A Valentine for Valentin

Jack Frost was a bastard.

He had no place in the month of February—a month filled with rose bouquets and chubby cherubs and ooey-gooey romance and the first tentative hints of spring—but he stuck around anyway, bumming everybody out. Including Valentin, or Val, as his friends called him. Val always hated Jack Frost, that smug asshole.

“I should go to Florida,” he mused as he and his two closest friends—Remy, his platonic male friend, and Petra, their mutual fruit fly—sat around sipping overpriced coffee at some hole-in-the-wall Midtown café. Outside, the snow was falling, coating the sidewalks. Even in the well-heated café, Val swore he could feel the chill of the outside world.

“Florida?” Remy arched a brow. “Really?”

“You’d never last,” Petra singsonged. “The culture is blah.”

“Culture?” Remy laughed. “What culture? Disney World? Senior citizen homes? Crocodiles?”

“Alligators,” Petra corrected.

Remy waved her off. “Same difference.”

“Yeah, well, at least they have sun.” Val peered out the window and looked up at the blank horizon of sky, the cloudy gray of a winter that wouldn’t die. He sneered. “I hate this.”

“Then move to California,” Petra suggested. “Southern California. By the beach.”

“Oh, sure. Southern California, what a great class of people. Sleazy agents and closeted actors—no thanks.”

“What, worried your dating life would suffer?” Remy chuckled. “Unlikely. You’d have to actually have a dating life in order for it to suffer.”

Val rolled his eyes, but deep down he knew Remy was right, and he hated it. It had been almost a year since his last serious boyfriend. There had been hookups in the meantime, casual rebounds, but nothing concrete. No dreamy bears to wrap their arms around him and chase away the cold. And God, how he missed that.

“Speaking of,” Petra said, leaning toward Val from across the table, “I have someone for you.”

“Oh really? Someone my type?”

“Completely. He’s funny, and totally cute. Hell, if he were straight, I’d date him myself.” She grinned. “What do you think?”

Val drummed his fingers on the table. “It’s a bit close to Valentine’s Day, isn’t it? Won’t that be weird?”

“Not if the date’s this Friday. You’ll be a full week away.”

“Hmm.” He was desperate: A fix-up was normally something he avoided at all costs, but in this case, the alternatives (joining some putrid dating site or scrolling through Grindr in search of that one perfect unicorn) seemed worse. So, with a nod and a shrug, he decided, Why not?


That Friday arrived with little fanfare. Val hardly even felt nervous—at least not until the day wore on and the evening approached, and suddenly he was wracked with pre-date nerves. Get it together, he told himself as he slipped out the door. It was a brisk walk to the restaurant, and when he got there, he found a burly, bearded superman standing outside, absently staring at his phone.

“Bryce?” Val said, both timidly and hopefully. Please let it be him . . .

The man on the phone glanced up and flashed a nice, toothy smile. Thank Lord. “Hey! You must be Val,” he said—and Val immediately deflated.

That voice. It was like a cartoon character, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Porky Pig rolled into one catastrophic clusterfuck of a voice. It was worse than nails on a chalkboard, worse than heavy metal. It was pure agony in voice form.

Val winced just a little, hoping Bryce wouldn’t notice. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “It’s me.”

“Nice to meet you!” There was a squeak at the end—a full on squeak. Like a mouse who just happened to look like a bear. A really annoying, hand-drawn mouse in some inane children’s show. Shit.

Don’t be shallow, Val told himself. Give the voice—I mean, give the GUY a chance.

He did have a friendly, pleasant way about him. And a nice smile. That was worth something, wasn’t it? It was just a voice. It’d grow on him.

Only it didn’t.

