The air smelled like floral shampoo, strawberry lip gloss, and…snow. Snow, in February, in this part of Germany? Alina craned her neck through a tiny roof window in her bathroom trying to see better. Strange. It usually rained at this time of the year, not snowed.
Never mind. A bit of frozen water falling from the sky was not going to spoil her Valentine’s date for which, her phone told her, she had to depart now or else risk being late. One last look in the bathroom mirror told her that her hair and makeup were great. Maybe not as perfect as in the online tutorial she had followed, but as good as she could make them.
The dress and the shoes she had chosen were too flimsy and for a moment Alina’s hand hovered over her heavy winter boots. No, she wasn’t going to the first date looking like a two-legged elephant. She would park close to the cafe and wouldn’t have to walk much. It would be fine.
Her optimism wavered when she stepped outside the building. The snow was falling in thick, wet flakes from the sky so smothered in clouds that it darkened the late afternoon into midnight. The ground was covered with a fluffy white layer deep enough for her high heels to sink in. Some of the snow got into her shoes, making her shiver.
As she fought with an umbrella, her discontent deepened at the sight of Mr. Arens, the neighbor from the second floor. Since the day he moved into the apartment below hers, he had barely spoken to anyone and had complained twice that she was making too much noise. Right now, he was busy liberating his enormous truck from the snow. He ignored her up to the point when she slipped and staggered, fighting to keep her balance. Then he raised his eyes as if he’d only just noticed her.
Tall and bearded, Mr. Arens looked like a bear shifter stuck in an animal form. He was bundled up in a winter coat with his hood up. A few flakes remained hanging on his beard, resembling ornaments on an exceptionally bushy Christmas tree.
Alina wasn’t sure, but she thought he smiled. It wasn’t a nice, friendly, ‘great to see you’ smile. Such smiles were not in that guy’s repertoire. It was probably a ‘look at her, going out into the blizzard dressed like that, she must be a nutcase or a sex worker’ kind of smile. Except that even Mr. Arens and his glare weren’t going to spoil her mood today.
Alina got to her electro car and cursed herself for not parking in the underground garage. The tiny vehicle was covered with snow. She stashed her bag in the trunk and took out the plastic brush. It was difficult to clean the car with only one hand free while juggling the umbrella in the other, and more snow got into her shoes so that in the end both her fingers and her toes were wet and freezing. She jumped behind the wheel, trembling, threw the umbrella on the floor on the passenger’s side, and started the car. It was a minor inconvenience. She would simply turn up the heating and her feet would dry on her way to the city.
With wipers at maximum speed, Alina carefully backed out of the parking lot. Once on the street, she had to grab the wheel tightly to stay on the road. Her car bravely crawled over snowdrifts as she squinted, trying to see something through increasingly heavy snowfall. It was mid-February, she cursed. It was not supposed to snow like this.
The weather gods did not reply to her curses, or maybe they did, because, at the next turn that was supposed to take her onto the main street, her car swerved and skidded like a disobedient dog on a slippery kitchen floor. Alina had enough time to scream and break, which wasn’t the brightest idea. Her car continued over the sidewalk and the adjacent lawn. Fortunately, it didn’t have much momentum, to begin with. One middle-sized bush was enough to stop it before it hit the wall on the other side.
Alina would have really liked to sit thinking about how she almost crashed until she developed a full-blown panic attack, but there was no time. She had to get to the city. Slowly, she tried to back out and return to the road, but her poor car was not up to it. The wheels continued turning in place, squealing as if they apologized for not doing their job, and the car remained stuck.
This couldn’t be happening! Stupid snow. Why now? Why she?
Breathe, Alina gave herself an order. One more try. One last.
She was just about to press the pedal again when a loud knock on her side window made her jump. What the hell? Stifling a scream, Alina peeked through the glass, but there was too much snow. She lowered the window.
“Is everything alright?” a voice boomed at her.
“Yeah, I…” Alina stopped mid-sentence. “Mr. Arens?”
“Are you okay?”
“I can see that,” he said.
Alina hesitated, but she was in no position to worry about her pride. “Can you…help me? Get unstuck, I mean. I really need to get to the city!”
“Ahm…not right now, sorry. I must get going and your car might be safer like this than if you drove it around in the snowstorm. I’m sure most of this will melt until tomorrow and then we can see how to get your car out.”
