Red Carnations by Peter Philipps
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
By the end of my first semester of college I had flunked every course except an easy-A elective and was put on probation. The dean’s letter didn’t surprise me. Nor was I unnerved by his warning that I would be expelled if my grades didn’t improve. I just slid the letter between the pages of a book I was carrying and decided to go into town for a beer.
I was about to leave the campus by the main gate when I heard the college orchestra tuning up. Never one to forgo a concert, even if it wasn’t the New York Philharmonic, I retraced my steps and stopped to listen. The next thing I knew I stole into the darkened concert hall by a rear door and took an aisle seat in the last row. It took a moment before I realized that I was an audience of one.
Presently a young woman with long auburn hair walked onto the stage and seated herself demurely at the piano. Seconds later the conductor entered. A gangling man with a disheveled head of hair and Van Dyke beard, he announced the schedule of the remaining rehearsals before the annual Parents’ Day concert and gave the downbeat for a shrill modern piece that set my nerves on edge. Just when I thought it might never end, it did. After a brief pause, the orchestra started work on the first movement of what I recognized as my favorite Mozart piano concerto, the tempestuous D Minor. Its most distinguishing aspect, the part that makes it instantly recognizable, is the opening movement, which summons up a fierce storm. But the concerto eventually ends happily, with the turbulent key of D minor giving way to sunny D major. I loved the concerto in part because Beethoven liked to play it and wrote the cadenzas for the first and final movements, something Mozart did not get around to doing.
What better way to spend an hour or two? The beer could wait, and I settled back as though I had nothing better to do. Shortly my mind started to wander. What if I were expelled? As in a dream, I envisioned a future without calculus, physics, and analytical geometry. Better yet, a future without the professor who reveled in ridiculing me in front of the class whenever I couldn’t solve one of his problems.
My reverie didn’t last long, however. Getting kicked out, I reminded myself, would mean losing my deferment. That was enough to give me pause. The stop-and-go of the rehearsal also had become irritating. After a while it became so off-putting that if it hadn’t been for the pianist I would have walked out. I simply could not take my eyes off her. Not only was she extraordinarily pretty; her playing was so technically flawless and emotionally expressive that I wondered if she could be a professional musician. By the end of the rehearsal I was so smitten that I could think of little else.
For some time after the last stragglers had left the stage I was still in my seat wracking my brain trying to think of a way to meet her. But I came up empty. The sheer number of students, many of whom lived off campus, made the odds of finding her seem on a par with looking for a lost earring at the beach.
The next day I again sat in on the rehearsal, but this time I was no longer alone. All morning a steady stream of students and faculty members entered and left the hall, including, as luck would have it, the detested physics professor who sat as though bolted to a front-row seat. The hell with him, I thought, determined to go ahead with my plan. The moment the orchestra took a break, I would walk boldly to the front of stage and compliment the soloist on her playing. But in the event I twice got half-way out of my seat only to lose my nerve.
I had no better luck at the next two rehearsals and was beginning to think I had embarked on a fool’s errand. By now a whole week had gone by and I was getting desperate—but not yet ready to give up. Monday morning I got to the auditorium half an hour earlier than usual. As I had hoped, the hall was empty; only a half dozen or so students were warming up. I resolutely approached the musician closest to the edge of the stage and asked him for the name of the pianist. “What’s it to you?” he asked without looking up from his cello.
“I’m from the Gazette,” I said nonchalantly. “I’m here to interview her for a story.” A bald-faced lie, but it came to me easily because I had, in fact, worked for the college newspaper just long enough to conclude that I wasn’t cut out to be a journalist.
He looked at me skeptically and told me that her name was Valentina.
“Do you know her last name?”
“Does she live on campus?”
“I have no idea.”
Seeing no point in trying to elicit any more information from him, I went to the library and jotted down a message that had already formed itself in my head. I read it over twice, then took it to the Student Union and pinned it on the bulletin board.
Dear Valentina Vargas, I wrote.
