There's a little joke that circulates through my family and friends once a year, every year. What does Anastasia-that's me-and a bull staring at a matador's cape have in common?
The answer-which for some stupid reason causes my loved ones to howl with laughter and in which I see no humor-is "they both become enraged at the sight of red so it's best to stay out of their way."
It's a pretty lame joke, as jokes go. Unfortunately, it also is pretty much true.
Now, don't get me wrong. Forty-five weeks out of the year, red is a perfectly fine color. I love Christmas red-so warm and friendly. I love the red sunsets of summer. Heck, my hair-thanks to my Irish ancestry-is also flame red.
However, for seven dreaded, deadly, horrid weeks, red is the worst color in the world. And, being surrounded by it for about ten hours a day, six days a week doesn't help my demeanor one bit. But, it's not just red-it's red, foil hearts and chubby, little, angelic cupids, and bows and arrows. It's lacy boxes filled with chocolates. It's greeting cards-sickeningly romantic or coyly cute.
It's a helluva way to start the New Year, I can tell you that. I mean, you just overcome the inevitable letdown after Christmas and ring in the New Year with hopes and resolutions, then bam. There's all that romance just staring you in the face for the next seven, interminable weeks.
Of course, it doesn't really help matters that I own a small gift and card shop in the historic Main Street part of our town. We also carry a special line of designer sweets, mostly chocolates. That's why I named it "Greetings and Salivations." Okay, I know-another lame joke. Such is my life.
While most people are watching the parades, preparing the New Year's feast, nursing hangovers and getting ready for an afternoon of football, I'm locked away in my little store. I weep as I package up the remaining discounted Christmas leftovers. I sob as I pack away the New Year's bells and confetti. It's not that I mourn the passing of the most profitable season of the year. It's more loathing the coming of the dreaded Valentine's Day season.
Every year on New Year's Day, I trek down to the shop and do my duty. No matter how I prolong the packing and the carting to the store room, it always comes time to start decorating the store for Valentine's Day. So, as I create the perfect window display, I begin to remember all the lousy Valentine's Days I've suffered through in my twenty-nine years. Last year was no exception.
It's not that I've always hated Valentine's Day. No, when I was a kid, there was no delight better than taping my decorated brown bag to the side of my desk or decorating a tissue box as my personal Valentine's mail box at school And, then, the lovely party we'd have in the classroom. Moms would bring in the best cookies in the world-all decorated with pink and red frosting that just melted in our mouths. And, then opening the thin, white envelopes holding not just a Valentine, but usually a stick of gum or candy hearts-that was heaven.
Unfortunately, I don't think I've had a good Valentine's Day since eighth grade. Even that is sort of pushing the envelope of Valentine enjoyment for me. By then, all my girlfriends were enjoying their first flirtations with pimply-faced, squeaky-voiced boys. Not me, though. Nope, I was what my mother called a fast grower. By eighth grade, I was standing a full head above all the boys in my class-a phenomenon that seemed to follow me through school until they started catching up to my five-foot, eleven-inches when we entered our senior year.
Then, my personal cupid swung his bow and lined his shot straight at Steve's heart. After all those years of burning, private crushes on guys I'd met, Cupid finally shot one back, and the guy actually noticed me. It as incredible. Steve was divine, special, considerate, and-most important-a good three inches taller than me and a star on the basketball team.
Luck was on my side-or so I thought then. I was an alternate cheerleader for the basketball team. Now, there's a thankless job. You get to practice with the regular team every night after school, then show up early at the games just in case one of the regulars hopefully breaks their leg. For three years I had been an alternate, and though I fervently prayed for some disaster or another to temporarily befall one of the regulars, they were all horribly healthy.
Then, fate's finger pointed at Stacey. It was the first game after our Christmas holiday break. Stacey had been listless and feverish all during practice the Thursday before the game. She could hardly jump at practice. I was afraid to even hope for the best. By then, I was used to disappointment. But, early the next morning, our advisor, Miss Rivers, came to homeroom and called me out. Stacey-dear, darling, beloved Stacey, was sick. She wouldn't be back to school for at least a week. I was to cheer at that night's game.
