Love

A Lesson on the Road

Published: Portland Review, Fall 2013

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Puerto Vallarta is one of those glad and gamboling Mexican beach towns where everybody’s always stopping you to ask whether you’re married or not.

Considering the substantial number of newly wedded Norteamericanos who come to sunburn themselves along Vallarta’s fabled shores, it’s a bit of a softball question – a way to crack the intercultural code and to start a conversation about what really matters: love, and social standing, and of course, commerce.

It is, in fact, the first question Emiliano and I are asked when we exit the temperate confines of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Airport.

“Esposos?” a porter inquires as he tosses our packs into a taxi hatch. Husband and wife?

“No,” we say in unison, a little embarrassed, because we aren’t even technically dating. Yet.

“Tienen suerte,” the man declares saucily. You are lucky.

He tells us he’s been married for 23 years, and I ask him what the secret to a happy marriage is.

He straightens his starched collar and thinks on it a bit.

“Never go home any earlier than you have to,” he says. “Give her all the money. And agree with whatever she says. That is the secret.”

We laugh and step into the taxi. We are headed south. I roll my window down.

The air is perfumed with cumin and cigarettes and the softest whiff of cooking fire. It’s a smell that is, for me, loaded to the gills with difficult memories.

I moved to the cigar-shaped and kind of existentially stinky island of Cozumel, Mexico, when I was 23.

I spent a lonely year there, teaching English and drinking heavily. In those days, I wasn’t exactly a luxury traveler. I survived on rice, beans and pickled carrot. I slept in a hammock. Weekends, I’d hop a ferry to the mainland and hit the clubs, then pass out in a drunken heap on the beach at sunrise.

I’d make out furiously with strangers. I’d throw beers at men who spoke lewdly to me. And I’d tell long, braggy stories about myself to all who would listen.

I was subsumed in those days by a white, boozy heat of youthful indiscretion, and all that fumbling left scant time to do battle with life’s harder questions. I definitely wasn’t stopping airport baggage handlers to ask about their marriages. Instead, I was much more earnestly concerned with hearing the sound of my own noise.

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***

It is, indeed, a wedding that has washed me up on Mexico’s other shore these many years later.

Two of Emiliano’s college friends are getting hitched at one of Vallarta’s all-inclusive resorts, and stepping out of our taxi and into the open-air lobby of Dreams Resort feels like being teleported away from Mexico proper and into a holographic rendering of some crisp-cornered travel pamphlet.

It’s the kind of place where the pork wouldn’t dare give you butt worms and cigarette ends are swept away before they’ve even hit the ground and chickens lay still on plates instead of scratching about at dawn in cranky fits of equatorial ire.

Disingenuous, yes, but so pretty to look at.

“It’s fake, like most weddings and marriages,” I snort to Emiliano as we drop our bags and orient ourselves amid a vast, pulsating constellation of beach umbrellas.

Hordes of fat tourists lay comatose at pool edge like some lumpy smack of breached jellyfish. They slurp mini-margaritas and gobble down fruit platters and palm sweaty dollar bills into the hands of waiting help.

We join them, and begin to eat with gusto.

Terra cotta pots of fragrant, bubbling carnitas. Fresh-caught fish tasting so much like ocean it makes me want to weep into my empty, buttery hands. And fried eggs with hot sauce, called “divorced eggs” down here. I shovel them – and everything else – into my mouth with an ironic flourish.

In between the eating, we skinny-dip and make love and share cigarettes and attend an unending procession of wedding dinners and cocktail hours. On the third day, we taxi back to town to eat our body weight in tacos. There, the marriage inquiries kick into high gear.

“Honeymooners!” the tour guides cry out as we stroll down the malecón. “Congratulations! Snorkel?”

One tout beckons us to a booth plastered with toothy photos of newly married Gringos tandem zip-lining through the jungle.

We decide to pretend I’m a Russian prostitute.

“I’m paying her by the hour,” Emiliano says. “We met at the pool.”

