Valentine's Day heart

Jesse’s Valentine

by James Merkin

Jesse was getting more than bored waiting for his mother to finish her shopping. If only he didn’t have to depend on her for transportation! Being thirteen really sucked big time.

He sighed and turned to look over the rack of valentine cards. He couldn’t believe the prices for these fancy cards. Luckily he could still get away with making the only card he’d need, the one for his mom, out of construction paper at home. Plus these store cards were all disgustingly mushy. In fact, he’d better not even be seen looking at them. He turned his attention to nearby shelves filled with vitamins and tonics. Where was his mother?

Finally Jesse saw her moving into the checkout. He walked quickly toward the front of the store so he could meet her at the exit without having to stand with her in line. He was so engrossed in avoiding his mother that he walked right into the customer who was leaving the other checkout.

“Oof! Sorry!” Jesse looked down with dismay at the valentine card fluttering out of the customer’s bag and landing on the floor. He couldn’t stop his right foot from treading firmly on part of the big red envelope. “Ohmigod! Really sorry!” His sneaker had left a slight mark. “I’ll buy you another one!”

He looked up to see a vaguely familiar high school boy grinning at him. “You’re an even bigger klutz than I was at your age. Forget it. I can clean that up.”

“Th-thanks,” Jesse stammered. “Ya know, those big ones take more than one stamp or they won’t deliver it.” Jeez! Had he really said that?

“I’ll worry about the stamps. You’d better practice steering those feet of yours.” With another grin, the older boy scooped up the card and envelope and turned away. Jesse’s relief was short-lived as he heard his mother behind him.

“Jesse, don’t dawdle. We’re late as it is.”

“Right, Mom,” he said with a sigh.

*    *    *

“Did you get any valentines?” Jesse’s best friend Artie had met him as usual when school let out and they were pushing through the crowd of students toward their bus. Since the upper school students had already boarded, the remaining seats were all in the front unless they hurried to claim a space further back.

“Are you kidding, Artie? We’re in eighth grade. Nobody gives out valentines.”

“I got one. From Judy.”

“Well, you’ve practically been married to her since first grade.”

They pushed up onto the steps of the bus and Jesse stumbled into the student who was boarding ahead of him. He looked down as he caught himself and saw a familiar red envelope fall to the floor. In fact, it still had a faint footprint on one corner. He grabbed it and stood up. “You dropped this,” he said to the retreating form wearing the varsity jacket.

Keith Eliot, star forward for the high school basketball team, looked back, scowled, and grabbed the envelope from Jesse. “That’s mine, kid.”

Ohmigod! Jesse’s thoughts churned as he stumbled down the aisle. “Ooh Keith,” one of the girls said, “who’ja get a valentine from?” The rest of the crowd was in full throat as they oohed and aahed. Keith grimaced and quickly shoved the envelope inside his jacket.

As Jesse turned to look for Artie his eyes caught those of a student in another seat. It was the boy from the drugstore. He was staring intently at Jesse. Jesse hesitated, gave a jerky shrug, then continued his turn as the boy looked at him and smiled slightly.

“What was that all about?” Artie had saved him a seat.

“Nothing,” Jesse sat down heavily and dropped his backpack onto the floor. “Just a little special delivery.”

*    *    *

“Hi there, favorite nephew! Happy birthday!”

“Hey Uncle Fred! Thanks for calling.” Jesse grinned widely. “How’s Uncle Dave? How do you two like your new house?”

“Whoa, there, kiddo. This call isn’t about us, it’s about you. Are you enjoying your promotion to fourteen-year-old?”

“She still won’t let me drive.”

“Give it up, Jesse. I know your mom, and you should be glad she lets you ride without a kiddie seat.”

“Har har. Very funny. But not being old enough to drive sucks big time.”

“Tell you what. The next time we come down I’ll give you a driving lesson.”

“Ohmigod, Uncle Fred! Do you mean it?”

“That’s what uncles are for — to spoil nephews rotten.”

“Wait’ll I tell Artie, he’ll crap his pants! Now I know why you’re my favorite uncle.”

“I didn’t realize I had any competition.”

“You didn’t until you hooked up with Uncle Dave. He’s definitely got you beat for cute.”

“I didn’t know you noticed stuff like that, kiddo.”

Jesse fell silent. His uncle, sensing an awkward moment, cleared his throat. “Did I hit a nerve, Jesse?”


“Uncles are also good to tell things to.”

