The St. Valentine's Day Masochist
(Love, part 1)

love n. a powerful emotion felt for another person
manifesting itself in deep affection, devotion or
sexual desire || (tennis) no score, nothing ||

There's no thrill like watching your girlfriend patiently stack everything you've ever loaned or given her on her carpet next to your backpack at 6:30 in the morning. It's slightly more fun than being thrown out of summer camp by spontaneous vote of all the other kids, but only because there are fewer witnesses.

Life is ugly and complicated. This is not news. Romance is a slippery eel in an ocean full of dirty dishes, loneliness is a carnival ride of slow electrocution, and the only time I really feel alive is when I change lanes to pass on a two-lane highway. Yet every song, story and commercial hammers home the idea that romantic love is the stuff I'm supposed to use to fill that gaping hole in my life. I'm better adjusted than I used to be - I no longer suffer panic attacks from isolation, phoning distant friends one after another to solicit support like a PBS station during a pledge break - but the ominous campaign is impossible to escape.

Valentine's day in particular is a bad idea. Lovers need no excuse to celebrate romance and single folks need no excuse to feel bitter and frustrated. Imagine if only thirty percent of kids got Christmas presents - would it still seem like such a great fucking holiday? So who the fuck decided to plan a day for romance without coming up with a plan B for the rest of us? My idea of a holiday is a day on which, in celebration of some great milestone in the history of our oppression of the people who lived here before us, I get to sleep in. If Valentine's Day were a real holiday, I wouldn't have had to spend every February 14th going to school/work/whatever and being reminded of the many attractive women I'm not sleeping with.
But even for the romantically entangled, Valentine's Day isn't a holiday to celebrate; it's an obstacle course to survive if you're lucky and motivated. It weeds out the slow and clumsy like a room full of bear traps.

It started in college. I was dating was doomed from the start - she was a Republican and I was a theater arts major - but we'd developed a very sweet affection for one another and a romantic date was planned for February 14, the day she would return after five days visiting her parents in San Diego. I spent so much time wondering if the fact that I was wearing a suit meant I was supposed to order for both of us that I failed to notice how sad and confused she was. Finally she told me very tenderly that she'd gotten back together with her ex-boyfriend over the weekend and she wasn't sure how she felt about it. It was a surprisingly warm, friendly moment, and I was very happy for them both when I learned the following week that he had called to propose to her. Of course, we hadn't actually broken up by then...that wouldn't happen until a few days later, when she met a neanderthal at a party and insisted she just wanted to help him find a place to stay for the night, plus for unrelated reasons she suddenly needed to be single again. By that time I knew it was over and I was happy just to let her drive me back to campus one last time, her cro-magnon pal's rusty pickup chugging close behind us. Some things aren't worth arguing about.

The next year I'd arranged a mid-February visit with my old flame Marina, calling from the San Francisco streetcar terminal to be told by her roommate that she was nowhere to be found. Later learned she'd been busy getting back together with her abusive sycophantic ex-boyfriend - not the one for whom she declared her love after he broke her jaw, another one - and I should understand because, she dramatically explained, "I love him." It was February 13 but I hadn't figured out the pattern yet.

That would happen the following year. Becky, six years older and living in New York, had been cruelly dumped by one of my adolescent buddies and so I assumed she'd skip our planned February 14th visit and spend the weekend in bed with him, but in fact our day went as planned - a sobering tourist trek to Alcatraz Island. She was attractive and affectionate and I felt gooey about her for several days, yet I worried. What did it mean that the first day of our nascient relationship was spent in a prison full of inescapable traps, tension and sorrow? Should I pursue my attraction to my new friend, or heed my keen sense of dark symbolism? Perhaps, I thought, it would be a mistake to expect perfect bliss from romance in the first does say a great deal about our culture, after all, that we so tend to overromanticize life's ugly details that we've made a national park out of a prison.