I blink prettily and spit out a few heavily accented words of English.

The tout looks bored, and it occurs to me as we walk away that there isn’t much aside from a bad foreign accent and a bare ring finger to distinguish me from the blissed out pairs surrounding me on all sides. Not this perilously close to middle age. And that feels vaguely alarming.

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***

Wedding day arrives. It’s an ornate Hindu-Sikh affair, and we cover our heads before entering the wedding hall. The bride has been hennaed to within an inch of her life. Her big, kohl-rimmed eyes glisten with happy tears as a fine cord of rope is slipped around her waist and she is led in three circles around a raised platform on which her groom sits. After she completes the third go-round, their union becomes official. The old Indian grandmas dab at their eyes with colorful hankies, and the small children leap and yell, and Emiliano and I head back to the bar.

We collapse onto two rattan chairs, their seats scooped hollow by a litany of large Gringo bottoms.

We share a sweating glass of Corona and discuss how travel feels different, now that we two seasoned backpackers are getting older.

“Your hangovers are worse,” I say.

“You have more to lose,” he says.

“You have less to prove,” I say.

And I decide that maybe it’s like this: When you’re young, your own existence is a source of endless fascination. Then a few years go by and all the yarns you’ve been so busily spinning start to ring thin and self-important in your ears. And because it’s the only thing left to do, you begin, finally, to let others have their turn speaking.

You become someone who wonders earnestly if love is really possible. Someone who occasionally attends fancy weddings at fancy resorts and occasionally wonders what it means. Someone who performs and prattles less and listens a whole lot more.

You ask the porter about his marriage. You pretend to be a Russian whore. You shut up and eat a taco. You carve out less time for foolishness, or regret.

You melt into the shadows of not-quite twilight at a resort bar and you know exactly what you are: an unmarried, not-quite-middle-aged human being drinking companionately with another human being named Emiliano as the light from a row of tiki torches dances shifting lines across your not-quite-young faces.

And you are all the while raising your nose skyward in search of that cuminy, cigaretty, cooking firey scent – the smell of a youthful idea put to flame, of something burnt and then scattered, irretrievably, back to the wind.

And you are saying, but quietly this time: Aqui estoy. Here I am.

And, finally – finally! – I am listening.

____________________________

On hate letters and the immutability of time

“If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.”

-T.S. Eliot, Four Quarters

These last days, in a rash of mental housecleaning, I’ve been getting rid of all kinds of stuff.

Dozens of old love letters, old photos, abandoned threads of defunct electronic correspondences. In some ways, it was a depressing exercise. I came across a painful cross-section of long (and perhaps best) forgotten correspondences with former loves. I thought. I remembered. I considered. And I decided that it all has to go.

But before I relegate the tangled strings of all those failed love affairs to obsolescence, I thought I’d share a few of the most memorable. I’ve deleted the names of the senders, but otherwise, I’ve kept them as-is. I’ve gotta warn you, this might be painful. To whit, a quick cross-section from My First 10 Years of Dating.

Some of it was sad:

(7/12/2002)  hey- i haven’t checked my mail in awhile..i wasn’t trying to avoid your communications. i guess i just fell apart emotionally when i read that letter… everything in it was sorta familiar, yet with you by my side as i read it mad it super difficult to bear… i don’t want us to drift apart, as you have said before… you are so special to me, i just want you to be happy and live a long, happy, prosperous life. please write back whenever you feel the need….
iwillalwaysloveyou, X

Some of it seemed sad at the time but now seems sort of hilarious:

(10/23/03) Bonjour Erin !
you must be so suprise to hear from me, With wath i did to you i’ll not be suprise if you don’t want to hear from me.
Ijust want to tell you that my return in Quebec one year ago was very hard and i’ve never respond to anyone that i met during my year in London, you includ.
So i’m not gonna write a huge message to you now because maybe you don’t even want to hear from me, but i’ll be very please to tell all my year pass in Quebec for the last year, if, of course, you write me back to tell me that you can forgive me for my non-responding year.
I’ll understand if you don’T want, but i just want to tell you that i had very nice time in Paris with and i rememeber you as a very nice and special person, but i feel sorry for the mood wich i was when we met.
I hope you are happy and once more time sorry for my mistake.
X

