I have run the gamut of emotions when it comes to Valentine’s Day. As a child, I spent hours pasting together red and white paper doilies with glue-covered hands. I remember sifting through my box of valentine’s from the sundry store, reading each cheesy message carefully before selecting a recipient–careful to save the valentine with the cutest picture for my best friend du jour, and the card with the most BE MINE-worthy sentiment for my crush du jour.
As I grew older, and crushes–and the teasing that often went with them for me–grew more serious, my enthusiasm for all the Valentine’s Day splendor diminished. I would still dress in my most cupid-inspired pink and red, hoping to catch the eye of some last-minute admirer. Sitting in my last period class, I would listen to the P.A. as the secretary called a long list of girls (and a few guys) to the office to pick up flowers from their sweethearts. I would feign nonchalance, doodling on the back of my notebook as the list droned on and the classroom thinned to a few lonely hearts. I never held my breath, but grew a bit more melancholy each Valentine’s that passed with not so much as a candy-gram from a secret admirer.
Until I met Big. We dated the last two years of high school, and off-and-on through college. There were flowers, and teddy bears, and special evenings, perhaps even a bottle of wine or two. Those were years when I was so completely intoxicatedly infatuated that I didn’t even notice the poor lonely out-of-love folks (or anyone else) on Valentine’s Day. But, the higher you soar, the harder you fall, and when things fizzled between Big and me, I went a little, well, dark.
After a few bitter breakups, I went totally anti-cupid. I wore a lot of black, and some pretty severe makeup, and treated myself to some nice gifts and decadent girls-nights out with other single girlfriends.
My Valentine’s angst was still in effect two years ago, but was waning after a weekend in January with Big had given me new perspective (I can now see that it was closure). I was feeling a little less cursed by love, mostly stupid–and stupefied by it, so I dropped the all-black on Valentine’s Day routine and put on a simple taupe sweater dress that made me feel pretty (and showed off my legs). I straightened my hair; I curled my lashes; I sprayed the back of my neck with a spicy perfume; and I went out to celebrate Valentine’s Day–not drink to its demise–for the first time in years.
My day started off at a work conference, then dinner with colleagues, which morphed into an awkward dinner with an almost-lover, which ended in me needing to escape…and have a drink. Luckily I’d just stumbled upon a great little bar with a sweet bartender who gave me major butterflies. And he’d told me I should come back, so…I headed to Cheers. The bar was packed, as Valentine’s fell on a Saturday that year, but a sweet couple (who would later become dear, dear friends) pointed me to a single empty stool at the end of the bar. I took off my coat, adjusted my dress as I scooted onto the stool, and raised my eyes to that smile. “Well hello, Gorgeous!”
I’m sure my eyes got wide and my face suddenly flushed…had I really let that slip out? It took me a minute to realize that it was the bartender who’d spoken, and that he was speaking to me. “Happy Valentine’s Day . . . but why are you here alone?” More of the mischievous smile. I wanted to close my eyes and bask in it for a minute. Before I could answer he was preparing my drink–which he’d remembered from the one and only time I’d come in, over a week earlier–and sliding it in front of me. “This one’s on me: Happy Valentine’s, Sweetie!”
I needed to fight off a giddy grin, so I told him about my good-day-gone-awkward, and he told me about his most recent dating snafus (which weren’t all that recent). I learned about his family, his college days, his politics, his friendships. It was a perfect first date . . . that wasn’t a date at all. After all, there was a whole busy bar full of patrons competing with me, and yet he barely left my presence.
As the night wore on and the bar crowd slowly moved on to their other Valentine’s plans, the bartender kept finding reasons to keep me there. First there was a goofed up drink that just happened to be what I was drinking, then an “accidental” order of chips and dip that needed to be consumed, and finally a bored bartender who wanted some company while he cleaned up and closed things down. Late in the evening, which only a couple couples left in the whole place, the bartender and I looked like any other couple, hovering over our end of the bar, chatting over cups of coffee. “You can believe me or not on this but . . . you were the only person I gave a free Valentine’s drink to tonight. I guess that makes you my valentine, huh?”
“I guess time will tell,” I replied, giving my best coy/ironic fish-hooked eyebrow, wishing to god I knew how to wink without looking like a spaz.