Not Fade Away

At first, it was all fun. Following the shape of an ear with our blunt scissors, then unfolding it to discover a fat heart and gluing it onto a lacy doily for our mothers. It was a holiday mostly celebrated at school, among ourselves, with a line of white bakery bags decorated with red and pink hearts dancing down the window sill of our classroom and pink cookies somebody elseís mother brought. I spread out the little white envelopes on the floor of my bedroom, counting them out as if they could measure my value. Iím pretty sure everyone got the same, except perhaps for Herbert or Theresa, the one child in the class who was too fat or silent or complex for us to accept into our homogenizing pack. I sorted the colorful pictures with their clever sayings ("Will you BEE mine?" a flying insect proposed) into favorites, sorted by giver and size until the next "Throw Away Day" when my mother woke, hungry to evacuate our apartment of unnecessary objects like my forgotten bag of valentines.

By junior high there were no white bags nor clever sayings. What we had been toying with beforeólove or affection or at least some human leaning kinder than hateóhad become real. The whole day buzzed with expectancy. Limp carnations appeared during homeroom for the lucky girls and luckier boys. The cafeteria bloomed with drooping red and pink balloons and damp crepe paper. Eventually we girls who were not the most beautiful, but possibly the most smart, used our heads. We learned to send each other flowers, go en masse to the dance, dance together because who could resist funking to "Brick House" even if you donít know exactly what the words mean but intuit they wonít ever be about you.

Then, like magic, it happens! Sort of. Teeth straighten, hair unfrizzes, suddenly you walk across a room and someone notices. Remember the store-bought card and mangled rose selected just for you? Remember your glasses fogging up against his chest while "Stairway to Heaven" droned on? Remember the fake opal presented at the Magic Time Machine, the restaurant where you could sit in a fifties Chevy or inside a cave and be served by a pirate or rabbit? Remember baking cookies and packing them gently into a decorated Pringles can and mailing it off to him at college? Remember leaving tiny love notes among his briefs and socks and t-shirts while he slept? All of this you will remember more than twenty years later. But you will not quite remember their names.

Then you ditch love because it ditches you. You spend an entire day and night making valentines for friends and relatives back home, delicate creations copied from your book on Renaissance art. It hurts to send them off. You toast to a Happy Un-Valentineís with your best girlfriends until the room spins.

Then you make the big discovery: Valentineís Day is not about getting a reservation at the right restaurant or waiting in line all night at the wrong one, or spending way too much on roses grown in Ecuador where the women who sort them get cancer from all the chemicals used to grow them so fat and showy. It is about being open for the unexpected daring of love to reveal itself in all its many challenging forms.

One night, more than ten years ago, I got home from work. My one-room apartment was dusky, silent. Where was he? I crossed the room, put down my things, and flicked on the light. Surprise! In every container, crevice, possible location, bobbed the frilly head of a carnation, the crazy sway of a daisy, hundreds of them. And my couch, which opened out into the bed I shared with him, was dappled with rose petals pink as bits of the sunset outside. And then in he walked, the man I didnít yet know how to love well but who already knew how to love me. I confess: I didnít first love this floral mess of his. It was not a perfectly arranged tower of roses the color of blood that meant heíd spent money he didnít have on me. I acted grateful, but was not and he knew it.

"I got them from the dumpster at the flower shop by work," he explained brightly.

Not the right thing to say.

Love is not magic. Love is simply both of you caring for each other, as you are, at the same time, and not hurting each other, most of the time.

I had to learn how to be loved. And how to love.

Now each year we make our valentines. Years of them line his grandmotherís china cabinet. Some are naughty. Some are witty. In one Iím pregnant and surrounded by the empty foil shells of chocolate kisses. In another, a fat baby takes up the center of the heart.

Just now, as I write this, the phone rings, my best friend screaming that the man she loves has asked her to marry him, not a surprise because theyíve already planned their low-key mid-life wedding for June. And yet a tremendous surprise, because a few years ago didnít she have a better chance of being attacked by a terrorist? Funny how things change. This time will work for them, I know, because thereís no pixie dust involved. Just timing, honest conversation, mutual desire and commitment, years of therapy and healing and courage. Tons of courage. Thatís magic.

My love and I have shared fourteen Valentineís Days. Ornate meals with candlelight. Thai food in bed. Licking nasty-tasting tingling potions from our tenderest parts. Nursing the baby with the ear infection. A stage of favorite singers endlessly belting out Buddy Hollyís "Not Fade Away." And many I fear Iíve forgotten. This year, like most, we donít have any big plans. My love wears his heart on his sleeve, making me glow with my own uniqueness nearly every day. I must do something of the same for him: I love the velvet of his forearms, the frame of his shoulders as he crouches above me, how we look in the mirror, and that he calls me Sweetface. Some days, some weeks, the world laps over us, with its piles of laundry, threat of sickness, stacks of bills, certainty of war, acts of fear instead of love, yet we still find the courage to keep cutting carefully along the curving line weíve drawn, unfolding this love of ours.

About the author:

Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West and Boston Review, among many other places. Born in Japan and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, she lived in Delaware and Rhode Island before settling in Austin in 1988. She works as communications and development director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in Austin. Bradford lives with her husband, their son, three cats and a dog. Being the motheróof a child over the age of threeóis the best thing that has ever happened to her. Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com and visit her site at www.robinbradford.net