My Favorite Valentine
By Chuck Thompson
From American Way
as printed in Readers Digest February 1997

      For me there has been only one Valentine's Day worthy of the name. Fourth grade. A girl named Lori. No Valentine's Day since has even come close to measuring up.
      Her image has never left my mind and sometime around last Valentine's Day the idea got stuck in my head: I needed to find Lori.

      1972. Southern California. For two years I have been in love with Lori, an angelic creature who lives across the street. Our walk home from the bus stop each day is the highlight of my young life.
      The situation is complicated. First, Lori's older brother, Ted, happens to be my best friend. Second, I am grotesquely bashful in Lori's presence. In the company of friends I am a sparkling wit. With Lori I communicate chiefly in grunts. Although she is always sweet to me, Lori's heart does not appear to pound to the same desperate rhythm as my own.
      The whole thing came to a head on Valentine's Day. In class, kids pass out store-bought cards, and I get a generic "Be Mine!" from Lori and the other 26 students.
      On the walk home from the bus stop that day, however, Lori says, "I have something for you." I go numb. She pulls an oversized red envelope from her school bag, presses it into my hand a takes off running.
      I rush to my bedroom, carefully open the envelope and find the most beautiful handmade card of red construction paper, with a big white doily, shiny stars and all sorts of hearts. Inside, Lori has spelled out "I love you" in white glue and covered the perfect cursive letters with glitter. After reading it 30 or 40 times, I hide the card under my socks.
      Lori and I might be married now for all I know - if not for one extenuating factor: my older brother, Mike. Pawing through my dresser that evening, he stumbled upon the envelope.
      Now Mike was a sixth-grader, given to the sort of cruelty that earns big brothers bad reputations. He showed Lori's card to Ted and some other kids in the neighborhood. The commotion that ensued mortified Lori and me, and pretty much crushed any major developments in this early love.
      Then my father announced that we would be moving, to of all places, Alaska. It seemed a rather severe place to be exiled from the summery smile of Lori. I suggested that I stay behind and live in an orphanage. But in the end there was little I could do.
      At school Miss Lockhart organized a good-bye party. All I could do was stare at Lori - who, for the first time since Valentine's Day, stared back at me with liquid eyes.
      On the bus Lori sat next to me and clasped my hand the entire way home. At my door I searched for words to describe the terrific bursting in my chest.
      "Well," I finally managed, "bye."
      Lori kissed me on the check and darted across the street. Just like that, she was gone.

      It had crossed my mind more than once that a search for a fourth-grade sweetheart does not indicate an entirely level mind. But where there had once been romance, I had faith that some feeling remained. I was determined to travel to wherever the winds of fate had taken her, and then . . . who knows?
      Phone calls to the old school and past acquaintances turned up nothing. Then a lawyer suggested a company that located hard-to-find individuals. Within an hour of my call, the company had tracked Lori. Until then, my pursuit had been half based on whimsical fantasy, but the address was a frighteningly real piece of information. Do you really want to do this? Is it worth risking one of my most sacrosanct memories for disappointment? But it would be stupid to finally get this close to Lori and then stand on the precipice, forever wondering.
      "Dear Lori," my letter began, "I hope you haven't forgotten me." An entire afternoon was spent on that letter. I mailed it for overnight delivery.
      The phone rang the next evening. "Of course I remember!" the voice began.
      "You had a dog named Walter."
      You wore an Oakland Raiders jacket to school every day, even when it was too warm for a jacket."
      "You slugged a kid at the bus stop once for making fun of me when I had the chickenpox."
      "Hey stranger!"
      We talked for an hour and laughed about what jerks our brothers were to us. Somewhere in the conversation she got around to her job and her husband and her two sons. I reviewed the high points of my life, and she seemed genuinely interested. She agreed to meet me at a restaurant the following week.

      "You are Mr. Thompson?" asks the waiter at the restaurant. I nod. "A message from Lori. With regret she will be an hour late."
      Lori's tardiness comes as something of a reprieve. My stomach has been in knots all day, and it might be good to have a few moments to collect myself.
      Outside, I walk around the block, inventing a hundred explanations for Lori's delay: She had to work late. Could not find a sitter. A row with her husband, an insane rage-a-holic who has vowed to crush my spleen.
      At once I am overtaken with a great epiphany: I don't need to go through with this to satisfy my curiosity about what might have been. I've known all along what I needed to know about Lori.
      Nobody wants to find that two decades have muddied whatever connection there once might have been, not made it more heroic.. That maybe what life is all about, but it's not what fourth-grade love affairs are about.
      Not far from the restaurant, I find a stationary store and buy paper, envelopes, white glue and glitter. Sitting on a stoop, I write:

I'm sure we would have had a wonderful time tonight, but
all I really wanted to do was say thanks for the Valentine card
you gave me a long time ago. It may feel like a small gesture
to you, but those are the gifts that sum up everything that is
good in the world. I will never forget you for it.

      I spell out Lori's name in glue across the big red envelope, sprinkle gold glitter over it and wait for it to dry.
      Back at the restaurant, I seal the envelope with the most innocent kiss I can manage, place the card on our table and walk quietly out the door.

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