Say It With A Card
By Laura Schiller
I was re-stocking the plushies in the rotating shelf out front when he came. He just stood there, didn't say anything, with his hands in the pockets of his long black coat. I almost dropped the purple unicorn.
"Uh, hi," I managed to squeak. "It's Martin, right?"
"Yes," said Martin. "Hello, Taylor. I... didn't know you worked here."
He didn't smile. He never does, unless he's really, truly happy or amused. It's one of the reasons he's never invited to parties... and one of the things that make him so absolutely cool.
He looked around at the red heart-shaped pillows, silk roses, pewter picture frames and the plushies on my shelf, then at the rows of greeting card shelves behind them. His eyes were about as expressive as the pewter – I had no idea what he was thinking. It was just like in school, where he'd sit like some kind of marble statue watching the other guys playing waste bin basketball.
"So what'cha looking for?" I asked, going into salesgirl mode and feeling stupid, because I'd never had a customer I know before. "A card, or a present...anything I can help you with?"
All the pink and red in the store suddenly made my stomach jump. It was February tenth. If he wanted that kind of card and/or present...for another girl...how was I supposed to sell it to him?
I hoped I wasn't looking too upset, and just in case, I bent down to pick up a white teddy bear holding a heart in its paws and put it on the top shelf so I wouldn't have to look Martin in the eye.
"I'm looking for a Valentine's Day card," he said. "For... a girl I know."
Ooo-kay. Pull yourself together. You knew that was coming anyway. You don't know him...you don't even talk to him...he's just – another – customer.
I took a leaf out of his book and tried to look completely unconcerned, but from the way his eyes flickered over my face, I'm not sure how well it worked.
He stepped past me into the store; I could see drops of water shining in his hair and on his collar. So it was snowing outside – again – which meant once my shift was over, I'd be soaked through by the time my bus arrived.
"That section's over there," I said, trailing a few steps after him; he'd already spotted it before I'd said a word. "I'll just...go on here."
I gave one last adjusting touch to a beanbag Cupid's underpants and began to fold up the now empty carton for recycling.
I spun around.
How does he do that? How the hell does he do that, without even trying? I've never really liked my name – it sounds like a guy's name – but when he says it...maybe it's his voice, or maybe the slow, deliberate way he says it. Sometimes I think if a hundred different people were calling me, I'd still be able to pick out Martin's voice from all the others.
He was taking off his coat in a confused sort of way, as if his arms might get lost halfway up the sleeves. He didn't look at me.
"Could you come here, please? I...I'm not sure which one to choose."
I smoothed my blue nylon salesgirl vest and strolled on over in my best 'everything's cool' style. "W-ell, it depends on who the card's for. Girlfriend cards are over – "
"She's not my girlfriend," he blurted out, looking more embarrassed – and frankly, more human – than I'd ever seen him.
A tight knot began to form in the pit of my stomach. This had to be one of the most important sales I'd ever made...Martin's happiness depended on it. If the girl didn't like the card I chose, would he blame me?
"How 'bout a funny one then?" I suggested. "They're cute."
Martin turned to me with one arched eyebrow.
"Would you like it if a boy gave you this?" he asked, holding up an example.
It was the one with the squirrel. A fat, crazy-eyed cartoon squirrel like the one from Ice Age, fondling an acorn and saying in squiggly red letters: I've gone nuts... I didn't need to open it to know that inside it read: No, not that kind. I'm nutty over you!
"Ugh, no!" I said.
"No?" Martin looked genuinely curious.
"Well, your – uh, the recipient of the card might," I backtracked. "I don't know what she's like. Y'see, these cards – " I waved my hand around me, indicating the shelves. "They're as different as the people who buy them. You gotta think about her personality, her tastes – what she wears, how she acts, things like that. Does she laugh and talk a lot? Is she emotional or more of a quiet type? Does she have a problem with fluffy animals or roses? 'Cause if she does, you might wanna try a different store."
Martin smiled. It was a small smile, just a little quirk at the corners of his mouth and eyes, but his entire pale, elegant face was transformed.
"She does laugh and talk a lot," he said. "But when she thinks no one's watching, she can look very serious, very thoughtful...It makes me wonder what she thinks about. I find her...fascinating."
His eyes, which had been looking over my shoulder at the mysterious girl in his thoughts, suddenly focused on me again. I could see it, like changing the setting on a camera lens.
"You seem to have put a lot of thought into the greeting card business," he said. "Why is it you work here, anyway? What do you enjoy the most?"
It was a conversation. A real conversation. The most I'd ever heard him say before today was during his PowerPoint projects in class. Now here he was, asking me for my personal opinion – and it took an embarrassingly long time before I recovered from my surprise enough to actually voice it.
