valentine’s day in six parts

I. Seventh grade.

I stand in a circle with my friends at snack break, laughing about some silly joke that no one else but us would find funny. I’m wearing my favorite red sweater and my white pedal-pushers. I scan the grassy quad, looking for The Boy I Have a Crush On, but I don’t see him anywhere. I’m hoping maybe he will give me a Valentine today. Maybe he will send me a Candy Graham. Maybe… maybe… My wishes don’t go much farther than that. Candy Grahams and smiles across the quad. To my seventh-grade self, holding hands seems the epitome of romance.

The Candy Grahams are school-sponsored Valentines. All week long, you could go to the ASB room during lunch and pay a quarter for a small square of paper, where you could write a note that will be taped to a Caramel Apple Pop and delivered during fifth period on Valentine’s Day. I bought Candy Grahams for my best friends, but I did not buy one for The Boy I Have a Crush On.

During fifth period, my heart thrums as the Candy Grahams are passed out. I receive one. When I see Erica’s familiar handwriting, my heart sinks just a little.

I receive Valentines from my parents and my Gramps. But all I can think about is the Valentine I didn’t receive. I wonder if a boy will ever ever ever want me to be his Valentine. The future seems so far away.

II. Ninth grade.

I make a Valentine’s card for The Boy I Have a Crush On {who is different from The Boy I Had a Crush On in seventh grade… um, hello, that was a lifetime ago.} Unlike in middle school, my high-school self actually talks to this boy. We are… friends? Sort of. We walk together from fourth period to lunch every day. I am hopeful that he will give me a Valentine. I decide to make him a Valentine so I will have something to give him, if he gives me one first.

During our walk from the classroom to the lunch tables, my heart pounds in my chest. I finger the Valentine in my jeans pocket. I’m wearing my favorite red tank-top and white cardigan. It is Valentine’s Day, but the magic fizzles out the closer we get to the lunch tables. As each minute ticks by, it is morphing into just a regular day. Then he says, “Bye,” heading off to join his friends, and I realize he is not going to give me a Valentine.

Erica tries to talk me out of it, but later I slip the Valentine into his locker anyway. I mean, I already made it. Why let it go to waste?

I receive Valentines from my parents and my Gramps. There is even a bouquet of cheerful sunflowers from my dad. But all I can think about is The Boy I Have a Crush On, and the Valentine I didn’t receive from him.

III. Freshman year of college.

High school seems so long ago. I am a brand-new woman. I have held hands with a boy in a darkened room while we all watched a movie. I have gone out on a date and kissed a boy. I have told a boy, plainly and clearly, my feelings for him. For the first time in my life, The Boy I Have a Crush On just might like-like me back.

This year, I receive a Valentine. It is a very sweet homemade card, accompanied by flowers and the board game Scrabble. Only it is not from The Boy I Have a Crush On. It is from A Boy I Like as Just a Friend. I have told him many times that my romantic feelings just aren’t there, but he continues his unabashed pursuit, and I am beginning to feel unsettled in addition to the sadness and guilt I already feel for hurting his feelings.

I realize that it is not only about being wanted. It is about being wanted by the person you want, too.

I put the flowers in a vase on my dresser, hoping The Boy I Have a Crush On will see them. Hoping he still might come by my room, before Valentine’s Day is over, and ask me to be his.

But, as the streetlights blink on outside the window, as evening steadily shifts into night, he does not come by my room. He does not see my flowers. On my bulletin board, I have pinned up Valentine’s cards from my mom and my dad and my brother, from Erica and Holly and Celine. Yet all I can think about is the Valentine he didn’t give me.

IV. Junior year of college.

Norwich, England. I’m studying abroad for a semester and I am in love for the first time ever. All those other Boys I Had Crushes On seem so insignificant compared to this overwhelming feeling. This is my first Valentine’s Day with a real Boyfriend. I could not be more excited. I take the bus into town and buy a giant card at Pound Land {like the Dollar Store in the U.S.} and some new tights to go with the dress I had already picked out weeks ago. Instead of chocolates, I buy my Boyfriend a case of Red Bull because it is his favorite drink.

