“I’ve seen so many ‘I choo choo choose you pictures online today,” I said to Anne, while we walked through our neighborhood yesterday. “I think that’s one of those things that is going to be a generational touchstone for us, if it isn’t already.”
We came to a red light, and stopped. I hit the walk button and it chirped happily at me.
“Like, you can say that to just about anyone our age, and they’ll know instantly what it is.”
My mind wanders to weird places when we walk.
The light changed and we crossed the street. “I can’t believe how hot it is,” Anne said.
“Yeah, it’s not even fun to troll my friends who are living through stormpocalypse, anymore. Like, all the jokes have been done.”
I took a drink of my water, and we walked for a few blocks in silence, not holding hands, but linking our pinky fingers, which is a thing we do when we go for a long walk.
We turned up a street that was heavily-lined with trees. In spring and summer, it’s one of the most beautiful places to walk, and yesterday gave us a preview of what the next few months will bring. Half a dozen squirrels ran around on lawns, burying and digging up acorns. Tiny finches chirped and whistled and sang as they hopped along the mostly-bare branches of a sycamore tree.
“Judging by the pollen in the air and the birds I hear every morning, nature thinks it’s already spring here, “Anne said. “If we get a real cold snap, they’re all going to be very upset.”
In my brain, the words “cold snap” and “very upset” joined together to form a key. That key slipped into a lock and turned, opening the door on a memory from 3rd grade that I’d forgotten lived inside my head.
“Remember how you’d go to school on Valentine’s day, and you’d make the little mailbox out of a bag?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I choo choo choose you, remember?”
“Right,” I said. “Well, at our school, the rule was that you had to bring valentines for everyone, which was the only way weird, awkward kids like me got valentines.
“So it was 3rd grade, and my mom took me up to the Thrifty on Foothill by the park to pick out that little box of valentines. I got some that had superheroes on it, like from Challenge of the Superfriends, and a little bag of those chalky candy hearts.”
“Why do I like those chalky candy hearts so much?” She said. She took a drink of her water.
“I don’t know, but I love them, too, which is weird because –”
“You don’t like sweet things. You’ve been telling me that for almost nineteen years.”
“I think it’s the texture, and the way they sort of snap in your teeth, and the fact that they’re not too sweet,” I said.
“Probably. Continue,” she said.
“So I went home with my valentines and my candy hearts, and I got out my class list, and I sat at the breakfast table and wrote out my valentines.
“And there was this girl in my class, and I had a little 3rd grade crush on her…” I paused for a second and that classroom flashed into my memory, almost like an old Polaroid snapshot developing and then instantly disintegrating. I could see the desks, the chalkboard, the cursive alphabet above it. The American flag and the cubbies in the back, by the bookshelves. I saw her name, written in the corner of the chalkboard, under “Line Leader” for that week: Mindy. She wrote her name with the tail of the “y” looping down and around and underlining her whole name.
“Her name was Mindy,” I said. “Mindy …” I thought for a quick second, “…Patterson*. Wow, I can’t believe I remember that.
“So I filled out my valentines, and I started putting the candy hearts into each envelope, and when I got to Mindy’s, I carefully sorted through them until I found one that said ‘kiss me’ or ‘hug me’ or something like that.
“So I had this perfect, foolproof plan to let her know that I liked her, in the one way that was … safe … I guess, for me. I put that heart into the envelope, and in the most sophisticated act of secret admirer genius, ever, didn’t sign it.”
“That’s so cute,” Anne said.
“Yeah, well, we did our little valentine exchange the next day at school. There was a little party thing that afternoon, with that sugary grocery store punch that’s so sugary it burns your throat, and one of the room mothers made cupcakes with little hearts on them. When it was time to pass out the valentines, we walked around the room, dropping them into the mailboxes we’d made the day before, that were taped to all of our desks.
“When I got to Mindy’s desk, I was very careful to make sure that nobody saw me, and I dropped her valentine into her mailbox thing.”
“You were quite the superspy in third grade,” Anne said.
“Yeah, I was James Bond Junior, for sure. So I finished delivering my valentines, and went back to my desk to open mine. While I did that, I kept sneaking little glances at her desk, wondering if she’d opened mine, and hoping that when she did, it would set in motion the Rube Goldberg machine that kids use in elementary school to tell someone they like them.
“But even though Mindy was really nice and sweet and friendly, she was friends with the Mean Girls.”
“Uh-oh,” Anne said.
“Yeah,” I said. “So I left out one crucial part of my foolproof plan, and didn’t realize that a little deductive reasoning could help even Ralph Wiggum figure out who handed out the only Superfriends valentines in the classroom.
“If I were writing this as a script or something, this is where we’d see the Mean Girls and Mindy gasping and then giggling and then turning around to face me, but all I remember is that the four Mean Girls and Mindy were standing at my desk, and one of them told me I was ‘gross’ and someone called me ‘Wil-the-Pill’, which was the delightful nickname I’d been given by the goddamn teacher in that class, and one of them said something about how she’d never kiss me.”
I realized that we’d walked a few blocks since I started my story, but had no memory of actually doing it, because my body had been in 2014, but my mind had temporarily ridden a wormhole to 1980. Anne said nothing, but squeezed my hand, and I realized that at some point during our story she’d traded hooking pinkies for actually holding hands.
“What did the girl you liked do?”
I looked as closely at the memory as I could, tried to reconstruct the semicircle of kids around my desk, to remember the smells and sounds of that classroom on that unseasonably hot February afternoon 34 years ago, but all I could get was this image of Mindy’s face, possibly on that day, maybe at some other time, her blond hair at her shoulders, her blue eyes and slightly crooked teeth, just looking at me with kindness. I realized that the reason I liked her was that she was so kind, and even though she was friends with the Mean Girls, she wasn’t one of them.
“You know, I don’t remember specifically. I was super embarrassed and super mortified, and I felt really stupid. I didn’t even try to deny it. I just sat there and waited for them to leave, and then I felt sad.”
“Awwww, that’s so sad,” she said.
“Yeah. Isn’t it weird, though, how you don’t think about something for thirty-four years, and then this seemingly unrelated series of words can click together and blast a memory into your face like a firehose that turns on and then off again in a matter of seconds?”
I felt a few seconds of sadness for third-grade-Wil, and a few moments of wistful nostalgia, too. Then, I looked at my wife.
“Anyway, I said, “I choo choo choose you.”
She squeezed my hand. “It says that, and there’s a train.”
*not her actual last name.