Although he was right, Alina’s less sensible part hated him for it.
“Then I’ll just have to call a cab,” she said through pressed lips.
“Not sure if any will come. Look around. It’s a disaster.”
It was a disaster, concluded Alina. The snowflakes were falling on her face through the half-opened car window doing heavens knew what to her makeup, she was cold and still shaking from the shock, and Mr. Arens was not helpful at all. He just stood there, a dark lump of a man, being all reasonable and useless.
“But I have to get to the city,” Alina whinnied. She had a date. The first after such a long dry streak that she couldn’t even remember what the last man in her life looked like.
“I…I guess I could take you,” Mr. Arens mumbled. “I’m going to the city myself.”
“You are?” Alina beamed at him.
“Yeah,” he confirmed. Maybe he wasn’t such a lump after all. He had a nice beard.
“What possessed you to drive that electro dwarf car in this weather?” Mr. Arens wondered when they reached his truck and started towards the city.
Alina was trying to dry her hair with the sleeves of her coat, in vain. Farewell, beach waves.
“I’d rather drive an electro dwarf than this diesel monster,” she defended herself. “Do you know how much you pollute the environment by driving this…relic? Anyway, it never snows around here so much.”
“Sometimes it does. And, you’re right. This relic is pollution on wheels,” he said and tapped the steering wheel. “Maybe we should have taken your car. Except we can’t. Because it’s stuck.”
She said nothing to this, only opened her bag and took out her phone. No messages from her date. Should she write and tell him she’s running late?
“I’m a construction engineer,” explained Mr. Arens. “I need the truck for my job. I take the bicycle otherwise.”
Alina sized up her driver in secret. How big was that bicycle supposed to be to not make Mr. Arens look as if he were riding a toddler’s bike? Did any such bicycle exist at all?
“Good for you,” she murmured and focused on her conundrum. If all went well, she should be there on time. No need to alarm her date.
“I can drop you off close to the hospital,” offered Mr. Arens.
Alina calculated the distance from the hospital to the cafe. “Can you let me out at the theater instead?” she almost pleaded.
“What’s wrong with the hospital? It’s central. You can get to the theater on foot from there.”
Not on these heels, she couldn’t.
“Where are you going anyway?” he inquired.
“I’m meeting someone at the cafe ‘Pink Angel’,” she replied.
“Oh. Someone important?”
Alina frowned, annoyed by his inquisitiveness. “I have a date. Today is Valentine’s day if you haven’t noticed.”
“I’ve noticed. So, that’s why…”
“You’re dressed like that.” He glanced at her. She couldn’t quite figure out that glance but it irritated her nevertheless. Still, when their gazes met, Alina was surprised by the lovely blue color of his eyes and the good humor reflected in them. He wasn’t as old as she had thought. He was probably her age, plus or minus a year or two. Maybe it was the beard that made him look older. And grumpier.
“Yes. Unfortunately,” she admitted. No point in ignoring the obvious.
Mr. Arens laughed. “I can take the route by the train station. How about that? From there, it’s not too far to the cafe,” he said.
“You know the place?”
“Believe it or not, I too venture occasionally into romantic cafes. Especially when they have a good apple pie.”
Reluctantly, she smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “You saved me.”
“Not on purpose,” he replied.
Five minutes later, traffic slowed down until it completely stopped.
“What is going on there?” Alina fidgeted in her seat trying to see why no one was moving.
“Don’t know.” Mr. Arens frowned, doing the same.
They waited in silence, Alina’s eyes were glued to the screen of her phone, showing minutes that were unstoppably slipping away.
“I’ll be late,” she whined.
“He’ll understand,” Mr. Arens dismissed her concern. “Write him a message. I mean, look at this chaos. He’ll wait. I know I would.”
“Aren’t you also supposed to be somewhere?” Alina asked, a bit confused by his last sentence, but as he wasn’t looking at her, she couldn’t read his face.
“Yes, but my date is more flexible.”
It was warm in the car, for which Alina was grateful. She quickly typed in the message that she might be a few minutes late. She waited, but there was no reply.
“What does he say?” Mr. Arens wondered.
“Nothing,” replied Alina, trying not to sound nervous.
“Is he usually like that?”
