BE MINE

BE MINE

From Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul

Be Mine

Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Author Unknown

Although I have seen the day roll around at least thirty times now, for me there has been only one Valentine’s Day worthy of the name. Like most, I have had the usual array of chocolate candies, cute cards and exotic surprises in see-through red thrown my way over the years—and have offered up more than my share of such treasures as well—but for the sheer romantic renown of the day, there has been but one. Fourth grade, Lori Lee. Quite possibly the most charming grade-schooler ever to carry a Josie and the Pussycats lunchbox.

Lori Lee introduced me to Valentine’s Day with such grandiloquence that no Valentine’s Day since has even come close to measuring up. The day has always approached with such promise and then withered into such disappointment that I grew into that kind of adult who disguises the love holiday as yet another manipulative invention of the groveling-card cartel. And I began to wonder exactly what might have happened had Lori Lee not disappeared from my world at the conclusion of our fourth-grade year.

In this day and age, any man who goes on a search for a lost love from twenty years ago must immediately be suspected of several potentially dangerous psychotic disorders. But the failed Valentine’s Days were stacking up like broken limbs behind me, and although I had not once seen or heard anything of Lori Lee since moving thousands of miles away from her at age nine, the image of her had never quite left my mind. It was sometime around last Valentine’s Day that the idea got stuck in my head. I needed to find Lori Lee.

1972. A neighborhood in Southern California that looks very much like the one where the Brady Bunch lived, only without Sam the butcher. For two years I have been completely in love with Lori Lee, the angelic creature who lives across the street. That Lori is the defining love of my life has been clear to me for some time, but the situation is complicated by a couple of factors. First, Lori’s older brother, Ted, also happens to be my best friend. Second, I am a grotesquely bashful child in Lori’s radiant presence. In the company of friends and family I am a sparkling wit, already a budding journalist and critic of the world. With Lori, my primary form of communication consists chiefly of grunts and rudimentary hand gestures.

Although she is always sweet to me, outwardly at least, Lori’s heart does not appear to be pounding to the same desperate rhythm as my own when we walk home together from the bus stop each day. These walks become the highlight of my young life, but never once am I able to summon the courage of my feelings after school and invite Lori inside my house for a discreet game of Twister.

The whole thing comes to a head on Valentine’s Day. In class there is the usual ritual. A festive atmosphere prevails as we kids pass out store-bought valentine cards following that school role from time immemorial: if you bring a valentine for one person, you bring one for everybody. So, we pass out our humdrum cards, and I get a generic “Be Mine” from Lori and the other twenty-six kids in class, and we all get sick eating candy hearts and get to go home early, and that’s that. The same as it ever was. Or so I thought.

The walk home from the bus stop with Lori that day seems pretty much like all the ones that have preceded it for the past two years, but when we arrive at the spot where our paths split, Lori stops and says, “I have something for you.” I go numb. She pulls an oversize red envelope from her Snoopy and Woodstock school bag, presses it into my hand, and takes off running into her house without a word.

I rush to my bedroom, carefully open the envelope, and find inside the most beautiful handmade card of red construction paper with a big white doily and shiny stars and all sorts of heart stuff attached. On the inside, Lori has spelled out “I love you” in Elmer’s glue and then covered the perfect white cursive lettering with glitter. (Even with glue and glitter, an A in penmanship! What a girl!)

Such drama! The perfect expression of sentiment! Can anyone blame me for feeling only disappointment at the feeble Valentine’s Days that were to follow! Could any Valentine’s Day be anything other than pallid by comparison? The sheer momentum was dizzying, and the pace might even have picked up from there—Lori and I might be married now for all I know—if not for one Godless extenuating factor: my older brother, Mike.

After reading it thirty or forty times I’d hidden the card under a pile of socks in my dresser drawer, but for some reason—which to this day remains unexplained—Mike happened to have his vile paws in my dresser that evening and, or course, stumbled upon the big, red envelope. Now, my brother wasn’t extraordinarily sadistic, but he was an older brother and, as a sixth-grader, given to the sport of adolescent cruelty that earns big brothers such bad reputations. Mike was so amused by my valentine from Lori that he promptly marched the thing across the street to show Ted, my best friend and Lori’s older brother, and then paraded it with thunderous enthusiasm all over the neighborhood. Needless to say, a tremendous commotion ensued, all of which mortified both Lori and me and pretty much rushed any major developments in this early love of our lives.

