Like at any other high school, Valentine’s Day at Lincoln High School was a big deal. The mixture of the holiday’s commercial nature; the opportunity to flaunt on social media; and excitement of what were, for many, first relationships, made it especially appealing to teenagers. Therese would watch as girls were presented with hastily wrapped gifts and cellophane-covered, single stem roses that they’d tote from classroom to classroom. Students who were single would do their best to ignore, the more cynical ones making snide comments that accompanied exaggerated eye-rolls, and, every year— without fail— Therese would encounter at least one scorned teen crying in the hallway. While the more joyous parts of the day were sweet to witness, Therese mostly appreciated the reminder of how nice it was to no longer be at an age where Valentine’s Day held any significance.
...or so she thought.
Unless her students were taking a test or doing presentations, Therese made it a point to keep her door open. She didn’t mind the occasional distracting noise coming from the hallway, and preferred kids to be able to move in-and-out as needed without interrupting her to ask permission. Her third hour Advanced English 9 class on February 14th was no exception.
She was standing at the whiteboard— a minimalist drawing of a turtle and a road behind her (it was The Grapes of Wrath month, and too many students were failing to understand just why they had to read an entire chapter detailing the journey of a turtle’s trek across a sun-soaked highway)— waiting for a volunteer to come up and write one thing the turtle might have in common with the Joad family, when she heard Ruby’s chipper voice echo through the empty hall. It caught her attention because Ruby was her close friend, and because she was rarely wandering the school at any time of day: she was an academic advisor and usually busy...advising. She was talking to someone— it sounded like the front office secretary, Farrah— and Therese could hear a poorly hushed, “I just want to see her face.”
Ruby’s head poked into the doorway and she peered in, like she was hiding something. When she’d successfully gotten Therese to stop what she was doing and look her way, she asked, “hey, are you busy?” a beaming smile accompanying the question.
“Me? Oh, no. We were all just hanging out. That’s how we spend our time here.” The class snickered and Therese said to them: “Maybe Mrs. Robichek can help you out since it seems she plans on joining us today.”
Ruby stuck out her tongue and scoffed. “We won’t be long. And we come bearing gifts, so be nice.”
Farrah was, in fact, with Ruby, but when she waltzed through the door, she was hardly visible behind the bouquet of flowers held out in front of her. “These came for you.”
“Oh…my god.” Therese swallowed hard. She knew she was blushing like crazy, and the collective, sing-songy, “oooooh,” coming from her students was not helping the case. They ogled and whispered as Therese scanned the flowers, searching for a card despite not needing a clue as to their sender.
“Gorgeous, right? These are from, like, the absolute best florist in either of the Twin Cities, too.” Farrah said.
And Ruby added, “they must have cost a fortune,” but Therese was barely listening, having found and opened the card— small and wordless, with just a red heart against a white background on the front— and read: Love you. —Carol.
Therese had never, not once, received flowers. Not even from Richard in the three years they’d dated. The two girls she had sort-of seen when she lived in Wisconsin hadn’t been serious enough to warrant any lavish gifts or romantic gestures; Therese could hardly even say that she “dated” either of them, so flowers were certainly not part of any equation. Never from friends, never from family. Just never. But she didn't think of herself as a person who desired that sort of thing. While public displays of adoration were cute, Therese never felt strongly about being the recipient.
...or so she thought.
But there she stood, 28 sets of watchful, too-interested eyes staring her down as she tried her best to hold it the fuck together, because, goddammit, she could not get all teary in front of her class. Farrah and Ruby had already giggled their way right out of the room, seemingly satisfied with the response they’d come to witness, and left Therese flustered all on her own. She grinned— she tried so hard not to but she couldn’t stop— and shook her head, an attempt to knock herself back into teaching mode. Later, she told herself— she could melt into a puddle later.
Kylie, a nosey and talkative freshman whom Therese tried hard to like (she was an excellent student, bright and attentive, always in the front row, but also rather annoying) pestered, “who are those from, Miss Belivet?”
It ushered in a chorus of “yeah, who?”, and Therese wondered if Carol did it on purpose: sent her flowers knowing that their arrival would trigger just this reaction, knowing Therese would become shy and fidgety and potentially derail her entire third period.
