Commercialized? Trivial? No matter—this Hallmark holiday still provokes memories of February lovers lost.
Today, as I walk along the street, in a storefront I see strings of foil hearts glinting garnet in the sundown light. And pale pink roses edged in scarlet. From inside wafts the scent of chocolate and cherry cream. A sign, nestled in purple tissue paper asks: Will you be mine?
I catch my breath. And touch my hand to my mouth, remembering suddenly a certain someone from my past. I think all at once, in a surprising rush of reverie, that his eyes were amethyst, that he was smart and sometimes sweet, that he took me to secret places in the woods and in the water, that he smelled like pine sap and lemon soap, that he was often silent, that he was tall and lithe. And that he did not love me.
I had left home late, at 23, loathe to leave my mother, to go to school in a mountain town to study wildlife. I ached for all that I had known like an immigrant in a strange land. I was lonesome in a class of 30 boys, most just fresh from high school, who smoked cigarettes and spat tobacco juice, hated housecats, hunted deer and ducks at dawn, drank beer, belched out loud with no shame and would not give me the time of day.
But I soon learned that they were wonderful windbreaks on raw rainy mornings in the field. And on unheated busses I could count on the warmth of their big bodies and the comforting steam from their coffee breath. He wasn’t like them, though. If I close my eyes I can still see him clearly, kneeling, as they stood ogling girls and dripping ashes, with his face serenely poised to the sun, a white tablet on his knee, his hand tracing on the page the wings of the hawk he saw soaring in a high washed sky.
His hair was sorrel, alive with the light of almost-evening on that autumn afternoon that changed my life. It was long. And in the moment that I watched him hang his head and close his eyes as if in prayer as he shut the sketchbook and put his pencil to rest, my hands began to itch to touch what looked so soft. And then he turned and when he saw me he broke into a smile like a match bursting into flame. It hurt so much I thought this must surely be how it feels to be shot, a doe being brought to her knees.
From then on, I would spend hours looking at myself in the mirror and then days not being able to look at all. He was so much more beautiful than me. He seemed to move effortlessly through a world in which I was an alien. While the others seemed bored and I was confused, he was busy with the trees in dendrology class, looking for clues to their identity on the forest floor, collecting cones and acorns like talismans, examining the spent seeds called samaras that might suggest a maple or an elm, admiring the starry leaves of the sweet gum with the wonder of a child. He knew before any of us that witch hazel blossoms gold in February and that serviceberry trees bloom in a blizzard of white that makes people wake to think it has snowed in springtime.
I followed him like a disciple and he let me tag along—to the valley stream where I watched him pull trout from the water like a sorcerer and where I knelt in unbelieving bliss as he showed me the emerald scales and silvery gills, the bejewelled eyes and juicy lips. And because I asked him to, he lowered it back into the current carefully to set it free. He touched everything with such reverence, the road-killed bear cub we found one summer night in the fog, the snowy owl still warm that had met its destiny with the windshield of the car in front of us, the just-hatched mayfly in my hair whose wings were still fused, too wet to yet fly that he split carefully with the edge of his knife, my lips one day in a quick hot kiss in the cold rain.
Because he had kissed me I misunderstood everything else that came after. I pretended not to see the catalogs from colleges that offered graduate courses in wildlife management. And made excuses in my mind for the road maps strewn across the table in his room. Ignored the camping trips he took alone to think, he said. Because he had kissed me and no one else ever had before, I began to think foolishly of wedding gowns, closing my eyes and feeling the frilly voile of the veil in my fingers as though it were as real as the lacy Valentine in my pocket. Until one day I hiked up through the woods to his trailer to give him his card and saw someone else’s small muddy shoes on the mat by the door.
Later, when I found the last of the courage I had used up in loving him to ask him whose shoes they were, he looked at me with eyes full of tears. And that’s when I knew that he had also, like me, been afraid. Like a fox caught in a leg-hold trap. I put my fingers to the lips that he had kissed and in my heart, though he did not yet know it, I let him go. In place of the Valentine that said: Will you be mine?