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A VALENTINE FROM A BOY WHO MEANS IT



Fatherhooding
"Dad, tell me about the first time you ever kissed a girl." I had stopped in to say good night to my oldest daughter, Marie, who is almost 11, when her request whisked me back to the moment when I risked a quick peck in Peggy Johnson's basement nearly 30 years ago.

I lay down next to my daughter in the darkness and told her about my 15th summer, the happy season I spent haunting the Johnson residence under the vigilant eyes of Mrs. Johnson and her able lieutenant, Eddie, age 10. What Eddie had been doing with his time before I showed up is a mystery. If he'd had a life, he put it on hold to give me his full attention. He wasn't especially bratty; he was just there. I've always been unremarkable to look at, but the fact that I was bedazzled by his sister made me as fascinating to Eddie as a sideshow freak.

Mrs. Johnson was a religious woman who would not permit her daughter to play cards or go to dances or movies. It was almost September when we found ourselves in the cool darkness of the cellar, away from the up-to-then seamless supervision of her family, and I kissed Peggy on the cheek. She kissed me back. Bliss. Those were the days. My days, anyway. Marie's days are impending.

This will be the first Valentine's Day likely to bring a valentine to Marie from a guy who means it. Brian is a fifth-grade boy who treats girls with gentleness and respect. But he seems normal otherwise.

A couple of weeks ago, he and Marie had a rendezvous at the roller rink. It was a near-dating experience at a place where several times each Saturday afternoon only couples are allowed to skate. The lights go dim, a spotlight hits the mirror-ball, and for a few minutes the world is made hospitable to young love.

When I went to retrieve her at 5 o'clock, she and a girlfriend were sitting on a bench, chattily unlacing their skates. Brian was about 4 feet away from Marie, leaning against the cinder-block wall with the exaggerated innocence of an arsonist at the scene of his latest six-alarm blaze. "Hi, Brian," I said.

He tried to melt into the cinder blocks like a ghost. When that failed, he gave me a shy nod.

Out in the car, I asked with real curiosity, "Marie, why didn't you say good-bye to Brian?"

"I did," she said.

I'd been watching pretty closely and had seen nothing pass between them. They must have used signals like the ones baseball managers use –a tugging of the ear-lobe or a hitching-up of the pants. I let the matter drop.

Some months ago, when a poster appeared on her ceiling of a teen heart-throb whose name I don't know and I was getting the first favorable reports on Brian, I made her a promise. "I'm not going to tease you about boys," I said. "That's because I want you to be able to talk to me about them. I used to be one, and I can tell you things about them that you'd never guess." I know I'm seeking an unnatural, foredoomed alliance, but I'll see how far I can go with it.

I got home from work one day and checked the answering machine in my bedroom for messages. Instead, I found an accidentally recorded conversation between our babysitter Heather and her boyfriend.

Her: "Hello?"

Him: "I got soaked waiting for you in the rain."

Her: "I didn't ask you to wait for me."

Him: "If I got pneumonia, you wouldn't even care, would you?..."

I didn't want to hear any more; this was painful stuff. But I had to find out if any messages had come in for me, so I let the tape run as I changed my clothes.

Him: "I saw you talking to Troy today in the lunch line; you like him, don't you."

Her: "He was borrowing a quarter."

Him: "Do you always laugh that much when you lend somebody a quarter? ..."

A thought struck me. "Marie! Come here. I want you to hear something." I explained, "It's wrong to eavesdrop, but I think your education is more important than Heather's privacy. I want you to listen carefully to her boyfriend. He's not interested in Heather. He's interested in his own power. He's doing everything he possibly can to make Heather feel guilty and sorry. Avoid this kind of guy. Look for a boy who is on your side and wants to make you feel good, not bad." She nodded and I played the dialogue.

A week later, my wife and I attended a school concert. Marie's class was on stage, having just finished singing, when the principal announced Marie's name, crediting her for the artwork on the program cover. Brian, sitting behind Marie, leaned forward, patted her on the back, and whispered something. She smiled.

I like that boy. I'd like him better if he and Marie were 21, but no one has asked me my preference yet.

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