THIN. No doubt about it, she was thin, although wiry might be more accurate a description. She was fast of foot, someone to have on your side on Field Day, and muscular in a stringy way, but mostly what I remember is hairy arms and a pencil-thin mustache, and that sweet, almost embarrassed expression on her face when I went to the front of the classroom on Valentine's day to get my cards. Hers was the only one. For me, tomorrow has always been Harriet Titleman Day.
What we used to do, you see, is send cards through something called the school mail. This was elementary school, the seventh or eighth grade, I think, and every year the teacher would put a box on her desk and call out names. It was like mail call in the army, only by then I had wised up and subscribed to magazines. That year, the teacher called my name just once.
I went up to the front of the room and took my card. It was unsigned, the message forgotten, but I caught a glimpse of Harriet, saw her turn away and got confirmation later from a friend that the front of the classroom on Valentine's Day she was the one who had sent it. In a way, it was worse than no card at all and after school my friend Neil, something of a lady killer even at an early age, asked me about my cards and I changed the subject. Neil, I think, had to hire help for the day just to carry his cards home and it was not too long after that that he had to leave a party because a girl came up to him and whispered that she loved him. I walked him home, commisserating all the way. God. I said, it really was tough.
Anyway, Harriet and I had this unspoken bond, and it was how we both loathed Valentine's Day. For both of us -- for people like us -- it was just another opportunity to get rebuffed, to be shown our place. Somehow you were supposed to be thrilled with the whole thing, just sit in class waiting for the blow to fall, endorse the whole concept as something wonderful when it was only wonderful to the lucky few. Lots of so-called happy occasions were like that -- fun only in Archie comic books. As for Harriet and me, we cringed from them. I know I died. I think Hariret did.
Valentine's Day is just the foremost example of this sort of thing and what it comes down to, really, is playing by the rules that work only for the few. New Year's Eve is terrific if you have a date and Christmas vacation is supposed to be fun, but isn't, if you really like school and don't know what to do without it. Show me a kid, though, who says he hates vacations, which was the case with me. I never let on, though, and I never let on how much I dreaded the senior prom even though I was on the band committee. I feared I would get a band but no date.
Valentine's Day just sums up the whole thing for people like me. If you ask people to tell you something about the day, what you're likely to get is this cry of pain, sometimes couched in humor -- stories of cards not received and flowers not sent. Some of them laugh about it now, but whatever it was it was not funny when it happened. All of a sudden you were supposed to have some one to care for -- someone to care for you. Some days, this was hard to manage. Enough days like this and it makes you wonder what Harriet Titleman found so attractive.
The one thing about getting older is you outgrow some of this. New Year's Eve is no longer traumatic and school dances are things of the past but there is still something about Valentine's Day that rankles. It is the one day that continues to intrude, to say that you must, regardless of mood, send a card or send flowers or somehow show affection. It is the calendar telling you when to care and when to express your care and what you want to say in protest is that you care enough not to care when ordered -- on demand. The perfect Valentine's Day present should be plastic flowers.
I supposed we are all better people for those early hurts and somehow I suspect that Harriet is now a lawyer in Los Angeles, tall and graceful, dark-haired, and attractive the mysterious way women are when their looks have not come easy. I don't know what she ever saw in me, but as for her, I appreciate her now. It's a bit late, but I just wanted to say it.
Happy Valentine's Day, Harriet.