“They’re from Rindy’s aunt, right?” Leave it to Madison, rocked back in her chair in the back row (Therese enjoyed having Madison in her class for a second semester, but right now, she sort of wished she’d tilt back just a bit too far in her seat and land flat on her back), to get to the bottom of it. She knew, of course, because she was Rindy’s best friend. Therese was certain most of their little friend-group was extremely aware, and maybe a good portion of the ninth grade, for that matter. But Therese offered her students next-to-nothing about her personal life. They knew she was 27-years-old, maybe that she was from Illinois, and, by their own inappropriate probing, a lesbian. Otherwise, that was about it, and Therese was content on keeping it that way.
“Sorry, Madison, did you say you wanted to come up and write one of our connecting themes on the whiteboard? Here— ” she held out a blue dry erase marker and Madison glared back, but she stood up, grumbling but compliant, and shuffled to the front.
She scribbled, “persistence,” underneath the doodle of the turtle (well, she scribbled persistance, but Therese wasn’t as worried about spelling— spellcheck and autocomplete had diminished the value of the skill, anyway) and was about to hand the marker back into Therese’s waiting hand, but she pulled it back. “Wait. So, are they from Rindy’s aunt, or what?”
Therese sighed. She should’ve known better than to present Madison with a challenge. She was a smartass, which wasn’t always the worst thing: though she was the type to answer questions without raising her hand, she also never minded being put on the spot, usually having an answer locked and loaded. But right now, she’d successfully turned the tables. Therese shifted her jaw and stared back, failing once again to keep the corners of her mouth from tugging up into a smile. “Yes. They are from Rindy’s aunt.”
The class erupted, a mixture of oohs and ahhs, laughter, and cheers (directed toward Madison, of course, who appeared overly satisfied as she strode back to her desk). Successfully derailed, indeed. Nobody would be paying any more attention to the turtle, probably still stuck on its back after having been abandoned mid-chapter in favor of moving on to the real story. It was a Friday, and a silly, stupid, sappy holiday, and Therese no longer felt like paying the turtle any attention, either.
“— but nevertheless I persisted, bitch! And Miss. Belivet was like, ‘yes, they’re from Rindy’s aunt.’ Like, she probably hates me now but, god, it felt so good. We didn’t have to do anything the rest of the hour.”
Rindy was going through her locker, half-listening to Madison tell her about her triumphant though unproductive English class. She did want to see the flowers, though, because they sounded really beautiful. But what was she going to do? Stop by Miss Belivet’s classroom and be like, “hi, I just wanted to—” No. Ew. No way in hell. She’d make Aunt Carol send her a picture or something.
Technically, it was Rindy and Madison’s lunch period. It was only 10:55 in the morning, though, so obviously they would not be eating lunch. Sometimes, they’d tip-toe out of one of the school’s side entrances and run to hide in the trees next to the tennis courts, a relatively safe place to hit Rindy’s vape a few times before dragging themselves back inside for another four hours. But lately, they were afraid Mr. Jenson’s chemistry class could see them, plus, it was just too cold to justify setting foot outside unless absolutely necessary. Instead, their winter activity became sitting on the staircase that connected the atrium with the cafeteria.
A major reason Rindy had picked that particular stairwell on which to kill 40 minutes was because, every day, around 11:10, Liam Hastings would walk by after his study period, and every day, he’d lean on the railing and say, “hey Rindy, hey Mads,” and chat for a couple of minutes. He was a sophomore, tall and hot and on the varsity basketball team, and he’d just gotten a black VW Golf for his 16th birthday. He made it a point to come by and talk to them every day without fail, so he must’ve wanted something.
Both lucky and unlucky for Rindy, Madison already had a boyfriend, so she wasn’t available. But Rindy was.
While Madison texted away with said boyfriend, Rindy glanced around, waiting. It was Valentine’s Day, so if Liam was going to ask her out, what better time?
She checked her own phone, scrolled Insta, opened a few Snapchats, and noticed a Venmo notification that she hadn’t been expecting. Of course, it was from her aunt. $150 and a message that just read: HVD with a pink heart emoji. So unnecessary. Not that Rindy wasn’t absolutely taking the money, but still…unnecessary.
