Valentine’s Day, 1995. The wife and I were dining in an upscale restaurant in downtown Savannah. It was the sort of place that intimidated regular drive-thru consumers like us by presenting a variety of long-stemmed glasses on the table, subliminally suggesting that we purchase wine. We decided on the most expensive bottle so as not to look like the uncultured cretins we were. At this early stage of our lives, we were unaccustomed to food establishments that didn’t serve their poultry in nugget form. We had actually eaten at Wendy’s on our wedding day the previous year. It had been a happily lowbrow romance. But this was Valentine’s Day, after all, so splurging on the finer things was in order. What’s a little more crippling credit card debt when celebrating true love?
We’d made this reservation reluctantly, feeling an obligation to acknowledge Valentine’s Day in some fashion. We were young, deeply cynical, art school bohemians, fed up with the establishment’s arcane rituals like prom night, the Super Bowl, or clean underwear. We rebelled against this Hallmark holiday’s directive for prefabricated romantic gestures wrapped in red foil. Throughout our marriage, Valentine’s Day gifts have been doled out with a decidedly kitschy flair, well within the Gen X comfort zone of smug detachment. One year the wife would get a whole box of New Kids on the Block valentines, the next year an assortment of Power Rangers cards. As romantic gestures go, it is the demonstrative equivalent of a playful punch to the arm, a gesture that says, “Whaddaya say? You and me is pals, ain’t we?!”
Mind you, this was not intended as a rejection of genuine expression. It was an attempt to preserve our anti-consumerist resentment of The Man while still participating in the holiday on a basic level, like the high school dweeb who “dresses out” in his gym shorts, but still holds the brutal bloodsport of volleyball in contempt.
And let’s be honest, given the general tastelessness of traditional Valentine’s Day ephemera, this pose of ironic snobbery is purely in self-defense. Buying flowers, for example, is already a tightrope walk between swoon-inducing gallantry and pathetic cliché. But the clueless male wandering into the flower shop in Valentinian desperation not only suffers the condescension and pity of the women and womenesque men of the floral trade, but navigates the tackiest of arrangement options. The Valentine’s Day industry markets grotesque parodies of the “love” theme: teddy bears, heart-shaped lollipops, infinite yards of red ribbon. The safe option for the hipster male is an ultra-ironic choice – the “I meant to do that” selection that actually enhances the perverse nature of the holiday – like a My Little Pony bouquet, complete with scented glitter stickers. “I love you, baby, or whatever. Isn’t that hilarious?!”
Even our dressing up and indulging in that white-tablecloth eatery that night seemed like an act of pure camp. I’m sure I wore my Converse hi-tops with my dinner jacket. And of course the joint was packed with young couples fulfilling their Valentine’s Day duty with an overpriced outing. So packed in fact that the small, two-seater tables had been crammed in only a few inches apart, making what should have been intimate encounters seem more like orgies with well-dressed strangers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But because of these close quarters, we became aware that the couple next to us, who were essentially sitting with us, was engaged in a particularly intense encounter. We tried our best to continue chatting so as not to overhear what was being said to our left, but what caught my attention was a sudden and prolonged silence between them. I stole a glace. He, a young, buzz-cut military type, was staring mournfully into his salad. She, a thin, photogenic blonde, was likewise casting her eyes to her vinaigrette in silence. On the table sat a small, velvet-covered box that could only contain one thing. We felt the tension that told us what had just happened. Private Romeo had just popped the question, and she had said no. Dinner was ruined.
Not a Valentine’s Day has gone by since that I haven’t thought about this jilted jarhead. And I curse the wretched holiday that encouraged his doomed romantic gamble. Not on Valentine’s Day, soldier! Not on Valentine’s Day! Even if the gal had been halfway interested in being your one-and-only, you lost too many points by choosing the holiday predetermined by your corporate masters to signify romantic gestures – the holiday of chalky candy hearts and trashy lingerie. Your proposal was completely unoriginal and right on schedule. Maybe if you had waited until next week, or at least until after dessert!
But that’s my hipster cynicism talking. In my weaker moments, I admire this lovesick doofus. He wasn’t satisfied with chocolates or glittery greeting cards. He plowed through the empty commercialism of this tacky holiday and tried to make it really mean something. I mean, sure, if she had said yes, it could have signified the day his life went right down the toilet, judging from the attitude on that babe. But the true romantic is blind to his future of diaper changing and demands for classier wallpaper. He sees only the valentines in her eyes.
I sincerely hope that amorous fool found another victim, perhaps proposing to her on the following Valentine’s Day. Hell, I hope they were married on Valentine’s Day, in a church filled with heart-shaped, vinyl balloons that said “Be Mine.” I hope that every Valentine’s thereafter, he covers the bed with rose petals, presents her with the world’s biggest monogrammed teddy bear, and fills the bathtub with cheap champagne, blissfully free of irony.
And I hope it never, ever occurs to him to buy a grown woman Power Rangers valentines. What kind of idiot would do that?