(7/19/08) Dear Erin,
It wasn’t an “idea” I loved it was you as a person.  Furthermore, what I said on the phone about being wasted 80% of our relationship still rings true.  Thats not healthy for myself or for my partner.  I still drink one night on the weekend but thats it.  I took beer out of my diet and switched to gin and tonics.  But I am gonna cut that out and just stick with red wine…
You can choose to look back on us and find whatever faults you want to before the whole cheating and after.  I can choose to disagree but that does not mean I am dismissing your feelings.  I just feel your focusing all your attention on a few negatives rather than looking at the whole picture.  But you have every right to do so since I betrayed you and am basically a shitty person.
love, X

Some of it was pretty fucking harsh:

(12/5/03) Hey- Well, I wasn’t going to write you, but after carefull contemplation I decided there are things I need to say. When I wrote you that email a few days back I thought I was going to be ok with everything, not happy, but ok. Well, I’m not.

I’m sorry you don’t want to date me anymore. I, at least, thought we had a great thing going that wasn’t worth throwing away over a 2 month trip. Apperently I was wrong. I’m going to move on but there is no way I can stay in contact with you. Its hard enough as it is for me go through my daily routines without punching the shitout of someone. Well, have fun partying in thailand(hmmm… whatever happened to monastaries and secluded beaches?). Good by, X

Some of it was pompous:

(8/23/04) Erin- I understand what you want and will respect that. Watch the world around you, the only teacher you will ever need. Take care of your life, live towards love and compassion.Until the road brings us to each other. X

(10/19/2004) well well well,
you were right, i definitly didn’t expect to hear from you. but i must say that i’m glad i did. i’ve thought many times about what happened and it’s been so long that i can’t really even remember the bad. only the fun parts remain in my memory. i had a lot of gulit about the way things went wrong, and i was also going through a growing experience. at the time it left me in a total mental, and emotional confusion,
but in the end i came out much more of an adult than I could even realize. however confusing all this babbling is just know that what i’m trying to say is im sorry for all of my wrongs. X

Some of it was creepy:

(10/5/08) what the hell information are you talking about? What would you think I want with your credit cards?  I dont understand a bit of any of this E, you have these assumptions and things that convince you all I do is lye and do bad shit, etc.  I dont understand.  Perhaps you would like to enlighten me on what it is this information is about?

By the way, with all due respect, calling the cops on me is a very cowardly action, you know I would never harm you.  To even mention those dullards with their badges to help them cope with mommy and daddy issues disgusts me.

Why are you acting like this to me?  What are you refering to about infotmation and these medical books I “so love to steal”? So far as the lay diagnosis of NPD, one must fit 5/9 criteria, according to the DSM… I would, if looked at in such a differential only fit 3 of them, therefore no diagnosis can be assumed. Please E, do tell me what this so facinating information is.

I hope this finds you well. All my love, X

Some of it is still insanely difficult to even read at all:

(5/6/06) Erin – I want to hold you and push you away, I want to cry in your arms, I want to fall off the edge of the earth.. I do love you erin, I think that I will always love you. if it’s true that we are supposed to be together, I will not rule out that we can be someday because I have never wanted anything more.. can I say just not now.. I don’t know if my heart can say it.  It’s obviously too much for me.. I still want you every minute of the day and still love you and feel the same way, I can never -not- love you. X

Why had I been holding onto them all these many years? I had my reasons. And those reasons were unique, as unique as each of those people I’d once cared about. And somehow, they still feel intensely private. That might seem odd for me to say, considering that I just outed almost every serious boyfriend I’ve ever had in the fragments above. But, man. The ends of relationships are such dismal affairs, aren’t they? Hard feelings seem to endure an incredibly long time, at least for me. Perhaps that is why we all have a tendency to oscillate wildly between the desire to forget completely and the temptation to let our greatest disappointments come to define who we are as people.