Throughout dinner, the voice grated on Val’s nerves with more force and precision than the restaurant’s cheese-grater demonstrated with parmesan. Val passed the time by trying to come up with the appropriate analogy so he could later describe it to Remy (a saw cutting into a thick piece of wood? A small animal being killed be a coyote? The scream of a child at the dentist?), and practicing the indignant speech he’d later deliver to Petra (“Why the fuck were you willing to set me up with someone who sounds like a car’s tires screeching after it careens off the road?” was how it began). Of course he knew the situation was funny, and would make a good story down the road—maybe he’d tell it to some other, normal-voiced first date in the future, or at a party, or to his family next Thanksgiving. Oh yes, someday, he’d tell it, and everybody would laugh. But right then, he could hardly find the humor. All he could focus on was the dull thumping in his head that the voice had given him, and fighting the urge to make a break for it and flee the restaurant right there and then. If only I weren’t so fucking polite, he thought, eyeing the door as he took a sip of his water. I could run this instant if my manners weren’t holding me back.

“So what do you like to do on the weekends?” Bryce asked. “What are your hobbies, I mean?”

Val winced a little and tried to surreptitiously rub his temples in an attempt to soothe the aching in his head (it didn’t work). “I, uh, read, and I like to scuba dive—”

“Really?” Bryce’s face lit up. He was endearing, and earnest, and Val felt guilty that he still wanted to ditch him. He really was a nice guy—just cursed with the worst voice in human history, was all. “My cousin loves to scuba dive. He took this trip to Australia—won’t shut up about it, even though it happened six or seven years ago now—and he’s always trying to get me to take it up. I guess I’m a bit wary of the sea. I like it and everything, just scares me, to tell you the truth.” He laughed. Even his laugh was painful.

“That’s nice,” Val mumbled. He could hardly make normal conversation now. It wasn’t just the voice, and his quickly-worsening headache, but also the fact that the restaurant was so fucking hot. Like a furnace. And why was that, anyway? Yes, it was cold outside, but did they really have to crank the heat up to nine thousand? Jesus Christ, I’m going to pass out, Val thought. He took another sip of his water, and the sweat on the glass felt comforting.

“Sorry,” Bryce said, ducking his head. “Probably not that interesting, huh?”

Oh, shit—now I’ve made him feel bad. “No, no, it’s fine. I’m just, uh . . . I’m kind of warm in here.” He smiled. It was an uneasy, fake-looking smile, but at least he was making an effort. “It’s warm in here, isn’t it?”

“Maybe a little,” Bryce replied.

Maybe a lot. “Maybe it’s just me.”

“Maybe you just need another glass of water? You’re running low there.”

Val looked down at his glass, realizing for the first time that it was down to a few measly sips. He squinted—when did that happen?—and absently fanned at his face. “I guess you’re right.”

“Here, you can have mine,” Bryce offered, pushing his completely-filled glass across the table.

“Thanks. But, you know, I think I could use some fresh air, too.” He shifted in his seat, feeling a bead of sweat make its way down his back. “Mind if I step outside for a minute?”

“Oh, sure. Go ahead.”

“Thanks,” Val said again, and he pushed his chair back so fast that it nearly tipped over. He fast-walked through the restaurant, passing annoyingly glib couples and some families with noisy kids, and made his way to the door. Opening it, a huge blast of cold air hit him. For the first time, the chilly February weather was a sweet, sweet relief. I could never live in Florida, he thought as he stepped outside. Or California. New York was fine. New York was where he belonged. Now if only the dating prospects were better . . .


The voice was familiar, coming from his right. He turned his head—

—and found his ex-boyfriend staring back at him.

Hal, of Val and Hal fame. They’d been adorable together, one of those written-in-the-stars couples—right down to the rhyming names—who looked good on a Christmas card and made their friends jealous. They’d broken up years ago, and Val was long over Hal, but seeing him standing there brought up a rush of memories and made him acutely aware of how little he’d accomplished since their breakup four years ago.

But Hal—he was holding hands with a bookish man wearing Clark Kent glasses and sporting a luscious head of hair. He always had liked the intellectual types, Val recalled.

For a moment, Val couldn’t speak. He’d gone from a hot-as-hell restaurant with a horrible-voiced blind date, to a freezing-cold street staring at the best boyfriend he’d ever had and his ex’s new guy. How did this happen? Fucking Petra, Val thought.

