kissing bunnies
It’s love! Photo credit

In the late 1980s, the valentines exchanged in elementary school were small pieces of glossy paper with images of cartoon characters and messages with cute, if contrived, puns. Some kids taped lollipops or Hershey’s kisses to them. It was hard to get that creative (back then, only Disney was making animated features), but one year my mom found valentines marked with dotted lines to be folded into paper airplanes. My classmates loved them. My teacher was probably horrified. My mom seemed to understand how much it meant to me when she picked out unique valentines. When candy valentines suddenly got big, she came home with M&Ms’ version for me to give away–a Valentine’s Day gesture in and of itself.

Most of my elementary school teachers had us make heart-shaped “mailboxes” out of construction paper to attach to the sides of our desks for valentines come February 14. But in first or second grade, a refrigerator box appeared in the classroom the week before Valentine’s Day, covered in colored paper and decorated with hearts. My teacher cut mail slots for each student into its sides and put name tags over them, and it would be through those slots that we would give each other valentines. The assumption was that every student would give every other student his or her valentine, but if you wanted to do something extra–like dotting the letter “i” in your name with a heart–it was a private way to do so throughout the week. I faintly remember a boy I had a chronic crush on created a situation when he consciously omitted a misfit with a learning disability from a lower-income family from his valentine distribution. I also faintly remember not having enough valentines the M&M year and, at the last minute, somehow getting a normal size bag for my happy outlier. For me, it was unthinkable to be mean on that day, of all days, no matter how arbitrarily cruel all young children, myself included, can be.

The real fun of Valentine’s Day for me was at home, not school. Every year I watched my dad give my mom gorgeous bouquets of flowers and large Godiva chocolate boxes he claimed he got a great deal on at the Marine Corps exchange in Quantico. But it was a big deal. When we were old enough to appreciate it, my sister and I received smaller bouquets from him, and we sometimes received delivery flowers to our college apartments later on. All three of us kids received a little bit of chocolate, and maybe a small gift besides, like socks with hearts on them. My mom would get my dad something practical, like socks (without hearts), and it made him really happy. Yes, cynics, it was completely commercial. Money was spent that wouldn’t normally be spent.

–Money spent on telling each other that we like them and care about the warmth of their toes in winter.

I know my experience wasn’t normal. I was lucky. And the time would come when my interests would transfer from familial affection to romantic affection.

socks

I don’t think I’m alone in defining being single as “definitionally, no one is walking around calling me his girlfriend,” even though a lot of us have found ourselves being broken up with from something we didn’t feel comfortable calling a relationship–not because we thought it wasn’t, but because we didn’t want word to get back to the guy that we we were calling it that. I have also been told by a guy that I’m “too independent.” Given how envious I’d always been of those who were always walking around having someone call them their girlfriend, the irony of being told that was not lost on me. For me, dating has just been casual.

And I still like Valentine’s Day.

I had my first adult boyfriend as a college freshman, and our second semester we took skiing and snowboarding PE classes on Thursday nights for a credit. (I assure you the University of Virginia takes academics seriously.) We had just traveled to NYC together for New Year’s then enjoyed the date functions that came with his courtship to fraternities for Rush, and the honeymoon period was about to end. But I was infatuated with the notion of being in an adult relationship, doing some (but not all) grown-up things. He knew this. On Valentine’s Day, he mysteriously stayed home and claimed he needed to study, but that we should meet up later on in the night after I got home from skiing. He ended up surprising me with a scavenger hunt that began at my dorm. Sweaty and disheveled, I changed clothes and set out across the campus. (I still remember the outfit.) I couldn’t find him, and my cell phone battery had died. He waited for me outside for at least an hour and a half in the Appalachian winter. He was so cold when I found him with champagne an of-age friend bought for him that he asked if we could please go back to dorms, and I was happy to oblige.

It’s a very accident-prone holiday for new relationships. I can see why guys are leery of doing something for it with girls they’re starting to date, but knowing what I know about women, if I were a guy, I’d be even more leery of ignoring the holiday. A dinner invitation–whether homemade, take-out, or dine-in–is all it takes, and a sense of humor should take care of the rest.