For the past several days I have been sitting in the back of Bennett Hall listening to you and the orchestra rehearsing for the annual concert. I am an avid music lover and have become totally captivated by your crystalline Mozart. His D Minor concerto happens to be one of my all-time favorites, and your interpretation is as good as I’ve ever heard. I know it’s presumptuous to write to you like this, but I would like very much to meet you. If you are agreeable, you can post a message for me in the Student Union.
I now began to search the crammed Student Union bulletin board two and sometimes three times a day. Just when I was on the verge of giving up my eyes fell on a small envelope with my name in a petite handwriting. I tore it open with bated breath.
Dear Josh, it read.
Thank you for your kind note. How can I resist meeting someone who uses words like crystalline? Are you by any chance an aspiring music critic or a talent scout? I expect to be in the Student Union Friday afternoon around four and hope to find you there. Val
Dressed in a freshly ironed pair of khakis and Oxford shirt, I got to the Student Union well before the appointed time, found a seat with a view of the entrance, and waited with my pulse in overdrive. On the stroke of four the pianist walked in and headed straight in my direction “Hello, Josh,” she said.
In my hurry to shake her outstretched hand I almost tripped. “How did you recognize me, Valentina?” I sputtered. She was even lovelier than I had thought, with large, soft, and intelligent brown eyes.
“I’ve seen you in the back of Bennett Hall and thought maybe you were from Columbia Records on the lookout for new talent.”
“Actually RCA,” I deadpanned. She chuckled, then said, “By the way, I go by Val.”
“Val,” I repeated, “and henceforth Val it will be.”
“Whatever you are,” she said, smiling good-naturedly, “I’m happy to meet you.”
The introductory pleasantries over, we found a well-worn leather sofa in an alcove and I went to get us coffee. “May I ask what draws you to our rehearsals?” she inquired as I handed her a steaming container of coffee.
“I’ll tell you another time,” I said, reluctant to reveal the reason just yet. She was engaging and easy to talk to. And talk we did, about everything from our love of music and books—especially books (she was well-read)—to movies and baseball. She was a die-hard Dodgers fan while my heart belonged to the Yankees. That was the only subject on which our interests were not aligned. Before long we even discovered that we had gone to the same high school. “I can’t believe that we’ve never run into each other before this,” Val marveled.
“Well,” I said, “Midway High is huge. In any case, we can make up for lost time starting right now.”
"So, what are you majoring in that allows you so much time to come to our rehearsals?”
“I’m a talent scout. Remember?”
She cocked her head sideways and furrowed her brow. “I can’t imagine why you’re being so cagey,” she said. “Perhaps you’ll tell me another time.”
“Do I take it that there will be another time?”
“Only if you promise to answer my question. But now I must run.”
“I wish you had more time,” I said. “Before you go, I’d love to continue our conversation. How about meeting at Paddy’s for pizza tomorrow night?”
She hesitated a second or two, then said, “That sounds lovely.”
We agreed on a time to meet and shook hands. As I watched her leave I suddenly remembered that I was flat broke.
It rained all the next day, and Paddy’s, a favorite student hangout, was more crowded than usual. Luckily Paddy himself was there that night and set up a small table for me just off the kitchen. Val came in five minutes later in a floor-length dress. She had also put on a dab of makeup. We ordered a large a pizza and Cokes (like me, she was a vegetarian), and fell into an amiable conversation that belied our brief acquaintance.
“I think you are very talented,” I said to get things going. “Are you thinking of a professional career?”
“Is that intended as a romantic entreaty?”
“No. But now that you ask—”
“You flatter me.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “Speaking as a layman, I’m surprised you’re here and not at Julliard, say, or Curtis.”
She reddened slightly. “Actually, both Professor Farber, you know, the conductor, and my piano teacher have urged me to transfer.”
“It’s a bit late. I graduate in June.”
My heart sank. “I had no idea you’re a senior.”
“I can’t believe it myself.” She paused, then added, “Anyway, I’d rather not talk about it just now.”
“Maybe another time,” I suggested and changed the subject by asking whether she would be playing Beethoven’s cadenzas. “I know there are others.”
She seemed impressed. “I’m beginning to think that you are a music critic after all,” she said. “Of course the Beethoven. Joel happens to be quite a keyboard virtuoso and he wanted me to play his own cadenzas. But I put my foot down and refused.”
“Joel Farber. Professor Farber.”
“Oh. Does everyone call him by first name?”
She shook her head, and something about her expression told me not to pursue the matter.
Just then Paddy appeared at our table with a complimentary bottle of Chianti and asked to be introduced to “the beautiful young lady.”
Beads of perspiration ran down my back as I went through the obligatory formalities. When we were alone again, Val said, “You seem to be something of a celebrity here.”
“His son Angelo and I were on the Midway track team.”
“Really? How nice that you’ve remained friends.”
“He was killed in Vietnam.”
Her face fell. “How awful,” she said, holding her head in both hands. She looked as if she were about to cry. “That’s so sad. Did he have any—”
I waved the rest of her question aside and we lapsed into a comfortable silence. After a minute or two I told her that I had to make a confession. “I am neither an aspiring music critic nor a talent scout,” I said.
She brightened. “You don’t say,” she said with feigned astonishment.
“Actually I’m an engineering major. But not for long.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was just put on probation and I stand a good chance of being kicked out.”
“Are you serious, or are you putting me on again?”
I assured her that I was telling the truth.
“Is it your grades or some other reason?”
“Are you not giving it your best effort?
“I can’t keep up with the work. It’s too complicated and I’m forever behind.”
“What if you got a tutor?”
“It wouldn’t help,” I said. “There’s more to it, but it’s all rather complicated.”
“What do you mean by complicated?”
“Going to engineering school wasn’t my idea.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you want to hear the whole story?”
“Very much so,” she replied with obvious candor.
Was it the wine that made me want to bare my soul? Or was it simply a matter of having a sympathetic listener who inspired me to give vent to my frustrations and discontent.
“Very well,” I said, “but you may find this awfully boring.”
She leaned forward eagerly. “Let me worry about that.”
“Fair enough,” I said and began by telling her that when I was growing up I wanted to be either a writer or a musician. “Music was my first choice. But after a couple of years of violin lessons I gave up. I have no musical aptitude whatever.”
“But you obviously know quite a lot about music.”
“Music is my spiritual bread.”
“What happened after that?”
“In junior high I started writing fiction. My first story was set in an imaginary world hundreds of years in the future, and I proudly showed it to my father. When he finished reading it all he said was that he’d found several misspellings. I was crestfallen. My mother’s reaction wasn’t any more encouraging. She said I had a good imagination but that I shouldn’t spend so much time in my room writing when I could be outside playing with my friends.”
I stopped and looked to satisfy myself that I still had Val’s attention.
“I continued to write short stories but never again showed them to my parents. You see, my father had no formal education. He’s a salesman in a men’s clothing store. He was convinced that the future lay in technology, which is why he wanted me to become an engineer. He thought that I had the aptitude for an engineering career. I can still hear him. ‘Mama and I think you are very clever with your hands. You can fix almost everything.’
I told him that I wanted to be a writer. 'Stories don’t put food on the table,’ he snapped. And so, compliant only child that I was, I applied here to engineering school.”
Val gave me a sorrowful look, started to say something but changed her mind.
“It was a fiasco from the very start,” I continued. “I have no head for math, let alone geometry or physics. I couldn’t even figure out how to use the slide rule my grandfather gave me for my high school graduation. One day one of my professors called me a “full-blown idiot” in front of the whole class. That sort of did it for me.
