Paper Hearts and Love: A Parable
A young girl sits at a table making valentines with her father, drawing asymmetrical hearts like lumpy strawberries. She looks up and asks quite suddenly, “Daddy, what is love? Is it you and Mommy? Is it Mommy and me? Is it Tommy’s Mommy and Daddy?” Her father furrows his brow as he helps her shape her letters. “That’s right,” he tells her. “That’s love.”
The girl gets older. She comes home and slams her door behind her, sits on the edge of her bed, pecks away at her cell phone, wipes away her mascara. Her father stands outside for a century or two before knocking and slipping in. She doesn’t look up. “I don’t understand him,” she begins. “One minute he’s so easy, so funny. We had a 45 minute conversation about that little knob at the bottom of bananas. And I tell myself not to get excited, that I shouldn’t fool myself. I shouldn’t be one of those girls. I have this battle in my head, over and over, all day. This is what I think about.” She looks up. “This is what it’s like, isn’t it?” Her father nods. “I hate it,” she says flatly, pulling off her socks.
The girl gets older. She goes away for semesters at a time. When she comes home her hair is stuffed into a scrunchy and her voice is full of literature. “I see it so clearly now,” she tells her father over cereal. “Love is a construct, a patriarchal shackle. It’s dopamine and serotonin. It was invented by priests and prison guards and advertising executives to sell lipstick and work out videos. It’s a story told to children so they don’t get scared of the dark, so they’ll sleep.” Her father nods thoughtfully. “You’re probably right,” he concedes.
One day the girl sits across from her father while he cuts paper hearts with his granddaughter. She watches him as he makes small talk with a five-year-old. Finally, when she can no longer tamp down her excitement anymore, she speaks. “I get it now, Dad. Love,” she adds helpfully. “It’s the big stuff and the small, the fights over grocery lists, the smell of his laundry, the voice messages he leaves when he can’t remember why he called. It’s heaven, it’s hell, it’s dishes and doctor visits. It’s me and Brian, clinging to one another until the river’s end.”
Her father keeps snipping as he responds. “You know, for as many years as I’ve been doing this, I still can’t get it quite right. They sort of look like hearts, but not quite. And, of course, a real heart looks more like a fist.” His daughter rolls her eyes. “Okay, Dad. I get it. Why don’t you tell me what love is then.”
He looks up at her. “Well, I don’t know. She’s still a damn mystery to me. I’m gluing the leg back on that chair the other day, trying to be careful and do it right. I look up, and there she is. She’s just smiling at me. ‘What?’ I ask her. She looks down, smiling. ‘What is it?’ I ask again, but she just walks away, smiling.
“Now, I’ve been married to that woman for thirty years. Long past the poetry of youth, the solidarity of parenthood, the duty of home stewardship. She’s surveyed all parts of me, every acre of my private self, and I hers. But you know, until that day, I’d never seen that particular look on her face.”
The girl looks at her father. And finally, she smiles.