by Alli Kirkham
Outside everything was pink. I'm not sure how they pulled it off, but from some blimp or building or streetlamp or all of them a sickening pink light was bouncing off the pavement and making my eyes water. It smelled like chocolate too. I'm pretty sure that was some sort of Disneyland trickery - pumping main street full of popcorn smell so you sell more popcorn. I think that one was achieved by putting individually wrapped chocolates into the pink streetlights, but I could be wrong.
Inside everything was pink and smelled like chocolate too, by the way. I'm not saying I had it any better than the jerks on the street, waiting in line for expensive dinners or stupid movies. But at least I had air conditioning and access to a practically unlimited supply of energy drinks.
Valentine's day is a guys-are-assholes, failure-only holiday. Girls get a pass on this because it seems like we all hate the patriarchy until it's responsible for buying us presents. So a drugstore at 6pm on Valentine's day is a female-free zone; most of the female workers have asked for the night off, women aren't coming in to buy things like deodorant or milk because they're at home getting ready for their evening, and women don't seem to be responsible for getting cards or chocolates for their partners (either that or they already took care of it six weeks ago so don't have to rush in out of the rain to buy something pink to carry out into the pink night) so there are no girls panicking in line amidst the panicking guys who are clutching at cards and conversation hearts like shields for their genitalia.
The guys in line are like spooked horses, all rolling eyes and flaring nostrils as they approach me and hold out their paltry goods.
Whatever, I just ring 'em up, man. But I do have an okay time watching the panic crest as it gets later - our Valentine section is a litter of footprint-embossed envelopes and cards that make fart noises. The only candy left in the aisles are leftover Christmas lollipops and Necco Wafers. Flowers are only a memory preserved in petals ground into the industrial carpet. We still had some stuffed animals left, but they were all in the claw machine by the front door. One dude, three back in line, is holding a card with fake body hair on the outside and a packet of gum - he's eyeballing the claw pretty hard.
I like working holidays. I like seeing the worst of people. People cope with expectations and how they want to meet those expectations poorly. The lack of coping skills always pops up on holidays, and is at its best in a drugstore. I once watched two septuagenarians wrestle in an aisle, pulling out hairpins and knocking thick glasses askew, as they fought over who would take the pink-and-brown bunny home for their granddaughter's first Easter. Last year a man came in on Christmas eve and ransacked the pet section, throwing squeaky toys and dog jackets into a cart alongside gaudy giftbags; he told me he had forgotten about his nephews until just that very hour and this was the only thing he knew to do. I told him, "they'll think you got them a puppy," and he responded: "Fuck it, they gotta learn the world is shit someday right?" Every Thanksgiving I face a line of people, all of them begging me for a turkey - two years ago a nice little lady told me she would give me five hundred dollars if I went home and got my personal turkey and gave it to her. I told her I was a vegan and she started to cry and that is what I was thankful for that year.
I don't think I do it for the power. I think I do it for the isolation. Everyone else has a house full of people they have to go home and playact for. These guys in line in front of me, they don't want to go out to some fancy dinner, they don't give a shit about the cards they're holding - they just know that if they don't pretend to want all that bullshit they'll be denied the thing that they really do want. I don't even know if the girls actually want or care about the candy and the flowers and the day or if it's just about the power to deny. It seems cyclical and ugly to me. I like to look at it to remind myself that I don't want to pretend like that. I don't want to offer someone my savings for a turkey. I don't want to think that my relationship hinges on the right combination of chocolate and pink.
The third guy back in line has just realized that there's a fluffy heart pillow in the claw machine. It's pink. It's edged with lace. It says I love you and it has a secret compartment with Godiva chocolate inside. He looks at the card in his hand, curls his lip as he takes in the pube-like fuzz of juvenile joke image. He drops the card on the floor.
I wasn't expecting the running tackle of the machine, I'll tell you that much. He got his shoulder into it good and low, though, and took the damned thing over. The fluorescent tube inside popped when the box hit the ground, the glue down one corner pulled apart. The guy got his hands into that open seam and managed to almost sever a finger pulling the clear plastic panel away from the mirrored back. He leaned over the wretched cube, its side now its floor and that covered in goggle-eyed toys, snagged the fluffy heart, and scampered, cackling and bleeding, into the pink night.
About four seconds later the stampede happened. The space in front of my register was filled with fluttering fuchsia leaves as cards fell to the ground. Men were struggling and hitting each other, each trying to be the next to reach into that jagged gap and come up with a prize that would please his partner, each running away through wooshing automatic doors as he succeeded. I didn't try to stop it, just laughed. I called the cops and my manager and soon enough there was a blue pulse added to the pink glow coming in from the streets. The cops walked in and took pictures and shook their heads - I hadn't tried to apprehend anyone or stop anyone from making off with their stupid little toys, and I hadn't tried to clean up the blood. They took notes, my manager called the blood-cleaning guy; I zipped up my sweater at midnight and went home.
I'm not a vegan, I'm not perfect, I don't plan, and I'm just like everyone else. As I walked through our yard I clipped twigs from trees and pulled leaves from weeds and collected long pieces of grass, weaving together a green bouquet. I put it on her nightstand and kissed her temple as I climbed into bed with her. It had wilted and dried by the time we woke up but she loved it anyway. And at least I didn't have to get stitches over it.