A Personal History of Valentine’s Day

Perspective has tremendous impact on the way we navigate and experience life. Valentine’s Day is a divisive holiday reliant on tradition, forced or otherwise, to perpetuate romance. Perspective can alter the holiday in any number of ways.

I am the type of person who has come to enjoy it at face value. Love should be celebrated, every day, so I have no objection to dedicating a holiday to it. I appreciate thoughtfulness and authentic gestures over candy and obligated gift giving, but I appreciate that not everyone’s love language is the same as my own.

There are many memories of Valentine’s seeded in my mind. Some of the earliest ones involve the bubbly thrill of picking out the perfect box of cheap, mass-produced notecards for elementary schoolmates. Checking names off of the class roster, careful to make sure I included everyone. I wanted to be well liked so I took care to fill out “To:” and “From:” with my best penmanship and attach an accompanying box of Sweethearts or stickers.

Quietly I longed for an admirer, but my first valentines were reliably my parents. Mom was always dependable for the efforts she made to celebrate holidays and milestones. Dad was more hands-off with his participation due to the long hours he worked as the majority income earner for the household. My siblings and I would wake up to find baskets of candy, stickers, and trinkets waiting for us on the dining room table in the morning, curated by Mom and sanctioned by Dad. It was a ritual that I loved but that felt commonplace in the sense that all families did this. Now I know how fortunate we were to have circumstances that granted us the means, and the parents, to acknowledge specials days in this way. I hope to pass along these little gestures if I ever become a mother.

In fourth grade I had my first taste of romantic Valentine’s affection. While sorting through the pile of cards in the handmade mailbox attached to my desk, one envelope caught my attention. It was much larger than all the others, dwarfing the standard petite notecards. A full-sized card was unheard of in school so I couldn’t help but think it was deliberately special. My heart fluttered as I carefully slipped a finger between the sealed mouth and loosened the adhesive. After devouring the pre-printed sentiments my eyes settled on the name signed at the bottom. It was from a boy. It was deliciously unexpected and intimidating. Now what?

With the help of note passing and favorably checked “Yes or No” boxes the two of us became an item. This mostly meant that for the next couple of years we would sit next to each other on the bus to and from field trips and spend most of the drive working up the courage to hold one another’s hand. After an agonizing silent drama of willing him closer and being acutely aware of the diminishing centimeters between us, he would finally make contact with his endearingly clammy fingers. Once we were bold enough to hold hands while at the roller-skating rink. We even went on a date to the movies, chaperoned by a parent per the insistence of my mother.

Before our romance fizzled toward the end of sixth grade I relished the white Tamagotchi that was gifted to me, as well as the frequent recess treats purchased on his dime at the snack bar. I still vividly remember the smell and taste of the perfectly gooey and freshly baked chocolate cookies that were sold for seventy-five cents. My parents had no idea how much forbidden sugar was placed in my hands during this awkwardly innocent relationship.

Years later this same boy would take my younger sister to prom.

Eventually I shifted my focus on a kid one grade higher than me. I was madly in love with him from afar until deciding to cross the barrier into active secret admirer territory. I slipped adoring notes through the slats of his locker. A friend’s mother worked in the school’s office and offered to conspire with me. On my behalf she delivered a Valentine’s Day present to him during school hours, interrupting the teacher’s lecture with the delivery of my carefully selected tokens of adoration.

With graduating classes of only about thirty kids, our school was incredibly small. This made the mysterious theatrics all the more flamboyant. His peers speculated as to who might be the smitten girl, but it wasn’t until a ninth grade volleyball sleepover that the truth was bared. In an attempt to use gossip to bond with some of my older teammates I sheepishly confessed that I was the one behind the many notes and gifts bestowed on the quietly handsome boy. Unsurprisingly someone told him by the start of the following week and intense, but deserved, embarrassment commenced. On one occasion he happened to be sent to my English class to deliver the teacher some unmemorable item from another teacher and when he passed my desk he said, “Hi Lauren.” The gentle curl of his smirk and the twinkle in my eye was the confirmation that he knew. I don’t think I remembered to breathe again until the bell rang to signal the end of the period. I’ve never been one for direct confrontation, even if it’s romantically inclined.