Ramona was an exotic flower, a dazzling beauty, an emotional coal mining disaster, so it really was not surprising that she stood me up on Valentine's Day the following year...she later said she had to work, thought she had my new number and left a message on a machine belonging to someone named Chris. Twelve months later I thought I was gonna get married to Christine but I'd not had the required three months to adjust to being in a relationship that wasn't immediately carcinogenic, so when the Valentine's Day cookie cutter came down upon us a bloody mess of lost limbs and bitterness was created. She was dressed up like a holy dream of forbidden beauty and I showed up late, disheveled, carrying a wilting flower and distressed by a conversation I'd just had with a friend I'd proposed to years before. I'd have left me too.

The following February Linda visited from New York but she decided to ignore our adorably desperate little partnership and spend the first two nights with her other friends, and so the romance we'd built in December staggered to a clumsy end after I told her I never wanted to see her again, but we managed to salvage a friendship. A seedling rising meekly from the path of the mudslide.

So it was with great trepidation that I anticipated the arrival of Valentine's Day this year. I was dating Sandra and even while everything was going well I found myself living cautiously, like a well-known clean-shaven hemopheliac mob informant. We dated, we talked, we played pornographic versions of familiar board games, everything rolled steadily forward like a bowling ball down a lazy suburban driveway. Then came Valentine's Day.

I spent the morning at a funeral. My uncle had died on February 12th and I greeted my mourning relatives in the same outfit I'd worn to my last job interview five years before.

The service was like a weird practical joke, so strange as to be beyond cruel. I was sure everyone in the room was conspiring to keep my living uncle hidden somewhere, pretending he was no longer around, pretending people really do leave without giving anyone a chance to say goodbye, to seal the leaky hole left by the thoughtlessly departed. It was a practical joke with a lesson in it, a ritual message about life, but one that nobody understood no matter how much they pretended they did, no matter how convincingly they wore the costume.

My grandmother sobbed uncontrollably - I made the mistake of asking how she was - and I imagined how warm and exciting and horribly unusual it would be if I could actually drop the role of somber, polite cousin and tell everyone what I was actually thinking, tell them all the ways my uncle annoyed me, all the time I'd spent not thinking about him and how horribly sad it was that he was gone and we'd all come together only for this ugly moment, to exchange awkward roles and unknown rules and embarassed small talk.

Finally drove to Sandra's house for dinner and had a sweet evening together, two affectionate passengers waiting for the "in love" dashboard light to click on. Two months later we would realize the mouse in the jar had run out of oxygen, but we'd broken through. Some weight had been lifted away.

Most people who have romance in their lives think they're experts at finding it, like blind people bowling who insist they know how to roll a strike twice in a row. Granted, it does help to keep trying. But the search for the truth of love is ambiguous: Those in relationships know that it's no big deal and those who are alone and unsatisfied know that if the folks in relationships were dumped tomorrow they'd think they'd been dropped in the middle of the Sahara with an empty canteen and a broken Swiss Army knife. The amazing thing isn't so much that neither side will believe the other, but that so many people will completely exchange their former loyalties and beliefs when they inevitably change sides in the argument, like a giant game of "Red Rover, Red Rover".

The surprise for me is how quickly the appearance of a potential relationship will instantly transform me into the world's most condescending, ambitious treasure hunter. Before, I recognized the unique, blessed magic of every individual; now suddenly, the world's a big county fair, I'm both the judge and the blue ribbon and I can't give myself away until I've tasted every jar of jam. Disgusted contestants tend to abandon the competition before the judging's over, leaving me alone, unawarded, holding a sticky spoon. Could I be doing something wrong?

All I want is to be in a loving, exciting relationship, and yet I haven't figured out how to reconcile the "Everything Is Beautiful" unconditional-love mantra with the "You Better Shop Around" romance-as-shrewd-capitalism philosophy. Women aren't objects, men aren't prizes; and yet, while we claim to value equality, arranged marriages remain unpopular. We're expected to judge each other constantly, but we're supposed to hide the fact that we're doing it.

Maybe love is the opposite of judgement. That explains why people look so hard for a good "catch"; they get all their judging out of the way ahead of time, so they can pair off and live in unconditional bliss, until one day they wake up on top of a pile of broken dishes and empty beer bottles, screaming something about the television and throwing the children that they'd also failed to notice until the kids tragically entered the parental crossfire.

I really don't understand the game. Popping the question used to mean "Will you marry me?"; now it means "I know we're broken up, but can we still have sex?" I don't know where to start, and the rules are only getting more complicated.