“It’s not any big deal, Uncle Fred. It’s just that, unh, I got this birthday card.” Jesse stopped. His uncle waited.

“It’s from a guy.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Well, I don’t know what to think.”

Is it from someone you know? Artie?”

“Artie doesn’t count. I mean sure, he sent me a birthday card. But jeez, he sent me a card for Groundhog Day, believe it or not. He’s my best bud. No, it’s from someone else, a guy I ran into — really ran into — in the mall when he was buying a valentine for some other guy, then that other guy dropped it, and I found it and gave it to him, the other guy that is, and he — Brian that is — thanked me for not messing him up, and…”

“Whoa, nephew. You lost me back there a ways. Some guy you ran into? Is he a grownup?”

“Oh, no. Brian goes to my school. He’s a sophomore. But he talks to me. I mean, he said thanks for not outing him when I delivered his valentine to Keith…”

“Whoa again. Brian has a crush on someone named Keith?”

“That didn’t work out, I guess. Keith is like this big sports star, so I guess Brian kinda wiped out there.”

“So you know Brian?”

“Well, we’re both on the school newspaper, and he’s started talking to me there. That’s about the only place an upperclassman is going to have much to do with someone in eighth grade.”

“Jesse, let’s get back to the main point here. Why did he send a card to you?”

“Well, he said it was to thank me for not messing him up over the valentine card.”

“Seems pretty straightforward. What’s the problem?”

Jesse was quiet for a long moment. “I kinda liked getting it.”

“Ah, I see. Do you want me to drive down there so we can talk?”

“I dunno, Uncle Fred. I don’t know what to think. I’d kinda like things to stay the same as they’ve always been.”

Fred’s voice was gentle. “It’s called ‘growing up’, Jesse.”

“Yeah, I get that Uncle Fred. It’s just that…” The pause stretched out.

His uncle tried again. “It’s nice to be told that you’re special?”

“Yeah, that’s sorta it. I like that he talks to me without treating me like a little kid.”


“Right. But I am a little kid. At least as far as he’s concerned. I mean, the only place I ever see him is in our newsroom.”

“I think that’s what’s really bothering you. You and Brian move in different worlds right now. I remember high school — and even though you’re in the same school, you’re not even in the upper school yet, are you?”

“You’re right, Uncle Fred. I mean, I like to talk to him, because it makes me feel older. But I’m not really older. And I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not.”

“You’re a wise boy, Jesse. It seems to me you’re figuring it out all on your own. I think we will come down next weekend, and we can talk. What would you like Dave and me to bring you for your birthday?”

“You just gave me the best present, by listening.”

“That’s all you want?”

“Oh, I’ll take driving your car, too.”

*    *    *

Brian was foaming the top of a cappuccino with his special signature swirl when he heard someone clearing his throat. He glanced over and saw a man standing in front of the counter. “I’ll be right with you,” he said cheerfully, “just give me a minute to finish this.” He quickly topped off the cap and passed the cup to Janice, who was waiting to serve it to the only other customer in the coffee shop area of the bookstore.

Brian turned and smiled. “How can I help you?”

“Brian?” The tall, slender man smiled back. “Have you got a few minutes to talk? I’m Fred Clark, Jesse’s uncle. He said I could find you here.”

“Jesse Schofield?"


“Is he OK?”

“Oh yes, he’s fine. I just wanted to talk to you about him.”

Brian wrinkled his forehead. “Let me tell the boss I’m going on break. Find a seat and I’ll be right over.” He leaned through the doorway into the back room, spoke a few words, then pulled off his apron.

“I’ve got about ten minutes," Brian said as he slid into a chair opposite Jesse’s uncle. “Whaddaya mean, you want to talk to me about Jesse?”

“I’d like to know about your friendship with him.”

“We just sorta know each other, from school.”

“I’m talking about the birthday card.”

“You are?”

“He told me what you said about why you sent it, but I wondered if there might be a little more to it than that.”

Brian fidgeted and looked away, thinking hard. Fred waited.

“I’m not gonna be able to explain this very well. Did Jesse tell you about the valentine?” Brian blushed.

“Yes, he did.” Fred smiled encouragingly. “Let me introduce you to someone.” He waved to a man who had just entered. “This is my partner, Dave.”

Brian’s eyes widened. He looked back and forth as Dave approached their table rattling the car keys. “You’re…”

“We’re gay. Does that help?”

Brian swallowed hard. “Were you out…” He stopped.

“In high school?” Fred asked. Brian nodded.

