If only I’d had the nerve …
By Phillip Lopate
February 17, 2017
We have just been through another February 14th. Though nobody asked me, I approve completely of Valentine’s Day. I approve of all holidays that force us to measure our distance from the convivial ideal of happiness set by the community. If you aren’t in love, Valentine’s Day provides an opportunity for wallowing in the blues such as no self-respecting neurotic would pass up. If you are smitten, then you have your marching orders. As the French writer Raymond Radiguet observed, the easiest thing to write is a love letter: you need only be in love.
This leaves a third group, the ambivalent—those just entering a relationship that still seems unsure, or contemplating leaving one but wondering if they are only passing through a momentary disenchantment, or a distressingly neutral phase. Fortunately, holiday rituals are designed for just such uncertainties. If you count yourself an ambivalent, simply follow the script: buy those dozen roses, make those restaurant reservations, plaster the gooiest smile on your face, or you will never hear the end of it.
Valentine’s Day is a test of one’s ability to conform—there is no point in trying to be original. I knew a guy who decided to send his girl a bouquet of cabbages instead of flowers. She was not amused. It is not enough to be in love: one must garb one’s amorousness in uniform, to merge with the army of lovers everywhere.
The word Romantic with a capital R suggests the cult of individuality; but “romantic” with a lower-case r calls for the submergence of individual style in a universal code of champagne, roses, and hearts. One thing I find charming about Valentine’s Day is that it can be invoked with a single symbol. This cartoon heart, which children learn to draw in kindergarten and cut out to give to their mothers (or, if precociously sycophantic, their teachers), does not really resemble the anatomical heart: it is more curvaceous, recalling the torso of a nightclub singer in a low-cut gown that tapers to a sheath. I remember a shop in my old neighborhood on the Upper West Side that specialized in heart-shaped items of jewelry, ceramics, and paper products. It did a booming business one month a year and languished during the other 11. Eventually it closed: perhaps people got tired of seeing that same rosy, taunting symbol of hope. The premises were then occupied by an erotic bakery, featuring phallic breads and breast-shaped pastries—a less seasonally limited theme, you would think, though it too folded.
Some bemoan the commercialization of Christmas and with it the forgetting of its spiritual side, but there is no reason to object to the merchandizing of Valentine’s Day, since it (like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day) began as a wholly secular holiday, intended from the first to guilt people into spending money on those intimates they might otherwise take for granted. Its roots go back to the Roman feast of Lupercalia, which celebrated fertility; it was subsequently Christianized and renamed for St. Valentine, a martyr who, in medieval times, was associated with the union of lovers under duress. That the patron saint of love was a martyr, and that the one historical event famous for occurring on February 14, the Valentine’s Day Massacre, featured a bloody gangland slaying, need not in any way detract from your romantic optimism.
The first mass-produced valentine cards were made in the United States by Esther Howland around 1840, and the custom of sending greeting cards with amorous messages has persisted from that day. When I was a young lad (sometime after 1840), it was a great thing to wait for such cards to be dropped on one’s school desk, and a particular puzzlement when the card was unsigned. Sometimes a card came from the teacher, who worried that an unpopular child might not receive any. It was always disagreeable and humiliating to receive a valentine from an adult. Some children gave valentines to everyone, probably coerced to do so by their parents, on the theory that it was ill-advised to offend anybody or play favorites. This noblesse oblige spoiled the fantasy of being chosen, while camouflaging the heart’s desire of the sender.
When I was just getting started in the romantic game, I dreamed of a bonanza arriving in the mailbox. How sweet to imagine young women who might reveal themselves in this discreet epistolary manner. Having sweated in phone booths asking for dates (too embarrassed to make the call in front of family members or roommates) and, often as not, been shot down, I could think of nothing more fabulous than for a woman to make the first move. Later I would learn that often the woman does make the first move, through an inviting smile or other signal; but at the time, I would not have believed that any desirable woman would be interested. I was a literalist; nothing less than a written statement would suffice. Hence the Valentine’s Day card was tailor-made for me.
There were three ravishing Polish blondes from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in my senior high school class. To tell you that I was wildly attracted to all three of them is to foreshadow that nothing would ever come of it. I would have had to focus my generalized lust more specifically. One of them, Ruth S., was the shyest of the trio and had the prettiest long hair, which I knew intimately because she used to sit in front of me in trigonometry and I would study it strand by strand, even stroking it sometimes. Another, Annabelle, had the best grades of the three, the most mature, thoughtful manner, and the most fully developed figure. The third, Barbara P., was a pretty hoyden with the liveliest sense of humor and a dazzling flirtatious smile. Rumor had it that she used to flirt with the sailors at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. How I dreamed about asking each of them to the senior prom, if only I could find the nerve.
Such was my insecurity that when one of them sent me a valentine and actually let it be known through the rumor mill that she’d like me to ask her to the prom, I somehow took it into my head that she was mocking me, playing a trick on me. So I did nothing. Barbara P., if you are still alive and reading this, please send me another Valentine’s Day card, and this time I will know how to value it.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.