2011: My first year of university, four months in. I have developed a fierce obsession with a boy who seems to sincerely like me half of the time, and to be incapable of talking to me, or anyone else, the other half of the time. We’ve already tried going out and it was disastrous, so now we’ve been split up for the better part of a month. I’m eighteen and still haven’t grasped that you don’t have to live your life like it’s a movie—that, in fact, it’s easier and more interesting and less suffocating if you actively avoid living like that—so of course I am miserable about Valentine’s Day. My misery is dramatic and self-pitying, but no less real for that. AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the lawyer) has just come out (surprising no one, least of all his mother, who merely said, “Oh, I know!”) and he suggests a Valentine’s Day straight out of Bridget Jones. The wallowing aspect of this appeals to me, so we go to Tesco and buy mugs with hearts on them, pink cava (because we’re students), and two boxes of Thornton’s milk chocolate selections. Then we retire to his double set and watch Burlesque, about which all you need to know is that it’s a major motion picture starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. We wake up the next morning on his bed under a pile of duvets and cushions, still in our clothes from the night before. The cava and chocolates are, of course, all gone.
Here’s the thing about Valentine’s Day: you’re meant to be miserable about it, either way. You’re meant to be miserable if you’re single, because singlehood is commercial, capitalistic code for “ultimately unloveable and freakish—and nothing will ever make you better, but here, these expensive food and drink and jewelry items might staunch the wound for a few minutes, you pathetic loser.” You’re meant to be miserable if you’re coupled up, because Valentine’s Day for a couple means “make declarations about moving the moon and stars for your lover, then actually do it. Oh, you can’t? Or you don’t want to, or they don’t want you to? Too bad, you inadequate, miserable schlub. This is what Real Grownup Love is about. Go big or go home.” You are meant to be miserable no matter what, because miserable people buy shit.
2012-2013: I don’t remember these. In 2012, I was probably out somewhere, studiously pretending that it wasn’t Valentine’s Day so as not to weird out the guy I had been sleeping with. I know that a few days afterwards, that other guy, the one from first year, told me he still fancied me really, so we got back together again. We were still together in February of 2013, but not happily, although if you’d tried to dissuade me at the time, I’d have ignored you. In fact, people did try, and I ignored them. The February of 2013 was the February before I sat Finals. Disastrous things happened: my boyfriend and I decided to “take a break”, which didn’t work because we still lived in the same house and were basically codependent. I slept with someone else, a guy he was actually trying to make friends with. He found out, and shook me, and called me a whore. He apologised later. Things were awful for a long time, partly because I thought we could all still be friends. (I was twenty. I should have known better, but I didn’t.) I’m not sure where we were in this timeline by the time Valentine’s Day arrived. I gave him cufflinks. They were made of antique coins from the end of the Roman Empire. I’d bought them in a tobacco shop in Georgetown when I went home for Christmas, and my debit card company had called me to make sure the transaction wasn’t fraudulent, since I didn’t usually spend hundreds of dollars in tobacco shops. He got me a pair of earrings. They were sparkly and shell-shaped and elegant. I still wear them sometimes, but the metal of the posts has tarnished over time.
Saint Valentine was an early Christian martyr. No one really knows anything about him. We don’t even know for sure whether he was one person, or more than one. (It would be nicely appropriate were he to have been two people, I think.) He was buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia in north Rome on the day he was killed. That’s all we know for sure.
In the Middle Ages, he came to represent courtly love. Courtly love was a type of behaviour which tended to manifest itself thus:
- the bestowal of favours (like a handkerchief) by a (noble) lady to a (noble) man, one to whom she wasn’t married.
- the chaste but emotional worship of a (noble) lady by said (noble) man, from afar, and without hope of consummation
- the writing of poetry all about frustrated desire.
Elements of courtly love are ridiculous, of course, and hedged about with sexism and classism. It’s where we get the idea that “chivalry” means holding a door open for someone. But it’s also the reason we have Petrarch, who is the reason we have Shakespeare’s sonnets; it’s the reason we have Dante, who is the reason we have Milton. Some things are worth saving.
2014: I graduated last summer and I’m still living in Oxford. At least I have a job now: I work for my old college’s Development Office, helping to plan the events that will comprise, in April, a weekend of celebrations for the 700th anniversary of our founding. I never thought of myself as a natural flesh-presser or sweet-talker, but here I am five days a week, on the phone to bankers and winemakers and authors and academics, getting donations, arranging tastings, printing out name badges. My coworkers are a small team of highly intelligent, incredibly pleasant people. In retrospect, I’ll probably never work in such an ideal office environment again.