“I…don’t know. This is our first date,” she said. “My sister set us up. I’ve never actually seen him.”
“Oh, tough luck,” Mr. Arens commented.
Alina didn’t like the sound of his voice. “I know what he looks like. He sent me a photo.”
“Of his face, I hope.”
“Of course! What’s so funny?” she asked, seeing that Mr. Arens was trying hard not to laugh.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to offend you, but I personally find that whole blind date thing silly,” he said.
“Oh, really? So what would your preferred method of meeting someone be?”
“Don’t know. At school or at work. Or, by chance. Being thrown together by circumstances. But, what do I know?”
“So, how did you meet your girlfriend?” Alina asked, wondering if the guy had one at all.
Before he could answer her question, a man wearing a reflective vest and a helmet came to their window and knocked on it. Mr. Arens rolled it down.
“A truck has overturned and the road is blocked. If you’re going to the city, you’ll have to go all the way back and across the bridge and come from the other side.”
“Thanks,” said Mr. Arens.
After he had closed the window, Alina let out a muffled squeal. “Go back? Across the bridge? It will take us another hour. I won’t make it even remotely on time.”
“I know. I’m not happy about it either,” Mr. Arens murmured, his forehead creased into a deep frown. He unbuckled his seatbelt, took off his heavy coat, and threw it on the back seat. “That’s better,” he sighed.
“But what are we going to do?”
“I might have an idea how to get to the city without returning all the way to the bridge. But it’s going to be a rough ride.”
“Forest road rough.”
“In this weather?” Alina chose that moment to be sensible.
“This relic,” he pointed at the car, “has been through worse and managed. As well as this one,” and he pointed at himself.
Alina followed his finger and became aware that after taking his coat off, Mr. Arens had remained in a thin, long-sleeved shirt, which snugly fit his powerful frame. Snugly enough to allow Alina to admire his muscular shoulders and chest. She gulped, unsure why she was noticing such things.
“Then, what are we waiting for?” she said, her voice shaking only a little.
It was a memorable ride. The road was clear, but the trees were heavily burdened with snow, their boughs hanging low. Alina held on for dear life, silent, because the car was shaking so badly that she feared she would bite her tongue off if she attempted to say anything.
When they finally reemerged and reached a paved road again, Mr. Arens asked, “How much time do we have left?”
“We’ll be there in fifteen. If everything goes well.”
Alina let out a relieved sigh and wrote another message to her date. She had just pressed the send button when Mr. Arens stopped the car so suddenly that she almost dropped her phone.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Give me a second.” He jumped out of the car, grabbing his jacket on the way.
Alina looked through the window. Another car was parked nearby and a woman was standing next to it, frantically waving to attract attention. Mr. Arens approached her, wading through the snow on his long legs.
Although bigger than Alina’s, this vehicle seemed equally stuck in the snow. Mr. Arens sent the woman back into her car, dug around the front wheels, and collected some branches and gravel, anything that could offer traction. Then he went to the back and pushed with all his might.
Alina watched him fascinated, imagining those fine muscles of his bulging underneath his coat. Suddenly, it became very hot in the car although the heating was turned off.
Despite his efforts, nothing happened. Mr. Arens paused for a moment to catch his breath and then gave the sign that he was ready for another try.
“Wait!” Alina rushed out of the car, buttoning up her coat. “Let me give you a hand.”
The snow was ruining what remained of her hairstyle, and she was sure mascara was smeared all over her face, but Alina bravely took her place next to Mr. Arens. He didn’t tell her to return to the car or that he didn’t need her help. He only smiled. A nice smile, to her surprise.
“On my count. One, two…now!”
They pushed. The wheels turned in place covering Alina’s feet with mud and melting snow.
“Shit,” she mumbled but continued pushing. There was no point in worrying about her looks anymore. However, she still hoped that if they managed to help the woman move her car, they could get back on the road and she could make it to “Pink Angel” in time.
“It’s no use,” groaned Mr. Arens. “It’s too muddy and this slush is just awful.”
He was covered with dirt up to his knees, but he was taller than Alina and was wearing boots.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pointing at her soaked dress and ruined shoes.
“It wasn’t your fault.” She shrugged. “What now?”
The woman from the car came to them, her arms flailing.
