Lights Out, Valentine

an excerpt

"Valentine's Day is the worst day of the year," I grumbled, stalking into the South Beach Salon of Beauty, or SoBe S-O-B, as those of us unfortunate enough to work there call it.

The only other stylist in the salon at the time was Lora, a part-time plus-size model who styled hair on the side, and liked to match her nail polish to her smock. Today's color was, of course, bright red.

"What crawled up your butt and died, Ryan?" she asked, looking up from wrapping foils around the hair of a dark-haired man who was old enough to know better.

"There's so much pressure everywhere to be in love," I said, dropping my bag on the chair I liked to use, the one in the corner with the working hair dryer. "Roses and cupids and hearts everywhere you look. Every other street corner has a pile of stuffed animals for sale, and there are people selling roses at every highway exit. It's like everyone has a valentine but me."

The man in the chair looked up. "You just have to shut it out," he said. He was in his mid-forties, a good-looking guy except for the unfortunate color choice. "You want a box of candy or a dozen roses? Buy it yourself. You'll be happier in the long run."

"I'm surrounded by grinches," Lora said.

"Grinches hate Christmas," I said.

"Devils then." She put her fingers up in the shape of a cross. "Get thee behind me, Satan. My husband gave me the most romantic gift ever today."

"What's that?" I asked.

"A stackable washer-dryer. Fits into our hall closet, and it means I don't have to schlep to the laundromat anymore. I love it."

Yeah, I thought. I didn't even have someone to give me a washer-dryer, which contrary to what Lora thought, was NOT the most romantic gift ever.

I couldn't stop thinking about Valentine's Day, though, as a stream of customers passed through my chair. A fifty-something guy who I had to gently dissuade from a comb-over, a young woman with too much product in her long black ringlets, and on and on. Every one of them was babbling about plans to celebrate the most romantic day of the year.

Why didn't I have a boyfriend? I snuck a look at myself in the mirror. True, I wasn't at my best in a blue smock with dye stains on the pocket and a series of hair clips nesting on my shoulder. But my skin was clear, my brown hair trimmed perfectly by Lora, and my teeth straight after years of orthodontia.

I tried to look at my profile. I have a great nose--not too big or too small, not hooked at the end or bumpy in the middle. I used a product to fill out my eyelashes, which were naturally too skimpy, and I obsessed over shaving every morning so that there were no stray hairs.

When I got myself together to go out, I looked very sharp--I'm a winter, so I know just what colors work for me, and I keep myself in shape by regular workouts with the gay swim team.

So why was I still single?

Probably because I always went for the wrong kind of guy, I thought, as I snipped the bangs of a teenaged girl from Finland who was an aspiring model. She hardly spoke English but she had cheekbones to die for. I liked men who were solid, settled, and secure, and they were few and far between on South Beach. If they showed up at all, they were either straight or in long-term relationships.

I had a brief break in the late afternoon so I slipped out and walked the couple of blocks up Washington to the Starbucks on Lincoln Road. Every store I passed was filled with Valentines' crap--tiny bears in red and pink tuxedos and paper hearts and cupids hung on red wires from the ceiling.

I grabbed my drink and hurried back to the salon instead of lingering there scoping out the man candy. I looked at my appointment book when I returned and my heart sank. My last cut wasn't until eight o'clock, and it was with Gary Eisler.

Gary was the epitome of everything I lusted for. He was handsome in a dark and broody way, and he dressed impeccably. I'm twenty-eight, and he was probably five years older. He radiated self-confidence, and he was so sure of himself and the way he looked that he spent most of the time in my chair with his eyes closed.

He wasn't big on small talk. He'd come in and say hello, sit in the chair and say, "You know what to do." Then he'd slip into some kind of meditative state, not opening up until I said he was all done.

Then he'd stand up, take one look in the mirror and pronounce me a genius. Then he'd pay, tip me, and leave.

I never had the chance to flirt with him. I had no idea what he did for a living, or whether he had a boyfriend or a partner. I knew he was gay--no straight guy is that precise in his dress, and few straight guys have such an elegant manicure.

I admit, I had a hopeless crush on Gary Eisler. And having to deal with him on Valentine's Day was almost more than I could handle.

But I soldiered on. The assistant manager of the electronics store next door came over for a trim on his meal break. "Business sucks today," he complained. "We've got a special promotion on digital cameras and we're not selling anything. It's like nobody wants to memorialize their Valentine's Day."

I commiserated with him while I snipped his sleek black hair. The power flickered once, then again. "That's probably because of us," he said. "We have every outlet overloaded."

Just before eight o'clock, I looked out at Washington Avenue and saw Gary approaching, his cell phone up to his ear. He wore his typical dark business suit and starched white shirt. Today's tie was bright red, though thankfully free of hearts or cupids.

He walked into the salon still talking on the phone, and I pantomimed him over to my chair. "It'll have to wait until tomorrow," he said to his caller. "I'll talk to you first thing."

Then he shut the phone off and slid it into his jacket pocket. "Sorry, Ryan," he said, as he sat down.

"No problem."

"You know what to do." He closed his eyes and I started by shaving the back of his neck.

Lora finished her last client and waved good-bye, so it was just me and Gary in the salon. I really wanted to talk to him, even if it was just to see if he felt as miserable about Valentine's Day as I did.

But what if he didn't? What if he was getting his hair cut in preparation for a special date with his boyfriend? Did I want to know that? And his body language so clearly said, Don't bother me. So I restrained myself from chatter and snipped away.