Valentine’s Day always reminds me of Jake. Thoughts of him flit across my mind like a slide show as I stand at our kitchen island helping my six-year-old, Olivia, assemble cards and candy for all the kids in her kindergarten class. Scissors, glue, markers, heart confetti and scraps of red, pink, and white construction paper cover the countertop.
“I don’t even want to give one of these to Brock. He pulled my hair last week at recess and he called Ellie, Ellie-belly-you’re-so-smelly,” Olivia tells me as she stuffs a glittery card and a roll of smarties into an envelope and turns it over.
“And before you tell me,” she continues, “I know we have to be nice to our enemies. But you should see him. He’s pushing it, Mommy.”
I hide my grin. My girl has an indomitable spirit.
“Well, you’re right,” I tell her. “Some people can be mean, but we need to be the bigger person. I’m glad you’re still giving him a card.”
“Even if he is a Brock-head,” she answers, looking at me from under her long lashes with that spunky gaze.
I give her the mom eye that says watch it, missy as I smile at her.
“I know. I know. No name-calling,” she relents. “I didn’t say it to him. Just you, Mommy.”
My sister, Savannah, walks in the kitchen carrying two bags of groceries.
“Looks like Cupid had a full-blown party in here, y’all,” she says.
“We’re just finishing up and then we’re heading to bed, right Princess Bug?” I remind Olivia.
She puts on a slightly pouty face, but only for a moment.
“Want me to help you get groceries from the car?” I ask Savannah.
“No, darlin’. I’ve got ’em.” Even though she relocated to California five years ago, Savannah’s southern accent remains strong. I guess mine does too, but I don’t hear it like I hear hers.
Olivia and I finish assembling her cards and put them all in a bag in the front hallway near her backpack to take to school tomorrow. Once she’s tucked in bed, I tidy the kitchen, gathering the scraps of paper and wiping all the random confetti and glitter from the counter and floors. I head into the living room to collapse on the couch. Savannah’s got some home improvement show on. I pick up my phone and see a text from my best friend, Danae.
Danae: How are you holding up?
Madison: I’m fine.
Danae: I know this week can be hard on you.
Madison: I miss him more on days when I’m forced to think about all he is missing out on, but I’m pressing through it.
Danae: Want to talk?
Madison: Thanks, but I’m pretty wiped out. I’ll just see you Thursday.
Danae: K, love you
Madison: Love you too.
I set my phone back down, convincing myself I don’t need to scroll social media to see post after post of happy couples. I turn my eyes to the TV as I grab the throw blanket off the back of the couch and wrap it around my legs. My mind drifts to the first Valentine’s when Jake and I were in high school.
The door to our tenth grade World History class opens as five students enter announcing, “We’ve got a singing telegram for Madison Reeves.” I sense the blush rising in my cheeks. My heart hopes it’s from Jake, but so far, he seems oblivious to how I feel about him. He’s comfortable in the friendship we’ve had since third grade when he moved into our neighborhood.
I’m pretty sure he thinks of me as just one of the guys. The group of students walk toward me as all my classmates point to me. They gather around my desk and start singing Truly, Madly, Deeply by Savage Garden. I dare to look around during the song and catch Jake staring at me. I force myself not to look away from him and he gives me the slightest nod as a small grin travels across his face.
My whole life shifts in that moment. He sent this telegram. He wants more with me.
“Hey, are you okay?” I hear Savannah’s question as I wipe a stray tear off my cheek.
“Yeah. Just thinking,” I answer her as she gets up from the love seat and comes over to me.
She sits next to me and pulls me into her arms. “It’s not always going to hurt like this, Maddy.”
“I know. I just wish he could be here. Olivia’s getting so big. He’s missing all of it.”
Savannah pulls me into her arms, and I rest my head on her shoulder as I tuck my legs up under me. We sit there quietly as she wordlessly comforts the empty places in my heart. I allow steady tears to flow, even though I’m afraid the reservoir of grief won’t drain regardless of how often or hard I cry. It’s been over six years and the pain sometimes feels as acute as if it’s only been six days.
* * *
Our morning routine basically runs itself during the school year. The smell of coffee drifts upstairs from the pot that automatically turned on fifteen minutes ago. Savannah’s long gone by now to the news station. She’s on the morning show and has to be out of the house by 3:45 a.m. every day to get to work by 4:15 a.m.