The will of love may be strong, but the taunting of children can be just as intense. Lori and I spent the remainder of the school year exchanging restrained looks of longing— a few quick words in corners here and there—but it all came crashing down when my father announced that our family would soon be moving to, of all places, Alaska. It seemed a rather severe place to be exiled from the summery smile of Lori Lee, but there was little I could do. Scrambling for a way to be near the source of my heart’s flame, I suggested that I might be able to stay behind and live in an orphanage, and my father didn’t sound entirely unintrigued by the idea. In the end, I was resigned to leave town with the rest of the family.

On the last day of school, Miss Lockhart organized a good-bye party for me. She was even thoughtful enough to have prepared a short lesson on Alaska in my honor— complete with an SRA reader, The Last Frontier—and after class, all the kids lined up to say good-bye. The whole time, though, all I could do was stare at Lori, who, for the first time since Valentine’s Day, stared back at me with her great, liquid eyes.

The final sublime moment came on the school bus, when, with very deliberate intent, Lori took the seat next to mine, grasped my hand in hers, and held it the entire way home and then down the street. At my door, I searched furiously for words to describe the terrific bursting in my chest.

“Well,” I finally managed, “bye.”

“I’m really sorry you’re leaving.”

“Me, too.”

That said, she kissed me on the cheek and once again darted into her house across the street.

Our family moved the next day, and I never saw Lori Lee again.

It had crossed my mind more than once that a search for a fourth-grade sweetheart is not something that indicates an entirely level mind. Times being what they are, men on such quests might be referred to by courts of law as “stalkers,” or worse. But where there had once been romance, I had faith that some shred of feeling remained, and if I had wondered all these years what had become of Lori, she too, must have wondered at least a little what had become of me. I was determined to find Lori, travel to wherever it was the winds of fate had taken her, and then. . . . Well, who knows what then? Trust nature to do its work.

The search began promisingly with a tip from some old friends that the Lee family had possibly relocated to Hawaii. An expensive trip, to be sure, but if I was to go through with the promise to myself to see Lori, what better location? It looked good when I found, through a friend’s computer phone directory and credit-reference database, no fewer than four Lori Lees in Hawaii who were approximately my age. Alas, upon calling, none turned out to be my Lori—although one sympathetic Lori offered to be—and it was back to the drawing board. Phone calls to the old school and past acquaintances turned up nothing. Even three weeks working with a private investigator drew only blanks.

With hope dwindling, a lawyer named Lee in Sacramento—himself the result of a dead-end lead— suggested a Tempe, Arizona-based company called Finders, Ltd., which specializes in locating hard-to-find individuals. Almost miraculously, operating only on the sparse information I could provide, Finders was able to track Lori within an hour of my call, and, quite unexpectedly, I suddenly found myself in my living room holding a scrap of paper with Lori Lee’s San Francisco–area address and phone number written on it. Moments before, twenty years had stood between Lori and me, now only eleven digits on a telephone separated us, and I was faced with an emotion I hadn’t anticipated: panic.

It occurred to me that until this instant Lori had been at least half based on whimsical fantasy, but the phone number and address were frighteningly real pieces of information. Did I really want to do this? Had I really ever known this person in the first place? Was it worth risking the desecration of one of my most sacrosanct childhood memories for what might turn into a very strange and disappointing experience?

“No sense in going all the way to the ocean and not jumping in,” an uncle once said to me, even though his ocean was the North Atlantic and it was freezing cold and I didn’t really want to go in, even if it had taken us five hours in the car to get there. But I did get into the water every time we went, and that is what I remembered from one childhood memory as I stood on the precipice of another. It would be stupid to finally get this close to Lori and then stand on the beach gazing out at the blank horizon, forever wondering. Even so, I chickened out on the phone call, deciding it might be less of a shock for Lori to receive a letter. Also, it was easier for me.

“Dear Lori,” the letter began. “I hope you haven’t forgotten me . . .” An entire afternoon was spent on that letter, writing about what had happened in my life and how for a long time I’d regretted moving away in fourth grade and how, even though I realized we were both grown up now and had lives of our own, it might be fun to get together. “If this whole thing doesn’t sound too bizarre to you,” I finished up, “I hope you will call or write and let me know what you think.”

