Jamie looked out her bedroom window and laughed, trying to look past the irregularly shaped snowman, the masterpiece her younger sister and brother had created to adorn their front yard. With only one button eye remaining, and a scarf which had been mistakenly tied around its head instead of its neck, it looked more like a scary pirate in its Halloween costume than any Frosty the Snowman she had ever seen. But she loved it anyway. Oh, how she lived for the holidays. She loved every single one of them. She loved the adventure of ringing doorbells, pretending to be someone else and being rewarded with a bagful of candy on Halloween. She loved the reflection of holiday tree lights making jumbled-up rainbows in the snow, and her favorite holiday of all time was just around the corner.
In preparation for that sweetest of all holidays, dressed in its red finery, Jamie was scanning the horizon for something, or someone. Sure enough, the door opened across the street, and the auburn-headed James O’Reilly appeared right on schedule. She felt a twinge in her heart, or was it a stab of pain from an arrow hitting its bull’s-eye from Cupid’s bow? Every morning, Jamie looked for the shaggy red-headed youngster at ten past seven and would race down the stairs, her heart flip-flopping wildly, in order to “just by chance” bump into him and walk with him to the corner bus stop.
She had crushed on James ever since they had been in kindergarten together and he had taken as much an interest in her skinned knee as she had herself. She remembered sobbing on the playground and how he unselfishly offered his stuffed rabbit to help console her. But as they grew up, they grew apart. The only class they still had together was band, and she was both happy and relieved they had each taken up the clarinet. Wednesdays were the only time each week in middle school she could count on seeing him. She would pretend to forget her music, and he was always eager to share and plop down in the seat next to her. Was it just her imagination, or did he look forward to band just as much as she did?
“Hi Jamie… I saw a lot of cars at your house last weekend. Did someone in your family have a birthday or something?” he asked excitedly.
“Ah, or something,” Jamie replied quickly. “It was Chinese New Year… yeah, probably not a holiday you celebrate. We had a lot of our family over for dinner. Just a regular dinner—well maybe a few special things.”
“Chinese New Year sounds like fun to me,” asserted James. “I like anything with food.” Boy what a dumb thing to say! he thought. That’s not going to impress her, he thought, but he didn’t realize she didn’t need impressing.
The rest of the way was silent, and Jamie was happy when the bright orange bus pulled up, against the backdrop of a crisp February azure sky. She had already run out of topics and wanted to end any conversation about the differences between their families dead in its tracks. She was from a traditional Chinese-American family, and she knew, with their Celtic customs, the O’Reillys were proud Irish- Americans. She was relieved to take her seat in the front row with Corinne, her best friend, which had been their routine all six grades previously.
Both Jamie and Corinne were on the Valentine’s Day Dance Committee. After school, the two gathered with the enthusiastic crowd of other party-planners in the gym. Construction-paper hearts of all sizes lined the cinder-block walls, and, intertwined among clouds of crimson and snowy helium balloons, hung excitement and anticipation.
“I like the school’s seventh-and eighth-grade tradition,” giggled Corinne in hushed tones.
“Kinda risky if you ask me,” replied Jamie quietly.
“I like the fact that the last dance is ‘Girls’ Choice.’ If the girl is ready to reveal a secret crush, she can offer a small token of a gift she has picked out just for her crush that she unveils during the last dance. If the boy doesn’t feel the same, he just accepts the gift politely as a gift of friendship. If he likes the girl, he offers a small gift back, that he especially brought for her. No harm done. No feelings hurt.”
“Except if you’re not the right girl,” replied Jamie. “I think it’s dumb,” she heard herself voice aloud. Secretly, she was shouting. She wanted Corinne to know that she genuinely loved the tradition. She had crushed on James her whole life and couldn’t wait till the St. Valentine’s dance to take a chance and let it be known. But she was scared. She couldn’t believe she was acting this way. I can’t even tell my best friend, she thought. How am I going to tell James that I want him for my Valentine?
She thought back to the day she bought the simple Claddagh boy’s ring. She had learned that the Claddagh was an Irish symbol of friendship. She was with her mom in Winkelman’s Jewelry Shop in town right before Christmas. Mom was getting the battery changed in her watch, the one Dad had bought at Winkelman’s last year as a Christmas present. Mom loved that two-tone silver-and-gold watch that “goes with everything,” she had told all her friends.
