The man who plods into the bar is short, bald, and tired-looking. He drops a dirty pink duffle bag at his feet and hops onto the bar stool next to me. Hops, I say, because he is scarcely higher than the stool itself. I worry for a moment that he will slip and tumble off, but he does not. Perched atop it, he leans his stubby arms onto the greasy bar and sighs. His posture reminds me of an old parrot. Or maybe it’s the bright red bomber jacket he’s wearing.
“Gin,” he says to the bartender. Then, wearily, he tosses a glance at me. “Hey.”
“Hi,” I say, and turn back to my phone.
“This is the worst time of year, you know.”
For a moment I do not realize that he is talking to me. I have other things on my mind. I fidget with the phone, glance at Facebook, and peek in at the news. In reality though, I’m waiting for her to call.
“All these couples, professing their eternal love. They’ll all be divorced by Christmas. Did you know divorce rates are up? Let me tell you, they’ll keep going up because people these days, they do NOT know love.”
His gin arrives. The little man takes a sip and leans one elbow heavily on the bar. He looks like he got even less sleep than I did in the last two days.
“Maybe Patrice is right. She’s a bitch, you know. She’s always making those comments about my ‘experience’ and my ‘tenure,’ but what she means is I’m too damn old for this work. I’m just not cut out for love these days.”
My phone dings with a text message and my heart skips a beat, but when it turns out to be just a promotional message from the health club down the block from home — rather, the house that may not be my home anymore if Janice doesn’t call — I order another beer. My third. Janice would say I’m not doing my beer gut any favors.
The little man is still talking. I think he’s talking to me. After all, there isn’t anyone else sitting on this end of the bar.
“My wings are still damn good. Even after that thing last year with the tequila shots and the jet engine.”
I set my phone down.
“What line of work are you in?” I ask. Whatever his answer, it’s bound to be more interesting than pretending to flip through the same three apps.
“I’m a . . .” he snaps his fingers several times, as if trying to jump start his thoughts. “What do you people call it? You know, the thing with Valentine’s Day.”
“You . . . sell flowers?”
“Cupid!” he says triumphantly. “That’s your word for it. We have a different word for it in the biz. Too many syllables for the human tongue. Frankly I like Cupid better, but they want us to be professional and all.”
“Cupid.” I look over my shoulder, in case someone’s playing a joke on me. No one’s looking my direction. In fact, the few other patrons in the bar appear to be trying hard to ignore the dwarf in the red bomber jacket.
“It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Mostly paperwork.” He looks down at his duffle bag. “Do you mind?”
I lift the bag onto the bar for him. He retrieves a business card from a side pocket and hands it to me. It’s pink on one side and white with pink type on the other. I read it.
CUPID THIRD CLASS
That is all.
“Well that doesn’t tell me much,” I say. “I didn’t know Cupids come in different classes. What’s third class mean?”
“It’s above fourth class and below second class,” says Joey the Cupid. I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or not. “Look it’s written on the..” He starts to point to the pink side, then stops. “Never mind, I forgot you wouldn’t be able to see it.”
“Because I don’t have Cupid eyes?”
“Right.” Joey downs his gin and orders another. “Like I was saying, it’s all pointless. People used to talk to each other, you know. Back in the horse-and-carriage days. Everything was simpler. People were simpler. They believed in staying married, writing love letters, romance, finding ‘The One,’ making love last, and all that good stuff. Sure, half of them died from dysentery before they made it to thirty, but at least they believed.” He glances at my phone lying on the bar. “These days everything starts and ends with text messages, or a tweet, or a status change. People chirp at each other like birds instead of have actual conversations. Hell, they rather play Candy Crush than ask the person next to them how their day was.”
“To be fair, Candy Crush is the best.”
“No thanks,” says Joey. He casts me a side glance and extends a hand. “Sorry, didn’t catch your name.”
I shake his hand. He has a nice, firm grip for a little guy. “Dave.”
“Solid name.” Joey flags down the barkeep. “Next round’s on me.”
“Thanks.” I sneak a glance at my phone. Still nothing.
“I know I’m ranting,” he says. “Truth is, Cupid-ing is a tricky gig. People think you get two people falling in love, then fly your naked ass into the sunset and call it a day.”
“That’s not what it is?” I’m killing time, but also genuinely curious. Perhaps the three beers are getting to me.
Joey shakes his head morosely. “Oh no. The real thing is much more, shall we say, exhausting. So exhausting. It’s driven better Cupids than me to the bottle.” He takes a deep swig of his drink. “See, if you wanna claim to be a pro, a real and true Cupid, you gotta make the love last. You gotta see the lovers through to the sweet end. Or the bitter end. Whatever. You know what they teach us when we sign up? Love is a seed. Poetic, yea? Falling in love is only the first step, the burying of the seed into the ground. A gardener who buries many seeds and grows nothing is a shit gardener. The ones who grow true, strong, long-lasting love are the real stars.” He pauses and frowns for a moment. “Well, barring that, famous ones will also do. Like stupid Tim who never lets anyone forget his stupid ‘Brangelina.'” His round, sausage-like fingers curl into sarcastic air quotes. “That’s the only reason he got promoted to Second Class. He denies it but everyone knows. And look where they are now? Couples like that are the junk food of love. Me? I prefer sticking to the real people.”
