If another civilization of semi-sentient life were detected living microscopically in the residue at the bottom of our coffee cups, would we find them more difficult to understand than our own kind? A caffeine-based race of aliens from a coffee bean galaxy, the Starbuckians (well, what would you call them?) could at least communicate to us, without much in the way of argument, how they like their coffee. We might easily understand their preference for, say, a large Double-Mocha with extra froth, over the Petite Espresso taken black, by simply counting how many were swimming around in each cup.

I find myself envious of such easily achieved communication this morning. Of straight-forward demonstrations of “I like this, I don’t like that.”  Gazing into the bottom of my cup of cold comfort, I’m keen to initiate First Contact with the Starbuckians, to pry out their alien wisdom for the good of my species.

“Oh my little friends,” I murmur, hoping none of the other café patrons enjoying their magic elixirs overhear me talking to a paper cup, “How go your lives, and do you marry? Have you ever, completely innocently (or completely unconsciously), given your partner a gift that caused her eyes to blaze with a fell light, to pierce you with their baleful glare? Has, just for example, the phrase “Clueless Lummox,” ever been applied to you in a pitying tone? And how did you get out of it?”

I need answers on this cold winters day, a plan of action for escaping the regretful pall weighing heavily on me. If I can piece together exactly what went wrong, if I can list my errors as a warning to others, then perhaps something might be salvaged from last nights’ horror. When I fell from grace over what is already permanently imprinted on my cerebellum as “The Unfortunate Hori-Hori Incident.”

The Starbuckians might tell us that love among humans is an odd phenomenon, a too complicated dance, performed blindfolded, compared with the matter-of-fact romances of the rest of the animal world. They could cite the example of Trumpeter Swans, which mate for life, but so far as anyone knows do not feel called upon to present their darlings with thoughtfully romantic gifts every fourteenth of February. They build their nests and raise their fuzzy little swan-lets without losing any feathers over whether a bit of dried seaweed is or isn’t the most affectionate symbol of undying devotion. If they give gifts at all, any old thing would seem to do just fine.

It might require a more sophisticated race then our own to point out that a finely made gardening tool can be romantic, and I wish a Starbuckian would jump out of her coffee cup and tell her so this morning.  I wish it would whisper that the Japanese do not mess around when it comes to garden tools, that all the latent skills of a people who once equipped the Samurai with the finest swords in the world went into the Hori-Hori she rejected violently last night.

No overgrown tangle of vegetation could frustrate its ten inches of forged surgical steel, mated for life to a handle precisely milled from the hardest hardwood to be found on the Asian continent. A blade that makes short work of    irritatingly deep-rooted dandelions, but is also fully capable of giving the North Koreans something to think about should they be foolish enough to invade while an avid gardener is stabbing weeds.

That said, it must be admitted that love expressed through gardening tools is risky. There was a certain amount of doubt in my mind as to what she really meant when she presented the catalog and proclaimed “It’s wonderful! It’s just what I want!” I took a look at the picture, and was properly skeptical. I had learned, I thought, that usage and context are everything in these matters and that connecting “Wonderful” to something which exists to root around in dirt could be perilous.

“Oh come on,” I scoffed. “You don’t really want me to get you this, do you?” I knew she couldn’t be serious for I had history on my side—my history, unfortunately. The memory of the chilly reception given to a barbecue grill presented on the auspicious occasion of her fortieth birthday was still very fresh, as was the contempt shown for my agonized plea of “You said you wanted one!” As well, the bitterly regretted Dim Sum cookbook, an unwelcome ghost of a decidedly cold Christmas past, warned of the penalties for guessing wrong again. No, I wasn’t to be fooled this time. A romantic something would be found—I could never be stupid enough to give her, on Valentine’s Day, a fancy weed-digger.

It’s a funny thing (though not quite so amusing this morning), the way that ideas which are laughable a month before a deadline become more and more appealing with each passing day. I sneered at the catalog straight through the last days of January, confident that something better would suggest itself. It wasn’t as though I’d never achieved the complex alchemy of the right gift given at the right time. I bolstered my self-esteem with memories of her beautifully twinkling eyes reflecting the glittering jewelry of years past, her joyful squeals over surprise vacation trips. No man can be wrong every time and expect to go on claiming half of the marital bed. The logic was comforting: I was still married; therefore I’d had a few victories and was at least as good as other men. Which, as it turned out, meant exactly squat.

