Mark examined the white package he’d found on his doorstep that morning. He shook it and listened to its contents rustle around inside. He sighed, laid it in his lap, and looked at the sign above his head. Three minutes to the next light rail train. He knew she would call any minute to see if he’d opened it yet. She always called at this time because she knew he was on his way to work and she assumed he had nothing better to do but talk to her.
He looked at the box again and then at the sign. Still three more minutes until the next train. He hoped maybe the train would beat her call. If he were on the train when his phone buzzed, he could tell her it was rude to talk on the phone in an enclosed space like a train car.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. There was no train in sight.
Mark thought about just ignoring it. He could lie and still use the train car excuse. He frowned at his phone and his stomach burned with fear. She’d worked hard early on to instill the fear in him that she knew everything all the time. “Don’t you misbehave when I’m gone because I’ll know. I see everything,” she used to say to him.
He took his phone out of his pocket and pressed the button to answer the call. “Hello Mom,” he said into the phone.
“Hello, Mark. This is your mother,” the caller said back.
“I know, Mom,” Mark said shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s why I just said ‘Hello, Mom.’ I can see who is calling me on the phone. I know it’s you.’”
“I don’t really have time for all that, dear. I’ve only got a second. I was just calling to make sure you got the mail I sent you.”
Mark sighed and looked at the package in his lap. “Yes, Mom. I got your package.”
“Well, don’t exhaust yourself thanking me for it. I send you something nice. The least you could do is show some gratitude.”
“Really, Mom? Really?”
“Your brother Charlie loves it when I send him things, is all I’m saying. He doesn’t even wait for me to call him. He calls me. That’s all I’m saying.”
“God, Mom,” Mark said as he rubbed his forehead with his free hand.
“All I’m saying, dear, is that someday, I hate to say it, but I’ll be dead and there won’t be any more mail from me, not that you would notice.”
“Thank you for the package, Mom.”
“You’re welcome, dear. It doesn’t mean as much because I had to ask for it, but you’re welcome. I just thought you’d need a little cheering up. It being Valentine’s Day and all. And you, of course, being single. Again.”
“Of course? Mom, of course?” Mark said with disbelief. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“What, dear? You’re so touchy today. I know it’s a hard day to be alone, but you don’t need to take it out on me.”
“Mom, I’m not taking it out on you.”
“Dear,” Mark’s mom interrupted. “Let’s not fight. Okay? I’ve got plans with your father tonight. We’re going to that new sushi place on the corner of Riggles and Park. You know the one. Even though his back is acting up, he’s still taking me out for a nice night. Isn’t that sweet?”
“That sounds nice, Mom,” Mark said looking up at the train sign. There were still two minutes until the next train. Mark gave the sign an angry glare.
“Sarah recommended it. I’ve heard it’s very fancy. Did I say it’s sushi? That’s raw fish, you know.”
“I know what sushi is, Mom.”
“And Sarah told me that she and Phil go there all the time. Very romantic she said.”
“Sarah?” Mark said. “Sarah who?”
“Sarah. Sarah and Phil. You know Sarah and Phil. They’re Julie’s parents.”
“God, Mom,” Mark said with frustration. “Why are you talking to Julie’s parents?”
“Well, just because you couldn’t make it work with her, doesn’t mean I have to give up the friendships I’ve built.”
“Yes, Mom,” Mark said rubbing his head again. “Yes, it does. You are not allowed to be friends with my ex-girlfriend’s parents.” He looked at the sign again. Still two minutes. He gave the sign the middle finger.
“Sarah said you would be like this. She and Julie talk all the time. Imagine, having a child that calls you of their own volition just to talk. I told Sarah that I have no idea what that feels like. And then Sarah said you weren’t handling the break up well. I told her that I was worried but, of course, you never talk to me, so I didn’t know for sure.”
“I’m handling it fine, Mom. God. What does Sarah know about it anyway?”
“Well, she said that Julie said that she saw you in the grocery store last week and that you looked very sad. She said you got in a fight with the deli manager over some kind of cheese or something.”
“It was meat, okay Mom,” Mark said angrily into the phone. “And I know what a half-pound of meat looks like, alright? And that was not a half-pound. Not by a long shot.”
“I know how you get when you are lonely, dear. You have such a temper. But there’s no reason to yell at me about things. All I did was send you a package in the mail.”
“Listen, new rule, Mom. No more telling me about Sarah and Phil. Okay?” Mark said as he stared down the tracks hoping to catch some glimpse of the train.
