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My Funny Valentine

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As Sean and Debbie came out the door of their Shelburne Village condo, I had to blink. Sean was wearing a black suit, a pale blue tie and dress shoes, and Deb was in a short black dress, stilettos and a lacy violet shawl. In a word, they looked hot. I’ve been driving this couple for years, but had never before seen them dressed to the nines.

Deb held Sean’s arm as they walked toward my waiting taxi. When they reached the curb, Sean opened the rear door for his girlfriend, who smiled warmly in appreciation. Romantic gestures can fall by the wayside when a couple has been cohabitating for a couple of years, so I transmitted some silent props to Sean for the gallantry.

“It looks like a big Valentine’s Day for you guys,” I said as we headed into town.

“Ayup, we’re doing it up right,” Sean replied. I love to hear this guy speak because he’s Northeast Kingdom born and bred, right down to the deer hunting and ice fishing. He’s struck it big in Burlington with a successful carpet business but has never forsaken his farm-boy roots. “I made reservations at Leunig’s for the prix fixe special they’re serving tonight,” he went on. “I guess it’s about 11 courses including champagne cocktails.”

“Hey, Sean, you deserve it,” Deb piped up. “You’ve been working like mad all month.”

“Hey, yourself,” Sean responded. “You’ve been working your butt off, too.”

Deb works with special-needs kids in a local school system. His pride evident in his voice, Sean has shared with me how the administrator gives her the most challenging cases because she’s known to work wonders.

“OK, you got me there,” Deb said with a laugh. “We both deserve it. How’s that?”

I have no idea why Sean hasn’t yet put a ring on Debbie’s finger. She’s a gorgeous girl, inside and out, though not the type to wield her beauty like a club. She and Sean seem to be at the center of a large social circle; they regularly throw parties at their home, and tons of friends show up. And I don’t think it’s the hot tub on the back porch that draws people to them; I believe it’s their generous spirits.

After I dropped off the couple at Leunig’s, business remained brisk; even in the tough economy, couples apparently dared not neglect the one day of the year dedicated to romance. But this year, the lovey-dovey aspect of the holiday was conspicuously absent. In my taxi, at least, couple after couple displayed signs of dissension. Not that they were at each other’s throats — that would have been truly disillusioning. But things were decidedly not rosy.

Certain nights, holidays or otherwise, play out like this, and the patterns defy the simple tag of coincidence. I’ve talked to emergency room nurses about the phenomenon. (Some nights, I’m told, the hospital is jam packed with victims of violence, while other nights, nada.) The consensus explanation is the moon. I kid you not.

Around 9:30, I received a pick-up call from Debbie for a ride back to Shelburne. Something is amiss, I deduced as I motored along College Street. It had been only an hour and a half, not long enough for a luxurious, multicourse dinner.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I found Sean standing sheepishly at the curb, his head bowed. Next to him, Deb was glaring, barely containing her anger. Needless to say, they were not holding hands.

As we wended our way to Shelburne Road, I had to ask, “So, how was dinner?” (Well, obviously, I didn’t have to ask. I’m not a provocateur, but I do harbor a mighty curiosity.)

“How was dinner?” Deb echoed. “Well, I guess it was, like, so terrific that Sean couldn’t stay awake. He fell asleep right at the table, before the final course.”

“Oh c’mon, Deb,” Sean defended himself. He was rubbing his temples with his fingertips, suggesting a splitting headache. “What’s the big deal? I said I was sorry. I’ve just been exhausted lately.”

There’s your classic male error, my mind silently chimed in. If you’re going to apologize, apologize. Don’t make excuses, too. The latter, I’ve learned from long and painful experience, simply cancel out the former.

“Really? Is that the case?” Deb shot back. “Do you think maybe the God-knows-how-many glasses of champagne might have contributed? Do you know how, like, embarrassing that was? It just shows how important tonight was for you.”

“Deb, what can I say, honey? I’m totally sorry. I’ll make it up to ya. I promise.”

That’s better, I thought. Just stick with that, Sean, and at least you have a shot. I felt like I was coaching the guy via mental telepathy: I mean, Valentine’s night sex is clearly a nonstarter, but there’s still the hope of not sleeping on the living room sofa. That’s a realistic goal if you play your cards right.

For the remainder of the ride, Sean wisely stayed awake and kept his mouth shut. When we arrived at their home, Deb said, “Jernigan, I’m sorry you had to hear all that.”

I said, “You guys are great. Look, I was born at night, but not last night. What I’m saying is, I know about relationships. Just hang in there. In a few weeks, you’ll be laughing about all this.”

I said it and I meant it. There are some couples you just can’t help rooting for.

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