A Cupid’s Carol
I held the phone against my ear with my shoulder so I could talk and type at the same time.
“Bethany. Are you still there?”
“Yeah, Todd.” My neck killed me already. How did we get by before headsets? I’d thrown mine against the wall earlier that week, so I only had myself to blame.
“It’s Valentines, Bethy. Remember, our annual meeting of Singles United Against Valentines.”
“I know. SUAV, right?”
“I made plans,” Todd said.
I looked over the last line of gibberish then pounded the backspace key. “I can’t tonight, Todd. I’m on major deadline.” I typed again. “This weekend? I could use a Twinkie, Bacardi and action-movie vedge-fest.”
“Come over late tonight?”
I tried to read the next line of gibberish. “I can’t.”
“Well. Then I can’t either.”
I sat up at the coldness in his tone. “Can’t what?”
“Wait for you.” Then he hung up.
My best friend had hung up on me. Could this week get any worse?
“Miss Lathrop?” My assistant’s voice shot out of the intercom. “Could I go home now?”
I hit the speaker button. “Home? You can’t go home. I need you tonight.”
“But Miss Lathrop. It’s Valentine’s Day. My husband—”
“I don’t care if it’s the Second Coming. The Lansing proposal due tomorrow at three.”
“But Miss Lathrop. I’ve been here since eight.”
I thought of the long-stem roses delivered to her desk and imagined smashing all the petals with my bare hands. Not that I had anything against her husband or the flowers, just the holiday. I breathed in deep, calling up my calm manager voice. “Claire. You’re the one who wanted to go on salary with the hope of a promotion.”
“I know, but—”
“Well, salary means we work according to deadlines. Not clocks. Or holidays.”
My office door opened, and a man with a body almost as round as his head walked in. No. He sort of floated in a way that seemed detached from the stark surroundings—like a mediocre CGI effect. Odd.
“Claire. Who is this—” Crackling came through. I let go and pressed the speaker button again. Only crackling.
“Can I help you.?” I sat but didn’t lean back. I needed to appear professional. The man wore a suit. He could be some big wig I’d never met.
“I’m Que Pidello.” He reached a rounded hand over the desk, and I shook it. Pleasant warmth spread though me. I relaxed into my seat after he let go. As if on command.
Que angled a chair to face me. He sat with surprising ease for his short stature and large girth.
He’s mirroring me, I thought, sitting forward to break the spell. You couldn’t con a PR person. “Can I help you?”
“Beth.” He met my eyes. “Bethy.”
Only Todd called me Bethy. “I’m Bethany here at work. Or Miss Lathrop.”
“Of course. But Beth to those who knew you growing up, and Bethy to Todd.”
Despite his reassuring smile, a few tendrils of panic hit me. I jabbed at the speaker button again. Crackling. Then the security button. Only crackle. I stood, motioning toward the door. “I’m sorry, Mr.—”
“Que.” He dragged that out. “Pidello” Then he swung into his last name as if putting the two words together.
“Listen, Mr. Pidello.” I switched to my manger voice. “I don’t have time for personal matters tonight, so if you could please make an appointment.”
He shook his head, making soft, “Tsk, tsk,” sounds. “Sorry Beth. I’m not going anywhere. We have unfinished business.”
Unfinished business? I perused my desk with its imminent-avalanche of papers. He had no idea about unfinished business.
Que laced his fingers over his girth. “I tried. You wanted college. You wanted all the wrong guys. Then you wanted your career.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ah Beth.” He turned his head to contemplate some unknown spot on the floor. His hair stood out silver at his temples and he’d combed it straight back so it tapered like a wing. “You’ve been my one failure. I’ve always followed the rules, but you dodged me every time.”
My manager voice disappeared, replaced by barely restrained fury. “What. Are you talking about?”
“I have to retire now. You’re my last open case. My longest open case ever.”
I half stood again. “I think you should leave.”
He motioned with both palms for me to sit, and for some inexplicable reason I did. “I have the lowest divorce rate of any cupid. Only point two percent,” he said, returning his hands to his belly.
“These young upstarts.” Que went on. “We’ve added so many novices, with the population boom and all. They’ll shoot at anything, thinking a little attraction is all you need to build the rest. They don’t take the time to get to know their targets.”
I tried to formulate a response.
He waved his hand. “Never mind all that. I’ve tried to change things, but no one will listen. It’s time for me to get out. Abandon the sinking ship, if you will.” He patted his stomach. “So, for the first time in my illustrious five-hundred year career I’m going to break the rules.”
My computer monitor flickered. Two kids ran through a park. Fifth graders. Todd and me. I touched the screen. “How?”
“Just watch,” he said in a pleasant command I couldn’t ignore.
We sat under a tree—popping heads off daisies to see how far they could fly. One fell on my shoulder, and Todd brushed it off. We stopped for a moment, staring at each other.
“This is where it happens” Que stood beside me, his stubby fingers leaning on the desk. I hadn’t heard him move.
On screen, I could see Que, almost invisible, floating behind a tree. “I got the first shot off fine.”
An arrow flew into Todd’s shoulder. The next arrow flew so fast I didn’t even see Que reload.
“But I missed the second,” he said as my fifth-grade self lean against the tree, causing the arrow to zoom right past me.
“Oh,” I said, feeling the lost moment like a tangible thing.
The next scene flashed. Senior prom. Todd and I had gone as each other’s pity dates. Dancing with our friends. Such freedom. The kind of confidence only the insular world of adolescence can give, or take away just as easily.
“Here,” Que said. The music slowed, and I could see Que beside a pillar. Todd closed the distance between us. I stood with an out-of-breath smile and a question in my eyes. Then Rod Hartly came between us, and the arrow, intended for me, slammed into the back of his arm.
“It took me a year to get rid of that guy.”
“I know. I had to shoot five other girls. Then countless guys for the girls to get over him.” Que shook his head. “Such a waste of arrows.”
“So your misfiring causes all heartbreak?”
“No. We rarely miss. Most of the time it’s either some newer cupid who’s too quick on the draw, or humans who think it’s love when it’s not.”
At his words different images flashed. My exes. Only not my exes. Each time—from my punk phase in college to sitting in my tight skirt in the bathroom at work—showed me on the phone with Todd, crying out my heartbreak.
I ached with each image. Not for me, but for Todd.
Que patted my shoulder. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
The images faded into another full-screen view. Todd, at his apartment, blowing out candles on a dinner table set for two. “Is this now? Is this tonight?”
Que nodded, his worldly-wise smile in place.
“So he planned to tell me? Tonight?”
Que continued to nod.
“I have to call him. To apologize. To—” I hurt so much for Todd. I hadn’t stopped to think, how did I feel about him?
“Maybe this will help.” Images flashed. Two weddings where Todd and I stood up for but not with each other. A divorce for me. A kid for him. Another wedding for me. Then our three kids playing together.
“Don’t.” I splayed both hands on the screen. “No more. Especially the kids.” I squeezed my eyes shut, unable to deny their innocent potential. “Is there a chance we could get together, after we have our families?”
“No.” Que’s voice gentled. “Once Todd marries, he’ll stay married for life. That has nothing to do with my arrows. It’s just the way he is.”
“So he’ll get over me?”
“No.” Que’s voice gentled even more. “As long as you’re in his life the arrow will still be there. Dulled and hidden, but there.”
My eyes stung with tears. “Please say it doesn’t have to be this way. Please say it’s not too late.”
Que touched me, light as a breeze, as he faded. “Go to him,” he whispered. “Just look at him. And for all that is holy on Heaven and Earth. This time, stand still.”
Happy Hearts Day!!!