A Tale of Two Cities
Growing up, Valentine’s Day was never a holiday that my little adolescent heart yearned for. I never had a boyfriend when the dreaded holiday of Hallmark fell (well, except for fifth grade when I was dating Joel Spitalnik), and it was now my senior year of high school. Just once I wanted to get a box of candy from someone other than my parents, even if my parents were careful about my nut allergy. I wanted some cheap-ass carnations! I wanted to bask in the artificiality of the made-up holiday with someone that loved me or at least thought he did for a little while.
This year, I decided, would be different. I would go away, away to a different country where they still had Valentine’s Day. And if I found love, well, all the better. So I went to visit my friend Theresa.
“I think I’m going to go to Toronto for Valentine’s Day,” I announced to my friends at lunch.
“Really? Is there some guy you haven’t told us about?” Allie asked, with what felt like judgment.
“Maybe,” I replied, trying to sound mysterious.
Everyone just looked at me. “Fine, no, I’m just going to visit a friend I met on my trip to England last summer. But you never know. I could fall in love.”
“Well, I don’t think we have anything special planned, at least not that I know of,” Melanie said, but Melanie already had a boyfriend, so she didn’t count.
“Who cares about Valentine’s day,” Justine replied.
“Yeah,” Esther added. “All I’m doing this weekend is getting my wisdom teeth out.”
“You really know how to celebrate,” I said.
And so I bought my plane ticket. “So there’s one thing,” Theresa explained. “I kind of have to go to this big black tie benefit the weekend you come up. It’s for my dad’s Multiple Sclerosis Benefit, but you can come, too!”
It didn’t sound like that much fun, but maybe benefits were different and better in Canada. And besides, I liked to dress up. “Okay! Maybe there will be cute boys!”
“More like old men, but maybe we can get drunk, ay.” I was sold.
A month later, I was in Canada, all decked out on Valentine’s day night with somewhere to go. This was going to be great.
But Theresa was right. There were no cute boys under the age of 60. There was booze, but we couldn’t get our hands on a whole lot of it, so most of the night was spent plotting and playing Do, Kill, or Marry.
The next morning at breakfast, my parents called.
“Geez, you don’t have to check up on me, I’m fine,” I said, rolling my eyes at Theresa.
“Honey, I’m not sure how to tell you this.” My mom paused. “Esther passed away last night.”
I stood there, holding the phone, trying to understand. But Esther had been fine when I saw her on Thursday. Esther couldn’t be dead. “That can’t be true.”
“I’m so sorry, honey. I think you should come home.”
“I guess I should,” I said. “I’ll call you when I get a flight.” I hung up the phone, but kept gripping the receiver.
“What happened?” Theresa asked. “You look completely freaked out, ay?”
“My friend died last night. She had a brain aneurism when she was getting her wisdom teeth out. I have to go home.” A lump caught in my throat but I couldn’t cry.
Theresa reached out to give me a hug, and I let her but it felt strange. She’d never met Esther. She didn’t understand. “Let’s pack your stuff and we’ll drive you to the airport. My mom will call and see about changing your flight.”
I looked out the window; the snow was starting to fall. “But it’s snowing.”
“Yeah, it does that a lot here. It’s Canada,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”
Two hours later, I was at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, clutching my bag and my ticket. I sat at the gate. Theresa had tried to stay with me but I told her I’d be okay. I wanted to be alone.
My flight was in an hour, but the snow was starting to come down harder. And then I saw the announcement go up on the board. The flight was delayed. “That’s okay,” I mumbled to myself. “It’s just delayed twenty minutes.” I continued gripping my bag. Around me a group of what seemed to be about 30 people who were all together were also waiting for the flight. They groaned when they saw the time change.
An hour later, the flight was cancelled. Oh God, how will I get home? I thought. I’m in a foreign country (even if it is Canada). What if I miss the funeral? And that’s when I started to cry. And I’m not talking a few cute stagelike tears. I started to wail.
I wanted to be home. I wanted to reminisce about the time that we all went to see the movie Scream and we were driving home and it was dark and the highway was deserted and we were freaked out because of the movie and Esther screamed out “I’m so glad I’m a virgin!” because virgins never die in horror films.
I wanted to talk to someone about Esther trying out for cheerleading senior year and us teasing her mercilessly because she was small and stocky and all personality and no dance skills. But our cheerleading team wasn’t very good and they needed another member. And how excited Esther was to walk around in her uniform on game days and how she’d come up behind me and tickle my nose with her pom poms.
I wanted to tell someone how brave I thought Esther was when she found out she was diabetic. She said she felt better because now, she explained in her always positive way, “this explains why I can never lose weight!”
I took deep heaving breaths, all the while hugging my luggage. The tears kept coming.
“You okay, sweetie?” a woman said, kneeling in front of me. She was part of the big group that was waiting for our flight. She was probably in her 50s and was very blonde and very well dressed. I realized just about everyone was staring at me.
I took another hyperventilating breath and tried to get a hold of myself. “I have…to get to…Philadelphia.”
“That’s good. So do we.” I noticed she was looking at me both with concern and as if I was slightly autistic. “We’ll help you get there, sugar. There will be other flights. It’s not the end of the world.”
“It’s not just that. My friend just died. I have to get home,” I said quietly.
“Oh, honey,” she said, and surprised me by wrapping me in a big hug. I tried not to cry but I just lay there with my head on her shoulder, sobbing, soaking her shirt through to her shoulder pads. She hugged me until I stopped crying. It took a while. “Well, we’re all here for a family reunion. I’m Lisa and this is my husband, Phil, and my three kids, Justin, Sam, and Phil, Jr.” The boys looked embarrassed and Phil senior waved. “We’re from Manayunk. You know where that is? All these guys,” she gestured around us, “are family too, and they live all over. You want something to eat? A hoagie or wudder or something?”
“Manayunk is about 5 minutes from my parent’s house,” I said, wiping my face with the back of my hand. If I couldn’t be home, at least hearing a familiar Philly accent made me feel better.
And Lisa did indeed take care of me. She got me on the next flight out and I got home 8 hours later. If it hadn’t been for her, I might still be at that airport rocking gently. As soon as I got to my house Justine and Allie and Melanie came over and we sat and cried and hugged each other and talked about Esther.
After finally getting myself under control I looked over at Melanie.
“So what did you and your boy end up doing for Valentine’s Day?” I asked.
“I can’t even remember, it seems so long ago,” she said. “It doesn’t seem all that important either.”
It really didn’t.