My phone dings. System update notice. I sigh.
“Tell me about her.”
“Tell me about her,” Joey says again. Still holding his drink, he points a pinky towards my phone. “The one you’re hoping will take you back.”
“How did you know that?”
“I’m in the biz, aren’t I? You’re sitting here drinking yourself into some depressing stupor on beer. If you were waiting on some new love interest, you’d look a lot less hunched over and care a lot more about the gut all that beer’s gonna give you.”
I chuckle. “She says that, actually. Giving me a hard time about my ‘beer gut’ every day. But at night she always rolls over and gives it a squeeze. I loved that.”
“You been together a long time?”
“Twenty-five years next year. If we make it. Together since high school.”
“Didn’t work out.”
“That the issue?”
I debate for a moment whether to be offended at his bluntness, then decide against it. “No. Funnily enough that kept us together. We went through all the medical stuff together – the tests, the injections, the waiting and waiting and more waiting. Then we tried adoption and that didn’t work out either.”
“Life’s tough.” The look Joey the Cupid is giving me is genuinely sympathetic and I appreciate that.
“It is. See, somewhere along the way of that, I think we started growing apart. We stopped talking to each other. Hell, maybe we did spend too much time just sitting on our asses in the evening playing Candy Crush. Anyway, when we finally decided we were done trying the kid thing, it seemed like we had nothing in common left.”
“So you’re separating?”
“I mentioned it. Now I’m here.”
“Because she kicked you out for saying it?”
I let out a laugh more morose than I liked. “I wish. She said she needed some space to think about it.”
“Yea.” I down the rest of my beer and slam the mug on the bar. “Damn it. Why did I even say that? I don’t want that.”
“It’s classic,” Joey says, swirling his drink thoughtfully. “You suggest separating because you hope the other person feels strongly enough to reject it. Hurts worse when they don’t.”
“You’re telling me.”
“You guys consider therapy? Some people in my trade aren’t too fond of the whole therapy thing, thinks when love is dying you should just let it die. Not me, I’m all about it. Do what you can to make it last.”
“If we get through this,” I say seriously. “I will do anything. I swear. Whatever it takes.”
“You still haven’t done it.”
“Tell me about her.”
I think hard through my beer-addled mind. The bar suddenly feels very quiet, despite the evening college crowd. I pick up Joey’s business card and flip it back and forth in my hand absently.
“She loves lettering,” I say. “And stencils. Back in high school she would write me these cute little love notes. Not like our names with a heart around it, the stupid teenage stuff. No, she got these beautiful little pieces of letter paper, and she would make stencils herself. It was usually hearts and birds and stuff, but she spent so much time on it, and after she did that, she would write little poems. She would do it slowly, so that every stroke is perfect, and if she messed up she would start the whole thing over. Sometimes she tells me this over the phone while she’s working on it, because she gets so excited about these little notes that she has to tell me about it before she gives it to me. Then the next day I would hide down the hall and watch her put it in my locker. Usually she did it first thing in the morning, but once I missed two whole periods just waiting.”
“You keep any of them?”
“Most of them. But they were in a box that got destroyed when we moved back from Ireland a few years back. Broke my heart. I never told her though.”
“She’s never looked in it?”
“After Ireland I got a box that looked sort of the same and put it out of her reach in the closet. Told her that was it. She hasn’t asked otherwise in fifteen years.”
Joey lets out a laugh surprisingly loud and throaty for such a little man. “You give this old Cupid hope, Dave.”
I chuckle with him. He’s cheered me up, if nothing else. “You get paid for this line of work?” I ask.
“Not exactly a fortune, but the benefits are great.”
“Wings and immortality?”
“Exactly.” He finger-guns me, hops off the bar stool, and slings the duffle bag slung over one shoulder. “Listen, I gotta head out. Valentine’s week and all, busy season.”
“Right,” I say. “Take care, make people happy.”
“Do the best I can. And hey” — he pats me on the arm — “this one’s a freebie.”
In the moment it takes me to decide whether to ask him to clarify, my phone dings. I practically leap for it. Scrambling to unlock it, I turn to wave a quick goodbye to Joey, but he’s already half way across the bar.
An image is attached. A photo of a familiar box, the one that had sat on top of the closet shelf for the past decade and a half. Except it’s laying open now, and inside it, I see cards. And letters. Pink and white and blue and green, all covered in Janice’s beautiful stencils, some still clean and fresh after two and half decades, and one I distinctly remember throwing away after accidentally spilling coffee all over it in college.
I look up again, half expecting that Joey had vanished into thin air, but he’s paused at the door leading to the bustling streets outside. He gives me a wave, and I wave back.