“See, there is it. Just because you couldn’t make it work with Julie, such a wonderful girl, and now you’re all alone on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t mean you have to treat me poorly, especially after I went to all the trouble to mail you a care package on Valentine’s Day so you wouldn’t feel so bad about being all alone.”
“Could you say that one more time, Mom?” Mark said with frustrated sarcasm. “I’d forgotten there for a second that Julie moved out.”
“I’m just trying to help, dear. Maybe if you could control this temper, you would have plans tonight.”
Mark smiled at the sight of the train pulling into the station. “Alright, Mom. I’ve got to go. The train’s here.”
“Okay, well, enjoy your Valentine’s Day package. I’ll think about you when your dad and I are out having sushi tonight.”
“Thank you for the package, Mom. Talk to you tomorrow.” Mark hung up the phone and stuffed it back into the pocket of his jeans before his mother could get another word in. Slinging his computer bag over his shoulder and taking his package in his other hand, he stood and filed onto the train with the other handful of passengers.
Mark sat in his usual spot. The seats of the train car were cheap, plastic, and uncomfortable. The other regular commuters took their places too. Because everyone sat in the same place each morning, the ride always felt the same.
Mark tucked his computer bag behind his legs and then shook the package again, listening to it rattle. He ripped the thin end of the package open and turned it on its side. A small box of candy hearts slid into his hand along with a shiny red card. Opening the box of hearts, Mark shook one into his hand. Written in yellow on the small blue heart was the saying, “Seize the Day!” Mark popped the candy in his mouth and chewed. As the sugar melted in his mouth, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the taste.
“What’s that?” Bernie said, poking with his cane at the package in Mark’s lap.
“Nothing,” Mark said, not wanting to share.
Bernie was what Mark had named the elderly man who always sat across from him on the train. Mark had no idea what the man’s real name was. He just looked like a “Bernie” to Mark. Today, Bernie was wearing a brown baggy V-neck sweater over a blue button down, brown pants, and, of course, his brown, tattered Homburg hat. Rain or shine, Bernie was never without his brown Homburg.
“What is it?” Bernie said, poking the package again.
“It’s a Valentine’s Day gift,” Mark said.
“Who’s it from?” Bernie asked. The train jerked forward and began to roll down the track toward downtown.
“My mom,” Mark said.
“Aren’t you a little old to be getting a care package from your mommy?” Bernie said.
The woman sitting two seats to the right of Mark, who Mark had named Sally, giggled.
Mark glared at her.
“He has a point,” Sally said. She had a kind smile that Mark enjoyed. Mark wasn’t sure of her age, but she seemed a little younger than he was. Today she was wearing a green blouse, a gray skirt, and her black reading glasses. Open in her lap was a paperback version of The Firm by John Grisham. Sally always had a paperback with her.
“First off,” Mark said. “I’m not that old. I’m only thirty-five. And second, I didn’t ask her to send it. She just sent it, okay?”
“Well,” Bernie said. “What’s in it?”
“Yeah,” Sally said, looking up from her book. “What’d you get?”
“It’s nothing really,” Mark said, letting the box of candy hearts fall into his hand again. He removed another piece of candy and looked at it. The green candy read, “Share the Love!” Mark popped it in his mouth. “It’s just a box of those cheap candy hearts and a card.”
“Can I have some,” Bernie said, holding out his hand.
Mark laughed. “No,” he said. He slid another heart into his palm. The pink candy read, “You should Share!” Mark laughed again to himself and ate it.
“Come on,” Bernie said, still holding out his wrinkled hand. “Give me one.”
“No,” Mark said again, this time with a more dismissive tone. He took a fourth heart from the box. The green words on the red candy made him look twice. They read, “Don’t be an Ass!” Nervous that candy with such a strange message might be sour, Mark tentatively put the piece of candy in his mouth and crunched it between his teeth. It tasted the same as the others.
“I want some,” Bernie said, still holding out his hand.
Mark shrugged. “Well, I don’t want to be an ass,” he said. Holding out the box, he jiggled it until three candies fell into the old man’s hand. Bernie ate them all at once.
“You didn’t even read the message on them,” Mark said.
“When you’re as old as I am,” Bernie said, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms, “you don’t have time to read stuff. I could drop dead any second.”
“What’s the card say?” Sally asked.
Mark sighed and examined the shiny red card. On the front, in silver script, were the words, “Be My Valentine!” He read them aloud and then showed the card to Sally and Bernie. Then, opening the card up, he read to them the message on the inside that was in his mother’s handwriting. “Figured you would need this since you are single, of course. Don’t be sad. Valentines is only twenty-four hours. Tomorrow no one will care that you are alone. Love, Mom.”