I expressed the letter overnight. The phone rang the next evening.

“Of course I remember,” the voice began as soon as I answered.

“Lori?”

“You had a dog named Walter.”

“Yeah.”

“You wore an Oakland Raiders jacket to school every day, even when it was too warm for a jacket.”

“Yeah.”

“You slugged a kid at the bus stop for making fun of me when I had the chicken pox.”

“Lori.”

“Hey, stranger.”

For the next hour we talked. A little tension, but nothing too weird. A few uncomfortable silences and the voice was a little different, but Lori Lee was as charming as ever. She told me about her brother, Ted, and I told her about my brother Mike, and we laughed about what a couple of jerks they were to us. Somewhere in the conversation she got around to her job and her husband and her two sons, the oldest starting school this year. My life seems to have followed more of an undefined random circle than your productive linear path, I told her; but I reviewed the high parts and she seemed genuinely interested. With only a hint of skepticism, she agreed to meet me at my favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco the following week.

For two hours after hanging up the phone, I was stricken with paralysis and only able to stare blankly out the window.

“You are Mr. Thompson?” This is the waiter asking me as soon as I arrive at the restaurant. I nod. “A message from Lori. With regret she will be one hour late.” I buck up and take the news pretty well, all things considered. In fact, Lori’s tardiness comes as something of a reprieve. My stomach has been knotted all day, and it might be a good idea to have a few moments to collect myself. I order vermouth, rocks, twist of lemon, thinking this will calm me. Instead it makes me wonder if an hour alone in a crowded restaurant is probably more time than one needs to collect himself. Two drinks later I’m convinced that an hour here will surely do me more harm than good. Every damn eye in the place has already identified me as some wounded piece of meat who is obviously being stood up. I don’t like this at all. Would they be good enough to hold the table while I go out for some air? Certainly, sir. (God, I love this restaurant. Viva, it’s called, and for the romantic reader, worth checking into.)

Out on the street, I walk a few laps around the block with still half an hour to kill and my mind inventing a hundred possible explanations for Lori’s delay: City traffic is murder. She had to work late. Cold feet. Couldn’t find a sitter for the kids. A huge row with her husband, some insane rage-a-holic with a purple vein that bulges from his forehead when he’s angry, who has vowed to crush my spleen while she wails at him with high-pitched ululations of protest and the neighbors call the cops. Though my romantic experiences have not always been pleasant, they have usually been educational and I have come to accept the fact that it is a woman’s prerogative to be as late as she pleases in situations such as these.

But this isn’t the way it was supposed to work out with Lori. At once I am overtaken with a great epiphany; I cannot go through with this. I don’t need to satisfy my curiosity about what she looks like now, what she acts like now, or what might have been. Suddenly my mind is clear. I’ve known all along what I needed to know about Lori Lee.

The trouble is, you see, that while one can always maintain realistic expectations of the world, the fact remains that nobody really wants to be faced with living proof that their grade-school love has somehow gotten away, grown up, gotten married and had twin kids. Nobody wants to find that twenty years have muddled whatever connections there once might have been, not made it more heroic. That the phone calls can be tainted by those dreaded moments of naked silence. Those may be the things that life is all about, but they are not what fourth-grade love affairs are about. And they are surely not what Valentine’s Day is about.

Not far from the restaurant I find a stationery store still open for business late in the day and buy about $15 worth of paper, pens, envelopes, glue and glitter. Sitting on a stoop outside, I write a brief note to Lori apologizing for not keeping our date, and at the end I finally write something that satisfies the thing in me that has wanted to speak for all these years.

Lori,

I’m sure we would have had a wonderful time tonight, but all I really wanted to do this whole time was just finally say thanks for the valentine card you gave me a long time ago. It may now feel like a small gesture to you, but those are the types of gifts that seem to sum up everything that is good in the world, and I will never forget you for it.

Yours, Chuck

After carefully folding the letter, I spell out Lori’s name in Elmer’s glue across the front of the big, red envelope, sprinkle gold glitter over it, and wait for it to dry. Back at the restaurant, I seal the envelope with the most innocent look I can manage, place the card on our vacant table, and walk quietly out the door as a single girl with familiar-looking eyes walks in. I feel sad that the world is no longer the simple place it once was, but satisfied just the same that some things, even if remaining forever just beyond reach, never really change at all.

Chuck Thompson

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