One time, just one time, I dated a guy who knew how to do Valentine's Day right: as romantic and embarrassing and cheesy and overdone as your favorite rom-com. He enlisted one friend of ours who had aspirations of becoming a chef to make fettuccini Alfredo. He enlisted another friend who happened to be pretty good at guitar to serenade us. He wrapped a scarf around my eyes when I arrived and led me upstairs to his parents’ bedroom, where he’d set up a small card table and a couple of chairs on the fire escape outside the window.
It should be noted that his parents weren’t home. It should also be noted that this was 1998, and I was 15 years old. I was probably wearing flared jeans, hoop earrings, and a velvet shirt. At 15, I was as committed a romantic as any girl who read YM religiously, or saw Titanic in the theaters and cried. The coolest thing about me was that I had a poster of Kurt Cobain on my bedroom door. The least cool thing about me was that I had a back brace—an actual back brace, which made me feel as if I were a character written by Judy Blume.
So you know your protagonist; now a word about your romantic lead. This boy was adorable. He had a hilarious laugh. He was a black belt in karate. He looked like Matt Damon — and Good Will Hunting had come out just a year before, so this quality was in very high demand. Plus, somehow, miraculously, he understood how I needed to be loved—not just loved, but overloved. I needed to be loved well and loved often. I needed to be loved boringly, almost until it made me numb. What can I say? I was an anxious girl. When he bought me flowers nearly every other week, when he left notes in my locker and made me a million mix tapes, I felt taken care of. Being overloved was the only way I felt safe.
We climbed out onto the fire escape and shivered. The one friend brought us our fettuccini; the other stood by the window and played songs by the Gipsy Kings on his guitar. When I got self-conscious (and our fettuccini got cold), we moved the card table and chairs back inside, and finished our meal in his parents’ bedroom. When we were satisfied, when his vision for romance had been realized, we closed the door and dry-humped quietly as his friends let themselves out.
I dated that boy from freshman year almost until graduation. As we grew up together physically, our bodies changing together, we grew apart socially and emotionally (though in retrospect, we had maybe never been that similar). This boy had given me hundreds of flowers over the years, dozens of mix tapes, and countless cards and little notes, and though all of that had kept me feeling taken care of — kept me oversaturated with overlove. But as I’d grown up, I’d developed a split romantic personality. As much as I wanted to be taken care of, I also wanted to be challenged, fought with, and called on my bullshit. I wanted it both ways. I wanted it all ways. I wanted the teddy bears and massages, but I also wanted to feel like I wasn't the only person in the relationship who was on a first-name basis with rage and despair. So, a few days after my 18th birthday, we broke up for good, and I started dating people as inconstant and incomprehensible as myself.
Since then, most of the Valentine's Days I’ve spent with significant others have been almost comically awful. There was the year the boy I was dating showed up to my college campus at midnight, drunk on tall boys of Budweiser he’d bought at Penn Station, with a flower that looked like a wilted sea anemone. There was the sad Valentine's Day I spent on the West Coast, in relationship limbo with the same guy I’d broken up with that New Year's, both of us sulking, biding our time, waiting for me to leave again for the East.
At 24, I fell for a man I’d be with on and off for most of the next decade. The same traits that made me love this guy — his feminism, his critical nature, his honesty, his authenticity — also made him wholeheartedly dismiss Valentine's Day. For one thing, he said, it was sexist and patriarchal. For another, the holiday's commercialized approximations of love were depressing to him. They were empty, outsourced gestures and echoes whose false tone distorted the real love we shared.
I didn’t disagree. I understood that to have expressed his love with a mass-produced polyester teddy bear and a box of shitty milk chocolates would have been like approximating Rilke with emoji. But on the other hand, to do nothing for Valentine's Day — to let it go without some some major, manic gesture — would have left me bereft. So in an act of stubborn resistance, on our first Valentine's Day I hid chocolates all over his apartment, arranging them into a scavenger hunt. As he found each in turn, he got increasingly anxious. At last, he admitted he had nothing for me.
Predictably, I was worse than disappointed. Maybe, I felt, I was suddenly seeing what I'd been blind to for months: that he didn't love me, and never would. He told me that was not it at all, told me that I was the one who was blind. For months, he said, he’d been showing me how much he cared about me in his own way. Although I knew that was true, I still could not shake my paranoid feeling of rejection. In this man I’d found the authenticity I was searching for, because he did not communicate through gifts and grand gestures. But paradoxically I was unable to feel secure with him. I had become many women over the years, and would become many more yet, but among the people I would always be was the 15-year-old girl who needed to be overloved.
From then on, each passing Valentine's Day was more difficult than the one before. One memorable year we spent the holiday in a house lent to me by a colleague, a beautiful place in upstate New York that looked out on a broad field surrounded by woods. That was the year when, in an attempt to quit smoking, he’d gone on an anti-smoking medication. It gave him the furies. We went out to a nice dinner. He gave me no gift. I felt beyond let down. He pointed out the nice dinner. I told him it hadn’t been enough. He became exasperated. My indignation became injury. The argument escalated until, in a medication-fueld rage, he drove off into the night, leaving me fearful he’d never come back.
Of course, he did come back. After all, we had to drive back to the city together the next day. But Valentine's Day had officially become the day of the year we each felt the least loved. More than once we broke up on or just before February 14th, only to get back together a week or two afterward. We avoided it like the goddamn plague.
I am in my thirties now, and despite all the heartbreak I’ve endured (and doled out), I refuse to join the ranks of those who hate Valentine's Day. It is hard, but I am trying to stop looking for what I need in other people, and start taking responsibility for my own complicated expectations. I am trying to own the fact that ever since that freezing cold night I spent eating fettuccini Alfredo with teenaged Matt Damon on the fire escape — now more than half my lifetime ago — my approach to Valentine's Day has been not What can we do together? but What are you going to do for me? By asking the wrong question all those years, I made it impossible for myself to enjoy Valentine's Day with a partner.
That’s the problem with needing to be overloved, I’ve realized. It’s too big a job for just one person. The only times I’ve ever really enjoyed this stupid holiday has been when I’ve spent it with friends. Eating Indian takeout and watching Pride and Prejudice with the girls is its own kind of cheesy cliché, but it is utterly enjoyable — and utterly achievable.
So I've taken a new approach. I throw a party. I get together all the people I love, just so I can revel in all the different ways that they love me — and, more importantly, the ways I love them. I call it the (Anti-)Valentine's Party. At the (Anti-)Valentine's Party, everyone is invited. Tears are allowed. Bitterness is welcome. Drunkenness is encouraged. And being overloved is inevitable.
Images: Witchoria; A Band Apart/ Lawrence Bender Productions; Giphy