I posted it the other day on my Facebook page, all frilly and looking like lace. People clicked “like,” because that’s how we’re wired: hearts and frills above the waist, throbbing desire below. The two meet somewhere in the brain, and that’s where men get confused about how to treat us and what we want inserted where.
Sometimes I want flowers inserted in my hands.
Sometimes I want something inserted between my legs.
Sometimes I want a piece of chocolate inserted through my lips.
And the lips have their own desires elsewhere … but we could go on about this forever.
We’re dual-natured beings. When I say “we,” I’m not just talking about me and my competing desires to be romanced and railed against the bathroom wall. I’m also not just talking about women in general. I mean humanity — me, you, that couple across from you on bus. And yes, some people don’t like sex (those poor souls!), or like their sex more vanilla. To each his or her own.
But we all want to be loved.
That love takes different forms. Sometimes, people want to be noticed, or appreciated, or for others to think about them. Some people want to be cared for. Some want esteem, or respect, or fame. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it? No. We’re talking about romance.
Romance is delicious. Romance is nostalgic. Romance conjures images of innocence — of our loves and stolen kisses under the bleachers, before we knew much about sex… or while it was still a thrill in the distant future.
Romance seems to sit on one side of the fence while raunch sits on the other — a bit of hypocrisy we’ve already discussed. Romance is white dresses and fields full of lilies, dashing knights in armor who ride on white horses to rescue us, true enough of heart to not care if we’re wearing double-bolted chastity belts.
Romance is what sells teen novels and movies where a handsome suitor finds an ordinary girl and whisks her away to somewhere better … these days, somewhere where teeth are pointy and blood is the beverage of choice.
Romance is precious. Lovely. A treasure.
But do you want to know what makes romance especially amazing?
Why … the fact that you can buy it, of course.
Hearts and Lace
There was a boy I liked in junior high school. His name was Jason. At the risk of making myself sound like a total cliché, I’ll go ahead and admit he was on the football team. My stars, my lord, be still my beating heart … every single girl in school agreed: Jason was so dreamy.
I used to write his name in long, loopy script in one of those spiral-bound notebooks. I wrote my own name, too, but stuck his last name in place of mine. I was too young for my dominant emotions to be sexual, and certainly wasn’t as forward as I am today. I was good at expressing myself in writing, but wasn’t always smooth face-to-face and was terrible when speaking to cute boys.
For the most part, I let my crush on Jason simmer. My closest friends knew, and my notebook knew most of all. Hearts and flowers. Our names written together in loopy script. I imagined our wedding, silly girl that I was. I’d wear white lace. He’d wear something dashing. I’m not sure if I imagined our future selves in that wedding or if I merely imagined us as kids playing dress-up, but I’m sure I was beautiful and he was handsome.
Many years have passed since then. While I did eventually get married (and then divorced), it wasn’t to Jason. We mostly fell out of touch, because as the story of unrequited love so often goes, he barely knew I existed. I saw him on Facebook recently in my personal account, popping up as a friend suggestion. I couldn’t help myself. I checked his stats and photos, some of what he’d felt worthy of posting for others to see and read.
I think that most of us have a story like that, and looking back is precious. It doesn’t just recall fond memories of a simpler time in our lives; it transports us back to a day when we believed in faultless, unblemished love.
These days love, such as it is, doesn’t really have the same flavor. It’s tricker and full of nuance. Nowadays, as an adult, you’ve started to realize that you can hate and love someone at the same time. Now you can love being with someone without actually loving them, or love them and not really enjoy their company all that much.
Sex only adds more shades of gray. The thing at the Christmas party when you were half-drunk and hooked up with your office friend? Was that love, with alcohol lubricating something you wanted anyway? Or a mistake?
When someone is abusive, is that a twisted form of love? Is there a line where things are milder and they’re not precisely being abusive per se, but are merely prodding you in ways you find annoying or unpleasant? And if so, is it possible they’re actually doing what they feel is best for you … because they love you… even if you don’t agree?
When you think back across your love life, is it filled with a pure stream of single, unblemished emotion?
Or is it “complicated”?
No wonder we yearn for romance. Romance (which is always about fantasy) is so much easier than love (which often requires accepting huge amounts of truth). When we seek romance, we’re not actually yearning for an emotion. We’re yearning for a sense of “should be” or for our own pasts, when things were simpler.