He forced a smile, as he’d been doing all night. “Hal! Hey! God, long time, huh?”

“Ages,” Hal replied. There was a brief, awkward pause, then he turned to the bookish boyfriend whose hand he was clinging to. “This is Sal.”

Val arched a brow. “Really? Another guy whose name ends in -al?”

“I guess I have a type.”

“So you’re Val,” Sal said. He dropped Hal’s hand and extended his toward Val, who shook it with all the tepid enthusiasm he could muster. “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard stories—”

“Only good things, I hope?”

“The best.” Hal winked. He was charming in that way all the best boyfriends are. All suave and easy-going. And he had a good voice, too.

Not that Val wanted him back, because he didn’t. But damn if his presence didn’t feel like some smug sign from the universe, an annoying little reminder of how lackluster his dating life had become. How shitty all his dates were these days. I get it, Universe, Val wanted to say. I really, really get it. Can you stop beating me over the head with it now?

“So where you two headed?” Val asked. Mostly because this was very, very awkward, and he wanted Hal to get gone as soon as possible, along with his dumb boyfriend—who was probably very nice, but who Val felt an irrational annoyance with all the same.

“Oh, right here,” Hal replied, nodding toward the restaurant. Val felt a sinking in his stomach—like someone had let an anchor loose deep down inside him. “We hate the crowds on Valentine’s Day, so we thought we’d celebrate a few days early. Have a special night.”

“This one’s a total romantic,” Sal added, gesturing toward Hal. “But I guess you know that.” He chuckled. Val did not.

“Are you also eating here?” Hal asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Val mumbled. “I have a date.”

“With your boyfriend?”

“He’s, uh . . . well . . .” He’s a blind date, okay? That’s what he fucking is. Val couldn’t work up the nerve to admit it, so instead he turned and pointed out Bryce through the window.

“Oh, he’s cute!” Hal said.

“Very debonair,” Sal agreed.

“Yeah, he’s, um, really something.” At least they can’t hear his voice from here. “Well, I guess I should be getting back to him. But it was nice seeing you, Hal. And uh, nice meeting you, Sal.”

“You too,” Sal said.

Val turned and hurried back into the restaurant, Hal and Sal following closely after. Hal and Sal, Val thought bitterly as he slunk back to his table. Jesus Christ, is that how our names sounded when we were a couple? It’s amazing no one ever laughed in our faces. Of all times to run into Hal, he could not believe his luck. He was out of his element, at a restaurant, on a blind date that was going downhill fast. But at least he’d pulled it together in the end. At least Bryce was good-looking. Of course Val was fully aware of how shallow that sounded, but hey, if ever a moment called for shallowness, it was running into your ex. Especially when that ex is dating a cute, professor-looking guy. Fucking Hal, always showing off.

“Welcome back,” Bryce said as Val flung himself back into his chair.

Val forced another smile. “Hey. Sorry, I just had to cool down. I feel better now.”

“Who were you talking to?”

Val stiffened. He felt like he had when he was a kid and his mom caught him sneaking cookies before dinner. “What?”

“Outside. I saw you talking to someone. Friends of yours?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” He cleared his throat. “Old friends.”

“I guess they’re eating here—”

“They are.”

“Yeah, and they’re coming over.”

Val’s eyes went wide. “What?”

“They’re coming over here. Look.”

Val twisted around in his seat. There was Hal and Sal, being led toward Val and Bryce’s table by a hostess. No, no, no, Val thought. He glanced over and realized the table beside his was empty. The couple dining there must’ve left while he was outside. Fuck.

“Everything okay, Val?” Bryce asked. The voice sent needles through Val’s head.

He twisted back around and put on his most convincing it’s-all-fine face. “Oh, yeah. Definitely. I just wasn’t expecting they’d be sat near us.”

