Unexpected Valentine (February 13, 2012)

At 33.5 years of age, I have lived long enough to know that both tragedy and spiritual uplift often come from the most unlikely places. One of the supremely terrible and wonderful features of human life is that we can plan all we want, but never quite know what to expect. But awareness of this fact doesn’t always lead to preparedness, a ready script that one can summon in response to these little surprises.

Thus I was left on the street this evening, wordlessly clutching a three-foot tall white teddy bear named Shawn.

As part of my normal routine, I switched from one commuter train to the next, en route to the gym after a long day spent at the office. Upon alighting from the second train, a walk of roughly 6 blocks stood between me and the fitness center I patronize. Typically, I traverse the distance on autopilot, thinking over the day, what needs to be done when I get home, dread of the coming sweat session – the usual.

On this night, roughly halfway through my walk, I was interrupted from a reverie by the honk of a car horn. I looked to my left and it seemed that a rather well-dressed man driving a Mercedes-Benz was trying to grab my attention. Part of city living means coping with unwanted attention from various miscreants, but if Mr. Mercedes was a lunatic or a deadbeat, I had to admire the presentation.

I waved him off naturally, but he persisted. With an angry look on his face, he finally spoke: “Look I know this is weird, but can you just walk over here for a second?”

With that the gentleman thrust the aforementioned giant teddy bear from his driver side window, packaged adorably with a stand, fake roses and a balloon. “Here. Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said rather unenthusiastically.

By now I was running down a mental list of former friends and lovers. Had my memory lapsed completely? No other explanation made the scene logical. But failing to locate even a spark of recognition, I finally summoned the brain power to utter a single word, “Why?”

He sighed deeply before replying, “Because. You are a lot prettier and probably a lot nicer than the woman I just broke up with.”

I wasn’t ready for that at all. “But why me? Don’t you want to give this to your mother, sister or at least a female friend?” [Presumably one that you have known for longer than 15 seconds?]

The man answered, “I really just want it out of my sight.”

Why is that against every inclination I believed I had (I am SO not the teddy bear type), I suddenly wanted this stuffed animal more than anything? This bear represented something to the man – a loss, a broken promise, frustrated hopes. I will never really know the full story but all at once, I saw myself walking away from so many unsatisfying entanglements with nothing more than a box of tsotchkes. Here was someone in pain that I understood, literally asking me to lighten his load by taking a distressing Valentine’s Day gift home. It seemed the least I could do.

By way of acceptance, I asked “May I at least have your name? So I know what to call the bear?”

“Shawn,” was all he said. We made brief eye contact, and I like to believe, exchanged knowing looks. Yes, Shawn, this too shall pass. I was you last year.

Then Shawn peeled off into the night, into a world I never believed existed – where handsome men with nice cars and giant gifts still go home alone.

And I continued my walk to the gym, laden with a symbol of someone’s disappointment. In the same moment that he gifted me the largest stuffed animal I will ever own, (and I WILL keep it because no one’s pain belongs in a landfill), I hope I provided a service in return.

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