For a lot of people, Valentine's Day is an obligation more than anything else, the tribute that the greeting card companies and the florists extract from a begrudging public, prefabricated romanticism on an arbitrary schedule. Not for me, though. Without sounding like this guy, I'm going to take you back 20 years. Because 20 years ago this weekend, my life changed.
It was Valentine's Day weekend, 1988, and it didn't mean much to me at the time. I didn't have a girlfriend and the last few relationships I'd pursued really didn't get much past the starting line. I was living in Oak Park, Illinois and working in Chicago. I loved being there; Chicago is a great place for a young man on the make, but I decided to get out of Dodge for a weekend. It was pretty easy to get back to my alma mater, Beloit College, from there - a 45 minute trip on the El through downtown and back out to O'Hare, then a hop on the Alco Bus Company line that went between O'Hare and Madison. I had finished up at Beloit back in 1985 and then went to work for the college for a couple of years in its public relations office. Although most of my classmates were long gone by 1988, I still knew a lot of people there; former work-study students, some of my former colleagues. It was a relaxing, enjoyable place to return and I could get up there in less than two hours.
There was one person I was hoping to avoid, though - a young lady of my acquaintance named Jill. I'd known Jill for a couple of years at Beloit and always enjoyed her company; she was part of our wider circle of friends, but I hadn't spent a lot of time talking to her or even paying her much mind. I'm pretty certain that Jill felt the same way about me. But there was a problem. Jill and one of my best friends from Beloit had been dating and they had broken up over the holidays. My friend hadn't handled it well - he's the first to admit it, and I knew that Jill was very unhappy about it. I also sensed that she might not be too happy to see me because of it. I was thinking about what might happen as I rode north, assuming there was an excellent chance that I would see Jill at some point over the weekend. Beloit College is a very small school; at the time, less than 1,000 people attended there. You could get to know just about everyone if you made the effort and I knew that Jill tended to frequent the same places I liked to frequent. While I wasn't overly worried about seeing her, I thought that there might be an unpleasant moment or two, so I tried to prepare myself for it.
After I arrived, I met my friend Kevin, threw my bag on the floor of his apartment and we made haste to Goody's Bar, a clean, well-lighted place just off campus. We had just purchased a pitcher of Miller Beer and filled the excellent jukebox with coins when we saw a group of young women at the door. At the head of the group was Sue, a wonderful Southside Chicago gal who was friends with just about everyone at the college. Her best friend was Jill, who was following behind. Sue saw Kevin and me sitting at the table and froze. She told Jill to wait, then approached Kevin and me.
"Mark! What a suprise!" she said. "You didn't bring your friend with you, did you?"
"Nope, he's back in Chicago," I replied.
"That's a really good thing, Mark," she said. Then she turned around and walked back to the group of ladies with her. She quietly informed Jill that the Jerk wasn't in the house and the young ladies joined us at our table.
After a few minutes, Jill turned to me with visible anger and said, "You know, your friend is really a jerk." I thought about that for a moment. I didn't disagree with her, but I wasn't going to rip him when he wasn't there to defend himself, even if his conduct had been indefensible. It seemed that everyone at the table was waiting for my response. I decided I'd see if I could deflect the anger.
"So, how 'bout them Dodgers," I said. Jill glared at me with evident disgust and said something that changed my life.
"They're in spring training!"
She was right, of course. Valentine's Day is the time of year when pitchers and catchers report and certainly at that moment Orel Hershiser and his pals were probably plodding along somewhere in Florida. But that wasn't what caught my attention. In her anger, I saw something in Jill that I hadn't seen before. 20 years on, I'm still not sure if I can really explain it, but suddenly she was no longer this girl who was floating around on the perimeter of my college social circle. At that moment, I thought that this was a pretty sharp lady and this was someone I needed to know a little better.
I was there all that weekend and Jill and I talked a lot. We talked some about my friend, but her anger abated. She knew that I wasn't responsible for what had happened. At one point, somewhat impulsively, I reached for her hand. I looked in her eyes and said, "I'm not like him, Jill." She looked at me intently and said, "I know."
I got back on the bus on Sunday afternoon and thought about her all the way back to Chicago. There was something there -- I knew it. I wasn't sure how I knew, and I sure wasn't sure what I should do next, but I knew that I wanted to hold her hand again. We wrote letters back and forth a few times and eventually we started to date. It was her senior year and by the time she was ready to graduate in May, we were thinking of each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. Our relationship continued to grow and eventually she moved to Chicago to be near me. Jill and I will celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary later this year.
There are moments in every person's life where magic is possible. It's not something you can easily schedule. Hallmark can't put it on your docket. But when the moment arrives, you have to be ready. And even if you aren't ready, if you are fortunate you will recognize the moment when it comes. Through 3 years of dating/courtship/engagement, 17 years of marriage, the birth of our children and everything else that has happened in our lives since that wintry evening in 1988, I have celebrated that moment. Thank goodness we both saw it.
Happy Valentine's Day.