If You Are Single This Valentine’s Day

Discarded Roses, Renoir

It’s less than a month to Valentine’s Day. I don’t really think a lot about Valentine’s Day — either positively or negatively. There’s that terrible ensemble movie, Valentine’s Day, in which Jessica Biel cries and stuffs chocolate into her mouth as she bemoans her undesirability/singlehood. (Jessica Biel!) I find the idea that “single women hate Valentine’s Day” both boring and insulting — and yet I am thinking about it this year. Specifically, I am thinking about the many Valentine’s Days I have had. My brain plays them over and over, in a painful highlight reel.

This time a year ago, I was in the death throes of a relationship. We were broken up, technically — but we were still fucking. You know, perhaps everybody knows that strange period. It’s over, but-

It’s hard to stop fucking somebody whose body you know better than your own. Over and over, you reach for them, you take off their clothes — but it is no longer an act of desire, it’s an act of comfort, of reassurance.

This time two years ago, I was in that relationship and we were in love. It was the most difficult relationship I’d ever had in my life. I wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day but he was suicidally depressed in my bed, so I made him a plate of grilled cheese sandwiches and drew a squiggly heart on top in sriracha sauce. When I took it to him, he handed me a piece of paper.

“A poem,” he announced. I braced myself. (As a writer, I have had too many boys send me bad poems.) But it wasn’t bad, it was oddly beautiful and painful, like a hook in the heart. I wish I had it still. I remember only a line. “We must remember no alien or love story/ can come between us.” He was like that, my ex: a mixture of cruel and wildly romantic in a way normal men are scared to be.

This time three years ago, I’d met a boy at a literary festival. We’d gone on two dates, kissed outside my house. His mouth, I remember, was slick with Chapstick, and I hated it. I wondered if he had put on Chapstick in preparation to kiss me. I hated that idea, too. I wasn’t sure what I was doing with him, but he seemed nice enough. I felt that we were both pretending to like each other, out of some bizarre fear I couldn’t name.

“Should we make a date for Valentine’s Day, or is that too soon, too cheesy? We can eat breakfast together on the 14th?”

I felt that a man who knew me well would never have suggested a breakfast date. I hate breakfast. I find it impossible to be romantic at breakfast.

“Okay, sure,” I said. He kissed me goodbye gently and said he would text me. When he didn’t, I was relieved.

This time four years ago, I was with one of my best friends in Delhi. We were both single, and so we made a plan to walk in the park, to drink wine outdoors and get day-drunk in the bracing February chill. She doesn’t live in Delhi anymore, and although we are still dear friends: sometimes she feels like something I lost. (Which I suppose is appropriate when I list the days I spent with exes.)

Before that, well, there are many more Valentine’s Days to tell you about. Some I spent in a bar, giggling with girlfriends. Some I spent by myself, watching men buy overpriced candy in CVS aisles. Some I forgot about, some I ignored, and some — I can’t remember what I did. One I spent with a long-distance boyfriend in San Francisco, and isn’t it sad — I only remember what we ate. I remember that we were eating fondue, and the smell and the particular shapes it made on my fork come back to me all bright and sharp. It is humiliating perhaps to realize the ways in which your memory can betray you, that perhaps you will remember hastily-made fondue more than the person who is by your side. You remember insignificant things instead of the conversation that you had, or the details of this face, this face that you supposedly love. And instead of asking why you ended (it is exactly two weeks before you will break up because he met someone else), you find yourself asking ‘Why did we eat fondue on Valentine’s Day — it isn’t a particularly romantic meal, is it.’

There was another Valentine’s Day I remember, one that I keep thinking about. It happened to one of my friends, let’s call her S. S was in a newly-minted relationship, and she told her boyfriend ‘I hate Valentine’s Day. All that pressure! Let’s just go watch movies and get Chinese food on the 14th.’ Her boyfriend (who was presumably thrilled to be off the hook), agreed. But when the day ended, S was almost in tears.

“I thought,” she said wistfully, “that he would surprise me.”

“But you told him that you didn’t want to do anything romantic,” I pointed out.

“I did. It’s not his fault, but I wanted him to know it without me having to say it.”

Ay, and there’s the rub. Isn’t that what we all want? A partner who can divine our true intentions, without us having to put it into crass words? It’s like sex. I want you to- read my mind! The impossibility of it only makes it more desirable still. Although it was absurd, I felt her disappointment as vividly as if it were my own.

What I find painful about Valentine’s Day is the memory of lost loves. Even the ones I didn’t really love. They are testament to the transience of things, the brief freshness of a flower. What the movies get right about Valentine’s Day is this: as a straight single woman, it is a reminder that I have more men to come. I have more men to date, more men who will come into my life and inflict fresh wounds (in fresh ways! In fresh places or places I didn’t know existed). I am tired, so very tired, of being out there and being wounded in a new way each time. Memory is like scar tissue, it accumulates and in the end I have more than I want.

And yet, having things to look forward to is not so bad, is it? As my friend H. texted me when I was disappointed in love — there is sparkling wine and many more first kisses in your future. Remember the excitement of a good first kiss with a promising man? Sometimes it doesn’t have to go anywhere. Perhaps he will let you down or break your heart in the particularly careless way that men specialize in. Maybe he will disappear in a month. But the power of a good first kiss is this: it stands on its own. It is harsh, powerful and exciting on its own. It is a promise that does not need to be fulfilled, my dears.

The dream, for a straight woman, is often to marry our childhood sweethearts. There is inexpressible comfort in that, the fact that you never have to be Out There the way your single friends are out there, that you never have to be exposed to the sociopathy of men on dating apps again. To those women, you are lucky, and you know it. So I will wish you happiness, but I do not write for you. No, I am writing for those women who are not quite so lucky. For those women who, like me, have a highlight reel of disappointment, of disappointing men on Valentine’s Day.

Each person I ever dated brought me something new and rich. Whatever it was. There was the boy who was charming in a way I had never experienced before. There was the boy who was so gentle and inoffensive that he reminded me of a big, lovable dog. There was the man who made me feel so sexy- six years ago! — that I feel sexy just remembering our night together. When I think of them all, I think of the ways they turned on different parts of me, how it felt like switching on a light in room after room until the entire house was illuminated.

I suppose what I want to say is this — it is okay, perhaps, to feel bad about Valentine’s Day. It is okay to think about it too much, or not at all. It is okay to expect things on that day, and also not to. It is even okay to be secretly disappointed that your partner didn’t divine your wishes (as long as you don’t blame them for it). Wanting things is so difficult, and wanting to be loved is the most difficult thing of all.

I’m a romantic, as everybody knows (but that I try to deny). I adore romcoms. You know what my favourite bit of a well-worn romcom is? Is before the meet-cute. The part where the slightly down-on-her-luck heroine is ambling along the path, absolutely zero clue that she’s about to meet the man of her dreams. She has no idea! It always makes me laugh a little. Everything good is yet to come. The last hour of work on Friday is better than Saturday. The beginning is better than the end. The pre-beginning, my dears, is best of all. And that is where I am at, so that is what I have to offer those of you are single this Valentine’s Day. You don’t know. You have no idea.

Just you wait.