This is a short story I wrote last Valentine's day. I didn't think it was good enough to post earlier on, but in retrospect, it's just different from what I usually write about.
"For being a holiday that's all about love, I sure do spend most of my Valentine's days miserable."
Riley furrowed his brow and buried his face in the nook of his elbow, wishing he could just disappear into the placid emptiness of a mind that didn't want anything and a heart that would stay its lonesome beat.
After a moment of expecting his friend's reply, he found, curiously, that his mind had slipped away, and he was left with his breath -- warm, and claustrophobic, heavy with moisture; the sweat on his chest, soaking into his shirt; and a slight ache in his legs from standing in the same spot for too long. And yet, a strange calm pulsated within every cell of his body, previously hidden beneath the chatter of his mind... quietly, he wished that it would stay with him forever.
And like that, it was gone, his mind frantically charging towards a list of reasons that he should be happy; should be able to be content like everyone else...
A soft hand lay upon his back, pulling him from his reverie, and a woman's voice spoke gently into his hear as her body pressed against him, "We have, like, three hundred and fifty days every year devoted to being unhappy assholes, so could you at least try to lighten up during the holidays?"
He cringed, took a deep breath and sighed loudly. "Well, it's good to know you're always in the spirit of the season." Screwing up his lips foully, he stared into Krista's eyes, willing her to look away.
"I don't know why I ever try to help you," she said, angrily pressing aside a green and blue dreadlock so she could properly return his glare. "You said all you wanted was work, and I helped you find some. You said all you needed then was an apartment, and a T.V. with some games, and you got those, too. Then you said all you needed was a girlfriend, but she clearly hasn't helped much," she rattled off with ever increasing intensity, "So now it's your job to suck it up and be happy. Sometimes, you are the problem in life, you know."
"But it's Valentine's Day, I want to know what loooooove is," he drawled, shrugging off her factual barrage. "Real love. Something mysterious and wild. Something that you feel it, and you know that everything is right in this world... If you can't tell me that exists, well, I might as well just off myself now, because you know, and I know, that neither Santa nor God is keeping a checklist, Satan is right here in the city, and as you get older you only get happy because you're going retarded."
Krista opened her mouth to speak, but Riley kept on his rant, flailing his hands in the air and gesturing broadly to try and demonstrate his point, "I mean, what's the purpose of life?" he moaned, unzipping the white, polyester shell of his winter jacket and standing up straight, his tall and lanky frame towering over that of his friend's. "What would be the difference between you and I working here in this crappy kitchen, or, I dunno', being engineers? And making things that 'benefit society,' so we could have perfect little families. Everything dies eventually anyways... Pizza just disappears faster than a car, or a train, or whatever, but in the grand scheme, they all just shift things around, and come out shit in the end.
"And that might work for you," he said irritably, throwing his hand up towards the ceiling and pointing, as if towards God himself, "But I am tired of this! I am going to find the meaning of life, or whatever! Or you're not going to see me here tomorrow, or the next day," he threw down his apron, shouting now, his face red and his eyes wild, "It's all or nothing now, because that's all there is in life. You go all the way, or get stuck between extremes, a half assed nothing! I'M GOING OUT FOR A CIGARETTE," he declared finally as he stomped through the empty kitchen and threw open a pair of twin steel doors into that dark February morning.
"Well would you at least pick up your goddamn--" the doors slammed shut with a loud bang, "APRON!" she cried.
God damn it! Krista's exasperated wail resonated beyond the steel doors and Riley laughed to himself. Drawing in the cold morning air, he pressed a cigarette between his lips.
"You know, between you and me, God," he growled, shaking his head and shifting from side to side on his feet in the cold, "sometimes I really do just want to call your bluff and see if you lay down something other than a royal flush full of hearts."
He laughed at himself. So now the optimism comes out... Grinding the flint on his lighter, he sucked in air as a small stream of gasoline breathed life to a flame. He stood smoking and trying to keep the blood circulating in his feet for some time, a cool calm washing over him, his mind meandering lazily through the past. He thought about home, about where he had come from -- the city, just like this one; cold and unforgiving.
He lit a second cigarette. As he did, the double doors opened once more with a metallic creak, and he heard the minute crunch of gravel on the pavement. Somewhere in the distant recesses of Pannucci's Pizza, he heard his manager shouting, and he imagined it probably had something to do with him.
"You know that'll kill you, right?" Krista said, walking over to him slowly.
"The sooner the better..." he turned to glance at her. "You want one?"
She shook her head. "Naw," she said, waving him away. "So I've been thinking..." a strange, distant tone arose in her voice, "You wanna' ditch this place? I mean, for real. Let's just go."
Riley snorted with laughter. "What, you serious?"
Her eyes shone back at him without judgment or demand. She smiled weakly, and he realized she was as tired and as alone as he was. Tired of this place. Tired of the same fucked up people, every day, going through the motions. He hadn't realized how alike they both were, but he wasn't sure that comforted him -- misery was not something he wanted to share; he just wanted it gone.
Even then... he thought, Peaceful ignorance is still ignorance.
He turned his eyes outward to where they were met by the same, familiar streets, gray, dried up rivers set in the early morning city lights, leading nowhere and giving nothing but a cold, hard embrace to those who fell upon them for support; this was the modern city – no one welcome, no one wanted, no one turned away.
"I'm trapped here, you know," he said. "I really am... I can't leave, and I don't know why. You and I... it's like we live in a cage with a black sheet thrown over it. And even though they left the door unlocked, it sure as hell sounds like there are lions on the other side." He shook his head. "So what do we do? We take our T.V., our food, and our just bearable task that they give us, and we say 'thank you,' and try to be grateful that we aren't being eaten alive, and we try not to wonder too hard what's really beyond that door, and whether those lions are starving or if that growling is their way of telling us that we are missing out on something truly extraordinary."
"But," he remarked quietly, flicking aside his cigarette, "this cage is my home. It is all I know. And yes, I am too afraid to step out. Too afraid to die, even though someday I will die. And I will regret not having opened that door until I was too old and too frail to do anything but lay my head at the feet of those humbling beasts and give myself to the great empty..."
He stopped, expecting Krista to say something disarming. Wow, you just had a moment there, was one of her favorites whenever he managed to break free of himself and say what he really felt, deeply and truly. But instead, she turned and stared grimly into the pallidly lit street with him in a moment that brought the turning of time's gears to a halt; then she smiled weakly.
"I don't know what it's like for you," she said. "I don't know if you're just a drama queen, or you really see something more than what's here, and live in a place that I don't. I don't know why I keep trying to follow you there, either... But I get the feeling that I don't belong. Whatever it is that goes on in your head, it's not something I -- or anyone else, I don't think -- can truly understand... or can help you change. But I don't think you want it to change, either."
"Well, whatever it is... I hope you find what you're looking for." She place a hand on his chest, then patted twice and walked back towards the building.
Riley hung his head and closed his eyes as the slow creak of metal doors sidled into a thick, chunking noise, the latch cracking hollowly into place. Sniffing loudly and wiping his cold, runny nose, he was suddenly overcome with the desire to give himself a hug.
Wrapping his arms around himself and letting a glimmer of a smile grace his lips, he said quietly, "Happy Valentine's Day dickbag..." Then, with a laugh, he too walked back inside the kitchen, keeping sure to let the door close with the softest click he could manage, so as not to disturb his dream of someday peering beyond the veil and finding what he most feared and most hoped would be there -- himself.