The hostess came to a stop by the table next to Val’s, and Hal and Sal quickly took their seats. The tables were so close that they might as well have all been dining at a big booth together. If they wanted, Hal or Sal could easily listen in on Val and Bryce’s conversation. They would absolutely hear the voice now. Shit.

“Hi again,” Hal said as the hostess walked away.

Val nodded his head in cursory acknowledgement, hoping that would the end of it. But of course it wasn’t.

“Hi,” Bryce said. “I’m Bryce. Val’s date.”

Hal’s eyebrow ticked up ever so slightly at the sound of Bryce’s voice, but otherwise his face betrayed nothing. He smiled, reached out, and shook Bryce’s hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Hal, if Val’s ever mentioned me.”

“He hasn’t, but then again, this is only our first date.”


Val sunk lower in his chair. He only wished he could sink all the way out of the chair, to the floor, and maybe hide beneath the table for the rest of the night.

“Sorry, I thought—I don’t know, I guess I thought you two had been dating for a while, when Val pointed you out outside.”

Bryce smirked at Val. “You pointed me out?”

As if things couldn’t get any worse. “Just when they asked what I was doing here,” Val offered.

“You jumped to conclusions, babe,” Sal said, and he swatted Hal’s hand gently, playfully. “You know what they say about assumptions—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Hal was smiling, and looking deep into Sal’s eyes like how he used to do with Val—and honestly, the whole thing was nauseating. Val fought the urge to roll his eyes and make some snarky comment.

“Well, I’m sorry to have interrupted,” Hal said, once he was able to pull his eyes away from Sal’s long enough to address Val and Bryce. “I’ll let you two get back to your date now. Don’t mind us.”

“Oh, no mind at all,” Bryce said. “It was nice to meet you. Unexpected, but nice—very nice. How do you know each other, anyway?” he asked, looking between Hal and Val.

Hal smirked, glancing at Val. “You want to tell him or should I?”

“We used to date,” Val mumbled. Mumbling had become his only form of expression—well, that, and darting his eyes from Hal’s table to his like a nervous, caged animal. This wasn’t a date, it was some kind of fucked up social experiment. He could feel the heat on his cheeks, and this time it was from more than the restaurant’s absurd temperature (which only he seemed bothered by).

“Ah,” Bryce said.

“That’s over and done with, of course. We haven’t even seen each other in years.”

“And it was amicable, or so Hal claims,” Sal added.

“It was,” Hal asserted.

“Is there even such thing as an amicable breakup?” Bryce asked.

“It’s a good question. I’d like to think so,” Hal said. Looking to Val, he asked, “What do you think? Was ours amicable?”

“It . . . uh, it, um . . .” Val stumbled, unable to find his words. He could feel another bead of sweat on his back. He reached for the glass of water Bryce had given him.

“Oh, Val,” Sal said with a chuckle, like they were old friends. “Your silence speaks volumes.”

“You do look a bit flustered, bud,” Hal said.

“He’s just hot. The restaurant’s temperature hasn’t been working too well for him,” Bryce explained.

“Oh, right! I remember you always had issues with really hot or cold temperatures.” Hal grinned. “Annoyed the hell out of me back in the day.”

When did this turn into a double date? Val wondered. He needed out. He needed more fresh air, and a break from that voice, from Hal, from stupid Sal. From everything. I should’ve never agreed to this . . . fucking Petra . . .

“Hey, you all right?” Bryce asked. “You look a bit green.”

He felt a bit green. Between the heat and the stale air and the general shittiness of the evening, he could soon imagine himself up-chucking onto the table. He only hoped he’d get lucky and heave right onto Sal, his replacement. Fucking Sal.

No. Don’t think like that. Go to the bathroom, go to the bathroom and get sick there . . .

“I’m going to go to the bathroom,” Val said. He pushed back his chair and stood up abruptly. “I’ll, uh . . . excuse me.” He couldn’t wait. He had to go and go immediately, or risk actually throwing up in the middle of a nice restaurant, and in front of Hal, of all people. Fuck no—not that. In a hurry, he turned to make a mad-dash for the restroom—

—and ran right into a waiter. Carrying drinks on a tray.