Hopefully the awkward manifestations of my utmost junior high crush are looked back upon by him with a comical lens.

Despite directing a lot of energy into unrequited love, I had plenty to spare. I was boy crazy, but not overtly so. My close friends were certainly aware of my opinions on who was cute, and I flirted in ways only an awkward pre-teen can, but I was never one to actually date. I tried though. I wasn’t exactly allowed to just yet, but that did nothing to quell my hormones. Playing footsie under tables, passing notes, and playing MASH were spirited attempts to manifest something I had little idea how to navigate once procured.

At one point in the eighth grade and to the surprise of no one, I pined for the most popular guy in class. Athletic and tall with dark hair, a picket fence smile, and an innate ability to charm, I found myself wishing he would direct his charm my way.

He also happened to be the same kid who, a few years prior, had followed through on a dare to pull my pants down in the middle of a game of recess four-square. Mom was not shy about her disdain for him.

You might remember an essay several months ago where I mentioned she called me a slut for wearing a fringed maroon skirt to a dance. The jarring insult occurred in our mini-van as she was dropping me off for the eighth grade Valentine’s Day dance. She knew that the popular boy was going to be at the dance and thought my “inappropriate” outfit was for him. The anger generating from her did exactly as it intended: shamed me for liking someone who had once disrespected me greatly.

After composing myself I went inside to dance with friends and anxiously waited for the DJ (a quirky classmate) to play a slow song from the cd I had handed him. Not until the Valentine’s Day “King and Queen” were announced did I have the opportunity to dance with my troublesome crush. With our shiny plastic crowns adorned on our heads as we slowly pivoted in a circle. The fleeting junior high royalty moment of my shallow dreams.

Before the song was over he delivered my very first kiss. It was so unexpected that I didn’t have time to close my mouth, which cause my upper teeth to collide with his pucker. The unfortunate execution did little to deter my shock and delight, so we continued dancing until the next song began.

My best friend’s mom gave me a ride home after the dance. As I walked through the front door I tensed in anticipation for the wrath of my own mother. My family was watching tv together in the living room and when I sheepishly appeared I was relieved to hear, “So, how was the dance?”

I didn’t tell them about the kiss, but I did proudly show off my plastic crown before retreating to my room.

He kissed me.

“What could that mean? Is he my boyfriend now?” I wondered.

I impatiently wanted to see him again at school, delighted at the though of his affection blooming further.

The following week I heard through the grapevine that over Valentine’s weekend he had kissed another girl, someone who was equally as popular as him. I was deflated. This would be the first of many arduous lessons on the bewildering mixed messages of humans.

I spent the next decade enjoying the holiday sans boyfriend. It wasn’t until my early twenties, when my beloved roommates and I dove headfirst into online dating, did I find myself with another unexpected valentine.

The week before Valentine’s Day I connected with a guy on the dating site I was frequenting. He asked me out on a date and I happily accepted. It went well and the next day asked me out again. Flattered that someone I liked off-hand was keen to see me again soon instead of playing games, I agreed to see him. Just a couple of days later, on Valentine’s Day, we had a third date at a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I was sure he would finally kiss me. How could he not when within a week he had set up three dates, the third of which was on the most stereotypically romantic days of the year?

Not until the fifth date did he finally make his move. I’m not sure if it was calculated or due to nerves, but I welcomed it just the same. The ease of leaning into the discovery of a person without games was refreshing.

A month or so later things quickly fizzled following an unchivalrous text conversation. He let me go just as quickly as he had pursued me.

A handful more Valentines passed before I found myself experiencing mutual love for the first time. Following suit with common customs, he gave me flowers and treated us to dinner at a high-end restaurant in our modest tourist town. The pomp and circumstance of it was delicious and I didn’t mind one bit to be outwardly embracing the “Hallmark Holiday”.