Aunt Carol must’ve been in a great mood because she— like everyone else in the world— had someone to be with on Valentine’s Day. Aunt Carol had Miss. Belivet, her mother had Alex, Madison had Dennis, and Rindy had her Persian cat, Toby (sometimes Tubby). Last year, her aunt had taken her shopping after school and they went back to her condo and ordered pizza and had a slumber party. This year, Rindy had the feeling she’d watch TikToks with Toby and, if she was really lucky, he wouldn’t puke on the rug in her bathroom.
11:20 and still no sign of Liam. Rindy had spent 45 minutes doing her hair that morning and for what? For nothing. She had to call Aunt Carol, though, to thank her. It would at least take her mind off of things for a second.
“Hey, hun. What’s up?” She answered like she didn’t just send Rindy a bunch of money.
“Oh, hi. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. I figured since we weren’t going shopping this year. Just do me a favor and don’t spend it on anything cannabis-related, okay? Your mother will blame me if you do.”
Rindy sighed. She didn’t want to make her aunt feel bad, but she wasn’t about to ask her what she was doing with her night, either. Surely she had some extravagant, romantic thing in store for Miss Belivet. Rindy could be spared the details.
“I won’t. Well, I guess I’ll be spending my night shopping online, so thanks for helping me solidify those plans…”
“You aren’t hanging out with Madison?”
No, she wasn’t hanging out with Madison, because Madison had a boyfriend, didn’t Aunt Carol remember? They’d talked about it around Christmas. Her aunt remembered. She just said, “huh, I just figured that would’ve run its course by now.”
Well, it hadn’t. And Rindy was feeling resentful and sorry for herself. All of her friends had boyfriends or girlfriends and were doing cute, fun things later that night and Rindy would be alone.
“Fun things? Like what? Drinking virgin mojitos and tipping a waiter 10 percent? Trust me, you aren’t missing out.”
“It feels like I am.”
“You aren’t. When I was a senior in high school, my first boyfriend, Kyle, put a balloon filled with paper heart confetti in my locker on Valentine’s Day, so when I opened my locker, the balloon popped. In theory: fine. But this was, like, a year after Columbine so the noise freaked everyone out and I spent 20 minutes cleaning confetti off the floor. Afterward he took me on a date to his parents’ house while they were out.”
Rindy laughed. Her aunt did know how to make her feel a little less like shit. “Did you break up with him?”
“Um, nope. Instead, I let him finger me on the ugly sofa in their basement. Which— while a very eye-opening experience— apparently not eye-opening enough for me to avoid having, not one, but two, boyfriends that succeeded him.”
It wasn’t often that Rindy’s aunt was so brazen with her, and Rindy’s mouth just hung open in shock as she searched for words with which to respond. “That is…kind of gross.”
“Very gross. Anyway, that story is your other Valentine’s Day gift. Do not repeat that to your mother.”
Her aunt had to go, she had to get back to work, and Rindy was sucked back into the reality of school when the call ended. Madison was still glued to her phone, batting her eyelashes at it as if Dennis could see her through the screen. It was 11:28, and Rindy had to start heading to her next class. For what seemed like the first time in weeks, Liam didn’t bother walking by.
After five consecutive years, Carol realized she had accidentally made Valentine’s Day with Rindy a tradition. The first time, Abby had been out of town, and left Carol with a pair of expensive earrings and an empty house. Harper wanted to go out with some guy she’d been seeing, so Carol volunteered her babysitting services. Rindy was nine, and Carol far from minded. They went ice skating, ordered Chinese food, and fell asleep in Carol’s bed watching Star Wars.
The following year, Carol was a little more of a mess. A total wreck, really, but she got her shit together for Rindy. She was pretty sure Harper didn’t really have a date, but needed an excuse to pawn Rindy off onto Carol, to stop her from another night of taking too much Adderall and driving home drunk from the bar. The next year was better, and even better was the year after that. And the older Rindy got, the more fun it was. Carol actually enjoyed the real, almost-grown-up person Rindy had become, and she liked their little tradition. Even though it was unspoken— it had never been a solid plan— she felt guilty leaving Rindy hanging.