All said, I do believe it’s probably better to forget in the end. If every single person, and every single relationship, is unique, why carry the past with you?

So it’s all going. In a fit of pique a few weeks back, I marched out of my apartment and down to the Columbia River docks and tossed one particularly sad batch of love letters into the water.  I’ve thrown out heaps of old tarnished necklaces and crumbling handmade gifts. And I’ve cleaned out the virtual coffers of three separate email accounts. It is sort of terrifying. And also sort of exhilirating.

I’ve hung onto a few select items: an ivory necklace picked up for me in the Congo by an old lover when desire still bloomed inside of us like some great exotic flower; three lettres d’amour penned by a French boy I met in Paris on my 16th birthday; a funny breakup note from my junior high boyfriend, with whom I am still friends. And the bits of letters shared above.

That’s it. The rest is gone.

Deciding to fall in love requires, each time, a suspension of disbelief. Voltaire once likened the choice to a leap into the abyss. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve leapt. Perhaps such a decision is more easily made, though, when you finally let go of the hope than any of the past could have been different.

The past is infinite. The past is erasable. All time is unredeemable. Indeed.

__________________________________

2,299 Words on Love and Other Ass-Kickings

Mid-life singlehood in the post-millennial era is definitely not for the thin of skin or the faint of stomach.

Casual dating is also not for the blindly optimistic. Or maybe even the vaguely optimistic. In fact, if you’re looking to boost your opinion of the human race, or, even more riskily, your opinion of your own worth as a carbon-based life form, I would highly recommend that you consider instead a long-term arrangement with an expanded cable provider, a book group populated by supportive, sexually-neutral contemporaries, or a Hitachi Magic Wand Massager.

And I would definitely, deeeefinitely recommend that you avoid joining any manner of online dating site. Really. Just don’t.

But wait. Before you label me the emotional equivalent of a dehydrated plum, allow me to clarify my worldview. Come on. Take my hand and let’s walk a minute.

I consider myself a guarded optimist as a rule. I think we are all capable of improving ourselves. I fret over my friends’ romantic campaigns when they go poorly, and I celebrate noisily, with plenty of encouragement and booze, when they succeed. I appreciate the place of romantic comedies in the cinematic canon, even if I’d sooner smash a warm, gooey handful of Sourpatch Kids into my eyeballs than shill out $16 to see one. Per my father’s advice, I always buy the insurance, but usually only the cheap-ass, catastrophic kind. And I hope for the best. To wit: I’ve had a swollen lymph node behind my right ear for a month now and I am still reasonably confident that it will simply go away on its own if I ignore it long enough, and maybe catch up on my sleep. See?

Also, most improbably of all at this late hour of my youth, I still believe in true love. Abso-fucking-lutely.

Problem is, my optimism only seems to transmogrify me into a pessimist by the end of most days, because I regularly expect more from others and from myself than is either wise or possible. And definitely more than is usually forthcoming.

And this, in turn, means that anytime you run into me on the street or in a bar, I am internally negotiating a small but prickly glade of vague disappointments – bounced checks, plugged toilets and brake trouble one week, social slights, careless left turns and incorrect change the next.

Notice how I always have my hands in my pockets when I come rambling along? That’s because I’m trying like hell to make it through just one afternoon with unclenched fists.

And if I look a little unsteady on my feet, it’s because that theoretical glade is peppered with a vast cadre of untripped mines. Thus, I must move gingerly to avoid blowing myself and all in my proximity to smithereens. Those ex post facto emotional explosives are a doozy, let me tell you.

Hyperbole aside, I’m sensitive. And in the immortal words of folk-rocker-turned-raver-turned-horse-wrassler Jewel: “I’d like to stay that way.”

I really would. However, my recent rentrée into the world of the Unattached But Looking has me wondering if I might not benefit from a little more psychic armor. Tits of steel, if you will.