“Well, that’s sweet,” Bernie said holding out his hand. “Give me some more candy.” Mark jiggled three more hearts into the old man’s hand. Again, he ate them all at once.
“I guess that was sweet,” Sally said.
“That’s my mom,” Mark said, putting the card back in the package. He took another candy from the box and read it to himself. “Ask Her!” it said. Puzzling the message, Mark popped it in his mouth.
The light rail train rolled to a slow stop. The doors opened. No one got on or off. The doors closed and the train began moving forward again.
“More,” Bernie said, holding out his hand. Mark obliged. Again, the old man didn’t stop to read them before he devoured them.
“What did she mean by, ‘of course’?” Sally said, looking up from her book.
“Right?” Mark said. “That’s what I asked her on the phone.” He took another heart from the box and read it. “Ask her Out!” it said in pink lettering. Laughing to himself, Mark popped the candy in his mouth.
The train rolled on in silence. They crossed over a small lake. The newly risen sun reflected off the water. Mark sighed, wishing he were still back home in bed. He took another candy from the box and read it. “Ask Sally Out!” it read.
“Oh shit,” Mark said to himself with surprise. Looking over at the woman to his right, a knot formed in Mark’s throat. Even though he’d seen her on the train almost every weekday for six months, he’d never thought of her like that. He’d noticed she was beautiful, but he didn’t really know anything about her. He didn’t even know her real name.
Mark looked at the candy heart again. The words had not changed.
“More,” Bernie said. Mark jiggled a few more hearts in the old man’s hand.
Leaning back into his own seat, Mark read the words a third time. “Probably a fluke,” he said to himself. “Sally’s a common name.” He ate the candy and got another. “Not a Fluke!” the new candy said.
“Oh shit!” Mark said again, louder this time.
“You okay?” Sally said, smiling at him curiously.
“Oh, um,” Mark fumbled, trying to hide the candy heart in his hands. “Um, yeah. I just remembered that I have this thing due at work today and I forgot about it until just now,” he lied.
“That sucks,” Sally said, turning back to her book. “I hate it when that happens.”
“Yeah, so, um,” Mark fumbled. He looked at the ceiling of the train car and exhaled as he weighed his options. Deciding he had nothing to lose, he continued, “So, um, are you doing anything for Valentine’s Day?”
“Nope,” Bernie said.
“Not you,” Mark barked at the old man.
Sally giggled. She closed her book and looked up with a grin. “I don’t have any plans,” she said. “Just another night. Of course.”
Mark smiled. “Of course,” he said. “Well, you think that maybe you might want to, like, maybe meet up for a beer or something?”
“Meet up?” Bernie laughed. “Be a man,” he said.
“What’d you say?” Mark said. He could feel his blood pressure rising.
“If you’re going to ask out a beautiful woman,” Bernie said, poking at Mark with his cane, “do it like a man. Don’t meet up. Ask her out.”
Sally smiled and looked at the floor. “Things are a little different now. Meeting up is fine,” she said.
“Oh,” Mark said. “That’s great. Where do you want to go?”
Sally looked up in surprise. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. I meant meeting up at places, in general, is fine for people to do. I didn’t mean that I would meet up with you tonight.”
“Oh,” Mark said, looking at the floor.
“No. No,” Sally said. “It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that, well, that’s not what I meant to say is all.”
“You two are the worst,” Bernie said. Poking Mark again with his cane he said, “Give me more.”
Mark jiggled more candy into the old man’s hand.
“Ask her out like a man and she won’t have to fumble around trying to figure out the answer,” Bernie said before he ate the candy hearts.
Mark swallowed and turned to face Sally. “Would you like to get a drink tonight with me?” he asked.
Sally smiled and looked at the floor. Then looking back up with a grin, she said, “Tell you what, I’ll meet you for a drink if you can tell me what my name is.”
“You’re screwed now,” Bernie laughed.
Mark glared at him.
“Don’t look at me like that, Mark,” Bernie said as he leaned back, folded his arms, and closed his eyes. “I know her name. Maybe I’ll take her out.”
Mark bit his bottom lip. Then, the solution occurred to him. Quickly, he jiggled another candy heart into his hand and read it. He popped the candy into his mouth, looked at the woman next to him, and said, “Your name is Anne.”
The woman returned to reading her book.
Mark looked to the floor again.
With a smile, Anne said, “Meet you at eight at Hamilton Tavern.”
“Well done,” Bernie said without opening his eyes.
“Great,” Mark said with a smile. “Eight it is.” Then, waiting a few minutes until he thought no one was looking, he took out his phone and sent a text that read, “Thanks for the candy mom.”