A story for you, my beloved readers, on Valentine’s Day:
The time: Just after last bell on a chilly Valentine’s Day in 1983
The place: Cookson Elementary School.
The shame: Enormous
I am in second grade. The girl who is sweet on me (a girl we shall call Myrtle) is in third grade. We’ve known each other since daycare, and while Myrtle is great, I’ve got bigger things to worry about, not the least of which is why everybody seems to think I’m a boy. Lately, Myrtle’s been making what I will later recognize as flirty gestures, and I am confused by the shift in her behavior. However, since Myrtle also does things like eat orange peels and call me “Potato,” I chalk this up to Myrtle-centric oddness and not some sort of burgeoning romance. Consequently, I am totally surprised when, in front of everyone at the bus stop, Myrtle walks up and presents unto me a heart-shaped cookie – a cookie she has, naturally, baked and decorated herself. It is large and heavy in my hand. As she hands it to me, eyes wide with hope and excitement, she says “Happy Valentine’s Day” and then stands there, looking at me expectantly.
The world goes silent. Looking down, I see the afternoon sun glittering off the red sparkles that cover the cookie. I can smell the sugary crispness, feel the gritty abrasiveness of the colored sugar. And then, overcome with feelings I don’t want to think about, let alone process, I look around, see my friends giggling, and before I know what I’m doing, I raise the cookie high above my head like one of the apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey with a Valentine jawbone and smash it to the pavement at our feet. Then, without a word, I stomp the chunks into dust, grinding my heel before turning and running away to my parents’ car, trying to ignore Myrtle’s sobs receding into the distance.
Years later, I still occasionally talk to Myrtle, and she still occasionally asks me to dinner or dancing. I’ve moved on from smashing confections into glittering dust, but I always decline. And because I’ve never been able to bring myself to apologize, or to acknowledge that first act of rejection, I am a woman cursed to be alone on Valentine’s Day (even when I’ve been in a relationship, I’ve been alone on this day). Myrtle’s shadow hangs over me every year, a pint-sized phantom whose offering I cannot accept. Perhaps, in rejecting her schoolgirl affection, I was rejecting love itself, having decided even then that I was too different, too strange, too broken to deserve love.
Or maybe I was just in second grade, and embarrassed by such an open display of affection in a cootie-sensitive climate, and I should find a way to forgive myself for something that happened over twenty years ago in the dark ages of my childhood. Maybe it’s not a curse, but a reminder that hearts are fragile, and that people who mishandle them end up without a treat to share. Maybe, if I’m lucky, someone will offer me their heart with that kind of open honesty again one day, and I will be strong enough to take it.
Maybe I’ll even break off a piece of my own to share.