14TH OF FEBRUARY • by Carrie Kartman

It’s finally Friday, but it’s fucking Valentine’s Day, and I’m walking across the snow, beneath towering pine trees draped in lime-green wolf lichen, the name of which I learned yesterday, and which is now fifty percent of my knowledge of the flora of the Sierra mountains, so I’m noting its appearance on tree after tree, like a toddler with a new word. Wolf lichen was named for its ability to kill wolves, a fact of great interest to my middle school students.

And too soon, after a brisk uphill climb, snow crunching beneath my boots, I check my watch and realize it’s time to turn back. The kids will come outside on break soon, and I need to be there when they do. It’s my job to watch over the chaos, try to deter the unbridled tween quest for injury, congratulate sledding runs, praise snow fort construction projects, and bear witness while they lob insults and snowballs at each other.

I walk another twenty yards uphill, out of sheer stubbornness, and the pleasure of a few more moments out here alone, in the hush of the winter woods. I stop and gaze up through snow-laden branches at an achingly deep blue sky, trying to fill every cell in my body with this moment. Then I’m trekking downhill, and wishing it wasn’t the 14th of February, forcing me once more to wonder how many more Valentine’s Days I will have to endure, alone and envious of happy couples, of every stripe: young, old, fat, thin, blonde-haired, black-haired, bearded, bald, some attractive, and others not at all. Sometimes there’s one partner who looks fabulously outmatched by their mate, but who cares, because anyway they have a mate, and these damn couples seem to leer at me from every nook and cranny, with their dinner plans, chocolates, gifts and flowers, and the intimation of sex in their immediate futures.

I have no such plans and wonder if the fellow I’ve recently begun seeing intends to make a romantic gesture of some kind, though this seems unlikely. We’ve yet to even kiss, and he’s expressed interest in having sex only once, in an enthusiastic late-night text which took me by surprise, making me wonder how much he’d had to drink. When I saw him the next evening, he was no longer the Don Juan of hours prior; he was again his usual shy self, engaging, funny, happily conversing for hours, who then walked me to my car, gave me a quick hug, and waved as I drove away.

And there is the sticky issue of whether I am expected to reach out and make the first move, which I am loath to do, but a chorus of women friends have been needling me.

“After all, it is the 21st century,” one of them grinned.

“I proposed to my husband,” another confided, “make him dinner, and get him drunk.”

They are not allaying my fears. Panic grips my chest at the prospect, and as I retrace my steps down the snowy path, I pray for it to be over — the whole rotten day.

Then the tsunami hits. On any other Valentine’s Day, lover or not, I would have gotten a card from mom. A silly card, covered in her unintelligible script, which I would manage to decipher with no small measure of exasperation. The ocean now swallows me up and I stand sobbing under the clear Sierra sky. Thank god there are only pine trees covered in furry wolf-killing lichen as witness. In time it passes, leaving me hollowed out, empty, acutely aware of the air around me. The first Valentine’s Day without mom. Who knew that would mean anything? I dab at the mascara now running in muddy trickles down my cheeks and trudge toward the mob of kids shrieking at one another on the snowy hillside.

Carrie Kartman is a writer, actor, and educator, with an MFA from San Francisco State University, where she taught in the Creative Writing Department. Her writing has been published in CafeLit, The Crone’s Words, Gambles and Balances, Wingless Dreamer, The San Francisco Review, Curves on a Sidewalk Street, Using Our Words, Twins Magazine, and CitySports Magazine. Her plays have been seen on stage in the S.F. Bay Area and Michigan.

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Every Day Fiction