Jamie loved her mom. Although she had no fashion sense, she was a ready listener. She could tell her mom anything. Mom was always ready to hear her out and didn’t judge. She told her mom she wanted to buy the ring and her mom had let her. She wanted something that would be important to James and let him know she wanted to learn more about his family’s culture.
Jamie’s favorite day, filled with cinnamon hearts, foil chocolate boxes, cutout cupids and frilly doilies, had finally arrived. “Ha-choo,” Jamie awoke. “Ha-choo, ha-choo,” a reveille of sneezes announced the morning to the rest of the household, in place of her usual tinny electric alarm. Jamie didn’t have her comforter on, yet she was burning up. “Oh no, not today,” she implored the vacant room. As she slipped her feet over the side of the bed and tried to stand, she felt her stomach reach for her knees, and everything grayed out.
“This can’t be happening,” she uttered aloud to her platoon of stuffed animals keeping guard. She plopped back on the bed, yearning for ice chips to soothe her dry, burning throat. Sure enough, after her mom found the thermometer hidden among the store of orphaned items in the bathroom drawer, it was confirmed. She had the flu.
“No school for you today,” her mom pronounced. Any other day, Jamie would have been happy to have a day off from school. But not today. Jamie knew if she wasn’t well enough to go to school, she wasn’t well enough to go to the dance tonight. That was a house rule. And house rules were never broken. The twists of red and white party streamers that she would never see again swirled into a pink vortex as Jamie fell into a deep slumber.
Somewhere around nine PM Jamie awoke. She had to look twice at the fluorescent dial illuminating the face of her bedside alarm clock. Was it possible? She had slept over fourteen hours. She felt beads of perspiration on her forehead but felt much cooler, as if Persephone, the goddess of spring, had exhaled a fresh supply of mountaintop air into her boiler room of a bedroom. Her fever had broken.
Looking out at the silver moon through her box bay window, she spied a figure in the shadows, hovering over her mailbox. Could it be James? she thought. He was wearing the familiar kelly-green parka and it looked like he was slipping a small wrapped package into her mailbox; then he quickly scampered away across the thinning snowdrifts to make his way home.
Jamie put on her robe and pulled on her fleecy Uggs quickly. If she were quiet, she could tiptoe down the back stairs to the kitchen and her parents might not hear her as they sat in front of the TV. She could hear her parents’ favorite show blaring up the stairs.
Jamie begged the snow not to crunch too loudly. She didn’t want Bailey the pug next door to start barking its worst. As Jamie opened the mailbox gingerly, her heart skipped jump rope. Sure enough, in its dwelling was a small package wrapped in ruby-red tissue. With it was a hand-scrawled note with a heart and an arrow running through it, which read, “To Jamie from James.” Unwrapping the satiny tissue, Jamie let out a small gush of surprise. In her palm lay a dainty silver dragon, cut out in front of the Chinese character for luck. It was the cutest Chinese dragon she had ever seen. It sparkled in the moonlight. Her heart wanted to shout out its happiness to the low-hanging stars eavesdropping above.
Jamie surveyed her watch under the nearby street lamp. There was still time before Valentine’s Day was over. She had missed the dance, but not the holiday completely. Cupid was still flying around somewhere for two more hours. She hoped he had a warm coat on because the February air was saturated, foretelling lacy precipitation. She snuck back upstairs and found the Claddagh friendship ring she had carefully wrapped in white paper with magenta hearts. She summoned her bravery and snuck back down the stairs, out the side door and across the street. She placed the Claddagh in James’s mailbox and sped home. Before long, she was in the deepest and most restful sleep she could imagine.
The next morning Jamie awoke, wondering if it had all been just a sweet dream, a remnant left over from the holiday of hearts just past. But wait, fingering the pendant around her neck, she could make out its dragon outline quickly. She smiled. She wouldn’t have to wait another year to share her heart’s biggest secret.
“Hey Valentine, can I walk you to the bus stop?” It was James, his cheery self. He must have been watching for her. As he clasped her hand, she could feel the weight of something heavy on his ring finger.
“I love Valentine’s Day,” Jamie ventured.
“Me too,” is all he said, grinning back. The new crusty layer of snow glistened and sparkled in the brilliant sunshine. Ahead, the bus was just pulling up.