But, Harper reassured her, Rindy would survive. She was a big girl. She’d understand.
“I still Venmo’d her a little money, though.” Carol poured Therese champagne and watched as she gazed down at the glass and grinned. “Sorry I’m talking about this. I just feel bad. I think she likes some boy but isn’t telling me.”
Therese’s eyes lit up. She took a sip, muttered, “oh my god, that’s delicious,” and then continued on. “She does.”
“Excuse me? How do you know this and I don’t?”
“Babe, I spend all day with these kids. They tell me all kinds of things I have no interest in knowing. Too much. I feel like I’m hosting TMZ sometimes.”
Carol wasn’t jealous of Therese’s security clearance, though she was interested in matters regarding her niece. She tried and pried to get Therese to give her something, any type of clue, but to no avail. Therese stayed tight-lipped, unwilling to violate her students’ trusts. Well, specifically Rindy’s trust, though she didn’t mind telling Carol all sorts of gossip about Rindy’s friends. “Anyway, these kids put so much pressure on themselves and each other for something as arbitrary as Valentine’s Day. They’re setting themselves up for disaster.”
Pushing a bowl of olives toward Therese, Carol looked through her mail holder, searching for the menu of the Greek restaurant they'd planned to order food from— electricity bill, flyer for the new sushi place down the street, friend’s wedding invitation— and mumbled, “yeah, the last time I was with someone on Valentine’s day, it was Abby, and she was on one of her ‘business trips.’ So at least I wasn’t aware of how disastrous it was for me until much later.” Carol rolled her eyes, always feeling stupid when she thought of what should’ve been red flags. But a hand slid underneath her chin, coaxing her to look up, at the here and now, at Therese, so perfectly perched on her kitchen countertop, sitting next to the bouquet she’d insisted on schlepping with her to Carol’s place for the weekend because she ‘wanted to look at them.’ Offering a weak smile, Carol continued, “I suppose the $500 pair of earrings she got me was a consolation prize.”
Therese tsked. Started, “well…” like she was going to say something defiant, or find a way to make Carol laugh like she could do so easily, but then trailed off. She dropped her hand away from Carol’s face and her own head lowered with it. She said, “I wish I could get you $500 earrings.”
Abandoning her search, Carol moved to lean between where Therese’s legs dangled off the side of the island and snaked her arms around her waist. “That was, in retrospect, one of the worst and most humiliating days of my life; this, on the other hand, is shaping up to be one of the absolute best so far— you do the math.”
Leaning forward, Therese hugged Carol’s entire head, burying it into her sweater, and kissed her hair.
It was true. Carol could buy herself most of what she wanted. She could buy herself a pair of $500 earrings every year on Valentine’s Day if she felt so inclined. What she couldn’t just get with the flash of her Platinum Amex card was the feeling in her chest when she watched Therese emerge from the front door of her apartment building and practically skip to Carol’s waiting car, dressed in leggings, an oversized sweater, and a big, puffy winter coat; the feeling that spread from her chest to everywhere else when Therese closed the car door— her cheeks bright red from the cold but still sporting the biggest smile— and leaned over to kiss Carol all while balancing the vase full of flowers on her lap. No amount of jewelry could make her as dizzy and excited as the person nearly suffocating her right there in her kitchen.
Though Carol had been in love before, it was a different experience. Falling in love with Abby had been easy, but also deliberate. She met her, liked her, and wanted to fall in love with her. It didn’t diminish her feelings, it didn’t make things less real, but Carol remembered taking the time to get to know Abby enough so that she’d be ready to love her. There was no instant infatuation, and that was perfectly okay. She learned to love Abby. Slow and calculated, but love nonetheless.
With Therese, it was entirely the opposite. She had no intention of getting caught up in anything, but every little comment— endearing joke, small aside— made Carol swoon. She felt completely taken, unable to spend a few hours without the urge to send her a text, or stalk her Instagram, always trying to think of what to say next. Therese invaded all of her senses, and she couldn’t stop it if she tried.