Hearts of darkness

I’ve been in a relationship for 21 years, so I’m kind of beyond making a fuss over Valentine’s Day. Which is why last February 14 you could have found me hanging out at a super-romantic Super Target Starbucks instead of perusing a prix-fixe menu in some candle-lit restaurant. As I waited for my latte, I noticed a guy hovering at the counter, laboring over a greeting card he’d obviously just bought. Frustrated, he finally asked the barista if she knew how to spell “eternity.” She shrugged and shouted, “Anyone know how to spell eternity?” Silence.

My first reaction was: Seriously? I’m the only person here who can spell eternity? And should I begin home-schooling my kids right now? But only a true black-hearted bitch would refuse to help a guy compose a message promising eternal love — even if he totally waited till the last minute.

I’ve mellowed in my old age. I accept Valentine’s Day for what it is, a Hallmark holiday designed to make people spend money they don’t necessarily have on things they don’t necessarily need. One can’t exactly rue the commercialization of a day that’s never really been about anything but Whitman Samplers and long-stem roses, teddy bears and tennis bracelets. Sure, I’m aware of its alleged roots in Ancient Rome, in the lives of the Saints, in the courtly traditions of medieval England blah blah blah, but V-day as we know it began in the mid-19th century with the first mass-produced greeting card and pretty much devolved from there.

Hating on Valentine’s Day is a bit of a cliché, but when you’re young and unattached, it can be good cathartic fun. I’ll never forget one bloody-Valentine celebration with my college roommates: Downing Budweiser tall boys and chain-smoking Camels, we gathered around a big, pink, heart-shaped cake (purchased for half price after 5 p.m. at the drug-front bakery down the street). The scene that unfolded was, well … how does that song go again? “They stab it with their steely knives / but they just can’t kill the beast”? Like that.

Back then, I was still a little bitter about Valentine’s Day, and justifiably so. In high school, I’d endured four years of the cruelest Valentine fundraiser, the scourge of all freaks and geeks, Carnation Day. In early February, the student council would set up a table in the cafeteria and start taking orders for color-coded carnations. You could buy someone red (“true love”), pink (“hot stuff”), white (“innocence”), or green (“friendship”). On Valentine morning, deliveries were made to homeroom, and I think you can envision how this played out, right? Armloads of carnations — in the full complement of colors — were dumped on some desks, while others, alas, remained woefully bare, or in a good year, boasted a couple of wilted greens. I would call this the most misguided tradition my school ever sponsored if it weren’t for Senior Slave Day, which involved seniors, sometimes in chains, being “auctioned off” to underclassmen. Happily, that charming ritual was abolished in the mid-’80s, though for all I know Carnation Day continues.

 So when I eventually found myself in a relationship that coincided with February 14, I have to admit it was sort of exciting. My boyfriend (now husband) and I would exchange gifts, go out to dinner, flaunt our couplehood. But it got old pretty quick. Maybe it was the way our favorite low-key restaurants would succumb to the cheesiness — eyebrow-waggling waiters proffering chocolate roses, violinists strolling between tables. Or perhaps it was just the kneejerk nonconformist in me — we don’t need no stinkin’ corporate-sponsored holiday to sanctify our love! Whatever the reason, we’re mostly done with the rituals. Sometimes we give each other presents, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we give flowers, sometimes we forget. Sometimes we forgive the forgetting. We never go out, but will seize any excuse to spring for an extra-fine bottle of wine to accompany the HBO and takeout.

Now Valentine’s Day is more about my kids. I spend the first half of February rallying them to the task of hand-making piles of Valentines for their classmates, and the second half surreptitiously throwing away the massive amount of candy they score. My 6-year-old has graduated from merely signing her cards to writing personal messages: “You are funny — and one of a kind.” “You are my friend.” “You are smart.” “I love you, too!” They are sweet and sincere, and it’s hard to imagine she’ll ever be the sort who’d trash a Valentine cake, but who knows? May her future be free of carnations — and full of love that’ll last for all e-t-e-r-n-i-t-y. •

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