I sat back on my heels in the front window of Behrens’ Book Store and eyed Jackie Herold’s Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls cradling a copy of Love Story. Ralph, my stepfather, had roped me into decorating the window for Valentine’s Day and I’d Tom-Sawyered Jackie into helping.
I smoothed my hand over the construction paper letters of our sophomoric advertisement; Love is buying her a book. “Do you believe in true love?”
Jackie’s OCD kicked in and she repositioned Love Story between the dolls, perfectly parallel to the greeting card scotch-taped above their heads. “Well, I sure don’t want to fall in love, then have the guy die on me.”
I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean—the real deal.”
My conversations with Jackie were usually so stuffed with words we couldn’t shoe-horn in another syllable. But the familiar scents of dust and carpet shampoo yawned between us now.
Ralph’s chair creaked as he turned the page of the New Smyrna Beach News Observer.
Jackie probably mulled over her own stepfathers.
Ringo Starr’s voice crooned You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine over WSBB from the radio under the cash register.
“It could happen,” Jackie said at the same time I spouted, “I’m going to live on the North Carolina coast and become a hermit writer.” Never mind that the closest I’d ever been to a Carolina beach was the Blue Ridge Mountains or that I always nursed a crush, sometimes two at a time.
Jackie laughed. “Right, and who would you talk to?”
We climbed out of the window and went outside to ooh and ah over our handiwork one more time.
Then, Jackie ditched me to dust the store on my own.
I had better luck a few months later on a Sunday afternoon when the store was closed. A boy I’d gone out with dusted double-time alongside me. But just when I figured my Tom Sawyering had reached a new level, the guy tried to finagle fringe benefits.
I flopped open a Webster’s Dictionary and read him the definition of “prude.”
Yep, that was the last help I got.
I made my way around the store, dusting with a little more care than usual so Ralph would think my work was worth the five bucks he was paying me.
My eye caught on the giant red and white heart Jackie and I had made from wrapping paper we found in the back of the store.
Jackie would get a Valentine from her steady, Andy Henry.
I wrinkled my nose. Jackie liked sweet guys and I liked the cocky ones. We never agreed.
I knew better than to hope for a Valentine. You had to check off the boyfriend box to bag a Valentine, a skill Jackie had failed to teach me.
I’d had five first dates since I turned fifteen two years ago. No second ups. “Why can’t I get a boyfriend?” I said aloud.
The newspaper rattled as Ralph lowered it to peer at me.
I rarely discussed anything that mattered with him. Like never.
He said, “You sure you want my opinion? You probably won’t like it.”
I arched my brows, curious.
“If you sleep with the football team you’ll have all the dates you want.”
I sputtered. My Catholic hackles stood up, indignant.
“I told you, you wouldn’t like it.” Coming from any other stepfather, it would have sounded creepy, but Ralph honestly thought he was giving me sound fatherly advice.
I shook my head and dusted Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Ralph’s paper rustled behind me as he went back to reading.
As if I’d sleep with the football team! Besides, I liked cerebral guys. My current crush, Eric Bensen, hustled a hefty IQ over the hurdles on the track team. He’d earned his helping of cockiness the hard way—navigating his own stepfather, being uprooted from Ohio, his mother’s declining health.
I collected my money and groped my way through the retail furniture graveyard in the back half of the building.
Fifteen minutes later I slid a Sprite milkshake from the Dairy Queen counter, my own concoction of heaven—soda and soft-serve.
Houses huddled along Faulkner Street, protecting me from the cool river breeze as I walked.
Sun slipped through the nearly leafless limbs overhead, warming my chilled fingers against the paper cup.
Sweetness melted in my mouth.
A crystalized moment of perfection.
For maybe the zillionth time, I imagined a guy I loved, who loved me—peering down Faulkner Street at the shadows the branches exed across the pavement. We’d listen to the music whispering through the stubborn leaves in the treetops and inhale scents of sunshine and river water.
His absence ached somewhere inside. He should be here beside me, basking in the wonder.
But my mind rejected romance. That kind of love had meant pain for my parents. I must have seen some happy relationships, but the marriages seared on my soul were miserable ones.
I eventually figured out I liked boys and fended them off at the same time. Thus my fledgling first dates. There had been the aberration boyfriend in junior high whom I’d broken up with after a few months. He gave me a pretty blue ring from the jewelry store I still wore.
But my heart hadn’t heard my head. It still hungered for my other half.
A few days later on Valentine’s Day, I stopped in the middle of G-Building after first period to examine Jackie’s Valentine locket. While students streamed around us, I rubbed my thumb over love Andy engraved on the smooth silver heart.
I sighed, sad for me and happy for Jackie.
Something sharp jabbed me in the ribs.
I looked down at the square envelope poking my side, Ann cursived across the whiteness. My gaze raced up the hand, arm, one wide shoulder to Eric Bensen who shot me a grin, then crowded into the confluence of students coursing out the doors.
Giddy, Jackie and I huddled beside the lockers while I tore open the envelope. We gaped at the pink and red Hallmark Valentine. We’d be late for class, and for once, we didn’t care.
“Open it!” Jackie said.
We read the brief message three times, trying to decide if the gesture was romantic or just-friends.
“I think he likes you,” Jackie announced.
“I guess I’ll know if he asks me out.”
Either way, Eric had saved Valentine’s Day.
“Woo hoo,” Jackie trilled. “Tall, popular, good looking, a whole lot better than—”
“I have to get to class.”
Jackie didn’t care for Eric’s predecessor, the guy I’d never quite gotten over. She sung a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain before I could escape.
No crystals of beauty were captured with Eric, but it didn’t matter. Against all odds, Jackie and I both bulls-eyed true love. Almost as amazing, we approved each other’s choices.
Twenty years after Valentine’s Day 1975, I saw the North Carolina coast for the first time—hand-in-hand with my husband, Jim. Our four children zig-zagged ahead on the sand from sea oats to ocean and back again in late September sun.
I stashed another crystalline snapshot of perfection with all the others I’d shared with Jim—the man I loved, who loved me, the one I’d longed to meet that day on Faulkner Street.
And every time I bump into beauty, I’m glad all over again that my heart beat out my head.