Awhile back, I created profiles on a few dating websites.

I took care to represent myself honestly. I posted flattering photos, yes, but also unflattering ones. I trumpeted my accomplishments, but I gunned for approachability.

Think: Over-educated, Underpaid, Cheerfully Humble Creative Type seeks same.

OK, I didn’t actually use that tagline. But something fairly close.

The only dealbreakers I listed? Kids, cigarettes, arrogance, bad listening skills and a lack of educational bona fides.

I thought I was being perfectly fair. I wasn’t reaching. I wasn’t slumming. Just putting myself, or the closest approximation of myself I could conjure up in 1000 words or less, out there for examination. And asking for a chance, a completed undergrad diploma and at least a modicum of emotional-financial-physical-mental togetherness in return.

Or so I thought.

Not long after the profiles went up, I got a note from a 42-year-old guy who called himself “pdxvortex.”

He was not impressed. He wrote:

“Are you serious? You are asking for a menu of educational requirements, do you really think guys like that are on this site, and if they are what makes you think they would respond to something like that?”

Because I’m an editor, my first impulse was to retort with a list of suggested grammatical/syntactical corrections and improvements. But I refrained.

Because I’m a blogger, my second impulse was to egg him on in the hopes of drumming up some new and interesting material to write about. And I did. But first I checked out his profile.

He wasn’t too bad looking: pink and starting to bald, a bit gray about the eyes, with a subtle gin blossom spreading out across the tip of his nose, but not terrible. (See how magnanimous I can be? See also: the picture above. I actually picked the most flattering one he had up. You can’t hardly even see the gin blossom.)

He described himself as “creative,” “artistic” and “open-minded.”

He listed a variety of professions, including computer art (not sure what that means), photography, and the running of a “small web design and marketing company.”

He also boasted of touring Europe with a punk rock band in ’92, when I was 10.

He did not, however, have a completed college degree, which was the likely catalyst for his virtual, spittle-laced harangue.

Fueled by mild affront and the warm, fuzzy feeling of affirmation you get when you realize you’ve been rejected by someone whose company you’d certainly never have solicited, I wrote him back.

“Sorry; I didn’t realize attaining a college degree was so lofty a feat! I have two, so I must be, like, a genius. Cool! Mom always said so, but you know how moms are.

I’m sorry if you are having trouble meeting women, dood, but that’s got nothing to do with me. You might try redirecting your ire at someone who remotely has something to do with it instead of sending angry messages to people you’ve never met.

 xoxo, peace on earth, etc. 

E”

To my unmitigated glee, he wrote back within a few hours.

“Lotsa luck, hopefully you will find someone just a snooty as yourself and you too can have a miserable life together looking down on the rest of the world. P.s. With an attitude like yours you are more likely to be simply used and tossed aside by doche bags who can see that your quest for a guy with “education” is simply another form of discrimination. So yah once again, we see the reason you have a hard time finding guys in the real world, perhaps you should be less of a self serving snob and less of a bitch.”

I must admit I was taken slightly aback by the harshness of this second e-mail. Was a total stranger really cursing me to a life of misery and rejection? Did he even have that power?

Because I am thorough, I quickly hopped over to urbandictionary.com to look up the term “Doche Bag.” It was, to my eyes, a novel insult, and I wondered how its etymology might differ from its more pedestrian cousin (and a perennial personal favorite diss), “douche bag.”

Turns out that “doche” signifies the “orgasmic awesomeness of any person, place or thing,” according to urbandictionary.com.

So it was just a typo after all. He had inadvertently called me awesome, and my hard-earned command of American street slang was safely intact. This was gratifying, but it wasn’t enough. So back to his page I went for more material.

This time, I scrolled to the little box that asks respondents to list what they are looking for in a date.

Under “You should message me if,” he’d written: “You are not mean and are looking forward to meeting a positive and upbeat person with a healthy outlook on life.