The morning of Valentine’s Day, while he is in class, I sneak into his room and leave the card and Red Bull on his desk. A few hours later, he calls me, his voice filled with surprise at my gift. He thanks me for it, even though he says his flatmates are giving him a hard time. He always seems slightly embarrassed, around his flatmates, to be with me.

“I’ll come by at 6,” he says. “I’m taking you out to dinner. It’s a surprise.”

I am a little kid on Christmas Eve. I feel like I’ve finally found the person who loves me back, who appreciates me for who I am. Who wants to be my Valentine and wants everyone to know it. That evening, Boyfriend comes over and gives me a daffodil he picked from the fields. We ride the bus into town together. He still won’t tell me where we’re going for dinner. Walking together down the cobblestone streets, he pauses in front of a Pizza Hut. I laugh, certain he is joking.

He holds the door open. “After you, my lady.”

Heart sinking, I realize he is not joking. In the next thought, I chastise myself for being judgmental. He is taking me out to dinner! On Valentine’s Day! I should be grateful. It doesn’t matter where we go for dinner; what matters is that we are together.

Over slices of pepperoni and cheese, he confesses that he waited until the last minute to make dinner reservations and all the other restaurants in town were booked up. We laugh about it, but all I can think about is The Girl He Had a Crush On back home, the girl he told me about last week, the girl with the pretty smile and contagious laughter who occasionally sends him letters. I feel certain that, if he was celebrating Valentine’s Day with her, he wouldn’t have waited until the last minute to make dinner reservations. He would have treated the occasion as something special. He would have felt so lucky just to be out on a date with her. I feel certain that the reason we’re celebrating Valentine’s Day at a Pizza Hut is because I’m somehow not good enough.

This is the first time I’ve had this feeling, with him. It will not be the last.

V. Four years ago.

Valentine’s Day is a Saturday, and I have dinner plans with My New Boyfriend. We have only been dating for two weeks–can I even call him my boyfriend yet?– but it feels like it has been longer than that. This thing between us is bright and shiny and new, full of sparkling possibility. Yet, my feelings for him are already growing serious. He feels familiar and yet also different than any other Boy who has come before.

My New Boyfriend asks if he can make me dinner for Valentine’s Day. I tell him that would be delightful. Never before has a man other than my father made me dinner.

I am living with my grandparents, who are apprehensive about My New Boyfriend {who they have not yet met} because he is In His Thirties! {I am twenty-six. In their eyes, I am still approximately sixteen.} So I ask My New Boyfriend if he would mind picking me up for our date, saying hello to Grandma and Grandpap. I know that, as soon as they meet him, they will love him. My New Boyfriend says of course, even though this means he will have to drive forty minutes each way four separate times: to pick me up and take me to his apartment for dinner, then to drive me home and go back to his apartment at the end of the evening.

I wear a lacy pink dress and bake red velvet crinkle cookies. I write him a Valentine’s card, where I try to hold back and keep myself from gushing too much. If I have learned one thing from the Valentine’s Days in my past, it is to keep my expectations low.

My New Boyfriend picks me up, right on time, looking so handsome in a collared shirt and sweater. He has a box of toffees for my grandma, who is immediately smitten. Grandpap claps him on the back and offers him a drink. We chit-chat in the living room for a few minutes before I’m able to extricate us away from the conversation and out the front door.

Instead of taking me to his apartment, where I’ve been a couple times before, My New Boyfriend drives me to his mother’s house, which is quite possibly the most gorgeous home I have ever seen. He explains that his mother is spending the night with his sister a few towns over, and she offered up her beautiful kitchen for him to use to cook tonight’s meal. He has made a salad and roasted asparagus and salmon. It smells amazing.

Walking into the dining room to light the candles, my breath catches. He has set the table with the fancy china and silverware. At my place setting waits a box of chocolates and a card. Inside the card, he has made a word search for me–all of the words are terms and inside-jokes from our two-week courtship: my favorite yin yoga class, my dog Murray’s name, the place of our first date: Lottie’s Ice Cream Parlor.