The problem was that yesterday’s brilliant success is hard to copy. No one can stand in the same river twice when it comes to presents, which, like nuclear weaponry, are a perpetual quest for the newest, the biggest, and the best. The gold bracelet that delighted her last year would not work again unless this year’s selection sported diamonds. And should I choose to live really dangerously, next years gold bracelet had better be adorned with jewels looted from a Pharaoh’s tomb. I knew all that. I also knew my credit cards would not stand that level of escalation. Biggest and best were out, newest would have to do.

All through that first week of February I searched. I remember it only dimly now as an increasingly frenzied montage–flash-edited scenes of my hands pawing through catalogs of every description. They Googled countless variations of “Romantic And Affordable Valentine’s Gifts She’s Never Heard Of And Will Worship You For.” There really weren’t any results returned that met all the criteria, though some of the x-rated products were interesting, and if I had been able to believe their manufacturer’s claims, would have come close.

By Sunday afternoon I was a wreck. Confidence gone, avoiding eye-contact with my wife, I complained, around seven o’clock, that I was really, really tired and slunk off to bed. There to mull my options and avoid, as best I could, thinking about the Doomsday Option: “Dear, I couldn’t find anything good enough for you.” A moments’ prescience revealed the direction my life would take after such a gambit and I lay shivering in terror under the blankets, my life-force ebbing away. Anything would be better then that. A few tired looking grocery store roses, twin ferrets on a leash, chocolate covered balloons– all infinitely better then appearing before her empty-handed.

It was time for honesty. I’d struck out big and there wasn’t much time left to do anything about it. I ran through the dozens of possibilities I’d rejected as too expensive, too clichéd, too this, too that. Was there anything I’d nixed too quickly? Anything I’d never given her before that didn’t cost a fortune? Well, yes. Yes there was.

I’d never given her a Japanese garden tool. The logic of it was revelatory. In the history of the world, probably no one had ever given a Japanese garden tool for Valentine’s Day—even in Japan! I would be the first. That this seemed a good thing to me is illustrative of the distant and dark place my reason had fled to during that stressful week. I had lost my way in the quest for a perfect gift and there, in the gloom of my darkened bedroom, this most feeble glimmer offered hope of rescue. I just wanted… needed the ordeal to be over.

That my wife had put the idea into my head was most appealing. She’d placed the catalog before me and asked… no, demanded a garden tool. She had done this several weeks before Valentine’s Day, which, I was proud of being smart enough to recognize, was a hint that she wanted it for Valentine’s Day. I’d be doing what she wanted, wouldn’t I? And, I asked the ceiling, if that wasn’t the essence of romance, what was?

I was suddenly giddy and had to get up and walk around the room to burn off the energy surging through me, rejuvenated by the knowledge that I’d cracked the code. I flicked the light on and spoke aloud into the mirror: “To hell with the ferrets! I spit upon stinking ferrets. I spit upon wilted grocery store flowers and inedible chocolate balloons.” I would bask in my wife’s admiration by giving her the perfect romantic gift. The bedroom could no longer hold me. I had an order to place.

The Starbuckians have failed me. What is the use, I’d like to know, of inventing an alien race if they won’t do what I want? I’ve sat in this café (and really, the décor is quite ugly, greens and browns—ugh!) all morning, pleading for their help. People are looking at me and I don’t know if I can stay much longer. An overly officious manager-type has gathered a protective screen of barristas around her, pointing them toward me like attack dogs. And still the Starbuckians refuse to answer! I wave my cup around to shoo away the coffee clerks and stir up the stubbornly mute aliens. Maybe a good shaking will make them understand I’m not playing.

I’ve told them my sorrows and now I want the use of their greater wisdom to answer a few questions: I would like to know how everything went wrong so quickly. I want to know where the hori-hori landed when she threw it out the back door into the garden. Most of all, I would very much like to know if I can go home yet. Her birthday is less then two months away and I’ll need every minute.