“When I got to Midway I got some encouragement from my freshman English teacher, Mrs. Lavinger. Did you ever have her?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Anyway, she said that I had a flair for writing and urged me to ‘read, read, read.’ She lent me some books on writing and said that if all else failed I should consider journalism, that some of the greatest writers began as reporters. Eventually I began submitting stories to small literary journals. After waiting anxiously for several months, I would get back what gradually turned into a shoe-box full of formulaic rejection slips.”
I took a deep breath and sat back. “End of story.”
She leaned across the table and placed one hand on mine. “If I can be frank, Josh, I find it hard to picture you as an engineer.”
“Because—how shall I put it—you strike me as too sensitive and introspective. Engineers tend to be impassive and obsessive-compulsive.”
“Oh? And how many engineers have you dated?” I teased.
“Actually none, but that’s what my mother told me.”
“Seriously, Josh, you’ve not had a happy life,” Val said. She peered meditatively into her wine glass for a few seconds, then looked up and said, “Mine is also a sad story. In fact, you’ll be astonished at how much we have in common.”
“I look forward to hearing it.”
“What will you do now?” she asked.
“Honestly, I haven’t given it much thought. I’ll give it another try next semester, but I’m dubious of doing any better. I’m just not cut out for an engineering career.”
“And if they expel you?”
“I’ll volunteer for the draft. Since I would lose my deferment anyway, I may as well get it over with.”
“And get yourself killed?” she said, rising from the table. “Like your friend?”
“I can’t worry about that now,” I said in what I hoped was a reassuring tone.
“I wish I didn’t have to go,” she said. “I want to talk to you more about this.”
She insisted on splitting the check and I offered only token resistance. It was still raining when we left Paddy’s. On the way to the woman’s dorm she reached for my hand. “Don’t give up hope,” she said. “Do you have time tomorrow after rehearsal?”
“I’ll be there,” I promised. Then we fell silent. By the time I reached the men’s dorm I was soaked to the skin.
The next day’s rehearsal was a complete run-through. The only interruption occurred in the second movement when the conductor stopped the orchestra just long enough to blow Val a kiss. “That was beautiful,” he told her.
Afterwards we went to a small coffee shop just outside the campus gate. “I have something to show you,” Val said when we were seated. She opened her tiny purse and pulled out a letter she had written in my behalf and handed it to me. Addressed to the dean, it claimed that I’d been given poor advice by my high school guidance counselor and asked to be transferred to the school of liberal arts for another chance.
“All you have to do is sign it and pop it into the mail,” she pleaded.
“It’s a masterful and persuasive piece of writing,” I said when I finished reading it. “Plus a lovely thing for you to do.” I took a deep breath before adding. “But I don’t think it would do any good.”
“What makes you so sure? I feel confident the dean will be sympathetic and let you start over again. Get a BA in English.”
I promised to think about it.
“You have nothing to lose,” she said. “Do it for me. I would hate to see you get drafted.”
“You’re very kind, Val,” I said, touched by her concern for my wellbeing.
Before she could say more, I reminded her that she hadn’t yet told me her story, why she had decided against pursuing a musical career.
“If you insist,” she said.
She began by telling me that she had wanted to learn to play the piano ever since she was in third grade and heard a classmate play a Chopin mazurka during an assembly program. “My parents own a jewelry business, which they started with a handful of diamonds and rings sewn into the overcoats they wore on arriving in America. After years and years of a hand-to-mouth existence, the business took off and became an only-in-America success story. Ever indulgent, my parents bought a second-hand spinet and hired a teacher. Four years later I gave my first recital, and the spinet was traded in for a baby grand. I also got a new teacher when my old one said that she had taught me all she could.”
“Where did your parents come from? I interrupted.
She answered “Hungary,” and continued. “In junior high school I won first place in a state-wide piano competition and began dreaming of becoming a concert pianist. At that point my parents—particularly my father—had a sudden change of heart. In short, they didn’t want me to pursue a professional career. I was devastated. ‘To become a concert pianist requires do-or-die will power,’ my father said. ‘It leaves too much to chance.’ Ironically, in his youth in Budapest he played the viola in an amateur chamber music group. After a lot of back and forth, it came down to the fact that they didn’t want me to subject myself to six and more hours of daily practice, years of advanced studies, grueling competitions, and the inevitable disappointments that stand in the way of a successful concert career.”
