*This piece originally appeared in the Feb. issue of Somerset Magazine.
It happened every single year: on Valentine’s Day, the cheerleaders in my
high school would weave in and out of the classrooms, passing out roses of
different colors to all the lucky guys and gals who had boyfriends, girlfriends,
and best friends who wanted to express their love via flowers with paper tags
attached to the stems.
I did not like Valentine’s/Flower Distribution Day. I blame this on a boy
who decided, starting in fourth grade, that I would not go home with just a
single red rose; I would go home with 12. That’s right: an entire bouquet.
What’s worse is that every year when it came time for the cheerleaders to begin
handing out roses in my homeroom, they saved my 12 roses for last. This meant
that during the first year or two of this charade, at least 12 students thought
for sure that they still had a chance of receiving a rose. Because, well, not
receiving a rose was pretty much the floral equivalent of getting picked last
for a team in gym class and the team captain saying, “Are you one-hundred
percent positive I can’t pick anyone else?”
When one of the cheerleaders announced, “And the rest of these roses go
to . . . Kayla Pongrac!,” I wanted nothing more than to hide under my desk and
wait until the roses withered and all of my classmates boarded their school
buses home so that I could save myself the embarrassment of having to walk up to
the front of the classroom and accept my bouquet. What came next was the walk of
shame back to my desk; this walk often involved making eye contact with at
least one student who looked at me as if I had checked out all the Harry Potter
books in the library for an entire lifetime.
I tried not to draw even more attention to myself upon sitting back down
at my desk and carefully reading all the tags. In addition to a “To” and “From”
line on the front of each tag, there was space on the back for “additional
comments” such as: “I love you so much, Kayla!” or “Will you go out with me,
Kayla?” or “Circle one: Yes or No” or “You are so special to me, Kayla,” or
“Happy Valentine’s Day to my favorite person in the whole entire school and
universe!” I know what you’re thinking: this little boy was bound to make a
great husband someday.
But here’s what I was thinking: I will never go out with you, so you
should save your money and leave me alone.
Instead, I said nothing. I put my head down on my desk until it was time
to board bus number four, which was a real treat because everyone on the bus
wanted to know who my flowers were from and what was written on their tags.
Valentine’s/Flower Distribution Day was essentially slang for Tell Me Right Now
Who Loves You Day.
Not only did I have to deal with my persistent busmates, but also my mom.
Every day at 3:30 p.m., my mom stood waiting for me and my sister at the end of
our driveway. Valentine’s Day was especially exciting for her because it meant
that she got to see who else had found her daughters to be quite charming.
I’m not bragging when I say that I walked off that bus every year with
more flowers in hand than Chelsey. Although my sister and I were competitive,
this was always the one time when I had wished that Chelsey could outnumber
me—that she could experience what it was like to be loved by a certain classmate
who, in second grade, slung an entire garbage bag full of stuffed animals over
his shoulder and dumped them at my feet right before we recited the Pledge of
Chelsey usually received yellow roses from her two best friends on Valentine’s/Flower
Distribution/Tell Me Right Now Who Loves You Day. These roses were accompanied
by tags that read, “BFF!” or “BFFAEAE,” the latter meaning “Best friends forever
and ever and ever,” but could have also possibly meant “Buffalos fling fudge as
entertainment, as education.”
When my mother saw me walking toward her with my bouquet of red roses, she would gasp and put her hands over her mouth, always giving me the opportunity to ask, “Makes you want to puke, too, huh?”
But my mom was absolutely thrilled with all these roses. As soon as we walked through our front door, she would fill a vase with water and place all of them inside. Then came
her favorite question: “Can I read the tags?” I would shrug my shoulders, slop
some homemade food onto my dinner plate and go sit in front of the TV. All I
wanted was for the day to be over so everyone could return to normalcy after
having endured a full day’s worth of idiocy. Also, as far as I was concerned,
the only person I would even consider having as my Valentine was Judge Judy, who
was telling people how it was as I cut my tenderized steak with a fork.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t eat my dinner in peace—nor could I hear the defendants stutter their way through their testimonies—before my mom was in the living room, asking me if
I had thanked my “not-so-secret admirer” for the beautiful flowers. My answer
was no—that he was not in the same classroom as I when they were delivered, and
if he were, I would have walked up to his desk and demanded that he have the
roses returned to the bush from which they were picked.
“Well then you should call him right now, Kayla,” my mom would say.
“And say what?”
“Just thank him for the beautiful roses and wish him a happy Valentine’s Day. I’m sure he
borrowed a lot of money from his parents to buy them for you.”
“Then how about you just call his parents and tell them to never give him money ever
And so my mom would locate our phonebook, find his parents’ names and use her pointer finger to trace the dotted line that led to their phone number. Then she would stand over my shoulder and recite those seven digits as if she were reciting poetry,
making that the only time in my life when I wished that poetry did not exist.
There I stood, with one end of the receiver next to my ear and the other next to my mouth. I wasn’t sure which could possibly be worse: me listening to him talk or me trying
to talk as he listened, hoping that I would say, “Yes! I’ll be your girlfriend! Happy Valentine’s Day!”
Some years there would be an answer and I would just stand there in silence, hoping that
soon enough I would hear that heavenly click and—no pun intended—be let off the
hook (all I would simply have to do was lie and tell my mom that there was no
answer). Other years there really was no answer at all, and I imagined the boy
who was in love with me on a dinner date with his parents, being the dreadful
third wheel, watching them lean over the table and smile at each other while he
twisted spaghetti noodles around on his fork, wondering how long it would take until I decided to love him back.
Fiction, poetry, and all that good stuff . . .