1) My First Valentine

Frankie Z. sent me passionate love notes. I answered all of Frankie Z’s passionate love notes with my own. They weren’t complicated missives, just tiny pieces of paper with the words, I love you, written in block letters. Why he had picked me for his dream romance, I’ll never know. He probably didn’t know either, but analyzing our feelings wasn’t a high priority: we were only nine years old. Frankie occupied the desk right in front of mine at school, so passing these passionate missives was no problem. How long did the “affair” last? Several days? A week? Longer? Who remembers?

It came to an abrupt end on Valentine’s Day. Frankie passed me yet another note, and I unfolded it with the usual heart-thumping anticipation. Lo and behold, instead of the usual amorous words, he had written: You have a dirty neck.

Mortally wounded, humiliated, I raced home at lunchtime and looked in the bathroom mirror. Yes, he was right. I did have a very dirty neck — I had no idea I was supposed to wash the thing, and my mother was obsessed by more important life events than her ugly ducking daughter’s neck (tea parties, cocktail parties, a new hair color, chipped nail polish, shopping, impressing people, being mean to the maid.) With fanatic energy, I scrubbed my neck clean: even though my affair with Frankie was over (had it ever existed?), I wasn’t going to be caught out again.

I don’t know how long my resolve lasted — a week? Perhaps no longer than a day. I was a child who had a secret world in between dusty hedges, in forgotten cellar corners, behind furniture, and up on high trees. You can’t stay squeaky clean in places like those, and washing my neck never did become a habit. But let me ask you: with a rich inner life, does a clean neck count?

2: A Normal Valentine’s Day

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3. Sherry Valentine, Country Music Star

Sherry Valentine is the heroine of my romance, A Swan’s Sweet Song. She’s a tough, funny, mature country music singer who’s been on the road for just too long. She’s tired of screaming fans, the paparazzi, gossip magazines, and temporary relationships that never work out. For some crazy reason, she thinks that changing careers and becoming an actress, will be more satisfying — despite the warnings of Charlie Bacon, Sherry’s aggressive and pushy agent, who warns her she’s too old for starring roles in Hollywood.

When, during a culture festival in a backwoods town, Sherry meets the famous New York playwright, Carston Hewlett, Charlie Bacon thinks this is the perfect opportunity for advancing her career. Sherry doesn’t agree: she doesn’t know Carston at all well, but after one romantic dinner, and one night stranded in a leaky barn beside a deserted farmhouse, she knows Carston has an anathema to being used for his influence. Besides, he doesn’t even know she wants to be an actress, and she has no intention of telling him. In those hours spent together, it’s clear how intensely attracted they are to one another, but, even better, they share so many interests: a love of the country, long walks, and a passion for research.

No thanks to the paparazzi, and a jealous actress, things do not work out as planned. Sherry and Carston separate on bad terms. He goes back to his isolated home in the country determined to forget Sherry; she heads for Hollywood, a minor role in a soap opera, and the unpleasant company of bottom-feeding producers who see actresses as casting couch material.

If you want to know what happens next, you’ll just have to read, or listen to the audiobook of, A Swan’s Sweet Song.

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