What I am looking for in a woman is an equal partner not someone who will be subservient. I am seeking: friendliness, a positive attitude and intelligence most of all.

I will not put up with abuse, and if you have anger issues directed to men please skip me. If you are bipolar or like to get drunk and get violent please move on. I have had it with that kind of thing.”

After I’d read my fill, I devised a speedy, scathing reply.

“Thanks for the well wishes. I, too, have high hopes for my own prospects. But I think you already knew that.

As per the discrimination accusation: dating is not and has never been an equal-opportunity endeavor. It’s about selecting for the person you think is right for you, not doling out charity or keeping standards as low as possible so as to avoid offending dickbags. Get this now and you’ll save yourself a lot of punk rock-style angst. You’re a bit old for it.

I like the use of the royal “we” in your last sentence, though. Really nice rhetorical flourish. It really made me feel for a moment as if I were standing before a large chorus of angry men. Then I realized it was only you! I’m silly.

Most VERY sincerely,

E”

Mr. Vortex never did write me back. I’d like to think it was because I beat him into semantic submission with my superior linguistic-verbal abilities, but aside from being a Guarded Optimist with Pessimistic Leanings, I am also, in my own peculiar fashion, a Realist. In a strange way, this wasn’t about either of us.

The thing about rejection is it often compels us to reject others in turn. A balancing of the cosmic scales, if you will. It also moves us to heap upon others the very same punishments that we ourselves have unwillingly endured and then protested loudly against. When we are confronted with irrational anger, we rampart ourselves by becoming irrationally angry in return. When we hurt, we hurt.

The repayment for heartache is more heartache, which seems like such a strange and nonsensical kind of calculus.

Why had an aging Punk Rocker chosen me to be the recipient of two decades of frustration and ire? Why had I responded to his attack in such enthusiastic kind? And what did our behavior indicate about who either of us really were, deep down?

Probably, very little.

Dating is bloodsport cloaked as recreation. The lion in a gazelle’s coat. And it just gets nastier as the years – and the notches on your bedpost – tally up.

It’s like, when you become single in your 30s after a few years off the market, you find yourself transported to this huge, clamorous barroom populated with these endless swarms of people who are holding their jackets and tapping their feet impatiently and chewing ice cubes excavated from the bottoms of long-emptied tumblers because they were so ready to leave, like an hour ago, but they can’t, and there are grimy mirrors all over the walls and the stereo is playing bad Lenny Kravitz songs and the air smacks of crap beer and the crap beer smacks of stale nuts and the stale nuts smack of a urinal and the urinals smack of a bigger kind of desperation.

And, every once in awhile, maybe someone casts a desultory glance around the perimeter in the hopes of catching the eye of another poor soul exuding an equally potent cologne of loneliness and indignance, but it almost never happens, and when it does, there’s usually a pending divorce or a mental illness or a crazy ex or a foreclosed home or a latent commitment aversion to jam up the works, so why even bother, right?

They say love conquers all.

I’m thinking maybe they should have dispensed entirely with the last bit and just said instead that love conquers.

Because it really does. It conquers absolutely. It destroys and rearranges and recalibrates with total indiscrimination and complete impunity.

It conquers you with its coming, and then it conquers you with its leaving too. And even in between, when things get quiet and you’re dropping to sleep each night alone, it kicks you around a little, too, just because it can. It tells you you’re being too picky. It reminds you that you woke up this morning another day older, fatter, grayer and closer to oblivion. And don’t forget alone. It points to all those gone-away lovers you bet against, and the ones who bet against you, and gets you asking yourself if some colossal mistake might not have been made somewhere along the way.

But here’s the cool part: if you can learn to take the beating, and if you’re willing to let love defeat you, and I mean really, really defeat you, every once in a very great while, it will take a break from its floggings to kick you something beautiful back.

