Monday, February 13, 2012

The best gift he ever stole for me

The theme at last night's story slam was love. Risking the  trite, and because there were children in the audience, I told a Valentine's Day story that happened a long time ago, in another life.

LtColEx and I were married for many years. Decades even*. Over most of those years we were comfortable, financially secure, and he gave me many Valentine's Day gifts. Depending on where the Air Force had sent him that year, I got Godiva chocolate from Belgium, Opium perfume from France, jewelry, lingerie, or, most often, a dozen roses and a box of Esther Price mixed chocolates that he picked up at the grocery store on his way home from work. I appreciated them all, but I have to admit, no matter what he gave me, my favorite gift was always the one he gave me the first year we were married. The year I least expected a gift.

The first few months of our marriage we lived in a roach-infested trailer in a crappy fucking trailer park in Red Oak, Iowa. I worked in a commercial greenhouse; he cleaned carpets. We hated it, and we knew our only hope of escaping the family farm fate was for him to get back into college. The plan was for me to work while he went to school, and then he would get a good job and I'd get my degree.

So in January we moved back to Iowa City, where we'd met, into married student housing, and he went to school while I worked. It took a long time for me to find a job in a small city with a large student population. I finally took a job that was so demeaning I won't even say what it was. I worked almost every day, often for 10-12 hours, but they paid me cash after every shift, so I could buy food on my way home and set a little aside for the rent.

We were so poor, we usually only ate once a day. In the month or so before I found a job, we would go three or four days on a loaf of day-old bread from the bakery that cost twenty-five cents. LtColEx's grandma had given us a quart of apple butter and a pint of crab apple jelly -- the sourest, meanest jelly ever made. We stretched that out as far as we could. One night we didn't have enough money to buy food, so I made pancakes with the last of our Bisquick and some water, and put a little ketchup in a can of pork 'n beans. We ate baked beans on pancakes. It's not a recipe I plan to pass on.
 After I finally broke down and took the worst job in the city, we could buy a Swanson pot pie for each of us every day, because they only cost a quarter apiece and they were hot food.

On Valentine's Day that year I'd worked so many days in a row, I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a day off. I finally dragged my tired ass home about midnight, along with a couple of Swanson pot pies. I probably didn't even remember what day it was. It didn't matter. We didn't have money for gifts anyway.

I heated the oven and put in the pot pies. They take forever to bake. I sat down to watch anything on TV that would take me out of that tiny apartment with the cinder block walls and the cheap white sheet over the window.

"Close your eyes," LtColEx said. He was standing with his hands behind his back.
"I don't need a surprise tonight," I said.
"Just close your eyes and hold out your hands."
"Fine." I did as he asked.
He put something in my hands and then said, "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you."

I looked down at the heart-shaped gift in my lap. It was wrapped in a piece of notebook paper on which he'd drawn a heart and colored it with crayons. He'd written "I love you" across the front of the heart. I carefully took off the wrapping and saw he'd taken a pot pie tin and shaped it into a heart. In the pan were 8 pieces --two whole packages -- of Toffifay, my favorite candy. The sweetest thing I'd eaten in weeks was that bitter fucking crab apple jelly.

I picked up one of the candies. "Where did you get this? We can't afford candy." It smelled so good.
"It doesn't matter. I had to get you a Valentine's Day present."
"No, really. How did you get these?"
"OK, I walked to the grocery store this evening, and I stole them. I couldn't not get you a present for our first Valentine's Day."

I couldn't believe it. We were poor. Really poor. But we didn't steal, and we sure as hell couldn't afford for him to get arrested. I looked down at the pie tin heart and the notebook wrapping paper with its crayon message ... and the 8 pieces of my favorite candy. I could smell the pot pies getting toasty in the oven. And I looked up at the man who'd walked in the bitter Iowa cold to the grocery store to steal me some Valentine candy, and I think I knew even then that nobody would ever give me a better gift than that.

I hugged him and kissed him and offered him one of the Toffifays, but he wouldn't take one. He watched while I ate every single one --after I ate my pot pie, of course -- first peeling away the caramel and then nibbling the chocolate and hazelnut in the tiniest bites I could take. Before I went to bed, I wrapped the paper around the aluminum heart again and put it in my dresser drawer. Eventually I threw the pot pie pan away, but I kept the crayoned wrapping paper.

A couple of years ago, after our long, bitter divorce, when I was going through stuff, getting our big tri-level in the suburbs ready to sell, I came across my memorabilia box in the attic. In it I found my suede leather jacket with the long fringe, which still smelled like .... umm, patchouli ... low-slung, bell-bottom jeans that looked like they'd fit a nine-year-old, a silver mini dress that Elvira wouldn't believe was really a dress. And the piece of notebook paper with a red heart colored on it in crayon.

A lot had happened since I opened that stolen Valentine's Day present. That young man who loved me like I was precious was long gone, and so was that tired teen-aged girl. What the hell though. I tucked the paper back in the box with the other memories and moved it with me to a new house in the city. It's still the best Valentine I ever got.

What's the best Valentine you ever received? What gift made you feel most precious?

* I was, of course, still a child on my wedding day.


  1. Very sweet.
    Although I am curious what this job was that was so awful you can't even tell us!
    Happy Valentine's Day.

  2. Only have gotten a few vday gifts. Best one was a proposal. :-)

    1. A proposal would be memorable even if you didn't want to get married. But if you did, that would make a great Valentine's Day memory.

  3. "Very sweet.
    Although I am curious what this job was that was so awful you can't even tell us!
    Happy Valentine's Day."

    I'm guessing sex machine clean-up girl.

  4. Don't ever recall getting a valentine's gift. I've given a few though. Sure did love your story ...

    Peace ...

    1. Thanks, Rollo. Never? That doesn't seem right. I wish I'd known that sooner....

  5. Yes, sex machine cleanup girl! How did you guess? It doesn't pay as well as you might imagine.

  6. This is an amazing story. Thanks for sharing. :)