14 February 2008
The Perfect Stone: A Valentine's Tale
I saw it lying there in the wet sand on a day not unlike today. The last gentle wave had slipped back to the sea leaving behind streaks of puffy white foam and popping bubbles as hidden air pockets sucked the ocean water into the sand. A mosaic of colored pebbles decorated the gray sands beneath my feet.
One small rock, set off by itself, away from the clustered masses, caught my attention. It is small, an inch or so across, and flat, less than a quarter inch thick. It fits perfectly in the small depression in the center of your palm. Hold your hands together as if you’re praying, or if you’re the non-catholic waiting in the communion line for the priest’s blessing. That tiny gap between your two palms is the exact size of this stone.
It is smooth and flawless: there are no cracks, no crystalline inclusions, no chips, dents, or dings. It is very near a geometric circle, if not quite perfectly round, trending almost heart-shaped. And it is a pure, even, flawless jet black.
I waited a few minutes, contemplating and examining this seemingly common stone. Often a rock that appears unique and stunning in the temporary polish of sea water, loses its luster as it dries. Bright reds, greens, browns and blacks tend to turn an indistinct gray as the warmth of the sun or your hands draw the moisture away. But while I waited there patiently on this lazy afternoon, the rock kept its shine as it dried.
I knew then and announced it to myself: I just found the perfect stone.
That evening, with great flourish, I presented the perfect stone to my family. At first they were skeptical. How can a stone be perfect, they asked. What makes this rock more special than all the other rocks from the sea? Who are you to claim this stone stands above all other stones?
Then I let them hold the perfect stone. They felt its smooth, black coolness in their hands. Turned it over in their fingers. Clasped it between their palms. Rubbed its smooth surface against their equally smooth cheeks. Though they searched, they too could find no flaws on this rock. And soon, they understood that I had indeed found the perfect stone.
“Can I keep it, Daddy?” said one child.
“No,” I said. “This is the perfect stone. I need to care for it myself.”
“I’ll take good care of it,” said the other child.
“No,” I said. “I found it, thus it is my responsibility.
My lovely wife looked up at me and asked, “Can I have it? If you love me, you’ll give it to me.”
“I"m sorry my love,” I said. "What’s mine is yours, now and forever. But this is my rock. I will keep it next to our bed and you can see it every day. You can even pick it up and hold it if you wish. But the perfect stone belongs to me.”
And so it was. Every time the family would walk together on the beach, one of us would find another seemingly perfect stone. We’d examine it closely, turn it over and over and consider its qualities. There were many contenders. And when we came home and held the challenger up to the perfect stone, its flaws were instantly revealed. Today, an abandoned flower pot sits by the back door, overflowing with almost-perfect stones. All fell short of the perfect stone.
Now and then, my wife would ask, “Can I have the perfect stone?” And every time I would tell her that she should consider it ours, as long as she knew it was really mine. I would hand it to her and let her hold it for a while, to be charmed once again by its simple perfection. But after a few minutes, fearing that any longer may imply some sort of dual ownership, I would ask for it back. She would pout in that girlish, you-don’t-really-love-me-do-you flirting way that women have perfected, and hand the perfect stone back to me.
For months, the perfect stone sat quietly (as stones are wont to do) next to my bed. I shared it with my family when they asked. We even brought it down to impress a few friends on occasion. All agreed that no finer stone had ever been seen.
On Saint Valentine’s Day I struggle, as all men struggle each and every year, with how to honor the love created when two souls join together forever. Flowers are standard and expected, of course. Lingerie works when you’re young, before you get the lecture about it being a gift for the man, not the woman. Chocolates either sit in the cabinet uneaten because holiday chocolates rarely taste as good as they look, or they’re eaten too quickly, making your loved one nauseous and hyperactive, certainly not conditions conducive to romance.
On one such Valentine’s evening not so very long ago, I sat on the edge of the bed. In one hand I held an empty Hallmark card. In the other hand rested the perfect stone. I looked it over carefully. I considered its origins and its discovery. I remembered the wonder it had brought to our family and our friends. After all these many months resting comfortably on my bedside table, the perfect stone retained all of its glorious perfection. Confident and comfortable in the difficult decision I had made moments earlier, I slipped the perfect stone into the card, licked the gummy glue, and sealed the envelope.
The perfect stone fell out of the card and into her hand. She looked at it, held it in the small pocket in the palm of her hand. She rolled it over once or twice. Then she started to cry. Not tears of annoyance. Not the sneering I’d anticipated. But the happy tears you see when the wealthy yet aloof guy finally consents to marry the plain but boring older sister with tightly pressed breasts in Masterpiece Theater versions of Jane Austen novels. (Or so I’ve gathered as I walk through the TV room wondering how they watch that stuff.)
Mind you, she’s only cried with one other gift I’ve presented, and that was our engagement ring 23 years ago. The perfect stone became the perfect gift, bringing a swell of tears to her blue eyes.
“It’s the perfect stone,” she said, biting down gently on her lower lip. “I thought it was yours.”
“Yes, my love. It was mine. Now, it’s yours," I replied with all the Victorian romantic flourish I could muster.
She laughed through her tears. I laughed with her, and at her, for crying over a stupid little rock.
But it wasn’t a stupid little rock, was it? It is the perfect stone.
Tonight the perfect stone sits alone in a blue Wedgewood pottery dish on her bedside table. Every once in a while, she hands it to me and asks if I want to hold the perfect stone, just for a moment. I usually accept, remembering the time when it belonged to me. Then I hand it back to her. It’s in good hands now.