It was Valentine's Day, which meant that all lunch periods were bustling with the delivery of cheap flowers, a dollar a piece and sporting cheesy notes tied with curling ribbon, from all the area boys' schools. You didn't need to have a boyfriend for a flower to come your way. Girls with boyfriends were upstairs in the main office picking up elaborate arrangements of roses with teddy bears and balloons (God I wanted to be one of those girls--they got to have their names called over the PA). No, you didn't need to have a boyfriend; you just needed to have someone.
Around my lunch table of twelve or so other girls, carnations were piling up. These were my friends, and I knew most of the boys who had sent the flowers. They'd rip open the paper card, laugh at the funny or lame message inside, and then pass it to their neighbor, or to me, to share the fun. And it was fun. I had two flowers in front of me at the moment: one from my friend Pat and one from my friend Al. And they had funny and lame messages inside, and I was glad to be remembered and appreciated. But there was one other reason a boy might send a cheap flower to a girl. As a sign.
And I'd been waiting a couple of years from a sign from one particular boy.
I kept one eye on the clock, watching for the end of the lunch period. People were throwing out their garbage now, it wouldn't be long until we were dismissed. I sighed, resigned, and stood to carry my tray over to the kitchen.
When I stood, a grinning member of Student Council turned my way. She had three flowers in hand, clearly the last of the last because mine was the latest lunch period of the day, and she was moving toward me like a girl on a mission. I pretended to have forgotten some piece of garbage--a napkin, a spork, whatever I could find, to linger longer where I was.
She dropped the bunch beside me in my friend's lap, and moved on to help clean up with now empty flowers boxes, littered with lost leaves and stray flower petals.
Foolish, of course, because if you've waited two years for a sign from a boy and he still hasn't given it, well, isn't that a sign all by itself? But that's the thing about signs. If the one you want hasn't come, the rest don't count.
The bell toned--more of a department store chime than a true traditional ringing--as I dropped off my tray and collected my books for my next class. Math. Nothing like "adding" insult to injury.
My math teacher was pretty laid back, and usually entered the class several minutes after the students. In the meantime, being fine students of a preparatory school, we settled into our assigned seats and took out our homework and freshly sharpened pencils.
Okay, really? Girls were gathered in clusters when I arrived comparing Valentine notes and numbers of flowers received. One girl sat in the corner, feigning surprise over an enormous balloon/mixed flower arrangement that she "just couldn't figure out where to put without it falling over!" Ugh.
My good friend Carolyn turned to me and glanced at my flowers. "Pat and Al?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said, trying not to sigh. She raised her eyebrows, but didn't say anything. She knew what flower I had waited for, but didn't get.
I looked up to see the teacher plodding her way down the hall toward our classroom, laden with heavy binders and an overfilled tote. Her hair was slightly mussed and she looked frazzled from navigating halls that burst with Valentine-crazed teenaged girls. Just as she was almost home free, safe within the confines of our classroom, a student council member shoved past her. The stunned math teacher bumped into the doorjamb, too shocked to scold the girl whose purpose was clearly desperate.
The girl stumbled into the room, righted herself, and stood facing us. A few of my friends' mouths were open slightly.
"Is there a Mary Pat in here?" she called, holding up a broken flower. It was the saddest thing I'd seen all day, snapped in half and dangling by a wilted leaf. The card was slightly ripped and bent all over.
I stood, a little embarrassed that this flower--the reject of all flowers--might be mine to claim. But it was senior year. The only other Mary Pat I'd ever known had graduated the year before, so it really only left me.
"Here you go," she said, thrusting the damaged carnation my way. "Tell your guy to learn your name." I grabbed it, tucked it into my side, and slumped in my seat.
The teacher was pulling her materials for the day out of her tote, and pretending not to be interested in what had just happened. The rest of the class was staring at me.
"Well?" prompted Carolyn. "Are you gonna read it?"
I looked at the flower, resting over my math homework. The whole picture was my sign, by the way. Trampled, rumpled, extremely late, and mixed up with math. I should have turned and run as far from that disaster as I could.
But my heart was pounding and my face was hot and it was all just too much. I turned the card over. It read, "Mary Pat Malkovich." I pressed my lips into a straight line and pulled the card open carefully, as it was pretty beaten up. My eyes rested on the message inside, and I felt the voices and faces around me fade to nothing as my heart froze and I truly believed I was flying. The message told me everything I wanted to know:
I needed no more signs or answers that Valentine's Day--this simple slice of punctuation and damaged flora told me everything I needed to know, misspelled last name and all. I did not make my usual stop at Burger King on my way home from school that day. Instead, I raced home to a house I prayed was empty, made a beeline for the telephone (one of those archaic ones tethered to the wall by a wire), and promptly dialed a phone number as familiar to me as my own.
"Hey, Joe," I said, keeping my voice casual. A major accomplishment, all things considered. "You won't believe what happened to me today."
I could hear a mix of pride and laughter in his voice. He thought he was so clever. "Oh, really? Did it have anything to do with...Valentines?"
"Yeah," I said, huffing as if in annoyance. "You won't believe what some total loser sent me. A broken flower, a totally wrong last name on the card, and here's the worst part: the only thing he wrote inside was a question mark. Can you believe that?"
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then, Joe Bielecki cleared his throat and asked timidly, "Um...what is your last name?"