If you think Valentine's Day should be filled with love and romance, don't read this story. This is a tale of heartbreak and regrets, of what-ifs and should-haves and if-onlys.
For most of us, today is a day for candy kisses, mushy cards, and the occasional bouquet.
But for the tentative-at-heart, Feb. 14 often evokes painful memories of opportunities lost.
Take the case of Andy, a Boulder, Colo., lawyer, who was a high school freshman when he learned a hard lesson in the fragility of budding love - and the importance of trusting one's heart. (Names have been changed, or shortened, to protect the brokenhearted.)
Andy had a crush on a classmate named Holly. As Valentine's Day neared, he debated buying her a card, but didn't - unsure of her feelings for him. The next day, Holly handed him a card.
"I thanked her and said how flattered I was," Andy recalls. But she was crushed - and embarrassed - to find he didn't have a card for her. Hoping to patch things up, Andy told her what had happened. "She thought that [excuse] was pretty lame," he says with a laugh - and a little regret?
Or there's Jerome, a graduate student at the University of California in Los Angeles, who also remembers the one that got away - though, to this day, he doesn't know who she is. He was a senior in high school when a rose mysteriously appeared one Valentine's Day. The note read: "For the nicest and sexiest boy at our school. From a secret admirer. Hint, I am a sophomore."
"I never found out who that was from," Jerome says, "and have always wondered."
We may have more regrets about love, because we feel more pressure to find it "living in a society that holds to the same standard as Noah's Ark: Please proceed in pairs," writes Arthur Freeman, co-author of "Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda."
"No doubt about it, love is the biggest risk we take in life. To find it, we have to be a little foolish, a little exposed," says Dr. Freeman, who is also chairman of the department of psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Ideally, we should not be concerned about relationships only on Feb. 14, he says. "But people love landmarks, and the greeting-card industry provides us with landmarks."
While lots of people regret not acting on Valentine's Day, some actually regret acting.
There's Jerry, a reporter in Little Rock, Ark., who wishes his fourth-grade Valentine's Day had turned out differently.
His mother asked that he show a little attention to his classmate, Barbara, "who was rather mousy and plain," because nobody wanted to be her Valentine. I told Mom I really had a crush on another girl in my class, a dark-eyed brunette, full of fun and laughter, whose name was Carolyn," Jerry says. "A show of affection to mousy Barbara might ruin any chance I'd ever have of winning Carolyn's eye."
But his mother insisted. So at recess that Feb. 14, Jerry quickly gave Barbara a peck on the cheek. "Mom will be pleased when I tell her," Jerry remembers thinking. Much to his horror, a teacher saw the fateful kiss and sent Jerry to the principal's office in shame.
Jerry still regrets not kissing Carolyn instead.
Regrets, experts say, are a reprocessing of past events in a negative light. People may regret not doing something differently, says Freeman, but "there's no guarantee as to how it would have turned out." While everybody has regrets, in most cases they aren't stumbling blocks. But regrets do keep some people from moving on to new relationships, new jobs, new experiences.
Barry Cadish, an author who has been compiling regret stories for the past year, says his "Regrets Only" Web site has been flooded with responses. Many are from people who can't stop thinking about that one moment.
One such Web respondent, a technical writer named Renee, writes: "I regret not kissing the boy I was totally in love with when we were about 15 years old."
While helping him clean out his garage one summer, she started tickling him. He finally grabbed her and said: "So, are you gonna kiss me or what?"
"Like a total idiot I told him I'd have to think about it. Could I have been more stupid?" Renee says now. "Anyway, that was the first and last chance I ever got."
While she says they have remained close friends, whenever she sees him "that old heart-pounding feeling is still there. I don't know if my life would have been better if I had kissed him, but at least I wouldn't have to regret what might have been."
On a cold February morning, Jane and Jay are arm in arm, walking cautiously along an icy street in New York. The two octogenarians have spent 35 Valentine's Days together.
Jay says he doesn't really believe in Valentine's Day, but regrets not having remembered it more to please his wife.
"Every time I remembered it," he says, "it was always past."
This year too, Jay worries he is going to forget. But Jane doesn't seem to hold a grudge. As they part, she leans over and kisses him goodbye.
He's still got a chance.
*Jillian Lloyd in Boulder, Colo., Suzi Parker in Little Rock, Ark., and Guillaume Debr in New York contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society