As soon as Duane Reade and CVS start stocking their shelves with red and pink paraphernalia I start feeling Valentine’s Day’s inevitable imminence in the winter wind that sweeps chills beneath the sleeves of my coat, up the skin of my arms, down my neck, beneath my scarf, down to the thin skin of my chest that my shirt leaves bare. I contemplate Valentine’s Day even while January still clings to the calendar. I used to dread it because I was perplexed by it. Now I think I get it.
Since I started high school, I wondered what kind of people celebrate Valentine’s Day. What kind of woman received flowers or jewelry or a heartfelt card and what kind of man gives such things? What kind of couple goes to dinner in a candlelit restaurant or has particularly romantic sex that evening? I wondered who these people are, why they celebrate this holiday and if it means anything. I thought maybe Valentine’s Day is a holiday for commonplace love, not the kind of love the French troubadours sang of in the lyrics of hope and tragedy, eroticism and intellectualism; not the kind of love I wanted. But then I wondered if all love is paradoxically both rare and commonplace?
When I was a freshman in college I told my first boyfriend that I didn’t believe in celebrating Valentine’s Day. I said that it’s tacky and superficial. And I wished I meant it. I reminded myself of the fact that I don’t care for chocolate nor for the clichéd cards usually found near the pharmacy inside CVS. But, really, I was just saying it for the same reason I always told anyone I ever dated that I didn’t need anything for Christmas or my birthday: I felt like loving me must be so much trouble that no one needed to go to any extra trouble just because it’s a holiday.
When Valentine’s Day with my first boyfriend arrived, I found myself sitting in a red plastic booth at the touristy Giordano’s pizzeria in Chicago, sharing what just happened to be an extra-large heart shaped pizza with my boyfriend, his aunt, and his cousin. They chatted about God and George W. Bush, while I watched families and teenagers sharing heart shaped pizza in the adjacent booths.
The two subsequent Valentine’s Days during that relationship were days that found me outside in the bitter Chicago cold, wandering my favorite streets of Lincoln Park alone, watching couples in the windows of restaurants, watching couples line up to place their order inside my favorite cupcake bakery, watching couples walk hand in hand while my hand held my pink iPod, and then returning alone to my apartment to order Mexican food and eat it in bed while I watched Arrested Development reruns as if it was any other night of the year. And though in practice it was like any other night of the week, it didn’t feel like one.
When I was little I unabashedly enjoyed Valentine’s Day. I enjoyed eating boxes and boxes of Conversation Hearts, after first organizing the hearts by color and then by what they said so that I could save the best tasting, most romantic one for last. One year when I was very young, my grandmother came to my house with several boxes of art supplies and we spent the afternoon cutting and pasting and drawing and writing and glittering. My grandmother made heart people out of paper and lace and Popsicle sticks and I wrote love poems on crepe paper that I had cut into heart shapes and then covered in glitter and pasted onto lace doilies. It was a beautiful, lace-trimmed holiday that I enjoyed every time it came around for many youthful years.
Two years ago, after some turbulent teenage and early adulthood years of denying the holiday, I realized that Valentine’s Day is probably the perfect holiday for me. After all, I love Love -- even as I grow increasingly wary of it over the years. I love a truly great kiss – the kind of kiss that seems to touch every part of my body simultaneously while momentarily rendering me unable to move words from my mind to my lips. And I love slipping my hand into the warm grasp of another’s at the end of a long day. I love when love is new and feels as if any love that may have ever existed in my heart prior was lesser or just plain wrong as the new love sparks unfathomable, glittering brightness as my beloved and I walk together down the street or move together between bed sheets. And I love when love has grown a bit and is happy to stay in bed on a Sunday, watching TV and reading the news. And even though I don’t necessarily believe in happily ever after, I love the possibility that I might be proven wrong. Sometimes it’s just nice to be in love with a possibility.
The truth is that in my heart of hearts, I believe in Valentine’s Day. I believe it is important to celebrate love. Love. Love in the abstract and love in the tangible touch of someone you love and who loves you back. Love as sex and love as sitting quietly together on a park bench. I think it is good to be the people who give and receive flowers and heartfelt cards, the people who sit together in candlelit restaurants, who put a little extra effort into their appearance and pay a little extra attention to detail in bed that night. I think it is important to show that in spite of the texts sometimes left unanswered and the many miscommunications, the silly arguments, the nights you slept on opposite ends of the bed, and all the times you were too tired or too preoccupied with something else that love still means something – still means everything.
And so, two years ago I celebrated my first Valentine’s Day with the first person I was head over heels in love with. We had dinner and drinks at the same small taqueria on the Lower East Side where we had our first date. He gave me a sweet, silly card and heart shaped box of champagne truffles from Teuscher. I gave him a handmade card and a short story I had written. After dinner we wandered the Lower East Side and decided to have cosmos (I wanted one because they’re pink) at a musty little pub called No Fun. Sitting at the almost empty bar together, we were in what felt like it would be a happily ever after. And by that I mean it felt right. Valentine’s Day was what we made it and ours was like us – unplanned yet heartfelt, worth the trouble but willing to take it easy. We held hands at the bar and asked the bartender to take our photograph. The picture came out bright blurry, the camera’s flash dances upon the bar lights and the streetlights behind our heads, a halo-like glow turns our faces gold. We look happy. It was love: paradoxically rare and commonplace.
Maybe Valentine’s Day isn’t as important when you’re eighteen or twenty and in college, and your real world consists of studying and drinking and dreaming up all the possibilities that you’d like to fall in love with. But it is an important holiday when you’re even just a couple years older and in a relationship. The truth is that the reservation you make for February 14th, the words you write in the card, and the extra romance is all an effort you make to celebrate something that is the best thing that has ever happened to you, or at least something that is making you superbly happy.
And I know people say that Valentine’s Day makes people who aren’t in a relationship feel bad about themselves, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to celebrate it. After all, there are more people than one might think who don’t have a family with whom to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving, or good friends with whom to celebrate their birthday. And what about all the single people with no one to kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve? I think most holidays have the potential to make some people feel excluded, but I also think there is always reason to celebrate it you look for it.
Valentine’s Day is neither tacky nor superficial, at heart. It is not an empty consumer driven holiday, not necessarily. At its best, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of the very thing that we are all most likely either longing for or taking for granted: love.