Moonstruck

At 2 p.m. on Valentine’s Day of this year, I am sitting in a coffeeshop in Milwaukie, Oregon. I am doing some writing. I am watching the world go by.

A tweaker stumbles in the door. He’s carrying a small, crumpled bouquet of flowers. He orders a very large cup of coffee and then he twitches his way to a table near mine. He sits down, but he can’t hold still. He’s jumping and wiggling all about and slurping at his coffee. He keeps clearing his throat, and so violently that I develop sympathetic neck pains.

The Tweaker is clearly feeling the love this holiday. He cries out “Happy Valentine’s Day!” to every person who walks past. He strikes up a conversation with the wall.

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“Waiting for my girlfriend,” he mutters. “I’m supposed to buy her coffee but I don’t have any money … [INDECIPHERABLE] and then she’ll buy me dinner. Waiting for her to get dressed and go to the bank …  Wells Fargo …Come on, baby, where are you?”

He notices me noticing him and thrusts the wilting blooms in my direction and blurts: “Take time to smell the roses! That’s what I’m doing!”

Ignore. I do not wish to smell his roses. Or anyone’s roses, really. But I secretly hold my phone up and snap his picture as its own brand of keepsake.

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Two frumpy, indigent-looking women sitting at the table next to me are busy with their own romantic endeavors. They are sitting side by side, sipping on slushy iced drinks and writing Valentine’s Day cards to somebody or other. They are trying to decide what to say.

“I’m gonna find a pencil in my purse,” the one in the wheelchair says to the other. “I don’t want to make a mistake like you did. I know it’s in there.”

“It’s right there! I see it,” her friend says, then pokes deep into the recesses of a tatty bag and pulls out a little yellow stub.

“Write her name, we miss you and keep in touch,” the one in the wheelchair instructs. “That’s what I’m gonna write.”

Just then, a black SUV pulls up outside.

Tweaker lets loose with a cry of unabashed joy!

“There’s my girl,” he shouts, then he rushes out the door.

Soon, I get in my car and drive. I pass a busy little roadside flower stands run by a Mexican family. In a parking lot, I see a guy trying to stuff about 30 inflatable red balloons into the back of his compact car.

Because my own lover is out of town, I take my grandmother to a divey little burger joint. Because it’s her favorite, because it’s where she used to come with my grandfather on Friday nights before he died years and years ago.

In line to order, we meet a beautiful older blonde woman with six ragtag children in tow. One of them, a chubby adolescent boy, is carrying a crinkled gift bag too small to contain the present he’s purchased, which is some sort of orthopedic massager.

“They’re all adopted,” she tells us. “They’re foster kids. All their parents took drugs. And they all have learning disabilities and mental problems. See Maddie over there?”

(She points to a lanky, dark eyed girl in patent leather shoes who is carrying a hamburger on a tray.)

“She’s crazy. Yeah. She’s totally insane.”

The kids can clearly hear us, and I feel both relieved and embarrassed for them at once, and also, mildly ashamed at the largess of my own life.

The woman tells us she is a retired teacher, and that her husband decided he’d had enough and took off, and that her family is so big she has to drive them around in an 18-foot van, and that her life is sometimes hard, but who else was going to do this if she didn’t and wouldn’t the world maybe be just a little better now?

My grandmother eats a hamburger and I eat a bowl of chili, which the cooks have forgotten to salt or season. We each have a cup of decaf coffee with creamer, as is our habit. I want to talk to her about romance, to get her reminiscing about my grandfather, who was something of a hopeless romantic, but she’s more interested in discussing the foster mom from the line (I admire her), and her own two disabled children (When you’re a mom, you never stop worrying), and how old she’ll be when she dies (I might have 10 years left, if I can make it to 100).

In front of us, an elderly man in a tweed jacket who looks a bit like Ernest Hemmingway is sharing a slice of pie with his matronly dinner date. My grandmother keeps bumping his chair, and they keep laughing about it.

A few feet behind us, a woman who looks about grandma’s age is eating a hamburger all by herself at a small table next to the fireplace.

“Look at that little old lady behind you,” my grandmother orders me loudly. “She’s all alone! Oh, that’s sad!”

I dutifully turn to look, and the woman is staring right at us. I decide she must have heard our conversation. My face burns and I turn back to my congealing chili.

My grandmother and I talk and talk until our little cups of diner coffee have gone cold, the half and half curdling at the bottoms, and all the tables around us empty out.

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Then, we go outside into the parking lot. It’s gotten cold and the moon is huge and bright. We look at it for awhile. I take some pictures, but they aren’t very good. I drive my grandmother back to the retirement home and we eat cookies with cookie dough ice cream at her little kitchen table. She picked out the cookie dough ice cream by accident and is amazed that such a thing exists.

“You mean there’s actual dough in it?” she asks.

“Yeah, but I think without the raw eggs,” I say.

We spoon the sundaes into our mouths and she asks me if I think I will marry my boyfriend. I tell her yes, he is wonderful, the best, so much better than the ones who came before. Yes, most definitely.

Then she tells me about a hefty dental bill she recently received, and about how she got the dentist to knock $300 off, but that made her even more suspicious, because how could he just knock that much off the price unless it was too high to start with?

I agree with her, as we sit and lick our spoons, that life can be expensive and messy and hard to pin down. And it occurs to me that there are so many kinds of love.

In public, I used to resent this holiday’s patsy compulsion toward sentimentality and public affection. In private, I used to miss gone-away people so hard it made my nose bleed. After one particularly gutting breakup in my mid-20s, I told myself: “If I am still single when I’m 35, I will consider suicide.”

I still bristle when anyone instructs me to stop and smell any brand of rose, but in the years since I made that dark vow, a slow accumulation of minutes and hours spent sitting in coffeeshops and standing in cafeteria lines and licking ice cream spoons in tiny nighttime apartments has gone to work on my insides and made me reconsider. I watch people now, and I wonder what it is that’s kept them moving forward on their pitted and rutted roads. Sometimes I open my mouth and I ask them. Sometimes I just listen.

I’m coming to suspect, now, that love is maybe less like a red, red rose or a compass or a knife or anything else the weepy-eyed poets ever told us, and more like this dark and big and ineffably sweet that comes for you in the night, ready or not, but only when and how it decides. Something that sneaks up you as quick and quiet as the enormous February moon and then swallows you whole in a single gulp.

It comes. Even if you’re lonely, even if you’re 90, even if you’re totally insane or left with nothing but a wilted bouquet or a broken bit of pencil to help you receive it, it comes.

And all that’s left, then, is to let yourself be defeated by it. Swiftly, incisively, and from behind, just when you’d forgotten to look. Wondrously, blessedly defeated.

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2 thoughts on “Moonstruck

  1. Nan Collie says:

    Oh Erin, I just read this! What a wonderful piece!!! It holds so much of the very things I love about you. So happy belated Valentines, and Im sending some more love to surrender to. May the defeats hold you up when you are down, dear heart.

    Much love, Nan

    • erinjbernard says:

      Thank you so much! I will take all the love I can get! Hope we can catch up soon. Perhaps I can come help nurse you back to health after your surgery?

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