Well you wish upon a star/That turns into a plane/And I guess that’s right on par/Who is left to blame? — The Replacements’ “Valentine”, 1987
What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on? I wouldn’t be surprised if, as you look back through your memory, it happened around this time of some year, when there is an almost explicit expectation to feel and express a societally recognized version of romantic love.
Mine was Valentine’s Day of 1996. I had been in a relationship with a woman I’ll call Carly for six months or so. It was monogamous and regular; we slept together at one or the other of our apartments every night. But Carly and I had recently gone through the unpleasant experience of having one person in a romantic relationship say the phrase “I love you” at an earlier point in the relationship than the other person was comfortable responding in kind.
It happened in her bed. We had been there all morning, into early afternoon, on a sunny weekend day. An easy breeze was billowing the gauzy white curtains. Everything was beautiful. And then she met my eyes with her eyes, and her voice got low and throaty. Three short words.
And then it was quiet. And then it was silent. And then the silence was quicksand. I felt all the air leave my lungs and my mouth opened. It occurred to me that I might laugh, that I might break into a nervous, naughty-boy giggle, and that that would be very bad, so I closed my mouth and bit my lips and looked down at her flower-patterned sheets, all crumpled over my pale, stupid legs. And when I looked back up I watched the giddy, hopeful expression that had been on her face turn into something that I don’t like to think about, even 20 years later.
There were tears and there was awkwardness, and we talked for an hour. I suggested that maybe we’d both be better off if we called it quits. But she said no; she was happy with the current state of our relationship. And as long as I was happy in it, too (which I was, just not as happy as she was, I guess) she was willing to wait for me to come around.
“I’m glad I said it,” she said, like she was trying to convince herself. “Even if you’re not there yet. You should know.” We went and got eggs.
Looking back, I feel ashamed of myself. The responsible thing would have been to break up with her soon thereafter. But I didn’t. So months went by in stasis, the balance of power tilted farther in my direction than I would have ever wanted. It was a stale cliche, the woman waiting for the guy to commit. Guy unsure, hedging. Guy cowardly? Probably, in at least a sense.
Then, Valentine’s Day, a couple months after that terrible morning in Carly’s bed. We had gone back and forth about what to do. We fancied ourselves a mellow, modern couple who didn’t need to engage so heartily in societal foolishness. I made it known that I preferred not to exchange gifts or cards. But we went out to dinner, under the auspices of celebration, to this Korean restaurant near her place. We’d been there lots of times.
It turned out to be a very popular Valentine’s dinner destination. Other couples were cooing to each other over their bibimbaps. I was grumpy, feeling stupid for allowing myself to be tricked into a situation (tricked by myself as much as anyone else) so obviously loaded with gloom. Carly started to cry.
Clearly, she had been expecting more from this night – an indication that my feelings for her had grown, or were growing, beyond casual fun and into love. Sadly, this was not the case. And Valentine’s Day served only to highlight that painful truth.
I absolutely do not understand why we do this to ourselves. Any benefit that might result from a “special” occasion whereupon lovers take an extra moment to celebrate their love — a gesture rendered mostly meaningless, pretty much every time, I would argue, if only for the fact that it need take place on a day shared with the rest of society — diminishes in comparison to the pain.
Most holidays work similarly, but Valentine’s Day is the worst. It is the most self-sabotaging, cut-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face holiday we human beings have been stupid enough to come up with. This unmitigated annual disaster is devoted to celebrating, and so putting a microscope to, societal mores about what it means to be in romantic love. (And so also the even-more-fun part, hahaha – the lonely inverse!)
We’ve somehow convinced ourselves to look forward to this and other holidays – to sharing them with other people in a specifically prescribed manner, in a manner intentionally designed to be different from our “normal” days.
What are holidays other than special dates, written on an arbitrary calendar determined by the movement of celestial orbs a million miles away from us in space, that are specifically designed to carry with them expectation? Expectation that can never truly be fulfilled. The shooting star will always turn out to be just a plane. Expectation is poison. The best we can do to rid ourselves of it, the better off we’ll be.
My thinking is that we should live every day, normal or otherwise, in our best effort to make the days of the people around us easier and more pleasant.That’s it. That’s the best we can do in this life.
Whatever nice thing you’d do on a holiday, do it on a normal day. This includes buying someone a surprise gift or, even better, skipping work to have a huge drunken feast with one’s family and friends. Or even just telling someone that you love that you love them. There shouldn’t be a special day for that.
I wish there weren’t.