Mark opened and closed his hands, stretching his fingers. His palms were sweaty. He didn’t like it. He stopped at an abandoned store front to examine himself in the reflective glass. Pulling on his beard with his right hand, he wished he were better looking. He sighed at the bags under his eyes, his messy hair, and his wild whiskers. Why had he decided to wear plaid? He looked like the skinniest lumberjack in the world. “Too late to do anything about it now,” he said to himself and he continued on.
The bar was crowded for a Tuesday night. The tavern was small. The bar had room for twelve and then there were the fifteen or so two- to four-top tables. Mark scanned the room. All the stools were taken and most of the tables were filled. There was one open by the door, but Mark knew if he took it he’d be cold and uncomfortable all night, and he wanted tonight to be different. He wanted to give Anne his full attention. He considered just standing at the bar. She would probably be more comfortable there. No commitment that way. If she didn’t like him, she could just excuse herself and not have to worry about ordering food or anything.
He heard his name and looked to the back corner. Anne already had a table. She was smiling and waving to him. Mark swallowed, rubbed his hands on his pants, and crossed the room to meet her.
“Hey, um. Thanks for, like, meeting me here tonight,” he said as he arrived at the table.
“Thanks for asking,” she said. “It’s nice not to be home alone on Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh, yeah,” Mark said, remembering. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out a wrinkled and damp envelope. “I got you a card,” he said, holding it out to her. “Um, sorry it’s so . . . I put in my back pocket and it got a little wrinkled.”
Anne took the card with a smile and smoothed it out. “No worries,” she said, pulling the card from its envelope.
Mark took a seat at the table. Maybe the card was a bad idea. He was nervous how she’d take it.
Anne laughed out loud, held up the card, and said, “This is hysterical.”
The card had a picture of President Obama on the front with the phrase, “I’m glad I’m not Obama-self this Valentine’s Day.”
Mark smiled. “Am glad you like it,” he said. “Don’t say I never got you anything.”
“You’re already setting a pretty high bar for the rest of the date by bringing me stuff,” she said opening the card. Then she held up the blank interior to him and said, “Of course, next time you could maybe, sign it.”
“I didn’t want to raise your expectations too high,” he said leaning back in his chair. “I need some way surprise you next time I get you a card. I’m holding back to make it special in the future, you know.”
“Very smart,” Anne said. “Because if you’d signed it next time, there’s nowhere else to go. I’d totally be like, ‘Not another card.'”
“Right?” Mark said. “You get it.” He noticed how the light freckles on her cheeks matched her strawberry blond hair and contrasted with her green eyes. He liked it.
“What are you looking at?” she said, getting embarrassed.
“You look nice, is all,” he said.
“It’s the same thing I was wearing this morning,” she said.
“Welcome to VD Night at the Hamilton Tavern,” a nasal voice said from behind Mark. It made Mark jump, which made Anne laugh. Mark turned to see a man in a Pac-Man t-shirt and jeans staring at a small black notepad. “What can I get you?” he said, without looking up.
“Maybe we could start with some menus?” Mark said.
The waiter sighed, looked at the ceiling, and passed Mark two one-page menus. As Mark handed a menu to Anne, he mouthed, “Wow.”
“I know,” Anne mouthed back.
Mark skimmed the five items on the menu and asked, “What’s the VD Cheeseburger?”
“It’s a cheeseburger. But we’re serving it on Valentine’s Day,” the waiter said, cocking his head to the right as he looked at Mark with disdain.
“But like,” Mark said. “What makes it a Valentine’s Day cheeseburger?”
“We’re serving it on Valentine’s Day,” the waiter said again.
“Oh,” Mark said, turning to smile at Anne.
“And what about the Valentine’s Day house salad?” Anne said.
The waiter sighed. “What about it?” he said, shifting his weight.
“Well,” Anne said with a smirk. “What makes it a Valentine’s Day salad?”
“Like the cheeseburger,” the waiter said. “The chef is making it on Valentine’s Day and therefore it is a Valentine’s Day salad.”
“So what about the VD meatloaf?” Mark asked. Anne giggled and covered her face with her menu.
“I’ll give you a few moments to decide,” the waiter said and then he walked away.
“Do you think he’s going to come back?” Mark said.
“Yeah,” Anne said looking at the menu. “Charlie can be a jerk, but he’s a good waiter. He’ll be back.”
“So you come here a lot?”
“Once or twice a week,” Anne said. “I live alone. Sometimes it’s just nice to get around people.”
