It all started with a boy, a girl, and a valentine.

Well, technically it was the absence of a Valentine’s Day card that triggered the friendship that—after years of being good friends, then better friends, a summer fling, “just friends” again, then (for all of a couple of days) not friends at all, following by years of if-not-best-friends-then-the-next-best-thing-to-it—eventually evolved into a real romance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. And that’s not how these kinds of stories—love stories—are supposed to start. Let’s try again…

Once upon a time, there were two teenagers who had met through mutual friends and who happened to have a conversation at school on Valentine’s Day. The male…OK, you know what, let’s name these characters: David and Stephanie. There. Not the most whimsical of names, I’ll admit, but this fairy tale has its roots in reality. Anyway, look at Jack from Jack and Beanstalk. A common name to be sure. We can’t all be Rapunzels or Rumplestiltskins.

Where was I? Oh yes…

On that fateful (and hateful) holiday, David learned Stephanie had given a mutual friend of theirs a valentine. So David, who didn’t have a romantic bone in his body but did so enjoy teasing people (especially those of the female variety), affected hurt feelings at having been snubbed.

two paper fastener ringsAt the time, David and Stephanie shared an inside joke about a ring. Not a piece of jewelry, but one of those rings you use to keep hole-punched sheets of paper together. Technically, I could have written, “It all started with a boy, a girl, and a ring” to be intentionally misleading, but that ship has sailed.

The origin of the ring reference is unimportant; the details surrounding that particular inside joke are recorded in a series of notes—some in folders, some in notebooks—safely stored in a waterproof tote in someone’s basement closet. (More on that later.) What is important about the ring is that it made an appearance in a belated valentine Stephanie eventually delivered to David, perhaps out of guilt or perhaps out of amusement. It wasn’t so much a card as it was a folded-up pencil sketch of a boy who looked suspiciously like David holding the aforementioned ring.

Not to be outdone, David drew a comic strip about ninjas battling over the ring—now a mystical artifact, not a mundane office supply. The sad excuse for a valentine he handed back to Stephanie was less sophisticated in its artistry and certainly less personal in its subject matter, but it was the best that the boy—hopelessly unromantic, remember—could muster.

Apparently, it was enough to pique Stephanie’s interest because those two untraditional valentines led to two-and-a-half years of exchanging notes…notes that first went into a folder and, later, filled single-, three-, and finally five-subject notebooks from sophomore to senior year of high school. These notebooks—called The Notebook by their mutual friends—were looked upon with suspicion and scorn. Nevertheless, the two friends-who-were-a-boy-and-a-girl-but-not-boyfriend-and-girlfriend-(except-for-one-summer) continued their clandestine correspondences undaunted.

The subject of those notebooks are myriad and miscellaneous, covering the mundane and often melodramatic happenings of high school life, philosophical debates about just about everything, and some of the first samples of David’s fiction. The fact that Stephanie not only tolerated those early stories, but also encouraged him to write more is a testament to the true nature of her feelings for her perpetual pen-pal.

She like liked him.

The Notebook served as a chronicle of their friendship—an increasingly complicated arrangement, given Stephanie’s not-so-secret interest in taking the next step—but when the two of them were tragically separated because they opted to attend two different colleges, novella-length emails took the place of hand-delivered missives. The emails were supplemented by many phone calls and visits.

Despite a series/cycle of ups and downs—which is perhaps inevitable when unrequited love enters the equation—the two remained quite close. Then there came the day when Stephanie made it clear that she was over David and that she was completely OK with the platonic nature of their relationship. She was dating other people, and he was trying to the same (though less successfully).

And that was the end of that.

Just kidding. This is a love story, remember?

Shortly after the two came to this mutual agreement, David started having second thoughts. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh sure, now that he can’t have her, he wants to date her.” There’s some truth to that, I’m sure. If nothing else, it forced him to think about the future—their future. She would find someone else. That was a given. She’d get married and have a family, and his only chance of dating her again would be if she got a divorce. “Yeah,” he thought. “We’ll probably connect again at some distant point in time, and we’ll start dating, and it’ll all work out…”

“…unless it doesn’t.”

If you ever read David’s entries in The Notebook (which you haven’t, and you won’t), you would know that he always prided himself on being incredible logical and unfailingly rational. How, then, could someone so allegedly self-actualized have been blind to what so many others clearly saw: that they belonged together? And how could he have missed the fact—up until then—that if he didn’t act in the present, he might not have the chance in the future?

He had always cared for her. Ever since those non-valentines of 1995. Stubbornness, immaturity, the delusional belief that love always strikes suddenly and passionately as in the movies (or romance novels)—whatever the reason for his reluctance to give them a second chance as a couple, David finally got his head out of his hindquarters in 2001 and asked her out on a date. And one absolutely ordinary day (not Valentine’s Day, mind you), he was riding a bus and realized out of the blue that he loved her.

What happened next (like what happened before) isn’t really the stuff of fairy tales. They graduated college, moved in together, and then moved to China, where they taught English for a year. Remember when I described David as “hopelessly unromantic”? That’s not quite true. He must have learned something along the way because when they visited Beijing, he surprised Stephanie by proposing at the Great Wall. And she said yes (though they had to review the video footage to make sure an affirmative answer was given between the tears).

When they got back to the U.S., they got married. They found jobs, bought a house, had a couple of kids, and bought a new house when the first one got to small…one with a basement closet to store the many iterations of The Notebook.

Their relationship isn’t perfect (whose is?), but they have an extremely good life together, even if their love—built on a foundation of friendship, respect, and mutual interests—won’t inspire any Hollywood blockbusters or bodice-rippers.

Their love must be pretty powerful, though, because even though David has…you know what? I’m done with referring to myself in the third person. It’s creepy. Let’s try that last part again:

Our love must be pretty powerful, actually, because even though I have always hated the way Valentine’s Day mandates that members of a couplehood must demonstrate their love on a specific date in culturally acceptable (and predictable) ways, I forced myself to come up with a way to show Stephanie just how much I care for her, deciding to combine my passion for her with my passion for writing.

It’s not a traditional valentine, but you have to admit, that’s fitting given how this all began.

OK, I’m going to end this before I give into the temptation to spout such platitudes as “You make me a better man” and “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here with you” or “I don’t know how/why you put up with me” (though all are true). Even though our story isn’t over, I think it’s safe to prescribe an optimistic ending. So if you’ll indulge me one final cliché:

And they lived happily ever after.