“Isn’t there something we can do? My baby has a high fever and I have to get her to the hospital. I tried calling the emergency service but they said I better not wait for them.”
Alina looked at Mr. Arens and he looked at her.
“I’ll drive you,” he said to the distracted woman. “Hop on.”
They boarded the car, the woman with her baby in the back, and Alina in the passenger seat. Mr. Arens focused on the road. The snow was slowing down, but it was growing darker by the second.
“If we go directly to the hospital, you’ll be very late for your date,” he commented. As if Alina didn’t know that.
“I can still make it,” she said. “I’ll run from the hospital to the cafe. And send him another message.”
The baby started crying at that moment and didn’t stop for the rest of the ride. Alina breathlessly counted every second they spent at the traffic lights, and prayed that nothing else would block their way. Finally, the hospital parking lot appeared before them. Mr. Arens drove in.
“Almost there,” he encouraged them.
Alina collected her things and buttoned up her coat again, ready to run out as soon as the car stopped. Her hand was already on the door when a loud ping came from her bag.
“A message,” she said when she pulled her phone out and looked at the screen. “It’s from him.”
“Your date?” asked Mr. Arens. “What does he say?”
“He…has to leave,” read Alina. “They had some emergency at his workplace. Because of the snow.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Arens. “Sorry…”
Alina wanted to say that it was fine, that he had tried his best, and that her date simply wasn’t meant to happen, but she had a hard time fighting the disappointment. Sure, there’d be other chances and other dates, but she had been so looking forward to this one. Her Valentine. Tears of self-pity collected in the corners of her eyes but she did nothing to stop them from falling. There was practically no makeup left to be ruined.
Mr. Arens parked and for a while, both of them were busy helping the woman and her baby get to the hospital. When the little patient and his mom were taken care of, Alina and Mr. Arens remained standing in the reception area of the emergency pediatric ward.
“What are you going to do now?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Probably try to find a cab to drive me home. Or catch a train back.”
She must have had an expectant expression on her face because Mr. Arens scratched his head thoughtfully.
“I really must go, otherwise I would have given you a ride back,” he said and paused. “But first, I would have taken you to “Pink Angel” and treated you to the biggest piece of apple pie they had on the premises. And some hot coffee. Or tea. Whatever you prefer.”
“Pitty party, hah,” Alina scoffed.
“More like…a date?”
Alina’s breath caught. That slightly raised eyebrow of Mr. Arens accompanied by a twinkle in his eyes looked so attractive that she had trouble not staring at him.
“But you have another date to go to, right?” she said, taken aback by both his words and his eyebrow. “Shouldn’t you hurry to get wherever it is you’re supposed to be?”
“It’s not far from here.” He pointed at the hospital direction sign. “Oncology.”
“She’s a patient?”
“Not she. He. My nephew.” He rubbed his face, all traces of cheerfulness disappearing from his eyes. “He’s nineteen. Never had a girlfriend. Too busy fighting leukemia. So, I thought I’d cheer him up on Valentine’s Day. Be his date.”
Alina nodded. “You better get going then,” she said. “I’ll…see you around?”
“I guess. We live in the same building.”
With a pang of regret, she raised her hand in goodbye as he turned to leave. The day had started with such high hopes and now look at her. All alone on Valentine’s. Except…
Mr. Arens had almost turned the corner but she managed to reach him before he disappeared among visitors and patients.
“Stop!” she panted, struggling to run in her fancy shoes.
He stopped and turned to face her.
“Wait! How do I look?” she asked as she smoothed her hair and tried to wipe the smeared makeup underneath her eyes.
“Ahm…good.” He cleared his throat. “Really good,” this time, the tone of his voice send tingles down Alina’s back.
“May I join you then? I’m sure we can find some decent cake and coffee in the hospital cafeteria.”
“You wanna…be my date?”
“Not yours. Your nephew’s. I think I’m better suited for that than his uncle.” She smiled. “But, you can tag along. I might find time for you later.”
“When you drive me home in your monster truck.”
“Fair enough,” he chuckled.
Before they continued walking down the hospital hallway, Alina remembered something.
“I don’t know your first name,” she said.
He hesitated. “Er…it’s Valentin.”
She smiled despite trying not to. At the end of the day, although things appeared hopeless at times, she got her Valentine. And she had a feeling that this one might be worth keeping.