Elementary School was probably the last time I truly loved Valentine’s Day. Crafts, cards and candy. Who could want for more? I loved learning to cut perfect hearts out of construction paper by folding a piece in half before maneuvering my lefty scissors into a sweeping arc to make them beautifully bulbous, smooth and symmetrical. Each one larger than the last, I glued expanding heart shapes one upon the other, rotating between blood red, of course, and Pepto-Bismol pink, until the ripple effect looked like a bad acid trip, like a heart-shaped bomb about to explode. Moist in the middle from too much glue, it was bulging, practically bursting with love. The center heart would be cut out of a paper doily and added last. Almost as thin and delicate as a spider’s web, it had to be pulled apart from the others with the gentlest touch or it would tear.
Craft day fell a couple of days before the class party and decorating the room created a palpable sense of excitement. We made cards for our parents and oversized paper pouches in which the Valentines would be stuffed. While others rushed through and ran off to play, art was my favorite subject and I was meticulous down to every crayon choice, testing the color on scrap paper before committing. The night before the big day, I would eagerly spread out all of the store-bought Valentine’s cards around the dining table and carefully consider which was the best fit for each classmate.
When the teacher gave the word, we all scrambled around the room on a sugar high, putting each classmate’s card in the appropriate pocket. And then to open them up! 25 hand sealed presents. My name handwritten 25 times on undersized envelopes in all different penmanship, some letters large and shaky, some almost illegibly tiny, some written carefully in cursive. Even though the cards were mandatory, they felt so special. Everyone was equally loved and appreciated.
Middle School followed suit more or less, but in Junior High everything changed. We’d outgrown class parties along with the notion that life was fair. Cliques had formed and people hovered around lockers where real boyfriends were delivering real cards with real love notes. BFFs might exchange gifts—something very personal and unique like two halves of a heart-shaped charm on matching necklaces—announcing the best friend status and thus making them whole. The most popular girls exchanged clip on koala bears or candy in tins, carrying a very limited number, and laughed in hushed voices in tight impenetrable circles.
Candy Grams, a fundraiser for football one year and band the next, were all the rage and bought for fellow students at two dollars each and delivered taped to lockers, in the halls and even during class, interrupting the lesson and creating dramatic suspense. My imagination would go wild in that split second—could this one be mine—until the deliverer would walk past me and add it to the pile on Mandy Mason’s desk, increasing her heart harem. The in-crowd would have layer upon layer of the Candy Grams bulking up the outside of their lockers, while the rest of us were lucky to get one or two, if only to save us from dying of embarrassment. When I got Candy Grams from secret admirers, they were never from whom I hoped. Equally mortifying, they were usually from some geeky tuba player or socially awkward transfer student.
I was awkward too, which was part of the problem. I was a late bloomer still wearing a training bra with skinny bird legs and a frizzy head of hair—the result of a home permanent gone wrong on top of already naturally curly hair. I wore braces for almost four years, because I refused to wear my headgear and rubberbands, so that my gums were always irritated and swollen.
Even so, throughout the rest of the semester I thought that I was popular enough and had friends. But Valentines Day always brought that into question. Year after year, the paper heart in my chest was ripped apart, crumpled up, discarded.
High School was worse. The bouquets of flowers grew more monstrous, while I had neither bloomed nor sprouted, my growth seemingly stunted. Bunches of balloons would arrive with stuffed teddy bears dangling down, or if too large to dangle, they would sit in front of lockers, heavy enough to weigh down a dozen helium balloons. East Texas was competitive and bigger was better. Overbearing parents were had huge bouquets delivered to the office. This is also where flowers were sent from older boyfriends or those from other schools, and it was one day of the year when it was highly desirable to be called to the principal’s office. The giddy secretary—straight out of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—could barely be seen behind the desk between the towers of flowers.
Sophomore year I was called into the office, but found it disappointing, because for a moment I thought the bouquet might be from David Decker, and humiliating, because they were from my mother—and, frankly, on the small side. Wanting to spare her feelings, I didn’t tell her how I felt and continued to receive the undersized carnation bouquets until Senior year.
Toward the end of high school, I had a few boyfriends, but not serious enough to get the big bundles. (To get the premium packages you clearly had to put out.) By college, I was seeing someone long-distance, so at least I had stacks of juicy love letters, but no multiple-year, we’ve-been-dating-since-we-were-fourteen relationships like one of my roommates. She got the good Valentine’s Day goods, since they had been sexually active soul mates since puberty and were also BFFs, squealing and sharing a girly excitement as they opened their multiple gifts, bringing them both to a shrill, simultaneous climax.
In my early twenties I had a string of nice, acceptable suitors—but none seemed to last much longer than six months. If it started up in summer it was often over by the time Valentine’s Day came around. I would get a small token if I happened to be in the midst of a six-monther, and a different gift from a different dude the next time it rolled around, if our dating schedule fell at the right time in the calendar year. Of course timing was everything—if we’d just begun seeing each other there was the awkwardness of whether to even acknowledge the day, and then it must be downplayed. Even a half-year relationship didn’t really warrant much, I noticed.
When I moved to New York I was suddenly quite popular and had a bigger and more interesting pool of fish to choose from. There was the intellectual, yet cynical trust fund baby born on Fifth Avenue with whom I’d exchange quirky, very ironic things, declaring the holiday ridiculous. There was the creative, yet highly sensitive performance artist from Bushwick who was working on a rock opera and gave me a very flattering drawing—of himself in the nude—on the special day.
There was the personable, yet persnickety photographer in the East Village who would cook a three-course dinner, elaborately presented at first glance but without much substance: a beautiful avocado cut in half and drizzled with oil as an appetizer, a meatless pasta (even though we weren’t vegetarians), and a scoop of ice cream with sprinkles for desert. All because, I later realized, he was too cheap to take me out. But spending so many Valentine’s Days single, I secretly relished even those gestures.
Years later, now that I’m happily married, I have someone who will “be mine.” Who is mine. I should no longer have Valentine’s Day anxiety. But I must admit that when I make elaborate plans and dress up—I feel like I’m overcompensating, making up for lost time. I cannot deny that I like having him on my arm when we walk into restaurants on that specific day, and the fact that he’s good-looking doesn’t hurt; I don’t mind at all when women’s heads turn. Still trying to make up for the times I didn’t get enough Candy Grams, I suppose.
I empathize as successful single women make reservations at fancy restaurants with other girlfriends, drinking martinis and laughing a little too loudly. Forced to walk by window displays screaming in red like a siren: “State of Emergency: You’re All Alone!” No wonder it’s difficult to protect our delicate doily hearts.
Yet a heart that sometimes feels paper thin it is actually the body’s most resilient organ. It has the most endurance of any muscle in the body. A powerhouse, pumping five of six quarts of blood per minute nourishing every cell. Perfectly formed, beautifully bulbous, always pounding, pulsing, and replenishing. Continuing to beat on its own accord, even when we don’t feel up to the task. Sustaining us until the day when we can experience a love that is deeper than any silly crafts, cards, or candy.