you and me

The Right Valentine: Standing in Front of a Wall of Cards.

Valentine’s Day was coming in hot. Not sexy hot. Last-minute hot.

And not last-minute because I hadn’t had time to prepare. Last-minute because, well, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Even so, I was almost ready. The gift for my boyfriend Jeff — a rolling briefcase — was wrapped and in the car. My middle-aged body was also wrapped in a blue velvet dress. Curling my hair would do nothing to stop it from frizzing out in the rain. I put in the effort anyway.

A short while later, I was standing in front of a wall of pink and red cards. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to give an honest card — a true card. Right off the bat, that excluded the cheesy, silly cards — like the one with the drawing of a dinosaur that said, “I dino how I’d live without you.” It was cute, but way too, well, false. I did know how I’d live without him. I thought about it regularly.

The overly romantic cards with long lines of text were also out. One of them read, “Two souls sharing a single thought, two hearts sharing a single beat. You are the light of my life and smile.” Again, just plain untrue, and poorly written. There were funny cards, sexy cards, and coy, I-don’t-know-if-you-feel-the-same-way cards. None of them seemed quite perfect for my on-again, off-again boyfriend of two years.

What I needed was a card that was lovingly ambivalent. With one divorce and a string of failed relationships behind me, two competing beliefs had me paralyzed and unable to commit. Either something was wrong with me that made relationships impossible, or I was in another impossible relationship.

Picking a card felt impossible too. Out of the hundreds to choose from, my eyes settled on one with a beautiful drawing of two birds on the front. On the inside, it read, “You make my heart soar.” I stared at it for a minute before I decided I could get behind that. Even if my heart wasn’t soaring right that second. It might.

It was raining on the drive to Jeff’s — Seattle, February, natch. I thought about the night ahead. We were going to dinner with Jeff’s adopted parents. They weren’t literally his adopted parents — when he met them a few years before, he took a real shine to them.

Benny was in his mid-seventies, and as soon as you met him, you’d learn he was an Olympic athlete — not a prime-time Olympic athlete, more like a curler or a biathlete. Penny was a few years younger, a classic grandma-like-lady who loved to bake. I could see why Jeff adored them, but I wasn’t sure how they ended up in our Valentine’s Day.

Oh right, it had been easy to get on board with a Valentine’s Day dinner that felt more like Thanksgiving.

Everything I was doing to pass as half of a happy couple on Valentine’s Day seemed perpendicular to my normal way of doing things. I wasn’t downtown, I was out in the suburbs. I wasn’t shamelessly making fun of this ridiculous holiday, I had shaved my legs and wriggled into a nice dress and stockings. I hadn’t pushed myself to come up with a special gift, I’d opened up the Amazon app on my phone.

The oversized box that contained Jeff’s present seemed extra unwieldy on the trek from the parking lot into his condo building. As I balanced it against the wall to free up a finger to push the elevator button, I imagined his gift to me would be something small. Something from the jewelry counter at Macy’s.

When we first met, he was shocked to hear I’d never been given jewelry. So, he made that a tactic in his ongoing campaign to get me settled into a cozy relationship.

It was one of many things he did that made my friends utter things like, “You are so lucky to have such a thoughtful boyfriend.” And, “He is such a good guy, I wish I could meet someone who treated me that well.” Oh, or the grossest of all, “Does he have a brother?” But look, all those statements did was make me wonder, if he’s so great, why couldn’t I be happy, or even content?

When he opened the door, he beamed and reached out to hug me. His suit sagged off his shoulders. I made a mental note to get him a new suit for his birthday in March. Then I reminded myself not to plan too far ahead — March was weeks, and maybe a break-up, away.

When it came time for the gift exchange, he handed me a box (no time to wrap it, sorry!). I opened the box to find a white robe with Hers embroidered above one breast. The robe matched the white robe I already had (without Hers). And that white robe matched the purple robe I also had. Look, it was fine. The fact he wasn’t super on it made him a little more human.

At the restaurant, the staff knew Penny and Benny, and the hostess led the four of us to their table in front of the fireplace. Two smaller tables framed us on either side, with other Valentine’s Day couples already eating their meals.

“How often do you come here?” I asked Penny.

“Three or four times a year. We come every year for New Year’s, and then we don’t drink until we come back for Valentine’s Day.” Penny pulled a bottle of white wine out of a plastic bag. “We sure are ready for this.”

Jeff put his arm around me. As I shifted in my seat, I came up with a question to keep her talking, so I didn’t have to. “How long have you two been married?”

As she started to explain the detailed plot of their 18-year relationship, I looked around the room. The couples on either side of us weren’t talking. To our right, the wife had on jeans and a fancy sweatshirt. She wasn’t wearing a lot of make-up, and her frizzy black hair was pulled back from her face with a large barrette.

Penny paused and I asked her to say more about the point she had just made. “Benny’s children didn’t immediately accept you?” I tried not to stare at the frizzy-haired woman while Penny spoke, but I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to see her speak to her husband, to see how she looked at him, but they continued to eat in silence.

Watching them woke up a familiar ache in me — a knowing in my body that came from being in a relationship that wasn’t right — that wasn’t true. It reminded me that wrong relationships are as doomed as trying to straighten frizzy hair on a rainy day.

Another Valentine’s Day would pass before I left Jeff. Then a couple more went by until I met the man who made me happy I had. When I finally stood in front of that wall of cards again, I was struck how not confused I could be. It was an I dino how I’d live without him kind of clarity.

***

Kellini Walter is currently writing a memoir about mothers, daughters, uncertainty, and adoption. After working for technology companies for over 20 years, she now enjoys the freedom of working for herself as a communications consultant and writer. She makes her home in Seattle.

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