In sixth grade, I was eleven years old, and six of those eleven years had been spent hopelessly in love with Audrey Kerr, the “little red-haired girl” of Clark County R-1. I had admired her from afar, vied with my best friends for her attention, thrown snowballs anonymously, sung to her answering machine, and even loved her when she cut her hair short and all the other boys lost interest. But this year, she would receive two long-stemmed red roses (the most I could afford), a balloon tethered to the vase, and not one but two boxes of candy conversation hearts, all to be delivered to her in class on February 14. The inscription within the card would read simply, “Will you be my Valentine?”
She wasn’t there.
What cruel twist of fate could allow such a tragedy as illness on Valentines’ Day? What angry and malicious god could sentence me to such misfortune? Please, I pleaded with the man upstairs as I perched in gym shorts on the edge of the stage at one end of our school’s gymnasium, please – take me! – make me sick in her place, send me home now, just let her be here on this day. Let her feel special, let her be the center of attention, let all her friends gasp and swoon at so romantic a gesture. Just let her see her roses, the big shiny balloon, the two boxes of candy conversation hearts that I know she enjoys so much. And the card. The bold statement of my undying love and the request for her heart in return, let her see that too.
Just as I was beginning to lose hope, one heavy gray door in the southwest corner of the gym swung open with a sigh, and in she walked, the white light of heaven surrounding her, and I quietly thanked God for his mercy. So ready was I to take her sickness from her that my stomach momentarily knotted, but then I heard someone ask where she had been – a doctor’s appointment, I think, perhaps having braces put in – and I forgot all about that.
The following Monday, I found the thank-you card she had stood on tiptoes to slide carefully – ever so carefully so as not to bend the corners of the white envelope – into one of three vents in the top of my narrow, red locker door. My heart fluttered as I fumbled to slide my fingers under the flap of the envelope. With a deep breath, I gingerly removed the card, admiring the smooth off-white surface, the big cursive “Thank you!” in yellow glitter on the front. And opened it. Inside, she had expressed utmost gratitude, and then came the fatal phrase, the one thing a woman can say to turn any man away for good. Scrawled across the bottom, just above her large, loopy signature was the line, “You’ll always be my friend.”