“Sorry to interrupt again,” I broke in, “but what you went through sounds exactly like what I did.”
She nodded and dabbed at her eyes. “I told you we had a lot in common.”
“It’s uncanny in a way.”
“I expected my mother to side with me, but I was mistaken. ‘Better you settle down, get married, and raise a family,’ she said. ‘You can always play the piano for your own enjoyment.’
Without my parents’ approval and support, both moral and financial, I had no choice but to abandon my dream. Around that time my father was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. His last wish was that after college I take over the family business.”
“And will you?” I asked.
“How can I not? For a time after my father died I couldn’t bear to go near the piano. It just stood in our living room gathering dust.” She folded the handkerchief she had been twisting in her hands into a neat square and put it away.
“Since we have such a fraught history in common,” I said in jest, “maybe we should get married.”
She laughed. “Sorry, Josh. “Not today.”
“Some other time then. Please go on.”
“In my freshman year,” she continued, “I took an elective in musicology, as a lark. It turned out to be a transformative decision. One day the lecturer played a recording of Mozart’s D Minor Concerto and I had a sudden urge to sit at a keyboard again.” She folded her hands and brought them to her mouth. “There’s something about the piece…” She stopped for a long moment. Then, “Anyway, I switched majors from French to music and studied piano with Professor Farber.”
“And that’s why you chose to play the concerto at the concert.”
“My swan song.”
I reached across the table and took her hands in mine. “I don’t see why it should be.”
“There’s no way around it. It’s fated.”
“What do you plan to do after graduation?”
She lowered her gaze. “As I said, take over the business. At least as long as my mother is still alive.”
“I may try my hand at teaching. Maybe give private piano lessons to children.”
“You have so much talent, Val. Have you really given up all hope of a concert career?”
“Josh, remember that I made a promise to my father. Besides, I’m too old.”
“Nonsense.” I said, though I knew she was right. “Speaking of the future, have you given any thought to marriage?”
“Nothing would please my mother more,” she said after a long sigh.
“Then marry me.”
“Oh Josh, you are funny. You don’t even know me.”
“Not so,” I replied, the words just tumbling out. “I know you enough to have fallen in love with you. You’re like no girl I’ve ever known.”
She brushed a strand of hair from her face and seemed to be struggling with herself. Finally she said, “Based on the stories that I’ve read so far, I think you’re a gifted writer. I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before you publish your breakout novel.”
“If ever I heard a non sequitur…"
She glanced at her watch. “It’s getting late,” she said. “Time to go back.” She again insisted on splitting the check. I walked her back to the women’s dorm with my mind made up to kiss her good night, but when we got to the entrance I lost my nerve.
I dreaded the thought of going home for Christmas vacation, loath to tell my parents about my disastrous first semester. In the end I took the simple expedient of not saying anything.
I began the second semester determined to stop skipping classes and work harder—but with little expectation of improving my grades, let alone passing. Had it not been for Val’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have made the effort. In addition to the self-imposed pressure, it meant less time to spend with her. To make matters worse, Val was single-minded about her studies. Prying her away from her books invariably ended in a kind of tug-of-war. A straight-A student in Midway High and her class valedictorian, she now was hellbent on graduating summa cum laude.
Still, we managed to meet for lunch or dinner at least once a week (at Paddy’s we came to be regarded as an item) and to take long walks, even if it was only around the beautifully landscaped campus. We had many a good talk, we laughed a lot, and often finished each other’s sentences. In poor weather we would go to the library and collaborate in trying to solve the New York Times crossword puzzle or to play Scrabble.
