I have always wanted a secret admirer. In high school my friend Millie had one. As we were assembling our woodwind instruments at the start of band class, she told me that someone had left a single red rose taped to her locker with no note or expectation behind it. Only much later did we discover that the rose had come from George, a slender, graceful senior who had been Millie’s number one match on our Valentine’s Day data match survey. Though the survey had polled for deodorant preferences and favorite YouTube sensations, Millie was giddy that she had been matched with such a sweet senior boy. Being admired, or at the very least celebrated, meant something.
On a chilly February night of freshman year, I convinced my friend to accompany me to the mail center after Annenberg brain break. I needed to pick up a card that Grandma had sent—she sends her valentines two weeks early lest the trusty postal system encounter a delay. Steeped in conversation with my friend, I turned the lock on what I thought was my mailbox, 1416, but was actually its neighbor, 1415. It opened easily. I guess people forget that a few extra swivels are necessary to fully lock a mailbox.
Before long, my friend and I were skipping down the corridor, flinging our hands at the metallic knobs and twisting open any door that could be unlatched. After rendering mailbox locks meaningless, we leaned against the back wall and stared out at the plane of mailboxes, most flat and sealed but many jutting out into the third dimension with their open doors—illuminated windows amidst a sleeping skyscraper.
As my friend and I admired our work, I realized that this would be my first Valentine’s Day without a boyfriend in three years. This year the store-bought card from Grandma could be my one, my only, valentine. But it didn’t have to be this way. I could leave behind a note in one of these open mailboxes. I could become someone’s secret admirer.
I chose one of the open mailboxes at random: let’s call it number 1039. “To 1039,” I scratched with a blunt pencil on a square of lined paper I tore out of my Expos notebook. Then I composed a poem. The exact verses elude me now, but the poem was an ode—something about a smile that shines with the shimmer of 1,000 suns, teeth nested and glowing like newly polished pearls. At the end I noted that if the admired wanted to respond, slipping a note under the stack of IM newsletters sitting by the mail counter would do the trick. I never expected a note in return.
The next time I visited the mail center I checked under the IM newsletters on a whim and, to my surprise, encountered a response from my admired 1039. Like me, 1039 wrote in pencil, but my admired’s instrument was of thinner, more confident lines. 1039 wrote the note on folded printer paper, one notch up in elegance from my college-ruled first attempt. This clean white paper signaled to me that the note may have been composed in the dorm or near a computer lab—it was intentionally and carefully written, quite unlike the ripped-off notebook jots of my first correspondence. Reveling in the purity of my skin, the sparkle of my eyes, 1039’s note had a singsong yet mystical quality. It left no clues as to the identity of my admired.
Walking around campus in the following days I daydreamed about my admired, constantly imagining who this person could be. In Annenberg every person was a possible admired: the swimmer with strapping shoulders, the nimble-fingered violinist, the soft, contemplative face behind Descartes’ Meditations. I came to admire them all. Their gazes were glitter, their dispositions sacred.
Valentine’s Day was fast approaching, and I wanted to do something special for my admired 1039. One Friday night I congregated with some friends in the Adams Arts Space, a rickety room off Adams courtyard full of old clothing, forgotten books, and an impressive collection of paints. While others socialized I devoted myself to a valentine, slicing out glossy photos of haloed angels from an old medieval art textbook and lining the prints with a crinkled satin ribbon. Backing the images on red cardstock, I penned another declaration of admiration to 1039 in silver Sharpie.
Valentine complete, I decided that rather than leaving the valentine in mailbox 1039 I would send my admirer on a scavenger hunt. On a yellowed page from an old German joke book scattered amidst the Adams art debris, I scrawled a rudimentary map of Annenberg, marking very clearly where 1039 could find the valentine. It would be waiting beneath coordinates 1,1—on the underside of the first table, in the first row and column of Annenberg Hall. When Valentine’s Day arrived I opened mailbox 1039 from the outside and stuffed in the map, then hurried off to Annenberg to tape my haloed angel card beneath the chosen table.
Someone found the hidden card—I checked underneath table 1,1 in Annenberg a few days later and it had disappeared. Maybe it was picked up by my admired, maybe by another. Either way, I never heard back. But I don’t mind. Getting to love someone, to prioritize another, even in secret, made it worth it.