Our third and last Valentine’s Day was an omen for the end of our relationship, but I was naïve. We were knee deep in our transition from as roommates to sustaining a long-distance relationship. He had moved two hours away to attend grad school during the previous autumn. I chalked up his procrastination to make Valentines plans to the stress of school and balancing the new challenges of our relationship. In the weeks leading up to the holiday I had requested that we go camping. His commitment to a plan wavered before he said that it would be better if we spent the weekend at home, but then changed his mind at the last minute. With no reservations made, we crossed our fingers and made our way to the coast. We drove from one campground to the next, repeatedly being turned away due to full capacity. The more we drove, the more dejected I became. We could see several cars doing the exact same thing we were, desperately pulling into each campsite before winding their way along the coastline to the next place.

Finally we conceded and pulled into a remote motel parking lot to grab dinner at the adjacent diner. It was dark by then so we opted to snag a room before that too was no longer an option and then would resume our search for a campsite the following day. With a few years under our belt it was commonplace for us to split expenses, but as I was feeling bitter about being in a situation that could have been avoided if he had let me make reservations a month prior, I let him pay. With his wallet $200 lighter and me trying to hide my disappointment, we retreated to our cramped and overpriced room.

In the morning we popped into a private campground to ask if anyone hadn’t shown up for their reservation. To our surprise the campground host said that there were spots available on the lawn or down the steep driveway that led to the private beach. Tucked between boulders in a flat, sandy spot perfectly suited for a two-person tent, we basked in our luck. Within an hour all of the other available spots were taken.

After an uncomplicated camp dinner we treated ourselves to our very small stash of weed and sunk into the decorated sky.

We woke to the sounds of waves lapping next to our tent, crashing into the other side of our headboard of a boulder. Somehow we were still dry, separated from the high tide by a mere two feet of rock. All I wanted for Valentine’s Day was to spend time doing one of my favorite things with one of my favorite people. It took a lot more effort than it normally did, but I was glad to have ended better than it began. Being that he had been consistently thoughtful with planning dates and gift giving up until then, the unfamiliarity of his disorganization bothered me, but I didn’t believe it had evolved from anything worrisome.

As was routine by then, a few weeks later I made a trip to his college town so we could spend an extended weekend together. At one point he tried to convince me to go sky diving with him and some of his graduate student friends. I had yet found the courage to particpate, but told him I was fine coming along to watch the experience. He changed his mind and we ended up making other plans.

The weekend was normal, equally as enjoyable as any other visit. That is until Sunday during the last hours before I needed to head home. We had returned from brunch and were in the process of finding a flight to Los Angeles for his birthday trip to Disneyland. I already had bought my own ticket and was anxious for him to book his own. Being from the Midwest originally he had never been to the amusement park before. Not only would it be his first time, but the trip was a decoy for the surprise 30th birthday party I had been planning for months. I wanted him to think that was the “big event” so that he had no idea about the additional weekend I had planned in San Francisco with several of his dearest friends from all over the country.

Before he finished submitting his credit card info he inexplicably walked out of the room. Many long moments later he returned, sat across from me on the bed, and declared he wanted to break up.

Later I learned that during his abrupt departure from the room he called his best friend. I have no idea what was said, but I imagine he was getting the pep talk he needed to shatter us.

Valentine’s Day is different this year. Blithely single and surviving a pandemic as a caregiver, I am content to spend another day at home with Mom. It’s not what I wish to be doing in my heart of hearts, but it will do.

In order to use the day for writing I occupied her with yoga videos and NFL game reruns. She doesn’t remember watching the Super Bowl last weekend, so I can easily get away with using previous games as fodder for her entertainment. This new caregiving cheat is going to be useful for a guaranteed once a week distraction. For her, Sunday means football. I can’t help but deliver. With a history of sporadic Valentine’s romance and many years enjoying the holiday as a bachelorette, I have learned that placing unnecessary expectations on any one day doesn’t always bode well. The day is what I make it to be. I can writhe in the shadows of its capitalism or acquiesce to participate in some combination of customary gestures. I can ignore the holiday completely or take it as an opportunity to punctuate my expression of love for the people I cherish most fervently. Any and all of it is okay, an ebb and flow of perspectives dictated by life experiences. Of all the made-up structures humans have built to make sense of the world, I think at the very least this one should be acknowledged as a reminder to pay homage to the most powerful force we know. No matter if you choose to honor romantic, platonic, intimate, or self love, the act is a reckoning of beauty just the same.

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