Private: An unbalanced curmudgeon’s Valentine’s Day

This post turned into a much longer essay, “Conversations You Have at Twenty,” that won a prize from Narrative Magazine and appears in an anthology of doomed-relationship stories, Love is a Four-Letter Word.

In the early 90’s, toward the end of my glorious years of Gainesville liberal arts slackerdom, when I was just starting law school, my ex-boyfriend called on Valentine’s Day to fill me in on his recent sexual exploits. I’d broken things off with him a few weeks before, ending an on-again, off-again, four-year relationship in which elaborate new curses were invented and a great deal of crockery was dashed against the wall.

I didn’t care that he was sleeping with someone new, I told myself. But I was incensed that he dared to call and gloat, especially on what he knew was my least favorite holiday. I yelled a number of our special curses — mostly four-letter words strung together, some transformed into new parts of speech — and hung up on him.

Opening the front door, I slammed it as hard as I could. Then I slammed it again. I walked outside and slammed it another twenty or so times, stopping only when I couldn’t open it anymore.

I stood on the step, pulling at the knob. The door was stuck so that it didn’t even creak.

I lived off Archer Road, in a complex adjoining a trailer park. My apartment, a studio that a friend characterized as “one step up from a double-wide,” featured an air conditioner of the type favored by motels. It could be set to “lo” or “hi” with no discernible cooling effect but a significant increase in clattering. A Texas-like shape appeared three or four times on each slat of the faux-wood paneling covering the walls. Speaking of the walls, they were approximately three centimeters thick. If someone dropped a tack in the adjoining apartment, I knew about it. And no doubt the rest of them heard me, getting tanked and arguing with friends about movies and politics and whether Elvis Costello was even worth listening to after “Veronica.”

My neighbor, Kenny, was a crack addict. He told me so months later, when he showed up at my door one night, crying over an indictment that he needed help with.

Kenny worked nights as a janitor at the university hospital and slept days. Despite his frequent, late-night porno parties, he was sweet, always inviting me over for dinner (although he couldn’t seem to understand that I’d have to decline every time; I was a vegetarian and would never want to join him for pork chops). Noise was the only thing that made Kenny edgy. He’d knocked on the door and yelled at me once because my dog had spent an afternoon barking at telephone repairmen through the window. As Kenny yelled, he’d banged his palms on both sides of the door frame.

Now I could hear him struggling with the bolts on his door.

Moving in from the other side was Raul, a self-proclaimed alcoholic and ex-con who worked on his ancient Camaro in the parking lot and liked to joke about watching me undress through the blinds.

I tugged and tugged on the doorknob, but it wouldn’t move. I kicked at the door. Nothing happened.

Some of my girlfriends, who’d always disapproved of the evil ex- and now were horrified that I’d fled him to live in “a crummy old motel,” were due to pick me up in a half hour for a single-girl Valentine’s Day dinner we were all secretly dreading.

Kenny pulled open his door and stuck his head out. His face was blotchy, with sleep or rage, or both. “What the fuck?” he said, pulling his hair.

I smoothed my skirt and tried to assume the pose of a sensible girl. “Oh, sorry. I was, uh, just kind of pissed off.”

He stalked out onto the sidewalk. I could see that he’d been sleeping in his uniform. “Kind of?”

“Okay, I was really fucking pissed off. Had a call from my ex-.”

I heard a light step behind me and then Raul said, “So no free sex show tonight, Ken.”

Kenny chuckled unconvincingly, his lips a little too tight. He looked at me. At this range — a couple of feet — he was larger than I remembered. He smelled of sweat and chili and something faintly metallic. “You’re a cute girl, Maud. But we cain’t have this door-slamming.”

He raised his hand and I wondered if he was going to slap me. Instead he patted my head.

I nodded. “Right. No more slamming doors.”

I stood there, smiling and nodding, until Kenny went back inside. Raul returned to his Camaro. I waited for him to slide underneath the car, for the sound of his tools clanging, but he sat on top of it and watched me instead.

Not bothering to try the door, I pulled the screen out of my open window and climbed inside, replacing the screen and pushing the window closed. I realized that the phone was, and had been, ringing. I unplugged it.

When my friends came to pick me up, I didn’t try to open the door. I sat on the bathroom floor, afraid that if I walked into the bedroom, they, like Raul, would see me moving around inside. They knocked and called to me until Kenny came out and yelled at them. “Shut up, you crazy bitches,” he said. “All y’all crazy like that Maud.”

As they drove away, I contemplated my options. I wondered if I’d fucked my life up so completely that I’d never be able to exit through the door again.