“No way. That was the dark ages, by your standards. Do you think I wanted to get my ass kicked all over the campus?”

Brian snorted, then took a deep breath. “OK, so I’m gay,” he said softly. “Maybe being gay is easier today, but it still matters. So I don’t go around announcing it.”

Dave gave Brian’s shoulder a little squeeze, then sat down beside him.

Brian continued. “But Jesse knows. And he’s cool with it. He saved me from a lot of embarrassment when I tried to impress someone with that valentine. So we started talking and getting to know each other. Now we’re friends.”

Fred nodded and looked expectant.

“That doesn’t—" Sometimes when Brian got very intent his voice still cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “That doesn’t mean I’m after Jesse. I get that you’re protecting him. Can you also get that I know Jesse is still too young for me to be interested in that way? He’s a great guy and really smart, and he’s just finishing eighth grade.”

Fred and Dave exchanged looks. “‘Still too young’?” Fred said.

“I really like that we’re friends, but he’s still a kid. I mainly want to make sure he doesn’t have a rough time.”


“With heading into high school and figuring things out.” Brian said flatly. “He doesn’t know what he wants yet but I can see he’s working on it. He’s maybe interested in boys. I don’t know for sure, and I certainly haven’t pushed that on him. But we talk about things.”

“So you are like a mentor?” Fred sounded a little incredulous. “His gay guide?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Brian asked.

“What if one of you decides to want more?”

Brian looked steadily at Fred. “I won’t take advantage of Jesse. That’s not who I am.”

“And if Jesse…?” Fred persisted.

Brian nodded slowly. He obviously had already given this some thought. “Jesse may be young now, but everything changes. In a few months he’ll be in the upper school.” Brian paused, gathering his thoughts. “I’m happy to be his friend. Sometimes friendship can lead to something more. Sometimes not. We both have a lot to figure out. Isn’t that how the relationship thing is supposed to work?”

Dave looked at Fred and raised his eyebrows. “It might be enough,” he said.

Fred stared intently at Brian, then gave a little nod and said, “Could there actually be two kids who have their act together?" He reached for a napkin. “Here, let me give you our phone number. Don’t hesitate to call if it begins to get complicated.”

Brian looked back and forth between Fred and Dave. “I’d appreciate that. But only if we include Jesse in any other conversations about his future.”

Dave smiled. “I like this boy,” he said.

*    *    *

”Hi, Katherine, it’s Fred. Just checking in to see how you and Jesse are doing.”

“Why hello, Fred! How nice to hear my brother’s voice! I was thinking about when we used to swing out back from that big tree by the arbor. D’you remember? There’s still a rope swing hanging there, but I doubt Jesse’s been on it much. Too juvenile, I’m sure he’d say. I’ve been out there pulling weeds all morning from Howard’s old garden. I wish Jesse was here to lend a hand but you know how he disappears when he senses yard work. I’m sure he’ll be sorry to have missed a chance to talk to you, you certainly have won him over with your so-called driving lesson and I’ll never hear the end of it now will I, you really shouldn’t encourage him like that and you know full well I’m the one that’s going to bear the brunt of his impossible notion to be able to drive before the law says he may. Not that he needs to drive anywhere, about the only place he seems to want to go now that school’s out is the bookstore—you remember Cleary’s Booknook? Jesse’s quite the bookworm, spends all his time down there, of course it’s an easy bike ride. Plus his new friend Brian has a summer job in the coffee shop part, he’s old Mr. Cleary’s grandson and it’s so good to know that one of Jesse’s friends comes from such a nice family.”

“Yes, We’ve met —”

“Of course the Baxters are nice, too, and he’s been best friends with Artie practically forever although that might be tapering off some since Artie’s gone off on his own to some kind of coed camp this summer. Can you imagine? Boys and girls in the same camp! Jesse didn’t seem very interested in going. I know Artie was disappointed but Jesse said ‘yuk’ when Artie asked him. I suppose you might have said the same thing at his age. I don’t think camps were held for boys and girls together when we were young and I’m sure we would never have been sent to one, I declare!”

“So what is Jesse doing—”

“Jesse would love to have a summer job like Brian’s but of course he isn’t old enough, although Lord knows Brian is just a teeny bit underage to be working, he won’t be sixteen until next month even though he’s just finished tenth grade since he started school when he was five. It’s a family business so I suppose that’s all right. Jesse is really jealous, though, and says he can’t wait ‘to earn the big bucks.’ I say his allowance should still be enough for his needs at his age and anyway Brian seems to pay for everything when they’re together.”