We’re not yearning for true connection.
We’re yearning for long-forgotten, innocent days when life promised lies, and we were ever so eager to believe them.
What We Mean
One of my friends has a 95-year-old great grandfather who goes by the nickname of Poppo. Whenever I see Poppo, he asks me if I’ve found a man to take care of me yet. I smile and tell him I’m just fine on my own. He shakes his head and says I should really find someone before I get too old.
I’m not insulted by Poppo’s sexism at all — I know he means nothing by it. He was raised at a time when men took care of women — and women, for the most part, were happy to be provided for. I would, however, be insulted if someone my age said the same thing, because chances are that person would be saying it as a slight, intending to be derogatory.
Same words. Different meaning. It’s not the action itself that matters. True, you can’t run around being an asshole who doesn’t know better … but in the big picture, a person’s intentions always matter most.
Same goes for love.
See, right about now, you might be thinking I’m down on romance. You might even be thinking I’ve been jilted, that my heart was crushed, and that’s the reason I’ve declared war on hearts and flowers.
I’m not declaring war on hearts and flowers. I think that stuff is great. When a man gets me flowers, it makes my sometimes-cynical heart start to pitter-patter. It makes other parts of me do other things. But it’s not the flowers that made me feel that way. It was that the man in question thought of me, and opened himself up to express his affection.
That’s very different from a man handing me flowers on the 14th of February because his calendar told him to.
In other words, I’m not thrilled by a handful of cut-off plants, but I am delighted by the man’s intention.
These days, traditional symbols of romance have become laden with so much emotional baggage that we forget they are, in fact, only symbols. Flowers are a symbol. Red roses, among flowers, are huge symbols. Things shaped like hearts are symbols — and because chocolates are a symbol, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are doubly symbolic. Lace. Silk sheets. Pulling out a chair to allow someone to sit or opening a car door. Moonlit walks on the beach. Candlelit dinners. Paris. Symbols — all shorthand for amour.
And by the way, shorthand is something you do when you don’t want to (or don’t have time to) do the real thing.
Once a year, we’re reminded that we should love the people we’re in a relationship with. But sometimes we can’t actually take the time to love them. We’re too busy, too distracted, too involved in other things, or just too damned used to each other.
Luckily, we have shorthand at our disposal.
Flowers equals romance. Romance equals “I love you.”
Then, with your obligation fulfilled, you get a year to rest before you have to do it again.
I Love You With 1/365th of My Heart
Let’s start with Valentine’s Day itself. On that day, lucky ladies receive flowers from their husbands and boyfriends, thus separating into three distinct groups:
First, there are the women who actually receive a bouquet. You can tell who has the best significant other by how large their bouquet is or whether it came with anything extra — balloons, chocolates, passes to a spa.
Second, there are the gals with no significant others. Those pour souls receive nothing, and are forced to watch the other ladies with envy, wishing that they, too, could be swept off their feet by their own Prince Charming.
But last and worst of all, there are the women who have boyfriends or husbands … but who, it turns out, have bad boyfriends or husbands. These women don’t just have empty desks; they also have angry faces. The sons of bitches they’re dating or married to didn’t send anything at all, leaving their ladies high and dry. Everyone weeps for these women, but they cheer for them, too, in a “girl power” sort of way. When those unappreciated gals go home, someone is going to get kicked in the testicles. Dinner will be burnt, and sex withheld.
It’s a hell of a thing. Every year I was reminded of peacocks showing off their colorful feathers. When you think of it that way, it’s hard to even see the flowers as being meant for the recipients. It starts to seem like the flowers might actually be for the other women in the office — the ones who sit near the ladies with the bouquets. The gift being given isn’t appreciation and love so much as pride in being the best.
But there’s another wave of Valentine’s Day activity in most offices, and it happens around the 10th or 11th. On those days, you’ll see the men scrambling to order all of those flowers and chocolates.
Sometimes the men will complain because hey, it’s pricey. But she’s worth it, right? Right. Think of what you’re getting and you’ll see just how “worth it” it is! You don’t have to come off as the bad husband or boyfriend to the others in her office. You can show her you love her without using your lunch hour. These days, it’s simple enough to do online. You can sort by price, depending on how much you love her or how much you’ve neglected to prove it.