"I like cute things, I guess," I said, with a shrug. "Even when they're a bit too kitschy ...like those birthday angel figurines or the Disney snowglobes. And I like looking at the people who buy them and imagining what'll happen...like, I see a middle-aged lady buying one of those ballerina music boxes, and I'm thinking, Maybe that's for her daughter. And I picture the little girl unwrapping the package, you know, and then squeaking out loud because that's exactly what she wanted. Or I see all these people buying Valentines right now, and I can imagine what kind of a love story is behind each one...I know it's silly and naïve and everything, but I like to imagine that the stuff in this store isn't just a cash grab...that it's actually there to make people happy."
A wrinkle of concentration formed between Martin's eyebrows as he listened.
"I've never thought of these places like this before," he said. "You have a point. Listen, Taylor...can I ask you a personal question?"
He took a small step closer. He's not exactly tall, but with him so close, I suddenly realized we had the same height – neither of us would have to bend down to kiss the other.
Not that I was thinking about kissing, of course.
"Do you have any favorites out of all these...cute things? Anything you'd like to buy for yourself? I could use the suggestion for...her."
The floor seemed to drop under me like an elevator plummeting downwards. For her – of course. I was starting to really dislike this girl, whoever she was, and I was half tempted to sell Martin the nutty squirrel card after all.
"Well, to be honest," I said, with a laugh that came out more like a squeak, "I already own most of the stuff I like. Employee discount, you know. There's only one thing I..."
I stopped, glancing over at the card shelf we were still standing next to.
"Yes...?" Martin waved his hand in a 'keep going' gesture. The look in his eyes was intense; it was like standing in front of a hot stove.
I caved in and handed him the card, along with its scarlet envelope. It was the last copy left and I really hoped my hand wasn't shaking. Martin took it in both hands and opened it solemnly, like a book.
It showed a black and white photograph of the Eiffel Tower above an avenue of winter-bare, snow-covered trees. The picture was printed with silver snowflakes that shimmered when you moved the card and red cursive letters in the same material, reading: The most romantic place in the world... The inside, which Martin was studying intently, completed the sentence: ...is anywhere you are.
I couldn't explain it, but to me that card meant something – more than any I'd ever sold. It touched exactly the right note: elegant without being stiff, romantic without being mushy. I'd considered buying this last copy for myself; only the sheer pitifulness of buying my own Valentine had stopped me so far. As for Martin, I'd never had the guts to give it to him.
But now I was giving it to him...only not in the way I'd dreamed.
"You think she'll like it?" I managed to say.
Martin's eyes shone like the snowflakes on the card. "I know she will," he said softly, closing the card for another look at the photograph. "It's perfect."
So he'd noticed too.
Feeling like I was moving through fog, I got behind the cash counter, checked the price and chirped, "Four sixty-five please, d'you like a bag?" in the 'friendly' tone my boss had told me always to use. I'd never heard my own voice sounding so fake before.
He fished a crumpled fiver out of his pocket and shook his head to show he did not want a bag; I counted out the change, thanking my stars for the calculator because at this point, I could barely add one plus one. My hands were cold and sticky with sweat; I had to open a new roll of nickels and it felt like ages until I could rip the paper apart. Once I had the thirty-five cents together somehow, I dropped them on the counter to avoid touching his hand and the rattling noise they made was so loud, even the hairdressers next door might have noticed.
Martin shrugged into his coat and slipped the card into the inside pocket, where guys keep their important papers and driver's licenses. He made a sudden move with his right hand, as if he wanted to – what? Shake hands? High-five me? – and drew it away again.
"Thank you, Taylor," he said, with his most beautiful smile yet. "I'll see you at school."
It was as if his face were a stained-glass window with the sun behind it; it made me dizzy just to look at him.
"You're welcome," said that phony chirpy voice.
He walked away with his head held high, flicking his scarf over his shoulder in an almost triumphant way. At the front, next to the plushie shelf, he turned back once and saluted me like a soldier, flicking two fingers off his forehead. By the time I remembered my manners and waved back, he was already gone.
When Valentine's Day arrived, I got three cards. Two were from my girlfriends, who'd bought them at another store as usual, to surprise me. They were the roses-and-teddy-bears kind, nothing special; it was the third card that made me flip.
It had been slotted through the side of my locker door, meaning whoever-it-was knew which locker was mine. That bright red envelope meant business; there were no names on it, sending my mind into a crazy spiral of conjectures about who the giver could possibly be. My lab partner in chemistry, with the polo shirts and sunburn? That senior boy who won a prize for his emo love poem? The girls, playing a joke on me? Or could it be...
I knew that shade of red.
For the first time, I understood why people always talk about their hearts thumping. Mine did; I could hear the blood pounding in my ears like the bass in a song. People were rushing past behind me, talking loudly, but I paid them no more attention than the trickle of a river. Some girl bumped me; I forgot to apologize. That card felt like the center of the universe.
I opened the envelope right there.
It was my card.
Inside, in a small, precise hand slanted to the right, new words had been added:
To Taylor, a beautiful and fascinating girl, who makes her workplace romantic just by being there.