Every so often, the coordinates will align and the door to that big, noisy barroom opens up, unexpected-like, as if by a gust of wind, and in stumbles somebody entirely singular. And the dim light cuts neat, clean shadows across this person’s face, and the cigarette smoke clears like magic and all the Mr. Vortexes drop away through trapdoors in the floor and your eyes meet and the hope and optimism comes roaring back and suddenly you can’t hardly even feel the blisters on your heels or the hard-knock bruises that line the inside of your ribcage. And your heart beats wild as they get closer, and you don’t even care that once, in some other world, some guy on a dating site called you a snob and a bitch and said you’d end up alone in your dotage, or that some girl got drunk on rum punch and punched you out some sorry Christmas Eve a thousand lifetimes ago.

I believe this. I really do.

So. Yeah. Tits of Steel. I like the sound of that.

_________________________________

… And a Happy VD to All!

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Yesterday, on 2/13/2013, I did two things that are, for me, vanishingly rare: one, I went to a mall, and, two, without blinking, I dropped $130 on lingerie.

Not because I have a hot Valentine’s Day date (I don’t), and not because I’m upset that I don’t have a hot Valentine’s Day date (I’m not). Just because, well, the bras and panties were there and I was here and I’ve been working out and have a nice tan from my trip to India and I sorta liked the idea of titillating myself just a bit.

Ahem. I know how that last phrase reads. But won’t be deleting it because we’re all adults here, and last Sunday, at a Chinese New Year celebration, I received a fortune that read, “Do everything with confidence.”

So I am.

A good motto for 2013, I think, particularly as it’s a dangerous-sounding kind of year, what with the 13 and the zero rubbing up on each other in such an immodest manner.

Let’s count backward: At 20, on Valentine’s Day, I was working up the mettle to dump my college boyfriend and move to France. At 13, on Valentine’s Day, I was at a Steven Segal movie with my very first boyfriend, to whom I’d given Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy” album as a token of my affection. In return, he’d given me my first, slobbery kiss, on my best friend’s couch, while a small crowd of hormonal fellow adolescents shrieked and giggled in the next room.

***

I selected my lacy under things with the help of my oldest and best friend. In Victoria’s Secret, we giggled at the clueless, disoriented male human types out solo shopping for their female companions.

“They keep buying, like, just slips for their girlfriends, and I’m like, ‘You need a bra to go with that!’” the saleswoman lamented, tossing us an eye roll so spirited and indulgent that the colored part of her eyeballs disappeared completely, for just a moment.

I watched a sort of trashy-looking guy in Lee jeans and work boots attempting to pair a set of pink, lace-trimmed “Cheeky Panties” with a red push-up bra, but bravely resisted the temptation to intervene.

His battle, alone, I decided. I’ve got plenty of my own dragons to slay.

Today is Feb. 14. The lacy under things came with a free box of chocolates, which I’ve just picked my way through. I’ve sampled champagne, pistachio cream, and passion fruit fillings, and I’m feeling nauseated and philosophical from the endeavor.

Ah, Valentine’s Day.

I don’t mean to sit down today and write a manifesto on love. How pompous. How grand. What do I know about love, besides? I’ve got a comet’s tail of ended relationships dragging behind me, which either makes me the best or the worst person to speak on the subject, but I’m not sure which.

I’ve had dozens of boyfriends; I’ve said, “I love you” to six men among those dozens; and I’ve really, really, meant it thee of those six times.

My freewheeling lifestyle, my addiction to world travel and my restless nature have conspired to make long-term relationships difficult, indeed.

But oh, have I tried!

A year ago, I was milling around a kitchen on the Oregon coast preparing homemade chocolate truffles for my then-live-in-boyfriend, gulping down a thick wad of secret doubt and trepidation.

Six months ago, I was newly single, settling into my new Portland home, and smarting from the betrayal of a very old friend whom I’d convinced myself I loved, and, worse, whom I’d convinced myself loved me back. Neither was true. Or maybe one was, but who can know which by now?

