We would have Valentine’s Day parties in elementary school. The day before we’d make cardboard mailboxes, decorate them with construction paper and glue and hang them over the edge of our desks. Then we’d all go home and make valentines for everyone in our class, bring them in the next day and deliver them to everyone’s mailbox. Our teacher would bring in snacks and soda, a few of our mothers might bake cookies or something, and we’d spend the last part of the day eating and exchanging valentines. For kindergarten, first and second grade, this all sat very well with me.
In third grade it struck me how disingenuous the entire enterprise was. I was expected to give valentines to everyone in my class, whether I liked them or not. But I was told the holiday was about expressing love for those people I truly cared about. If I handed out valentines to everyone I knew, then the people I cared about got the same message as the people I didn’t give a shit about and the people I actively disliked — the gesture was rendered meaningless. Plus there was all that extra work writing valentines for people I didn’t even like. I began to find the whole thing offensive. So that year I decided only to give valentines to the classmates I felt deserved them — in the name of emotional honesty. How could I do any less? During the party Jennifer Farrow came up to me at my desk and told me she hadn’t gotten a valentine from me. “I know,” I said.
The next year I had an ear infection and stayed home sick on Valentine’s Day. I liked that so much that I miraculously developed an ear infection on the next three Valentine’s Days, too. By that time I was in seventh grade and Valentine’s parties were a thing of the past, and I outgrew my annual ear aches. I never had a girlfriend in middle school or high school, so the day lost pretty much all significance for me. I viewed it with the cynical detachment with which I viewed everything as an adolescent; it was another imaginary holiday concocted to sell Hallmark cards.
My attitude didn’t change all that much even when I had a girlfriend. With Dana, it was a nuisance to be handled. I never bought her flowers or anything extravagant. I think the first Valentine’s Day we were together I bought her a teddy bear holding a little Mylar balloon. In my defense, this was exactly what she had asked me for. All turned out for the best anyway; I never had to regret dropping a fortune on flowers or expensive chocolates after we broke up.
Ashley and I had our first date three days after Valentine’s Day 2005. We had been chatting online and exchanging emails before that, and I had told her what I really thought about the holiday, that it was shallow and meaningless, an excuse to get people to spend money. For Valentine’s Day 2006 I bought her flowers, which was the first time I’d ever done that for anybody. I planned to do the same this year, but the ice and snow fucked that up quite nicely. So my girlfriend doesn’t get anything for Valentine’s Day this year. She got me a beautiful card, ordered me a few things from online, spent actually a fair amount of money on my worthless ass, and all I’ve got for her is a hug and a dopey grin. But she handles it with forgiveness and grace. Half an hour ago we sat down to a candlelit pasta dinner which she prepared herself. It was delicious. She loves me despite my disturbing tendency toward being a fucking doofus. Valentine’s Day is different now than it’s ever been. Thanks to Ashley, it means something.