"Are you sure he's going to like this?" Kath asked me as I stared into the grocery store's small array of flowers.
"Yeah, why wouldn't he?"
"Um. Because they're flowers? And he's a dude? Why not just get him some candy or something?" Kath said, as if that was a valid explanation.
"He said he likes lilies," I said, ignoring her disapproval. I focused on the bouquets in front of me. "Do you think I should go with the white lilies with the little blue flowers or the one that's only pink lilies? Personally, I like the white ones. They're very professional-looking."
"Yeah, sure, whatever," Kath said dismissively. She was on her phone now and hardly paying attention to me at all.
"Okay, great, thank you," I replied sarcastically and plucked a white lily bouquet off the rack. I made my way to the register and Kath shuffled after me without lifting her eyes from her phone.
The woman at the check out smiled warmly at me.
"These are beautiful, hon," she praised and swiped them carefully over the scanner. "She's a lucky girl."
I felt myself redden.
"They're, uh, they're for my boyfriend," I said awkwardly.
"Oh!" the woman exclaimed. "I'm sure he'll love them. Receipt?"
"No thanks." I took the bouquet back and dragged Kath out of the door.
Kath drove me to school so that the flowers could be a surprise when we got there. I held the flowers in my lap and shoved my nose into them. I pulled away quickly and scrunched my nose up. They did not smell good. In fact, they smelled bad up close. At least they were pretty.
As we walked inside, Kath made one last attempt to dissuade me.
"I appreciate your attempt to break down gender norms, but his friends are going to bash him for this," she said.
"If they're that mean, he shouldn't be friends with him," I refuted, though I was afraid she might be right. Kath sighed and left to find the rest of our friends.
I met Benji at our usual spot under the stairs. I didn't have to wait long before he showed up. His entourage followed him, unfortunately. The four of them were always a pack. I didn't mind his friends, really, by let's just say brought some extra noise into my life.
Benji smiled and beelined toward me. I smiled back and held out the flowers.
"For me?" he asked in what I hoped was delighted surprise. He took the flowers.
"No, for Mrs. Heinrich. Of course for you," I said.
"Happy Valentine's Day to you, too, my lady," Benji said and pulled me in for a quick hug.
"Oh! I got you some Junior Mints!" he said when we separated. "Carter, hold my flowers."
Carter said his reflexive, "That's gay," but took them. I shot him a bitter look.
"Right, no, it's not gay. Sorry." Carter was still working on his not-using-gay-as-an-insult, but he was getting better.
Benji dug through his bulging backpack.
"Sandra never gets me anything," another one of Benji's friends said.
"I keep telling you to break up with her, dude. She doesn't even like your dog," replied Carter. I smiled to myself.
"Ah! Here!" Benji shoved a large box of Junior Mints at me and then said to Carter, "Give me my flowers back."
"Have fun carrying those around all day, man," said Carter.
I resisted the urge to shove a bunch of candy in my mouth immediately and pulled Benji in for another hug.
"Thank you," I said.
"And thank you," he murmured into my ear.
The bell rang and we all scurried our separate ways to class.
Benji drove me home. The lilies were a little tattered and wilty as I held them once again in the passenger seat, but Benji was all bubbles and smiles-- even more than usual. I wished we could spend the afternoon together, but I had to get to soccer practice.
Benji got out of the car with me when we got to my house. He hugged me tightly in the driveway. I hugged him back with equal enthusiasm, glad we were away from the noise and bustle of high school.
Far sooner than I would have liked, we extracted ourselves from each other and he drove away.
That night, Benji and I sent slightly more than average evening texts. I also received a message from his mother that was just two words:
I smiled at my screen for so long and so hard that my cheeks hurt.