Do you know how hard it is to keep a solemn, concerned look on your face when you want to spring a few dozen cartwheels down the hall? Yeah, I was pretty excited by it.
That night, there I was. My long hair tied up in pigtails and festooned with bows in the royal blue that was our school color. I was wearing my cheerleader sweater with pride and could hardly keep my hands from shaking with excitement. Thankfully, the pompoms covered that.
Out we'd trek to the sidelines-screaming out our cheers, jumping as high as we could, shaking those pompoms like it meant the difference between life and death. In a way, it did mean that. It was an important game with a bitter rival, and our team's success was essential to making the semi-finals on the way to the championship that had been so elusive.
I was so proud to be out there at long last. At the end of every cheer, while the other girls hustled back to their bench, I kept searching the crowd for my parents. It was in the final quarter that I finally found their beaming faces up at the top of the bleachers-as they waved and cheered right back at me.
It was also that moment that creepy Cupid let one of his arrows loose and struck Steve right in the heart. Unfortunately, the shot was so fierce it propelled Steve right off the court as he jumped up to catch a pass that he went flew right into my back as I was waving back at my folks.
The result was sort of a chain reaction. Steve hit me and kept flying. I flew forward right into the laps of a couple of guys sitting courtside-who were unfortunately also holding large cups of soda pop and popcorn. They flipped back from the impact and landed against the people sitting behind them-who were also holding soda and hot dogs.
What a mess. By the time the chain reaction ended, I was covered with sticky popcorn, my hair drenched in soda and lying across the two guys in the front row's laps. A hot dog covered with catsup was stuck in my pompom. So much for my glamorous day as a cheerleader.
And then, this perfect hand reached down to help me back to my feet. It was attached to Steve. As our eyes met, our hearts bonded-teen-aged lust at first sight.
The next month was heaven. Steve and I dated-alone even, not with a group. We'd go to the movies and sit all scrunched down in the seats. Don't ask me what we saw-I was too nervous wondering when Steve would finally sneak that long arm of his across the back of the seat and just sort of casually drape it around me.
We'd hit the local hangout. What heaven it was to finally be seen by our classmates-bonded, mated, paired. And, Steve was so romantic. He'd buy one soda, and we'd share, sipping from the same can.
As the annual Valentine's Day dance came closer, there was no doubt that Steve and I would be a couple at the event. We were even nominated for king and queen. Mom and I went shopping for just that most special dress. About a week before the big day, I started feeling ill. I kept this information to myself-even denied it to myself. Nothing-absolutely nothing was going to ruin this date. Not a sore and swelling throat, easily covered with turtlenecks. Not that feverish feeling I'd get sometimes. Not even the dizziness and the feeling of absolute fatigue.
Valentine's Day arrived. I rushed home from school and began my preparations. Mom even took pictures of me getting ready. Make-up applied perfectly. My long hair curled ideally around my face in tiny, spiral tendrils. Finally, I slipped into that scarlet red dress with the shiny red sequins.
Hey, I looked great. I felt great. I was ready a whole half-hour before Steve was supposed to arrive. I was ready and waiting a whole hour after Steve was supposed to arrive. Don't even go where my head was going while I waited impatiently-death, destruction, mangled cars. When the telephone finally rang, my stomach fell to my feet.
Mumps. Kids are supposed to get mumps. Not seniors in high school-adults in all respects of the word except to their parents and teachers. Of course, I understood how dangerous it would be for Steve to get out of his sickbed. Don't let those mumps go down-oh no. That could affect our future children, I thought as I disappointedly hung up the phone...just moments before I fainted dead away.
The epidemic at school was in full force before the cause was tracked down. Good, dear Stacey started it after she'd been out of town after the holidays to visit her cousins. She passed it to me-and others. I passed it on to Steve, who passed it on to the rest of the basketball team who hadn't already had the mumps as kids.