The week of the concert I came down with bronchitis, a chronic condition. The college medical director ordered me not to leave my room and gave me a prescription for an antibiotic. I was devastated, in part because I had wanted to meet Val’s mother. But she and her boyfriend were on a Caribbean cruise. Luckily my roommate, a jolly, red-headed Irishman named Sean O’Brien, agreed to attend the concert in my stead and to buy Val a bouquet of red carnations. The concert was a huge success, he reported. The audience called Val forth for three curtain calls. “And you should have seen her face,” he said with an exaggerated drop of his jaw, “when I reached up to the stage and handed her the flowers. She thanked me profusely and said red carnations were her favorite flowers. “I must tell you,” Sean said, “she’s a beaut.”
The next time Val and I saw each other we commiserated about our parents. “You must have been awfully disappointed your mom didn’t make it to the concert,” I said.
“But not surprised,” she said. “She bit her lip and added, I missed you, too.”
“For reasons I can’t remember,” I told her,” my parents didn’t come to my graduation from Midway High.”
“Isn’t it remarkable,” Val said, “how much we’ve experienced in common.”
“And we’re just at the beginning,” I quipped.
“By the way, how did you know I love red carnations?”
As T.S. Eliot famously pronounced, April is the cruelest month. Low-hanging clouds and below average temperatures made it feel like October, and strong gusts cut short the cherry tree blossoms surrounding the campus quad. It was an altogether bad time for me. I did not to go home for spring vacation. Instead, I decided to study for two exams scheduled for the day classes were to resume. Val and her mother went to Paris. The day before Val left I gave her the first real kiss. I caught her off guard and handled it clumsily, but the sweetness of her mouth lingered a long time. Sean and a group of his friends went deep-sea fishing off Florida. I had never been lonelier. But I made good use of the solitude by starting work on a novel.
The day after Val’s return the sun broke through and overnight spring turned into summer. She looked refreshed and more beautiful than ever. At the sight of her I felt like a kid locked into a candy store. We bought sandwiches and went for a bike ride until we found a quiet place by a pond to picnic. She bubbled over with stories about her trip, mentioning in detail every restaurant where she and her mother had dined. “You must visit Paris while you’re still young,” she insisted.
“On our honeymoon,” I suggested.
“Stop it!” she said with a severity that took me aback. I raised both hands in a sign of surrender. After a momentary silence, Val apologized for snapping at me and asked, “How are things going for you?”
I told her that I had spent the entire week pent up in my room studying for two exams and that I didn’t think I’d done well.
“Wait and see. You may be surprised.”
May opened like an inferno. The dorms weren’t airconditioned and I spent hours in the library studying for finals. Occasionally Val kept me company, but she was so absorbed in her books and busy taking notes that we rarely exchanged a whisper. One evening toward the middle of the month we agreed we both needed a break and went to Paddy’s. Something about Val’s expression suggested that she had something to tell me, but she waited until we were having dessert (a large slice of cheesecake compliments of Paddy) to invite me to her prom. Caught unawares, I said that I didn’t own a tuxedo. It was the first thing that came to my mind, and I immediately sought to redeem myself. “I would be thrilled to be your date.”
Val looked at me amused. “Rent one, silly.”
I felt myself grow red in the face. “But I must warn you,” I said, “I’m a clumsy dancer.”
“Never mind,” she said. “You don’t have to pretend you’re Fred Astaire. Just follow me.” I was tempted to say, “To the ends of the earth,” but managed to keep still.
My impecunious circumstances gave me no choice but to appeal to my father for a loan, enough to cover a rental tux, Val’s corsage (a must, Sean told me), and taxi fare to and from the downtown hotel where the prom was to take place.
Knowing I faced an interrogation, it took me the better part of a day to summon enough courage to call my father and ask for a loan. In the end I decided to tell him the reason I needed the money.
“So, there is finally a girl in your life,” he said.
“Don’t get excited, Dad. She’s just a classmate.”
“What is her name?”
“Valentina. But she goes by Val.”
“Sounds like a boy.”
I said nothing and waited for the next question.
“Is she pretty?”
“What does her father do, if I may ask?”