“They’re togeth—”

“My goodness, look at the time! How I go on. Remember we’re counting on you and Dave for Sunday dinner. Jesse loves his chance at man talk when you come down, and I’m sure you know I’m grateful. But no more driving lessons, if you please. Enough is enough. Oh, and Brian will be coming over this week for Sunday dinner, too. They’re thick as thieves, those two.”

“We’ll certainly look forward—”

“Bye Fred, and give our love to Dave.”

*    *    *

Jesse heard the shave-and-a-haircut tap at the back door and rolled his eyes. Artie never changed. Well, it was time to find out if he would.

“C’mon in, dufus.”

“Watch who you’re calling by your family name.” Artie let the screen door slam as usual. “Oops.”

“Hi Artie.” Jesse looked up from his cereal bowl. “Welcome back from camp.”

“Notice anything different?” Artie put his arms out and slowly turned around.

“Sunburn. More freckles. Mosquito bites. Fatter butt.” Jesse would have gone on but Artie stepped closer and whispered something. Startled, Jesse leaned over to hear.

“I got laid!” This time Artie’s hoarse whisper included saliva, and Jesse jumped back and wiped at his ear.

“Eww! Are you serious, Artie?”

“Ab-so-lutely, kiddo. The Big One! Numero Uno! The Home Run!” Artie paused for breath and Jesse put up his hands.

“I get it, Artie. Congratulations, I think.”

“I kid you not!” Artie was practically dancing with excitement. “You won’t believe this camp! Girls everywhere! Girl flesh everywhere you looked! You really missed out big time, you jerk!”

“So who is the lucky lady?”

“She got sent home.”

“Sent home! What did you do to her?”

Artie’s face was red. “Ah, seems I wasn’t the only one who got lucky. She sorta got insatiable. I didn’t know she was like that.” He stopped talking and looked down.

“Oh, Artie. I’m sorry, bud.”

Artie brightened. “But I did get laid! Let me tell you, Jesse…”

Jesse put both hands over his ears. “TMI! TMI! C’mon, Artie, give me a break. I’m still eating breakfast here.”

“You’re gonna need to know this stuff, Jesse. My expertise will save you a lot of fumbles, buddy. The Expert is prepared to guide you.”

“I don’t think you’ve got information I can use, Artie.” This was it. Jesse swallowed hard.

Artie stopped, puzzled. “What’s that mean, Jesse?”

“We’re still best buds, right?”

“Absolutely. You’ve always been my best bud.”

“What we say stays just between us, right?”

Artie sat down at the kitchen table facing Jesse. “What’s going on, Jesse?" he asked, his mood suddenly changed. “You know I’ve got your back, whatever happens.”

“I’m with someone now, Artie.”

“Dawg! Is that why you stayed home and wouldn’t go to camp? Who is she, is it someone from school? I never saw you eyeing any of the girls in our class—”

Jesse looked straight at Artie until Artie ran down and stopped talking. Jesse cleared his throat. “Brian Cleary.”

“Brian…Cleary?” Artie’s voice suddenly squeaked. “The guy from the school paper?”

Jesse nodded.

“But he’s a guy…” Again Artie’s voice broke.

“So am I,” said Jesse softly.

“That means you’re—”

“I’m gay, Artie.”

“Wow.” Artie sat back, his eyes wide.

“I wanted you to be the first to know, Artie.”

“Wow.” Artie sat and stared at Jesse. Jesse got up and carried his cereal bowl to the sink, then came back and sat down. He waited.

Artie nodded thoughtfully. “You know, this isn’t a big surprise.”

“It isn’t?” Jesse leaned back a little.

“No. Your clothes always did match and look great. And look how clean you always are. It was hard to believe you were even an eighth grader.”

“You dufus!” Jesse flicked a napkin wad at Artie.

Artie grinned. “So now I get first dibs on all the ninth grade girls.”

Jesse spread his hands. “Are you kidding me, Artie? Now that you’re back in the fold I think Judy already has plans to have you roped and tied.”

Archie grimaced, then they laughed and exchanged high fives. Jesse stood up and they moved toward the back door.

“So where’s this Brian?” asked Artie.

“He’ll be over later. Stick around and we’ll all go to a movie.”

“I’ll have to show him your baby pictures. I know where they are.”

“You jerk!” Jesse reached for Artie and gave him a noogie. Artie ducked and pretended he was in great pain. They wrestled, laughing.