw things in the world.
“You were angry weren’t you?” Maria turned her dark eyes on me.
My mouth dropped open and stayed open for what seemed like a very long time before the words came out. “I . . . I was . . . surprised. Disappointed, really.”
She took the book from my hand. “You wanted him to give you this.”
I shook my head. “No . . . I mean . . . did I?”
She held up the book of poetry. “This is you, but it isn’t Martin. Martin is oven cleaner. Emily is you.”
And there it was. The cold, hard truth . . . and I had closed my eyes to it . . . closed my heart to it.
“Cheer up, girl! There’s still a chance he’ll show tonight. Star crossed lovers and all. Besides, I’ve seen your oven. You could use the cleaner.” Maria stood up and brushed invisible dust from her pants. “Get Kyle and Bernardo to help you hang the rest of the paintings. I’ve got to go buy some champagne.”
The crowds filtering through the gallery, resplendent in their black ties and cocktail dresses sipping champagne and ogling the assorted Debois and others — at least that’s how Taia imagined it would be. Instead, most of the art collectors and admirers wore jeans and tennis shoes. Southern California. Still, she had managed to smile, small talk, smooze, and, along with the sparkling, sell ninety percent of her inventory. All in all, a successful night’s work. So why did she feel like she’d been run over by a herd of angry peacocks?
“Not here?” Maria handed her a glass of champagne.
“No. And it’s almost closing time.”
“Maybe he’s just late?” Maria said.
Taia sighed. “He’s never late.” Slumping onto one of the viewing seats, she placed her untouched drink on the floor. “Go home. Everyone’s left. I’ll close up.”
“We could sit and read Emily. I’m sure she’s wise about these things.”
Taia looked up and gave her a weak smile. “Thanks, but I want to be miserable by myself. No sharing tonight.”
“In that case . . .” Maria squeezed her shoulder lightly before she walked out of the gallery.
Taia reached under the seat and pulled out a neatly wrapped box with a red bow and placed it on her lap. “Well, it probably wasn’t the best of ideas,” she said to the box.
“Is that for me?”
Taia turned to see Martin standing behind her. “Martin, you came!”
Martin plunked down beside her. “One of my students taught me a very important lesson today. And without a power point no less.”
“It must be the day for lesson getting,”
Taia said. “What was your lesson?”
“It seems I must be madly, truly, deeply in love . . . at least that’s what my caudate nucleus is telling me.”
Taia raised a puzzled eyebrow. “I understand the first part. Not sure about the second.”
Martin took Taia’s hand in his. “It means I’ve been ignoring what my brain has been trying to tell me for a long, long time. And if you’ll excuse a scientific, nerdy fool, I’d like to try making it up to you.” He leaned in and gently kissed her.
Taia threw her arms around him, forgetting she still held the box in her hand. It conked him on the side of the head, knocking him to the floor. “Oh, Martin, are you all right?”
Rubbing the side of his head, he smiled as he found a seat beside her. “Was that a yes or a no?”
“I’m sorry. Yes. Yes, yes, yes! If you’ll forgive me.”
“Yes . . . again. I wasn’t able to accept you for who you are. I think . . . I think I wanted you to be someone else.” She held out the box for Martin. “This is my Valentine’s gift for you.”
Hesitantly, he took the box.
“It’s not what I originally had for you. What I originally had for you was something for me.”
Martin carefully unwrapped the gift, making sure he didn’t tear the paper. He gave the bow to Taia. “You could use this again.” When he finished unwrapping it, he sat staring at the book.
“It’s the New York Times Sunday Crossword Book,” she explained. “I know how much you enjoy crossword puzzles, so I thought we could grab breakfast in the mornings and work on them together.”
Martin thumbed through the pages before seeking her eyes.
“I . . . I don’t know what to say. This is perfect. I love it.”
Taia gave a sigh of relief. “I wasn’t sure. I mean I just wanted something that brought the two of us together. Isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is all about?”
Lifting her chin, he kissed her, not once, not twice, but three times. Then he took her hand in his and said, “I’ve got something for you.”
“Oh, Martin, you don’t . . .”
He put his finger to her lips. “Wait here.”
She watched him as he rushed out. A moment later he returned, leading a black and white short-haired dog on a new leash. Maria peeked around the wall as she placed her hand on her chest, her eyes moist, but smiling.
Giving the leash to Taia, Martin knelt beside the dog. “Her name’s Tess. She’s old. She’s a mutt, but she had run out of options. They had planned to euthanize her today. I thought you . . . well, I thought we could be her guardian. You know, make the few years she has left something special.”
Taia scratched Tess on the head and Tess licked her hand, the way a dog who has never known love, true love, does when it is offered, even in the slightest respect. “She’s . . . she’s . . .” Taia opened her arms and Tess jumped onto her lap. “She’s wonderful.”
Rick Stepp-Bolling, a retired professor of writing from Mt San Antonio College, now resides in Ramona, California, with his wife, Francie, and their collection of rescued animals. He has three books published: SMOKE AND MIRRORS (a book of poetry), AUTOCIDE (a collection of short stories), and his first novel in a fantasy/science fiction series, PATCH MAN, published by Crimson Cloak Publishers. He can be contacted at his website rickstepp-bolling.com.
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