Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine Turtles

Valentine's Day, 1980. Red and white striped rectangular candy box. In my memory, before finding the picture posted here, the stripes covered the entire background, but otherwise, the box is as I remembered it. Old-fashioned Turtles: roasted pecans, chewy caramel, and milk chocolate--before the brand was bought by Nestle. For 29 years, every Valentine's Day, I have remembered with bittersweet sentiment a gifted box of Turtles. That almost counts as a lifetime; it counts as longer than some lives. The candies on this day in 1980 were the most extravagant Valentine's gift I had ever received, with the possible exception of tokens from my parents in previous years. I was in the fifth grade (Brentwood Science Magnet School, in Los Angeles), and the candies were given to me by a classmate--a girl who was a friend, but a girl whose friendship brought with it certain tests for my developing moral compass. K. M. was a quiet girl, withdrawn and challenged socially in the face of childhood cruelties. She was not popular at school; in fact, I'd say she was rather the opposite, the class scapegoat. Thinking back, I don't remember what specific objections others found to her, but I do remember that she was often teased--I assume it was about her appearance, since kids of this age are generally superficial in their criticism. She had a long, thin face and a somewhat egg-shaped head. She had long, brown hair that I remember as sometimes looking stringy or slightly unkempt. Although she may occasionally have worn a skirt, it's possible that she never did. I have absolutely no memory of her in one; she dressed like a tomboy. I remember blue jeans, gray hooded sweatshirts, keds. I remember her hands stuffed in her pockets. She had a fraternal twin who was in another class, and I wondered somehow if this was the reason she seemed sort of boyish. She was largely shunned, but I was drawn to her. As I got to know her, I liked her more and more. She was sullen but smart, and she could be funny. She had a rich imagination, a wisdom beyond her years--or maybe it was the attitude of resignation. She did not complain about how others viewed or treated her (not to me, anyway), and to this day I'm not sure if she cared. I imagine she did, but she did not show any hurt at school. She did not seem to pity herself for her social status, and if her feelings were bruised, neither was she the type of person who would hide it behind bravado. Of course, it is a universal truth that you are known by the company you keep, and being friends with her marked me in the collective opinion as well. I don't remember any showdowns, don't remember expressly having to defend my friendship with her to anyone. But by turns I wasn't popular, either. It's not that I aspired to be; I had other, loftier goals (at the time, my dancing). And I knew what it was like to be teased--I received my share at this and at my former school. What is it about a sensitive child that seems to spur the mean ones on? Like a pack of hunting dogs, they smell vulnerability and it drives them to the chase. Was it also in the way she talked, walked? I remember sitting alone with her on a field trip, eating Saltines to keep ourselves from being seasick on a whale-watching trip. Anyway, we were often a pair, but I did have other friends, too. And no one wants to be an outcast. Which is why, when K. gave me this huge box of Turtles at school on Valentine's Day, my response was a mish-mash of embarrassed thanks.

K. died young. She died while we were still classmates in elementary school, struck by a car while crossing San Vicente Boulevard. For nearly thirty years, I have tried to imagine her last moments; I have gone on to live what feels like an entire life that she never got to realize. I didn't see the accident, but I will always be marked by it. I was never in peril, but from time to time, I have a sense of "survivor's guilt." I did nothing to betray her friendship outright, but I have a lingering sense of shame over the fact that my response to her Valentine's Day present to me was anything other than unadulterated gratitude and happiness. I still love Turtles. If I see them in a hand-dipped chocolate shop, I will purchase a single one and eat it slowly, but I have never again possessed a red and white striped box of them. I wish that I could see her again and thank her. I wish that I could tell her, adult to adult, friend to friend, how her life touched mine and how I hold her image close as a reminder of how important it is to truly honor and be loyal to every real friendship you possess, public opinion be damned. I can't do those things, but I can write about it. I can remember a long-ago February and say to her memory: Happy Valentine's Day.

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