If you’re a real asshole most of the year, you can make up for it by searching that top tier, where the best and biggest stuff is. They’ll even deliver your offering for you, so there’s no need to worry about a thing. They’ll write the card , too, and suggest various things it could say. No problem.
Just type in your credit card info and you’re all set.
At the office where I used to work, managers had their secretaries do everything for them. Talk about time-savings and delegation! They didn’t even need to call florists or search the flower sites. All they had to do was to tell Glenda to have a bouquet shipped. Glenda knew to spare no expense, because the boss’s wife was worth it. Glenda even had his credit card on file.
Five minutes of effort on one day of the year, and everyone is in love.
Makes sense, right?
Call me old fashioned if you must, but I’d rather my man touch me, listen to me, and pay attention to me a little bit every day of the year, rather than splurging on just one.
If he does that, he can keep his credit card in his wallet, and take Valentine’s Day off.
I know this is hard to believe, but I wrote Jason the Football Player’s name in my notebook thousands of times and we never even lived happily ever after.
Similarly, I’ve seen women who get huge bouquets on Valentine’s Day break up with their guys because they feel unappreciated and unloved. It’s happened to me. Over-the-top gestures of romance aren’t a substitute for genuine connection and affection.
It’s almost as if a single day’s splurge on dead plants isn’t the same as spending time with someone day in and day out, learning to love their faults as much as their virtues.
We’re not stupid, but Hallmark and FTD sure as fuck seem to think we are.
Once upon a time, people realized that symbols had tremendous power even if they didn’t have anything substantive behind them.
A police siren will increase your heartbeat even if the cop isn’t after you.
Swastikas elicit gasps even if a child innocently drew it while trying to draw a pinwheel.
Uniforms connote instant authority on whoever wears them.
A red light means that you should stop at an intersection.
Buying flowers means that you love someone … even if you kinda, sorta, maybe really don’t act like it the vast majority of the time.
Please hear me clearly: I am not saying you shouldn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, nor am I saying you shouldn’t buy flowers.
But I am saying that if you let your calendar schedule affection — and if you’re letting a price tag determine your worth as a lover — then you’re definitely doing it wrong.
Romance is Easy. Love is Hard.
There are no shortcuts. If you’re phoning it in within your relationship, your partner will know. Don’t for a second believe that he or she will be fooled by a single act of romanticized love. We’ve all felt the blush of romance, and know it leaves a residue of artifice behind.
No one watches Cinderella and makes practical plans to go about getting the life she ended up with at the end. Instead, we wish it were possible — something you only do for things that actually aren’t.
We long for romance, but even when we get it, we can always smell the bullshit. I wasn’t a match for Jason the Football Player. Years later, I wasn’t whisked away on a cloud when I went to the Homecoming dance. The former turned out to be an asshole with a beer gut. The latter left me with an uncomfortable grope session and a small wound from my corsage pin.
If romance is to be worth anything, it can only be used as a kind of final finish atop something that’s already beautiful. If you love someone, feel free to show them romance the way you’d top a present with a bow. Just remember that it’s the present — not the bow — that matters.
I’m not against Valentine’s Day in its ideal form. A day to celebrate love? Baby, sign me up! But I am against it as it stands today.
Today’s Valentine’s Day is all about obligation. Women are trained to expect gestures, even when empty. Men are trained to make those gestures, and shamed into making them lest they look like unloving assholes.
Whenever I think about that last bit — about men who don’t use the last bit on their credit cards to buy overpriced bouquets because they’ve been told to — I think of 95-year-old Poppo. I remember his accidental sexism, and remind myself that just as Grandma always said, It’s the thought that counts.
There are plenty of people out there with a vested interest in promoting that Valentine’s Day obligation. When I hear them talk about hearts and lace and flowers, all I see are dollar signs. I used to work in marketing. I know how the right words will sell what needs to be sold — and I know that while true love is never for sale, the symbols of romance always are.
If you want to do something “romantic” for Valentine’s Day this year, I wish you all the luck in the world.
But if you choose not to let your calendar dictate the timing and price of your affection — because you have committed to the difficult task of nurturing love rather than the easy shortcut of romance — I’ll be right there beside you.