At this point in time, most of us are single, so Emily arranges a Valentine’s Day dinner for us at her house in Jericho. She’s an amazing cook—she makes salmon en croute and chocolate melting hearts in little ramekins, and we eat until our stomachs are distended. She’s bought us things, too: tea mugs, chocolates, tiny tealight candles. We’re all sitting around digesting (Aileen and Will are actually lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket) when my phone rings. It’s my ex. We broke up in May, before graduation, but we’ve maintained a high-stress, high-contact “friendship” which tends to include having sex every time we see each other. I know this is not smart. I can’t seem to help myself.
I hold up the phone. “What do I do?” Every head swivels in my direction. A moment of silence. Then Aileen bawls, “DON’T FUCKING ANSWER IT!” and everyone else chimes in, a chorus of support and defiance and anger. “How fucking dare he?” “Put it down.” “Turn it off!” “Give it to me!” I don’t turn it off, and I don’t let anyone else pick up, but I do put it down, and on silent. For the rest of the night, we put on music and dance in the living room. When I check my phone later, I have fifteen missed calls.
You can’t even really win by ignoring the day. It’s a mere Bah Humbug gesture. Getting angry about Valentine’s Day only reinforces the narrative that angry people are losers, or (worse) just jealous. Pretending it doesn’t happen is like pretending Christmas doesn’t happen: it’s not impossible, but you’re swimming against a very strong tide.
2015: I’m staying with my grandparents: the school where I work now is on half term. The man I’m currently seeing is unsuitable and the fact that I’m seeing him at all is morally suspect, but it feels safe to me, like a halfway house between unmoored singlehood and actually being in a relationship. You could describe it as a rebound, a way to get over my ex without having to make myself too vulnerable. I don’t tell the man difficult things, like how ill my mother is. I think of this affair as a sort of job, and telling him things is not in my job description. “This will only work”, my friend Roy told me, “if you don’t catch the feels.” I have not caught the feels. I don’t think he has either.
My grandparents go out in the evening to a village dinner they signed up for months in advance. The unsuitable man I am seeing is with his family. I’m alone for the evening. I order pizza, ransack the cupboards for a bottle of wine, reorganise my books, watch Wolf Hall on iPlayer. I’m not happy, I think, but I’m not unhappy about it. The unsuitable man texts me. I wonder what he thinks he wants.
Medieval literature figures love as a garden. Your lover at the centre, something pure and secret and confined. You have to penetrate those hedged boundaries, prove yourself worthy of the maze of flowers and trees, meet her at the fountain. It’s about sex (obviously), and it’s about outdated religious notions of purity, too, but you can choose to read it more generously. You can choose to see it as an allegory about trust, about acknowledgment, about letting someone in to the innermost part of you. You can choose to view it as a challenge: to sit, in all of your weirdness and glory, at the centre of your life’s whirling network of people and places, and see who sees you.
2016: I met a man. I love him. I moved in with him. A year—three hundred and sixty-five uniform days, a mere eight thousand seven hundred and sixty hours—changed everything: my job, my home, happiness.
He says he doesn’t want anything for Valentine’s Day, except for an almond croissant. I buy him four, each one from a different place, and he tests them all. We discover that the one from Mimi’s, the deli on the corner, is the best. Almond paste, almost liquid, oozes out of its layers of flaky butter pastry. We finish the croissants, one by one, the night of the 13th.
When I asked him what he wanted to do on the day itself, he said, “An indoor picnic. And indoor croquet,” and I thought he was taking the piss. I got so annoyed at him for that, until the look of bafflement on his face made it clear that he was quite serious. “Do you have an indoor croquet set?” I asked him. He just grinned. I assumed that meant yes.
He’s ill today. I was going to make roast chicken for us to eat on a blanket on the floor, in between croquet shots, with prosecco and Guylian. It wasn’t going to be huge, but it was going to be something. Then last night I discovered that you have to defrost chicken for 24 hours, and this morning he woke up with a headache and a sore throat and aching joints. He had to go out to work briefly this morning—he’s a singer, and Sundays are singing days—but overall, I don’t think we’ll be drinking any prosecco this afternoon. Or eating Guylian, or doing anything really. I want to be upset about it: it would have been nice, finally, to do something on the day itself. Just to mark it somehow. Just to say, You are precious to me and today is about telling you so.
But it’s not his fault he’s ill, and in any case, this seems right somehow. It’s a frequent criticism of Valentine’s Day that it fetishizes romantic love and ghettoizes it at the same time: why save up your love and demonstrativeness for one day only? Why not just love fiercely every day? Why wait, since life is so short?
He comes back from work bearing white tulips, and smiling. We have cheese on toast and listen to the radio in bed.
If ever any beauty I did see/Which I desired, and got,/’Twas but a dream of thee.