Two months ago, I’d just been dumped by a man I was dating casually, the week before Christmas. That stung, too, but I forgot him quickly, with the assistance of about a gallon of red wine and a 600-piece puzzle I jigsawed together alone every night until my disappointment abated and I was staring at the visage of a hairy wizard in his treasure-strewn lair and Christmas Eve finally arrived in all its amnesiac, tryptophanic glory.

One month ago, I was on a second-class Sri Lankan train, chugging joyfully along the edge of the Arabian Sea, halfway through my South Asian travels and reeling with new inspiration and ideas.

Now I’m home, and single, and feeling pretty darned good, aside from the whole chocolate-induced coma thing.

***

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Still, I suppose the holiday must be working subtly on my subconscious in some ways.

Exhibit A: See last paragraph of previous section.

Exhibit B: That lingeire.

Exhibit C: Last night, I dreamt I’d slept with 135 people and was tasked with confessing this to everyone I met, which was about as enjoyable as it sounds. But it’s not what you think. My dream self was simply cognizant that these events had, at some point, come to pass, and I was feeling rather shame-faced and Retroactively Puritanical about the whole thing.

Do I buy the premise of love anymore, at all?

From what I’ve seen, marriage seems like mostly a sham, or at least a massive setup for train wreck-style failures of unimaginable sorts.

But I can’t reject the concept of standalone love. Not entirely. What could be more human than wanting to desire and be desired?

Maybe we’ve all fallen too in love with falling in love, and that’s why we can’t stop gorging ourselves to the retching point on its pursuit. It’s like that old, bad joke:

Why did the robber rob the bank?

Because that’s where the money was.

Of course.

If you are not in a relationship, my question for you is this: if, when the day’s work was finished, you decided to sit alone at your desk in the waning February light wearing overpriced lingerie and feeding yourself chocolates until you felt ill, would that be embarrassing to cop to?

If you are in a relationship, my (only slightly incendiary) question for you is rather different: Are you going to shill out for chocolates and flowers and gigantic steaks and cheesy-ass dessert specials with your Somebody tonight to show them you love them, or do you love them because you shilled out for chocolates and flowers and gigantic steaks and cheesy-ass dessert specials?

Economists call it Sunk Costs theory: endeavors become increasingly difficult to abandon the more we invest in them.

They also become increasingly more appealing. A recent study called it the “IKEA Effect.” The more effort you put in to something, the better you convince yourself that something is, be it a crooked, tottering bookshelf or a romantic relationship.

“I built this,” you declare. And, just like some solitary, self-satisfied and eager Old Testament God, you look upon it and you see that it is good. Even if, really, it’s not.

But if I were a God, I like to think I’d be of the non-judgmental, not-smiting sort. After all, we’re all of us Tiny Little Lovesick Humans trying so fucking hard so much of the time, and who can fault us for that? Posturing and preening and masking our true intentions with bravado and lust and shame as loves wave hello and then goodbye and time ticks ever onward.

What do all those moments add up to? All those individual ticks?

For so many years, I told myself my clock would chime, clamorously and finally, when my Forever Somebody-or-Other came sweeping in through the side door, gathered me into his arms and presented me with a mismatched, over-priced bra-and-panty set. And it would all be so beautiful and perfect that I wouldn’t even care that his teeth were crooked, or that he was preceded by everyone he had been preceded by, the good ones and the bad ones and the troubled and lonely and angry ones.

It hasn’t happened just yet. And I’m not holding my breath. I need it for too many other things.

My wish for all my friends on Valentine’s Day is that they take a moment to think about what they are building, with or without a partner, and why. Hang social norms, familial pressures, the squeeze of your chosen or given cultural institutions.

How does your particular project make you better? Just you, alone? That question has got to come first.

Now, I’m going for a jog.

Addendum:

Incidentally, two things I learned from pondering all of this.

  1. Both “Segal” (As in Steven) and “IKEA” are in Word’s spellcheck.
  2. “Enjoy your VD” is a deliciously ambiguous thing to say to another person, especially on the occasion of underwhelming, over-sexed consumer holidays. Try it
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