In grade school, we used to decorate shoe boxes with paper hearts and shiny bits of foil to set at the corner of our desk on Valentine’s Day (or the weekday nearest). Our teacher would set aside time on that day for her students to slip their personalized valentines into the boxes of their friends and crushes. Candice, with her long blonde hair, always had an overflowing box by the end of the day. Chris, who looked like an underwear model even in the second grade, always had little paper corners breaking free of the shoe box slot because there was no more room inside. You could shake my box and hear the valentines thunk the sides.
I always received those popularity-measuring slips from the kids whose mothers had made them sit down and fill out one for each of their classmates. There would also be one from my dad. He would secret an unsigned valentine into the box the night before, but he always used a leftover from the box I had bought to give to my classmates so it wasn’t much of a mystery.
I would upend my shoebox at home – spreading my preprinted love letters out to see the names of the senders as I crushed ‘be mine’ and ‘you’re a cutie’ with therapeutic chomps. I would check each name off in my head against the list of those who hit every box and somewhere in that tally my father’s anonymous valentine would shake loose. I would hold it up to my mother, roll my eyes, and say, “Lemme guess. Dad?”, then drop it on the table like an empty gum wrapper.
I was too young to realize – that paper heart was the only one that mattered.