“Yeah,” Mark said, looking over the menu. “I’m living alone now.”
“Because you broke up with Mary,” Anne said with a reassuring smile.
“You know Mary,” Mark said, setting his menu down.
“No,” Anne said with a laugh.
“How do you know we broke up,” Mark said, crossing his arms.
“You told me,” Anne said.
Mark’s mind raced through his times on the train. He didn’t remember ever sharing anything about his personal life. “When?” he said.
“Oh god,” Anne said, leaning back in her chair. “You have no idea who I am?”
“No,” Mark said. “I know who you are. You’re Anne. From the morning train.”
“And?” Anne said.
“And you sit next to me and across from Bernie,” Mark said.
Anne laughed. “His name’s Earl.”
“Yeah,” Mark said, looking at the menu again. “That’s what I said. You sit across from Ernie on the morning train.”
“And?” Anne said, crossing her arms.
Mark put the menu down and looked at the ceiling. “And what?” he said.
“And where else do you know me from?”
Mark huffed. “What’s with the test? Just tell me.”
Anne buried herself in the one-page menu. “I’m just going to wait for you to figure it out.”
“Have you decided what you want?” the waiter said from behind Mark, again making Mark jump.
“I’ll get the VD Cheese Burger and a Loose Cannon Ale,” Anne said, passing her menu over.
“Excellent choice ma’am,” Charlie said, taking her menu.
“I’ll get the baked potato,” Mark said.
“The Valentine’s Day potato,” the waiter corrected.
“Yeah,” Mark said, turning in his chair to face the waiter. “But hold the cheese and sour cream. And no bacon. And light on the salt.”
“So,” the waiter said, looking up from his pad. “You want a plain potato.”
“Yep,” Mark said.
“Fascinating,” the waiter said. “And what can I get you to drink?”
“I’ll get the same beer that she’s having,” he said.
“A plain potato and the beer your girlfriend ordered,” the waiter said, scribbling something on his pad. “Interesting.”
“What’s interest?” Mark said. “What are you writing there? Are you writing things about me?” He reached for the pad, but the waiter pulled it close to his chest before Mark could get his hands on it.
Giving Mark a look of disapproval, the waiter said to Anne, “Your drinks will be right out.”
“You’re the best, Charlie,” Anne called as the waiter walked away.
Mark stared at Anne, trying to decide where he knew her from. “Where’d you grow up?” Mark asked.
“Pennsylvania,” she said.
Mark bit his bottom lip. “I’m from Jersey,” he said.
“Never been,” Anne said. “But I hear it’s nice.”
“It’s not,” Mark said.
“That’s actually what I heard,” Anne said.
“Yeah,” Mark said. “I was kind of hoping that’s where I know you from.”
“Nice try,” she said. “But you are super cold.”
“Cold?” Mark said. “Like the kids game?”
“You are camping in the arctic,” Anne said.
“Okay,” Mark said nodding. “This is helpful.”
Charlie arrived with their beers. “Food will be right up,” he said. “The plain potato was difficult for the chef. He said sucking all the joy and happiness out of food was going to take some time.”
“Alright,” Mark said, irritated. “No lip with that potato either.”
Charlie the waiter snorted as he walked away.
“College?” Mark asked.
“University of Maryland,” Anne said.
“What’d you study?” Mark asked.
“Computer science,” she said, taking a sip of her beer. “You’re getting warmer.”
Mark found he was excited by the challenge. He asked her about her classes, the sorority she spent a semester in before she realized that isn’t what she wanted. She shared about her first job at a comic book store and told Mark he was getting warmer. He talked about working at a radio station as a late night DJ and talk show host. Their food came and they ate as they chatted. Anne shared about her last boyfriend and how he had decided, after a year of living with her, that he needed to find himself. Mark talked about his years with Mary. He admitted to making mistakes and that he’d messed things up. Time slipped by. Slowly the bar became quiet and less crowded. Still, Mark got never got more than lukewarm in his pursuit of their connection.
As Charlie brought them their third round, Mark asked, “So where do you work now?”
“Now you’re getting hot,” Anne said with a grin.
“All women say that after three beers,” Mark said.
“Is that what it takes?” Anne said.
“Yeah,” Mark replied with a smile. “I’m a three beer guy. No beers, and you wonder why you would say yes to going out with me. One beer and you’re considering maybe settling. Two beers and you start to imagine I have some good qualities. At three beers, you just give up and accept that you might be attracted to me.”