The waiter fell; the drinks went everywhere. Mostly on Val. He could feel the evidence on his clothes without having to look. But at least he wasn’t hot anymore: now he was wet, and dripping. A perfect mess. Possibly stained too, depending on what types of drinks they’d been. He wouldn’t dare look.

Eyes were on him, all across the restaurant. And, of course, Hal was staring. Sal was staring. Squeaky fucking Fromme, aka Bryce, was staring.

For a moment, he just stood there. Then he extracted his wallet, put some now-moist money on the table without saying a word, and walked slowly, stiffly, to the door.

It was only once he was out of the restaurant that he made a break for it.

He ran like a fugitive, like his life depended on it. He ran down the crowded city blocks like a murderer was on his tail, until his heart was pounding and he was breathing hard, and he could feel the wind against him rapidly drying the wet marks seared into his clothes. And then he spotted a bench, and he collapsed there to get ahold of himself. He proceeded to drop his still-aching head in his hands and replay the events of the night in his mind. How had everything gone so wrong? How had Hal showed up on that same night, at that same place? It was like fate, but the shittiest kind, not the rom-com variety. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

But slowly, he started to chuckle. At first it was slight—little more than a woe-is-more giggle—but it increased the more he contemplated it, the more he realized just how absurd it all was. And then he was laughing—really, truly laughing. Ordinarily he’d feel embarrassed to be laughing out in public like this, by himself, but this was New York after all, and no one cared. Which, for the second time that day, made another thought occur to him: I could never live in Florida. Or California.

And then he laughed some more.

Finally, after sitting there for what felt like an hour, he stood up. He looked down at himself—water. It was just water, clear and indistinct, and quickly drying. That was good. That was a saving grace, at least. He chuckled again, this time under his breath.

“Excuse me?”

The voice came from behind him. He was afraid to turn around, worried it’d be some other figure from his past he’d rather not run into. But he did turn, and this time found an unfamiliar face.

“I’m the waiter that, uh, bumped into you,” the man said.

“Well, to be fair, I think I bumped into you.” Val smiled feebly. “Sorry about that. It was a bad night for me.”

“No, no, it’s not your fault. I ran after you to say sorry, actually. I should’ve apologized back there, but—I don’t know. I was in shock or something.” He chuckled.

“You ran all this way to apologize to me? When it was my fault? Wow. You’re committed to your job.”

“Not really, I just try not to be a dick.” He grinned. “Anyway, I felt I owed you that much. You bore the brunt of it, having gotten spilled on and everything. And you left in such a hurry, I thought you’d be upset.”

“Not with you. Just with the whole evening. It was a mess of an evening, to be honest.” He let out a long breath, then shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now. Actually, I owe you a debt of gratitude. I needed to get the hell out of there.” He laughed.

“Glad I could be of assistance, then.” The waiter smirked. He had a nice smile. Good hair. A great voice. “Sounds like you had quite the night.”

“I did, actually.” Val paused. An idea sparked in his brain. Normally it was one he wouldn’t think of, but after what he’d been through, he felt he had nothing left to lose. After all, the night certainly couldn’t get any more embarrassing. “Not to be forward or anything, but you doing anything tomorrow night? Maybe I could tell you about it.”

“Won’t your boyfriend mind?” the waiter asked, pointing his thumb in the direction of the restaurant.

“That dude? Blind date. It didn’t go well. That’s sort of what the story’s about.”

“Oh, I see.” The waiter smiled. “Yeah, I have a few of those stories, myself.”

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a . . . it’s a ‘why not.’”

“I’ll take it.” Val smiled. “I’m Val, by the way. If we’re going to go out, you should probably know that.”

The waiter chuckled. “I’m Nick.”

Nick. A fine name, one that didn’t end with -al. That was a good thing. “It’s nice to meet you, Nick.” And for the first time that night, Val felt that maybe it wasn’t such a shitty evening after all. Maybe it was just getting started.