A friend of mine went to a bondage party and was asked to hold a woman's leash. (Didn't people used to just hold hands?) "Be dominant", she said.

He found it difficult. Raised to be politely passive about everything that didn't have a steering wheel attached, he wanted to be dominant, in order to comply with her wishes, but he didn't know how.

In a certain way the solution seems easy enough - he would only have to come up with something for her to do, and then pretend to insist that she do it. He could play a forceful game of Twister and command her to do his bidding. "Right leg on yellow, bitch!"

Do note that tone of voice is crucial; adding "bitch" to any mandate does not automatically make it a command. Saying "Right leg on yellow, bitch, please" wouldn't have the desired motivating effect, and in fact it might inspire a disgusted mutiny from the dominated, but ultimately controlling, slave.

And so my friend was left standing helpless, holding the leash of his determined follower, the proverbial twister dial spinning endlessly in his head. Questions blurred past - "What do I do? What do I say to make her happy so she won't reject me? Isn't there something I can offer her so she won't decide I'm worthless? Would a bribe work?"

This, readers, is the spiky mountaintop of inaudible wisom where most of us guys spend our lives.
Now, put down the sniper rifles. I'm not saying that women secretly control men by pretending to be helpless, although such women do exist. I'm saying that most guys are completely lost, desperately willing to please but clueless as to how to do so, wrestling with a rulebook full of apparent contradictions written in gibberish.

"You like nice guys? I can be nice, I'll show you nice, you've never seen nice like - huh? Deep, mysterious? You want mysterious? about quiet? Quiet passes for mysterious, I bet, yeah...wait, I can be sweet too. Yeah, sweet's no problem. I could say some really great sweet things, of course, but I'm still being quiet, so you'll think I'm...wait, I forgot what I was supposed to be quiet for...would you like it if I was sullen and moody? I'm real good as sullen and moody, you just let me know..."

This is a humorous exaggeration, of course, ha ha ha. I have learned in becoming mature that the person you date should be someone who makes you feel comfortable, since romance is the place where your true self should be able to come out. This fact can be difficult to accept, since I believe that the average person feels free to express his or her true self only when he or she is alone in an elevator, scratching rudely or breaking into song or rethinking poorly chosen dialogue from embarassing moments earlier in the day.

I'm happy to say I do pretty well at being myself in relationships. I'm relaxed and confident right up to the third or fourth day, when I start wondering when she's gonna figure out what an annoying, tedious and shallow person I am. The more fearful I get that I'll be recognized as a loser, the more desperately my hands start pushing at the surface of the water, trying to keep my body immersed as it rises toward the air. My fingers feel less and less liquid to push against as I struggle to quickly become the person she'd want to be with, the person I'd be if I weren't such a loser. Amazingly, however, I forget what that person would talk about in any situation, and I again wonder if it would seem pensive and mysterious if I just shut up for the rest of the relationship and I only opened my mouth for her adoring kisses. Will she even kiss me, or has she grown tired of that too? Why did she agree to go out with me, anyway? She's weird. I should be with someone else. But what if I can't do better?

Boy and girl hit it off. Girl freaks out that boy will be obsessed lunatic like the last boy. Boy freaks out that he could find a better relationship and feels guilty that he's too scared to try. Girl freaks out that he's such a decent boy and she's afraid of hurting him. Boy freaks out that he's the wrong person for the job and struggles to become the right person for the job without really knowing what the job is. Girl freaks out that the spark isn't there and she's afraid relationship will stagnate. Boy freaks out that the spark isn't there and he's afraid she'll notice. Girl and boy freak out, argue, tremble, suffer and agree to remain friends. Thus beaten and quivering they acheive romantic bliss. Someday.

In the end it's best to remember that we're all human beings, with everything in common. "When everything was going well I thought it was because I'd finally learned how to do things the right way, so now that my life is a hopeless mess I've either forgotten what I knew or I never knew it in the first place. Good thing I kept a frigid ocean of cynicism hidden behind my thin facade of giddy romantic ecstasy, just in case."

Copyright 1996 Martin Azevedo

ej@templeofdominoes dot com

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