In the 8 years between, there were two Valentine’s Day dinners. I was so excited to be asked out by the guys I was barely starting to date, but long after the relationships ended, I can only remember how hilariously awkward I was. One guy and I were just not working out–older than I was, he correctly guessed I wasn’t as invested as he was, which made me suddenly overcompensate on the holiday–and I remember a very, very quiet dinner. I was still a lightweight back then, too, and I know I got a little too drunk by accident. For the other, I was so eager to impress that I squeezed myself into my nicest jeans; they were more than a size too small. I recall protesting dessert, not because sticky date bread pudding didn’t sound like the most perfect food I’d ever heard of, but because I was already stretching the fabric so thin I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised to receive a compliment for an attractive beauty mark above my right knee.

The rest of the time, I have looked forward to devoting the holiday to my friends, enjoying each other and a healthy buzz, maybe at small local bands’ shows, maybe at home. The best of these was in 2006 in Austin at a friend’s apartment. I had temporarily moved to Dallas in the late fall of 2005 to cast a TV show, then I entered a slump through the holiday season and January as I was trying to find work again. Valentine’s Day was one of the first times I hung out with the girlfriends I’d made only months before after Dallas, and I felt like I had to start over, being a friend to these friends. There were four of us; two of us have moved away, but we came together to celebrate the host’s birthday in Austin last month. Our host made us dinner and we brought wine or beer over. We put “Sex & The City” DVDs on in the background, but soon, it was only there to give us conversation topics. Some say the spirit of Valentine’s Day should last all year, that we should show others how much we care for them every day. But the occasion gave us pause to think about our relationships and validate each other in a deeper way. We might still be close today without that night, but what if we weren’t?

At 26, I happen to have someone calling me his girlfriend right now, and he’s the kind of guy I could not fathom denying another student a valentine in first or second grade. He’s a really good person. (Who will probably groan when he finds this!) I got to see him in LA last weekend and we celebrated the holiday early. I am as excited about the notion of doing grown-up things today as I was as a college freshman. He took me out for French, and I wore a dress that fit. Then, when I was unhappily back in New York without him, he sent roses and chocolate to my office. I sent him a small, goofy present I had a lot of fun finding. It’s also practical.

(Not socks.)

In my experience, for all the years I’ve been single, I haven’t felt sorry for myself on Valentine’s Day. Spoken-for girlfriends have had the good sense not to complain about the wonderful things they’re experiencing not meeting their expectations (I don’t think I could stay friends with such a twit, to be honest). It is easy to be excited for friends who don’t take the little things for granted. And it isn’t hard to enjoy yourself.

Cynics abound in New York City–this is a place where people delight in informing me that I’m not from here, as if I didn’t know, and that my neighborhood isn’t cool, as if I care–but there’s a sense of humor about Valentine’s Day here, too. This past week, popular food culture site (with a pleasant daily email subscription) Tasting Table ran a delightful piece about Gabrielle Hamilton’s Valentine’s tasting menus at Prune in the East Village. Historically, she has prepared separate menus for lovers and cynics, but this year, the menu refers to places and times of significance to love in her life. I have a soft spot in my little heart for this chef now. In Park Slope, the Bell House is hosting the “Rejection Show Valentine’s Day Heartbreak Haven” followed by the “Love Hurts” karaoke party tonight. For a trip to the pity pot, this sounds suspiciously enjoyable. Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Kitchen held an Anti-Valentine’s Day Party on Thursday, where cooking class members could focus on sexy legs–of the delicious duck confit variety. I recently agreed with a NYT writer who asserted this is an intimidating dish to make at home, and party participants now have a lifetime of impressing duck fans to look forward to. For all the effort put into vilifying Valentine’s Day, it seems to me it’s still celebrating it.

Yes, my forlorn friends among you, it’s just a day. It’s halfway over already. So, it being a day like any other, if I want to have a good day today, it’s up to me to treat it like one. 🙂

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