“Oh, Dad. What does it matter? It so happens that her father is no longer alive.”
“I see,” he said and cleared his throat. Then, “Are you in love with her?”
I took out my handkerchief and wiped my forehead. “You’ll be the first to know.”
“Don’t get sarcastic,” he said, then added, “Okay, I’ll put a check in the mail first thing in the morning.” After a pause he said, “Good luck.”
A sense of relief swept over me after I’d hung up. But a few days later I had to call home again. It was tough. The instant my mother heard that I had been expelled, that I needed to be picked up with all my belongings, she let out a scream and began to sob. Then she dropped the extension phone and never came back. My father sounded dazed, then incredulous, then angry. Finally he said that he felt disappointed.
I assured him that I had given it my best, that I’d never neglected my studies.
“Isn’t there something you can do to make them change their minds?” he asked.
“Not a thing, Dad.”
“Afraid not. It is what it is.”
“So, what the hell are you going to do now?”
“I need time to myself. To work things out.”
Again he said something unintelligible and the phone went silent for a moment. Then he surprised me. “What about the girl?” he asked.
“I intend to marry her.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
I started counting to ten, but at six I hung up, something I regret to this day.
Except for shedding a few tears, Val took the news in good spirits. “I know you tried your best,” she said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
I thanked her for her kindness and for being so supportive.
“This may turn out to be a blessing in disguise,” she said. “By the way, did you ever get a response from the dean?”
I froze, stopped a moment to think, then said, “I’m sorry, Val. To be honest, I forgot all about it. Please forgive me.”
She raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “What can I say?”
The prom took place atop one of the city’s poshest hotels on a comfortably balmy night. A full moon hung low in a cloudless sky and in the distance the lights from the surrounding skyscrapers glittered like lights on a Christmas tree.
“You’re so chipper tonight,” Val said when we had found our table. She looked dazzling in a white dress and with her hair in a chignon.
“Being with you on this night is enough to make me forget that my undergraduate days are over and done with.”
Just then the band struck up Begin the Beguine. “Let’s see if you’re as bad a dancer as you claim,” Val said as she pulled me out my chair.
She felt feather light in my arms and I somehow managed not to step on her slippers. “I’ve always loved this song,” she murmured. “It always makes me want to stretch out on a sandy beach on some remote island and lie for hours in the sun.”
“On your honeymoon?”
“It’s a thought.”
“I feel like pinching myself.”
“Why is that?”
“Because…because I feel so darn lucky to be dancing with the most beautiful girl here.” She reddened slightly but didn’t say anything.
From the day Sean had accompanied me into town to help me try on tuxedos, I had been planning to confess my feelings this night, to confirm the weeks of banter and propose. But just when I was about to pop the proverbial question, Professor Farber suddenly came up from behind us, turned a blind eye to me, and asked Val to dance. Thrown into confusion, I made my way slowly back to the table.
When they had danced to three numbers, Professor Farber left Val standing on the dance floor and disappeared. “Is Professor Farber married?” I asked Val as soon as she came back to the table.
“Why do you ask?”
“Two reasons,” I began, conscious I sounded like a prosecutor. “One is that he seems to be by himself. And two, what is he doing here in the first place?”
Val frowned. “If you’re thinking what I think, you’re being quite foolish.”
“Maybe so, but I was beginning to wonder whose date you are.”
“It just so happens that you are my date,” she said. I’d never seen her angry and I stammered an apology.
“Okay,” she said. “Forget it.”
“Let’s go out on the terrace for some fresh air,” I suggested. She nodded, picked up her evening bag, and preceded me out. For what seemed like a long time she leaned against the railing and looked out over the city.
“A beautiful night,” I said to break the silence.
She turned to face me, opened her mouth as if to say something, but remained silent.
“You don’t seem to be yourself tonight,” I said.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
“Let me hazard a guess,” I said. “You’re feeling wistful because after four years of college this marks the end of a chapter.”