“You’ve got this down to a science,” Anne said, offering a toast with her glass.
“Years of market research,” Mark replied.
“I work where you work,” Anne said.
Mark leaned forward in his chair and looked at here closely. “I call bullshit,” he said, leaning back again.
“No, really,” Anne said. “We get off the train every day and walk to the same building.”
“No,” Mark said. “I would have seen you.”
“Well,” Anne said. “You run off the train likes it’s on fire and then walk like someone is chasing you with a cattle prod. I’m not in that much of a hurry to get there.”
“I don’t do that,” Mark said, knitting his eyebrows.
Anne took another drink. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, you do.”
“Well,” Mark said. “I like my job.”
Anne laughed. “You hate your job.”
“Jesus,” Mark said throwing his hands in the air. “How do you know that?”
“Because you told me,” she said, sipping her beer again.
“When?” Mark said with a challenge.
Anna sat up in her chair and spoke in a deeper voice, trying to imitate Mark. “I’m just trying to explain to you that I can’t get this fucking machine to work because mouse chord has a fucking kink in it. How fucking hard is it to get a fucking mouse with a fucking working chord in it. My fucking girlfriend is with fucking Brad and now my fucking mouse doesn’t work. Fuck. I hate this fucking job.”
“Oh shit,” he Mark said, running his fingers through his hair.
“You know now, don’t you,” she said.
“You’re Anne from IT,” Mark said, closing his eyes.
“Ding! Ding! Ding! Give this man a prize!” Anne said with a laugh.
“Why would you go out with me?” Mark said looking at the floor. “We fight every day.”
“We don’t fight,” Anne said.
“Yes we do,” Mark said. “We fight every day on the phone.”
“No,” Anne said. “You call. You scream. I put you on speaker phone. Everybody in IT laughs at you. Then we fix your shit and you leave us alone for a day or two.”
“What?” Mark said.
Anne sipped her beer. “We hold competitions at lunch to see who can do the best impression of you.”
Mark rubbed his temples and closed his eyes. “This is too much. I don’t know that I can handle this.”
“What the fuck did you assholes do with my fucking keyboard?” Anne said, mimicking Mark again. “Yesterday I had a different fucking keyboard. Which one of you fucking fuckers changes my keyboard? Fuck.”
“Oh fuck,” he said, squeezing his eyes together. “That sounds just like me.”
“What are you fuckers doing down there?” Anne said again, imitating Mark’s voice. “Trying to see how far you can stick your head up your ass before you suffocate. Fuck.”
“You’re way too good at that,” Mark said.
“I usually win the lunch competition,” she said.
“Jesus,” Mark said again, looking at the ceiling. “I’m a monster.”
“Why in the hell would you come out with me?” Mark said, leaning forward and looking at the floor. “You must think I’m a terrible human.”
Anne reached forward and squeezed his knee under the table and he looked up into green eyes. “Look,” she said. “The job sucks. No one likes working there. So I get it.”
“So a lot of people call you and cuss at you every day?” Mark said. There was a tinge of hope in his voice.
“Oh no,” Anne said. “That’s just you. You clearly have anger issues.”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “I think I need to do something about that.”
“Sure,” Anne said. “But I also watch you talk to your mom before you get on the train every morning. And I’ve seen you listen to Earl – or Bernie to you – as he goes on and on with the stories. And I see you around the office. You’re sweet to people. You always ask Florence about her flowers and you always stop and talk to Floyd the security guard about the basketball game. Plus, I think you’re kind of cute,” she said, picking up her beer and draining the rest of the glass.
“Thanks,” Mark said.
Anne stood and put her purse on her shoulder. “I’ve got to go. We’ve got work in the morning.”
“Yeah,” Mark said with a sigh.
“See you tomorrow?” she asked.
Mark smiled. “I’ll be on the train.”
To Mark’s surprise, Anne leaned in and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. Her hair brushed nose and sent sparks through his chest. Leaning back she said, “Thank you for a great night. Let’s do it again soon.”
Mark nodded, speechless. As he watched her leave, taking the last sip of his beer, he thought through the night and it occurred to him that, even though there were no mystical messages in magic candy hearts or glowing toilet tiles, that tonight was the most magical night he’d experienced in a long time.
If you enjoyed this story, check out the other Magical Mark stories, all of which originated on Short Fiction Break: Mark on the Toilet, Mark and the Magic Cigar, Mark and the Magical Candy Hearts, Mark and the Magic Meeting.