You go to the drugstore. Love is literally in the air, thanks to Air Supply being pumped through the speakers. You stare up at the rows and rows of card options. From Snoopy and Strawberry Shortcake to Batman, you choose very carefully. Will getting the generic dog and cat Valentine’s Day cards say I have no money? Will the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ones say, I am above this girly love stuff? Will the cards shaped like sweetheart candies say I am fat?
You spend hours figuring out which cards you will disseminate to your third-grade class. You don’t want to get what anyone else gets. You don’t want to be seen as too childish or dorky. You want to have this be the thing. The thing that turns your whole third-grade existence around. A game changer, you think. And so you make your decision carefully. Your choice carries great weight.
It is assumed that every mother will take every child to that very same drugstore — the one tucked between the Chinese restaurant and the deli — to select a box of Valentine’s Day cards for the class. The girls will handwrite their own. Mothers will fill out the ones from the boys, except for those in the throes of puppy love.
It is an understanding that everyone will give everyone a card. No one will get left out. The adults make this assumption on behalf of the children. But the children, they know better. They know that this is one of those moments when power and popularity become defined. Three-by-five notecards tell of classroom politics in a tangible way, one that can make or break a kid.
In art, the week before the holiday, your class makes Valentine’s Day card holders out of white paper plates. Fold in half, glue, decorate with leaning hearts and your names, attach some yarn — red or pink are your choices. These will hang on the back of your chairs at your desks in your third-grade classroom in your elementary school in the suburbs. They will be filled with sentiment and puns and hope.
You wonder if yours will remain empty, your card holder just a folded paper plate no longer useful. No one likes you, you understand, to say nothing of being someone’s Valentine.
As classrooms grow larger, people get left out. To save money, of course. 24 cards in a pack. 27 kids in the class. You know where this is going. No mother will buy a second set for only three extras. So three children will not get a card. Who will know, in the end?
You will know. Sure one missing may go unnoticed, but when you are the unpopular kid, you will be the “extra” for everyone. Angela’s paper plate is bursting. Nick’s cards have fallen beneath his seat; they cannot be contained. Suckers attached to cards are licked and twirled in fingers haphazardly painted with pink nail polish. Tongues turn red. But not yours. It is your cheeks that turn into sour crimson apples.
Conversation hearts are dissected. What could it mean? gush the girls. The most beautiful receive whole boxes of candy, with the jaggedy print of boys written in the “to” and “from.” Nothing more. No declarations of love or Want to be my valentine? Circle Y or N. But in those candies, those messages of “kiss me” and “2 cute,” are practically wedding proposals to an 8-year-old. They will elicit giggles of excitement or giggles of offense, as is the wont of 8-year-olds’ male/female relationships.
But wait! What is this? With your chubby fingers you feel at the bottom of your “mailbox” that there is a card. You pull it out.
BEE MINE, says a honeybee. You turn it over. It is from “Your Secret Admirer.” You hear snickers from classmates behind you, in front of you, next to you, but you don’t dare look up. Are they laughing at you?
What does it mean to “be mine?” Is it saying: I want you to belong to me? Like my lunchbox and my Transformers, I want to own you and make you do what I want, transform you into my desires?
The snickering dies down. Classmates once again descend into the cacophony of youthful loves and hates. You finally look up. In the corner, sitting by the class hamster, is Charles. He is looking at you, shuffling his two Valentine’s cards. He was one of your extras. One of those cards is not from you. He smiles and waves a tiny finger waggle of encouragement. You look to the blackboard where he had written up a few spelling words at the behest of the teacher. Mayor. Thought. Prayery. This last was supposed to be prairie. You are an excellent speller.
The handwriting is the same. It is Charles who would like you to bee his. Charles is your secret honeybee and does not want to sting you. In your young mind, you already understand this kindness. You consider tearing a page from your notebook and making an impromptu card. Later, in the girls’ room, you do this with Cray-Pas filched from the classroom.
After the bell, in the school library, you hand it to Charles. Sorry, I forgot.
Together you sneak those tiny conversation hearts from a bowl at the librarian’s desk. You leave only a single heart behind. You sit beneath a table and read them to each other. Chalky dye covers your fingers, coats your tongues. Your mother arrives, calls your name. See you tomorrow, you say.
The next day is not a holiday. Valentine’s Day cards are found in the trash with worksheets and juice boxes. You don’t talk much to Charles again. You find hearts in your coat pockets for the rest of winter. You don’t eat them, but you leave them there to pull out sometimes and feel their sweetness.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction and elsewhere. She can be found via her website jenniferflisscreative.com or on Twitter at @Writesforlife.