“Maybe so. Please lend me your handkerchief.”
I handed it to her, waited a few moments, then blurted, “Val, will you marry me?”
It took her a minute to find her voice. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Okay. Then I’ll do the talking. I fell in love with you the moment I saw you at the very first rehearsal. It seems so long ago. Anyway, I was too darn shy and intimidated to tell you. Now I love you more than I can put into words.” She backed away from me and looked at her white shoes. “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you, Val.”
“Maybe you need time to think it over.”
“This is so sudden and bewildering and—"
“Don’t say any more,” I said, took her face in both hands and kissed her hard on the mouth.
As white as her dress, Val gave me back my handkerchief. “I’d like you to take me home now.”
“But we just got here.”
“Please, Josh. “I want to leave.”
Felled by infinite sadness, I followed her back to the table and asked a passing waiter to direct me to a phone.
We barely spoke during the ride back in the taxi. After a time I couldn’t stand it any longer and asked, “Is this the end?”
Val pulled her shawl closer and looked silently out the window.
“Tell you what,” I said after a long moment. “Why don’t we meet at Paddy’s, if for no other reason than old time’s sake, and try to sort things out.”
She nodded in agreement. Then she said, “I’m sorry I spoiled the evening.”
Two nights later when I entered Paddy’s, Val was already there. She was sitting in a rear booth, her face hidden behind a book and toying absently with the straw in a glass of iced tea. I slid into the seat across from her and asked her what she was reading.
She closed the book and held up the cover. She looked drawn and seemed agitated. “I’ve had a sleepless night,” she began, “and so I’ll be quick.” She spoke at such a rapid pace that afterwards I couldn’t remember much of what she said. But what it finally came down to was that she loved me as a friend and soulmate.
“Val, you can’t do this to me!” I heard myself say, loud enough for others to hear.
“I’m sorry, Josh. Truly sorry this hasn’t turned out the way you expected.”
I looked at her as though I were seeing her for the first time. My mouth felt dry and I reached for her glass and took a sip. “I hope you don’t mind.”
She shook her head. “I realize you’re disappointed, Josh, but not everything in life turns out the way we would like.” Her voice sounded distant.
“Not disappointed. Devastated.”
“You’re a kind and gentle soul, with a lot to offer some lucky girl.”
“I’ve never known anyone like you. You are the first girl I ever loved.”
“I love you, too, Josh, but in a different way. We have so much in common. I want us to remain friends.”
“Kindred spirits,” I said. “For all the good it does.”
“I know you’re not in the best frame of mind just now,” Val said, her voice stronger now. “But I do hope you will come to the commencement ceremony. I’ve reserved a seat for you next to my mother.” Before I could say anything, she rose, placed two dollar bills on the table, and said goodbye. My first impulse was to follow her out, but I feared my legs wouldn’t function and I remained seated and stared into space.
Sometime during the night, I made the decision to pass up Val’s invitation. Later in the day when I told Sean what had happened he reached under his bed and pulled out an unopened bottle of Scotch. After we each had two drinks, Sean said, “Listen, pal. I’m something of an expert in these matters. Think of her as a streetcar. Eventually another one will come by.” It was the last time I saw Sean. The next day my father came in his battered Oldsmobile to drive me and my possessions home.
The day of graduation I sent Val two dozen red carnations with a message that came spontaneously to mind:
Congratulations and best wishes for a bright future. Mozart’s K.466 will forever bring you to mind.
It was now only a matter of time before I would be drafted. Why wait for the inevitable? I thought and decided to volunteer. Midway into my first eight weeks of basic training, my father called me one night in Fort Dix. He’d been reading The Times, he told me, when he stumbled on an engagement announcement of Valentina Vargas to Professor Joel Farber. “I thought you’d like to know,” he added cheerfully.
This time I didn’t send flowers.
Peter Philipps was born in Germany and currently lives in the Washington D.C. area. He is a retired editor and journalist and is also a Holocaust survivor.