My eyes fill with tears. I feel like I’m in a movie or a novel. I realize that I don’t have to hold myself back with this man. I don’t have to be afraid of being disappointed. He is the Valentine my seventh-grade self dreamed of: choosing me, putting in effort for me, trying to make me feel special. When he looks at me, his eyes light up. When I look at him, my heart breaks wide open.

Until now, I always thought this kind of thing happened for Other Girls in Other Lives. But now, it is happening for me.

Later, when he kisses me goodnight, all I can think about is how I hope he always wants to be my Valentine.

VI. Today.

My Husband is not making me a candlelit dinner this Valentine’s Day. It is a Wednesday, and we both won’t get home from work till after 7. Sometimes fancy homemade candlelit dinners simply aren’t practical if you have to get up for work the next morning and you want to get to bed at a decent hour. Instead, we are planning to go out to a new Thai restaurant we’ve been meaning to try.

We will exchange cards and hugs and kisses. I will remind My Husband of the crossword puzzle he made for me, our first Valentine’s Day. “Can you believe, we’d only been together for two weeks!” we’ll marvel.

“Can you believe, you drove all the way there and back, there and back, to pick me up and take me home?”

“Yeeesh. I must have really liked you,” he’ll say with a wink.

When I was in seventh grade, and ninth grade, and college, and all the years in between, I was so focused on the romantic aspect of Valentine’s Day. I dove full-force into the hearts and flowers and chocolates, the parade and performance of the day. It was almost like Valentine’s Day was a milestone when I felt pressured to prove to others — to myself? — that I was loved. And again and again, the day fell flat. But it wasn’t because I didn’t have enough love in my life. It was because I was focused in the wrong tiny sliver of the pie.

Even before I met My Husband, even when I was poking an unwanted Valentine through the slit of a locker or forcing a smile as I chewed my way through a slice of lukewarm pizza, those Valentine’s Days were not wasted. I think of that girl I was, so fully ensconced in love. I think of her and I want to tell her,

Take a step back, baby girl. Look around you. Look at your family and your friends. These are the people you are going to have with you down the road. You don’t have to be so scared. You don’t have to try to force things. The kind of love you dream about is going to come into your life soon enough. Trust in it. Trust in yourself. And don’t forget to be so grateful for all the other love around you. Don’t take those Valentines for granted.

Maybe it’s easy for me to say all of this now that I’ve found My Husband. I remember those lonely wrung-out days vividly–days when I was still searching, hoping to meet him in every busy café or grocery store aisle I wandered down. I remember feeling so anxious and unmoored, worried that I might never find my person. Wondering if I would ever have the easy comfort of a sure-and-solid Valentine love, like a worn-in pair of jeans–the comfort I feel today.

Maybe it’s because of My Husband that I’m able, now, to slough off the fear that used to eclipse the love within this holiday for me. Now, I can fully appreciate Valentine’s Day–not for its pomp and circumstance, but for its richness and depth. I love seeing the shy smiles on my students’ faces when I give them cards and candy. I love the rainbow crayon homemade Valentines they give me in return. I love bringing cookies to our across-the-hall neighbor Joyce and bringing chocolates to our 97-year-old Great Aunt Flo, seeing the pure surprised delight on their faces. I love mailing cards to my friends scattered around the country. I love reading and rereading the Valentines from my mom and my dad and my brother, displaying them on our kitchen table where I can see them throughout the day. I love buying myself flowers, if I want to, not needing to prove anything to anyone but simply because they are pretty and would brighten up the apartment.

This Valentine’s Day, I have everything my past self used to long for. The irony is that now, looking back, I realize that I had it all along.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Please tell someone you love them. And please know that you are loved and you are enough, exactly as you are.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following questions as inspiration for some “free-writing”:

  • What is your favorite Valentine’s memory?
  • Make a list of all the love in your life–people, animals, places, activities, it all counts!
  • Write a love letter to yourself, describing in detail all the things you love about your amazing self.

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