Olivia jumps into my bed like clockwork. “Gooood morning!” she says in her dramatic way. She has two settings: asleep and fully awake. I’m more of the give me an hour and I promise I’ll be nice after coffee type of person, but for my daughter’s sake I force myself into premature cheeriness.
“Are you excited for Valentine’s Day?” I ask.
“Duh,” she answers.
“Duh? … Since when do you say duh to your mom?” I tease as I roll over and tickle her sides while she giggles and twists all over my bed.
“Okay! Okay!” she laughs. “Yes, ma’am.”
“That’s more like it,” I tell her with a smile and a little wink. “Now let me get up so we can shower and get dressed.”
Even though we don’t live in Georgia anymore, I’m partial to the manners I learned growing up. California tends to be way more casual, so it’s a bit like I’m swimming upstream having Olivia say yes ma’am and no sir and insisting she call adults Miss or Mister, but I’m sticking with it anyway.
We climb out of my bed and I follow her to her bathroom to shower. When we moved into this house, we put Olivia in the master bedroom at the opposite end of the upstairs, so she has room to play and later to study in there. She basically showers herself these days in the master bathroom only needing my help to shampoo her hair. It blows my mind how quickly she’s gaining independence.
We eat breakfast and I pour my second cup of coffee into a travel mug. Olivia grabs her backpack and bag of valentines and we leave for school.
I’m finishing my credential to be an elementary school teacher. In the meantime, I work mornings at Olivia’s school as a teacher’s aide in one of the fourth-grade classrooms. Three afternoons a week I stay after lunch to work in the front office.
Olivia and I park in the employee lot at the side of the building and walk in together. She leads the way to her classroom, pausing occasionally to say either, “Hurry up, Mommy,” or “You are slower than molasses in winter.”
Once she’s at the door to her classroom, she turns to me. “Have a great day!” Then she gives me a quick hug and bounds into the room without seeming to give me another thought.
I watch as she hangs her backpack and joins a group of children sitting around a table. I hear their bubbly conversation floating out into the hallway as the door shuts behind me.
The morning at school flows like usual, with the exception of the giddy energy the kids have anticipating their end-of-the-day Valentine’s party. Normally on Wednesdays I go to the office right after lunch, and Savannah picks Olivia up for me. Today, I’m in the classroom all day.
At the sound of the last bell all the students line up to either get on their busses or wait for parent pick-up in the carpool lane. I walk them out and leave them with the yard duty in charge and then return to help Mrs. Gibbons clean up from our class party. The janitors will be in later, but we still want to get the decorations torn down and tidy up a bit.
“Do you have any plans this evening?” Mrs. Gibbons asks me as she pulls down the last red heart off the wall.
“Just a quiet dinner with Olivia and my sister.”
“Hmmmm.” She hums thoughtfully.
“No. Ever since George passed away, I’ve spent Valentine’s Day evening going through old photos, thanking God for what we had, remembering the good times, and … well … that’s what I do.”
I get the sense she sheds tears during her solitary Valentine’s nights, but I don’t press.
“You’d be welcome to join us for dinner,” I offer.
“Oh, thank you, dear. No. Honestly, I’m looking forward to reminiscing.”
I take the stack of decorations from her desk and place them in the Rubbermaid tub on the chair.
“May I be a nosy old schoolteacher?” she asks.
“Have you considered dating yet? I know it’s complicated, and our situations are so different, but you’re so young.”
I don’t know what to say. Lately I have been noticing men again. She’s not wrong. At twenty-eight years old, I am still young. But I always experience a little pang of betrayal when I am attracted to someone else. In my head I know I should consider the option at some point. Maybe.
“I haven’t met anyone worth changing the status quo,” I tell her.
“Well, I won’t press you. Just don’t shut the door to the option.”
I change the subject to tomorrow’s history project about Abraham Lincoln. I need space from thinking about the potential of opening my heart and life to another man.
We finish the last bit of cleanup and Mrs. Gibbons locks the classroom door. In the parking lot we go our separate ways.
The whole drive home I think about what it would be like to date. How would it even work with Olivia in the picture? Jake was my first boyfriend—my first everything. I can’t imagine someone taking his place.
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