When I was a little girl, my father used to bring home big, antebellum-opulent heart-shaped valentines boxes for my mother and me. There was nothing fraught about Valentine’s Day back then; I was too young to be concerned with romantic gifts from admirers. I was only my father’s daughter, and his gesture seemed to comfortingly presage future displays of affection. It was also a happy surprise, something I didn’t expect and didn’t need in order to feel loved.
Fast forward to 1986. Picture this: a vast, boomy, subterranean junior-senior high school cafeteria. The air is redolent with the odors of cloyingly mingy mystery meat burgers and Love’s Baby Soft, and Charlie, borne aloft by floofy-haired girls sweeping by, buzzed on their own fleeting social significance. On Valentine’s Day, if you were a sought-after girl, you had armloads of carnations to carry around with you. And they made you stand out. You were wanted. You were desired. And it was quantifiable.
I didn’t have a single flower, and if you take a look at my seventh grade photo, you’ll get why. I was painfully nerdy, with an ineptly styled, feathered mullet. I had the kind of smile that makes orthodontists rub their hands together with glee.
The girl who had received the valentine box of chocolates from her father was no longer. That 7-year-old had been so steeped in self-confidence that she didn’t even know what it was. She just felt right in her skin. She smelled like beach grass and ocean-washed pebbles, and ran barefoot on gravel.
Now, I walked down school corridors with squeaky floors, in my tight jeans and Gunne Sax blouse with the dorky ribbon embellishments, smelling of fear and adolescent hormones.
In eighth grade, my best friend, Emily, and I made a pact to give the other a carnation, so that we wouldn’t be bloom-less. I held the gawky, waxy thing in my hand, attempting the blasé yet smug expression of a crushed-on girl. I felt besmirched by my deceit. I walked through hordes of students to go from bio class to wood shop, and I saw hundreds of nondescript and downright drippy boys. None of them had fixed on me and decided, “I’m going to send that girl a flower on Valentine’s Day.” And the tall, broad-shouldered, confident, golden guys with sure eyes, who were always
mid-wisecrack or greeting, none of them decided to commit social suicide by fancying me either.
I didn’t even think about whom I might like, and whether to send that person a flower. I was starting from the perception of what it might feel like to be desired, and working backward to myself.
I dated in college, but boyfriends never overlapped with Feb. 14. I found myself miserably and mortifyingly depressed on that day. I was unloved. Everyone else was being feted, wined, dined and made sweet love to. Not me. I was going to die an old spinster, in a garret overrun by cats.
When I did have my first boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, at the age of 22, he handed me a necklace with a heart pendant, grumbling that he had to go to five stores to find it. It felt very hollow, the experience, like I was acting out my lines and receiving my cues. I went from yearning and
pining to feeling resentful that I had a role to play.
“How do you know if you’re in love with someone?” I asked my father around that time.
“Well, if you’re wondering if you are, you’re probably not,” he replied. “It’s one of those things that you just know.”
So that would mean I would have to break up with him. Given that I had a galloping case of codependence, that was less appealing than ripping off my fingernail with a rusty tweezer. I did break up with him approximately a year later, and went on to have a passel more of single, weepy-ass Valentine’s Days.
One February, when I was 26, I decided to make beautiful handmade valentines for all of my friends. I didn’t have a love interest, but that didn’t stop me. Everyone loved them, except for one woman who never spoke to me again, convinced I was lezzing on her.
I still felt depressed that year. I called my mother, morose, on Valentine’s Day, and she was also crying, and I asked her, “Do you think it will ever get better?” and she said, “Probably not.” She was no longer getting chocolate from my dad, since they had divorced when I was 13, and she was crying not over her troglodytic second husband, who was truly unmournable, but the boyfriend who followed him.
I met my (now ex-) husband a week later. In coming years, I made heart-shaped valentine pancakes that we ate with rosé Champagne. But as time went on, things chipped away at my enthusiasm for our love. He did get me to move to Santa Fe, which has red chile, and all you have to do is pour that over a steaming hot, cheese-glazed breakfast burrito with the right flourish to create the best valentine around.
One year after I moved to New Mexico with my husband and baby, Laura moved to New Mexico with her partner and their two dogs. We didn’t meet until both of our relationships were long over, until we were two single women who had intrepidly chosen being alone over feeling lonely with the ones we were with. She had always been a lesbian, but I was one of those women who decide to switch teams in midlife. It didn’t matter.
My whole received, neurotic, undignified ball of crap around Valentine’s Day completely dissolved once I fell in love with Laura. For the last three years, making a big deal out of that rosiest of all calendar days seemed redundant. Sure, we nod to it, but it’s not fraught.
I no longer pine for external validation in the form of cafeteria carnations or chocolate boxes bought from fly-by-night vendors. I now understand what it means to think of Valentine’s Day as just another day, given that the sight of my love’s face opens my heart more than any trinket or bonbon ever could. Daily.
You might think that it’s easy for me to say that Valentine’s Day is no big deal, since I’m in a relationship. But that love came from aligning with myself, and sussing out what I wanted, not from who wanted me. And even then...I got really lucky.
Like the little girl who was too busy choosing her own 7-year-old adventures to wonder if the world thought she was pretty, I am feeling life from the inside out.