A Valentine’s Story

by Paul Varnell on November 30, 1999

ALL THIS REALLY HAPPENED. I could not have made it up. There would be no point in making it up; it is only interesting if it really occurred.

I can tell it now because more than 10 years have passed and the principals have moved on. Perhaps they have even forgotten about it. I have not. Although I only stumbled into it, it may have had more resonance for me than for them.

One Saturday afternoon in the late fall I was at home listening, as I sometimes do, to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast. The opera that week was Der Rosenkavalier -- the "Rose Cavalier" -- a romantic comedy by Richard Strauss. It is a beautiful opera, full of lush arias, sensuous waltzes, and an intriguing amount of transvestism.

I need you to understand part of the plot. Oversimplifying, a boorish old nobleman, Baron Ochs, decides to propose to a lovely young lady, Sophie. He engages a young man, Octavian, to take his proposal to Sophie and present her with a token of his esteem and desire?a silver rose. When Octavian and Sophie first meet each other as Octavian presents the rose, they instantly fall in love. Eventually they manage to scare off Baron Ochs and vow to live happily ever after. This is all accompanied by some of the best music anybody ever wrote for anything.

Part way through the first act, I got a call from the local gay bookstore, telling me a book I had ordered had come in and I could pick it up any time.

Oh, great! I wanted the book but did not want to miss the best parts of the music?and I did not have a Walkman.

I decided I would listen through the beginning of Act II, where Octavian presents the silver rose to Sophie, than I would run out for the book, and get back just in time for the series of waltzes in the third act. It would be close, but I could do it.

As he always does, Octavian duly presented the silver rose to Sophie -- the rose represented musically by high notes played on flutes and little silver bells -- and the two young people fell in love, as young people will. I threw on my coat and scarf and hurried out.

As I was walking up Broadway, one of the main arteries of Chicago's gay enclave, I ran into a young man I knew slightly. Robert was the teenage son of one of the couples I got to know when I served as the gay board member for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Robert was standing outside a popular local restaurant looking around forlornly. He was holding something long and thin, wrapped in a sort of greenish translucent paper. When he saw me, he brightened up.

"Hi," I said. "How ya' doin'?"

"Can you do me a favor?" he said. "A really big favor?"

I hesitated. "I don't know. I'm in kind of a hurry. What is it?"

"You're Paul, right?" he asked. "I really need somebody to do this. See, there is this guy in there" -- he pointed into the restaurant -- "that I met in the gay youth group and I think I'm in love with him. I want you to give him this."

He thrust out the long thin object wrapped in translucent green paper.

"What is it?" I asked.

"A rose," said Robert. "I bought him a rose." He looked sheepish. "I wanted him to have it."

The world tilted slightly.

"Is this some sort of set up?" I asked warily.

"No," said Robert. "I bought this for him. Could you give it to him?"

"Listen," I said. "Do you know what is on the radio right now? Do you know what the Met is playing?"

"I don't know anything about that," insisted Robert. "I just want to give him this."

"Why can't you do it?" I asked, still suspicious.

"Oh, I couldn't do that. I don't want him to know who it's from. Could you give it to him? It'll just take a second."

I resisted. Something was fishy. This was too coincidental to be a coincidence. I shook my head. "I really can't," I said. "I'm in a hurry. Hope you find someone. Good luck."

I walked on. When I looked back he was still standing there holding the rose, looking around anxiously for somebody, anybody he knew.

I got to the bookstore, picked up my book, leafed through a few magazines then started back home.

When I got as far as the restaurant, Robert was still there.

"Could you do it now?" he said, coming up to me. "I can't find anyone to help me. Please?" He thrust the rose at me.

"He's still in there?"

"He's with a bunch of guys from the gay youth group. They have a snack after their meeting."

"What does he look like?"

"You'll do it?" His face brightened.

"What does he look like," I repeated, reaching out to take the rose. I listened. No silver bells.

"He's really good looking and he has bright red hair. His name is Brian."

Feeling very self-conscious and a little foolish, I walked into the restaurant carrying the rose, looked around and spied the table of young men, accompanied by one or two adult advisors. Among them was, unmistakably, an engaging young man with bright red hair. I drew myself up and walked over to the table.

"You are Brian?" I asked the young man.

"Yes," he said. "Why?"

"I am to give you this," I said, as I handed him the rose, still wrapped in its green florist's paper.

He unwound the paper and took out the single, long stemmed red rose. The entire table fell silent and stared at it. So did other diners.

"What is this for?" Brian asked. "Who is this from?"

"It is from? An Admirer," I said.

"Who are you?"

A harder question than he knew.

"I? am The Messenger." I said. Then I bowed slightly. "Have a good day." And I walked back out.

Robert rushed up to me. "Did you find him? Did you give it to him?"

"Yes, of course."

"That's great. Thank you. Thanks a lot. That's really great."

We shook hands and I walked on, feeling a little odd, a little detached from the world around me. When I got home, Octavian and Sophie were singing a final duet.

Love, I suppose, doesn't always win out; but it always has a chance. And, somehow, we always wish it well, don't we?

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