In elementary school, Valentine’s Day was fun. I went to the stationery store with my Mom, picked out a box of perforated Smurf Valentines, and sat in front of the TV with a copy of my class list, making sure to include everyone as I wrote out my cards. I decorated a brown paper lunch bag with stickers and glitter, and carefully wrote my name in cursive with a red Magic Marker. The next day, I taped the bag to the side of my desk, and walked around the room depositing cards in everyone else’s bags. In return, I received cards from everyone else. All was fair in love and Valentine’s Day until 6th grade.
Then everything fell apart.
In 6th grade, my crush Josh* asked me to go to the Valentine’s Dance with him, which basically meant that I was his girlfriend. This being my first boyfriend, and for Valentine’s Day no less, I took it very seriously. After a class trip to the library to learn about the Dewey Decimal System, we stopped at the mall for lunch. I headed to a gift shop and studied the Valentine’s Day cards, finally selecting one that looked like a personal ad. For my boyfriend.
However, we never “consummated” our relationship because at the last minute he canceled, effectively breaking up with me before our first date. He confessed that he was in love with my arch nemesis and never really liked me; it was all just a ploy to make her jealous. So he went to the dance with her and I went alone, trying to look like I was having a good time as I swayed along to Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.” When I got home I tossed Josh’s card in the trash.
In high school, I tried to put on a brave face for Valentine’s Day. I dressed festively in a red top and matching scrunchie, and doodled hearts in the margins of my notes to show that even though I’d been hurt before, I still believed in love.
At school you could order candygrams, roses, and singing telegrams performed by the madrigal choir to show how much you loved someone. All day long, classes were interrupted by deliveries of lollipops and love songs, and by 3pm you could see who was loved the most by the booty they were lugging around. One year, a popular, petite girl got a teddy bear that was bigger than she was. Love was quantifiably on display, and while I’d get a candygram or two from friends, it was clear that I was lacking it.
But senior year things were different—I had an actual boyfriend, which actually coincided with Valentine’s Day. At last, this was my time to be loved! I arrived at his house on the big night ready for a romantic celebration. He greeted me at the door holding a single rose, which I thought was the sweetest.
Later in the evening I noticed a bouquet of roses on his dining room table.
“Those are beautiful,” I said.
“My father gave them to my mother,” he replied distractedly, walking into the kitchen.
Counting the roses silently in my mind, I saw that there were only 11.
He STOLE a rose from his Mom to give to me? THAT was my gift?!
Our relationship had been tumultuous from the beginning and lately it was deteriorating even more. He was exhibiting classic unavailable guy behaviors and although I was too young to even know what that meant, I suspected that he probably cheated on me. A few weeks earlier we’d gotten into a screaming fight and he’d thrown a jar of change, not exactly at me, but near me. But this, this stolen flower, was the rose that broke the camel’s back. I dumped him on the spot and stormed out.
For a long time after that, it seemed like I was always single on Valentine’s Day. Well, it seemed like I was always single, but I especially noticed it on Valentine’s Day. Even when I was dating, my relationships never made it close to lasting until the holidays, let alone the holiday.
I dreaded this Hallmark holiday and how it reminded me that I was alone while the rest of the world was coupled up. Each year, I’d rush home after work and hole up in my apartment. I was afraid to venture out and pick up takeout at a neighborhood restaurant, lest I be confronted with all the happy couples enjoying prix fixe dinners as they gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes over candlelight.
And then after years of Valentine’s Day singledom, I finally had a boyfriend as February rolled around. Sure our relationship was rocky, but I was determined to make it last though February 14th. He was thoughtful and generous, so I was certain he’d plan something elaborate and well, thoughtful.
Instead, he planned nothing. When I told him I wanted to do something special, he hastily took me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the block for dinner. Back at his apartment afterwards, he jumped on a work conference call instead of on me. I was left sitting by myself on his couch, holding the lacy, red thong he’d gotten me as a gift in my lap. We broke up two weeks later.
Sick of feeling like an unloved loser on Valentine’s Day, I decided to take back the holiday and make it all about loving ME! I started establishing annual self-care rituals like getting pedicures and massages to lessen the sting of this dreaded day, and making plans with friends and family to distract myself from the fact that I was still single. But everything I did, no matter how self-loving, felt like it wasn’t enough and was just a placeholder for when I’d have a boyfriend and could celebrate Valentine’s Day for real.
And then something shifted and Valentine’s Day wasn’t a big deal anymore. I wasn’t depressed that I didn’t have a boyfriend and I didn’t have to force myself to manufacture pumped-up feelings of self-love. It was just another day. Valentine’s Day stopped being torturous when I stopped being tortured by being single. Thankfully, all those years of therapy and working on myself finally sank in.
Now I have a tradition of going to a movie with family on Valentine’s Day. I don’t see movies as often as I’d like to so this upcoming annual ritual feels like a treat. With the exception of seeing “Valentine’s Day” a few years ago which was a mistake due to the flimsy plot and lack of character development, I enjoy celebrating the formerly dreaded holiday this way. And it’s the best gift of all—even better than a million candygrams—to be able to appreciate the people I’m spending time with and be at peace with my relationship status, instead of wishing I was with a boyfriend and feeling sorry for myself because I’m single.
*Name has been changed