As is my custom when Valentine’s Day nears, I withdraw an envelope from its place of safe-keeping. The Valentine inside was given to me more than fifty years ago.
I picture him, that erudite and elegant dark-eyed man, standing in a Hallmark card shop, selecting this particular card with me in mind. The message inside, “If you will not be my Valentine, I shall be sorely vexed,” could have been composed by him. His intellect and wit were such that no one who knew him would have thought the almost archaic language was out of character.
I loved that man, loved him utterly beyond reason. And yet, somewhat more than a year after he placed this Valentine in my hand, I spoke words of goodbye that sent him away, and he was indeed “sorely vexed.” My reasons for those hasty and ill-considered words of self-preservation, reasons based on knowing that his public image, political aspirations, and other relationships did not include a young woman less than half his age, seem as valid today as they were then, yet do nothing to diminish the self-inflicted heartache that has been my companion for a half century.
We each wed others, though my wedding would not be for several years past another decade. He continued to cement his already legendary status in his chosen profession. I went in a different direction, one that took me to a simpler life closer to the natural world, far away from high-heeled shoes and fancy dresses.
Shortly after I married, he became a widower, then died a few years later. Because we had been in sporadic but distant contact, I am certain he knew my feelings for him had endured, and that affords me some comfort. Then, after thirty years of marriage, I too was widowed.
Late at night, in that time of quiescence before sleep draws a fleecy blanket over conscious thought, I lie in bed and build castles in the air. I contemplate what never was and never would have been. I imagine that he is alive and I show him the woman I have become, comfortable with the diverse parts of her life having finally come together to form a confident whole. I hand him the cherished Valentine and watch his gentle smile.
I add ornamental turrets and fantastical towers to my nighttime castle: I tell him that perhaps if he had played his cards a bit differently that awful night, with the simple act of putting his arms around me, he could have had me all to himself for the quarter-century left in his life. He smiles, steps closer, and enfolds me in his arms.
For a few moments, moments sweet as Valentine’s Day candies, I sense he is regretting not having done that very thing.
Then, with the self-deprecating balm that eases pain and helps me laugh at myself, I say, “Do you realize what a bullet you dodged?”
We laugh and hold each other closer as memories overcome, and I fall asleep in his embrace once again.