Here's to sweethearts — wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, longtime companions, significant others. Yeah, I'm a few days late as regards Valentine's Day, but that doesn't make my tip 'o the hat any less sincere. Indeed my appreciation for my own wife-girlfriend-lover-partner-longtime companion-significant other is at a near-apex. I'm joined in that feeling by two close pals for their wives.

Here’s to sweethearts — wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, longtime companions, significant others. Yeah, I’m a few days late as regards Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t make my tip ‘o the hat any less sincere. Indeed my appreciation for my own wife-girlfriend-lover-partner-longtime companion-significant other is at a near-apex. I’m joined in that feeling by two close pals for their wives.

This isn’t your conventional Valentine’s Day column. You have been warned.

We begin a few days ago, with a casual Saturday lunch of four friends at a little diner at which we sometimes gather for male bonding, that Iron John stuff, to include, naturally, the only component of life at which men are vastly superior to women: gossip. We settle in, get the conversation going, peruse the menu, and wait for our favorite server, who in due course arrives to take our orders — basic sandwich stuff. Except our little Margie is, I note, not her usual ebullient self; she doesn’t insult any of us. No jibes about receding hairlines, expanding waistlines, shabby attire or other aspects of middle-aged, weekend sloth. Ninety minutes later we’re calling it done, our lists of Saturday errands beckoning. At the cash register Margie is still a bit solemn, not herself. So I ask and she nods and mumbles: “Got a bug.” Well, great — now our little Margie tells us. But the day proceeds as planned, the night is restful, and the following morning offers no suggestion that any pathogen has been passed along. Oh, but after nightfall, midnight fast approaching: I’m in jammies, under the covers, making my way through a mediocre murder mystery when my tummy begins to swell. Almost by the second. Okay, I make it, but with not a second to spare; and there I remain, on my knees, embracing the porcelain for perhaps three minutes (it seemed like 30); and then the other aspect of the onslaught took hold, and you can guess what that involved and if you can’t, we’ll just drop it. There follows about 36 horrible hours of chills, fever and repeat visits to le bain, some of them — how to say this? — more successfully synchronized than others. Thirty-six hours in which the patient is dependent on his wife-lover-partner-best friend-longtime companion, etc. for sustenance (soda crackers, broth, Gatorade) and pharmaceuticals (anti-nausea and anti-you-know-what), all of which she fetches with dispatch; not only that, but hers is the decidedly unsavory task of dealing with the, uh, residue of gastro-intestinal illness — linen, le bain. (I warned you).

When the symptoms subside sufficient to allow me to focus on the keyboard I e-mail my luncheon companions, just wondering…

Yes. It hit the first of us at four on Sunday afternoon, the second at seven, then me at eleven. The lucky one had no illness whatsoever. Since he was the only one of we four to have a beer (two, in fact) at lunch, we cyber-joked that alcohol in moderation might forestall ailments other than occluded arteries. Too, as my guest, I had paid his check; he alone among our quartet had not handed Margie his credit card, had not made physical contact with her. (Though she did bring his meal to the table she hadn’t prepared it). No matter, all of the three who did suffer were now recovering. Sunshine, visible.

“Thank God for wives,” one of the afflicted e-mails. “Mine’s a saint,” echoes the other. Had I been without my saint, had I been a solo act, a bachelor, or divorced, what would I have done those 36 or so hours? Called my daughter, I suppose, who lives a few miles away — she’s a saint, too, but she has her hubbie and our two grands to tend to. She would have done the best she could for me, perhaps even spent the night at our house to look after her old man, though under the circumstances I might have insisted she send my son-in-law. You understand. Those guys (especially guys) without a live-in saint — what do they do when they’re incapacitated? When they’re sick and alone and so feeble they can’t raise their heads from the pillow? Twice over the years I’ve been similarly ill while on the road, lying fetal on the floor of a hotel room in a distant city, hoping and praying the immune system would kick in before I kicked off. What comes into play then, alongside whatever torments wrack the body, is loneliness. It is a subspecies of fear. Fear is much, much less a factor when there’s a saint in the house.

So on Valentine’s Day I gave my Saint flowers, and candy. And jewelry.

I also gave her my virus.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff.