I spent a full five minutes just staring in disbelief at the heart-shaped slip of pink paper that had been left on my desk. Out of seventeen possibilities, I would have to get Tina. The best I could hope for would be if she somehow got me as well, then we could both spend the next two weeks trying not to cringe as we gave each other cutesy little tokens of completely false affection before revealing ourselves at the pink and red-themed potluck lunch and pretending to find the coincidence absolutely hilarious. I didn’t think I would be that lucky, but at least I knew a few things that could work in my favor to make the situation bearable, possibly even enjoyable in a way I didn’t like to admit even to myself. Scented candles made her sneeze, and chocolate gave her a rash. Okay, so it wasn’t my day to be a bigger person. I would enjoy it. Dear Secret Valentine, allow me to show you how I really feel.
I had never thought of morning mist as something that had any particular odor beyond damp. Maybe that was the difference between morning mist and Morning Mist. Morning Mist smelled like the aftermath of an earthquake in a brothel, a curious blend of cheap perfume and splintered wood. I left the blue candle on Tina’s desk and went back to my own to get my purse. Preoccupied with thoughts of how to remove the scent of Morning Mist from my car, I almost didn’t notice the rose on my chair. I would have expected a red rose, a grocery store red rose in a plastic tube tied with a plastic ribbon. This one was a Sterling Silver, the pale grayish lavender that I had loved ever since the time I had learned that roses could be something other than red or pink. There was no plastic wrapping, no bow, no card, nothing but a single perfect rose. I might have appreciated it more if I hadn’t been so sure that I was the last person in the office, or if I could remember when I might have mentioned to anyone I worked with that the Sterlings were my favorite.
The next morning, I was serenaded by the sound of sneezing as I made my way to the break room for a cup of coffee. When I got back to my desk, there was a candy bar on my chair. No seasonal packaging, not even dressed up with any cute little heart-shaped stickers, just a plain Hershey’s with almonds. Okay, anyone who had ever seen me at the vending machine in the lobby could have figured that one out, but it was still flattering to realize that whoever my Secret Valentine was, he or she had been paying attention and wanted to give me things that I would actually enjoy. I guess that ruled out Tina. I thought of the bag of pink and red M & M’s I would leave on her desk that night, smiled, and went back to work.
Not surprisingly, that bag of M & M’s found its way to the “if it’s here, take it” table in the break room. I had a package of Twinkies with a pink ribbon around it to leave for her that night. She liked Twinkies, everyone knew that. If nothing else, it would confuse her. Maybe even as much as the package on my chair had just confused me. Plain vanilla scented candles, the kind I liked to burn because they made my apartment smell like someone had been baking, reminded me of the way our kitchen had smelled when I was a kid. It could have been a coincidence, but it didn’t feel like one.
In the week before the grand potluck finale, everyone in the office was inundated with miniature teddy bears, heart-shaped boxes of candy, polyester roses, all the dollar store seasonal garbage that was to be expected. I got none of it. Instead, I got a pair of plastic daisy earrings I had paused to admire at the mall while picking up a miniature teddy bear for Tina, thinking they would be cute with jeans and a t-shirt. I got a small bottle of the perfume I had worn when I was in high school, the kind that you want to pretend you’ve outgrown but always secretly miss. I got a little crystal bird to add to my collection of little crystal birds. I got nothing that said it was being given from one coworker to another in an attempt to break the monotony of the daily grind. Everything I got said, very softly, I know you.
On the night of the 13th, I didn’t sleep. I made the tray of enchiladas I had promised to bring to the potluck. I burned vanilla candles. I ate one of the many Hershey’s with almonds that had been left on my chair, and then another. I drank coffee and wondered, telling myself all the while that I might as well stop wondering because I would find out tomorrow anyway. I couldn’t stop wondering. I finally dozed off a few minutes before dawn, and came fully awake the instant the alarm went off, quite a change from my usual snoozing until the last minute routine. The sooner I got to work, the sooner it would be lunchtime.
The enchiladas were a hit, as they always were. I barely tasted them. I couldn’t stop looking at all of these people that I had worked with for almost a year, wondering which one of them had somehow come to know me so well. Tina and I went back further than this job, but I knew it wasn’t her. Finally, after what seemed like days, everyone was done eating, and Shannon, the office mom, announced that it was time to reveal our secret Valentine-ness. Tina laughed when I told her I was hers, and her laughter seemed sincere, happy even. One by one, the names were revealed. People laughed. Exclamations of “I knew it!” abounded. By the time it was down to three possibilities, I could barely sit
still. Two left. Then the last. The last person, standing there, saying she was Shannon’s Secret Valentine. The dishes were gathered up, people started heading back to work. I just sat there for a while, until someone paged me to let me know I had a call holding.