It is possible that I have never given a Valentine’s Day gift before. If it makes everyone feel better, I can’t recall having received one, either. I’m sure I did because I would have expressly indicated in my durable power of attorney to have “Obviously the biggest loser and not in the reality TV show way” carved into my headstone when the time is right. But all I can find is a notation about bequeathing my credit card points to a guy who routinely gave me his seat on the bus when I was pregnant.
Because my memory cannot attest to the contrary, I’m attacking this Valentine’s Day from the woefully uninformed place of having never bought or received a Valentine’s Day gift. As I do whenever I am feeling lost and confused about something, I take to the Internet for answers — or I eat all the dry goods in my cabinet. I began with Google for gift ideas, which generated suggestions that included watches and ties and monograms for things you never imagined monogramming. Next, I stumbled to Pinterest, where I tapped out the words “Unique Valentine’s Day Ideas.” The word “unique” was a curious qualifier to include for someone who believes they somehow have neglected even the most typical of ideas, but typing in “Tedious and Run of the Mill Valentine’s Day Ideas” seemed somehow off-point.
What I found on Pinterest was not inspiration but proof women really do not understand men. I belong in the camp of women who do not understand men, but I mean that with regard to their modalities for using a toilet or the way they can spend an entire day with a friend and still be unable to answer the question, “Does Doug like his new job?” What I do know about men — whether fathers, grandfathers or bachelors — is that no man has ever wanted a gift in a mason jar, unless it’s Tom Brady’s throwing hand. They also don’t want boudoir photos of you because you are still the woman with chronic fatigue and nighttime headaches. They don’t have a capacity for love-soaked wordplays on the names of candies and nuts; they are just going to eat those things, not display them on their desk. Above all, they are not going to participate in one of those scavenger hunts of love, floating on air between one clue to the next. If they were any good at those feats of navigation, we wouldn’t always need to be getting out of the car to ask a gas station attendant how to get somewhere.
I closed my laptop feeling self-righteous about my findings and smug over the obvious theory that men don’t really want gifts to acknowledge Valentine’s Day. Instead, they want the things they’re denied most of the other days. Then it dawned on me that I’m in a new relationship. While those things may hold true for the men I’ve known, what if they aren’t so self-evident now? Perhaps he is expecting a material expression of my affection, like a kitten holding a whoopie pie.
I called my mom for the advice of a woman who has been married for a long time — and to the same person, no less. She snorted in response to the subject and asked if I remembered the last time I’d been home for Valentine’s Day. It was a couple of years ago. I had fled home to Arizona, kids in tow, to sort out my feelings about my impending divorce. My mom booked a babysitter for the afternoon so we could have a little space from the kids to talk. On our way home, she asked me to pull into the Safeway so she could grab an item for dinner. This particular Safeway, while familiar to me only as the grocery store closest to my parent’s home, has national infamy as the grocery store where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a fanatic. As a result, it’s impossible to walk through the sliding doors without your senses leaping to attention and wondering whether it might be smarter to get ravioli from a different store.
On this particular day, the store was pulsating with people, all united in the common purpose of purchasing something red and heart shaped to prove to their loved ones they hadn’t forgotten Valentine’s Day. My mom and I broke through the knots of people in line so we could press on to the produce section. All around us, men were jockeying for access to the best of the limp roses and pushing past each other to get to the last bottles standing on the champagne shelf. It felt less like arriving to a store on a holiday and more like looting a store in the midst of riots. My mother, exasperated by the crowds, threw up her hands and said much too loudly, “Look at all these pathetic men, buying these pitiful things at the last hour from the grocery store. As though their wives won’t be able to tell.”
We were passing the greeting card aisle at the very moment she concluded her diatribe, and there, thumbing through the strewn remains, was my father.
We locked gazes at the same instant: three pairs of eyes registering the familial bonds between us and the comedy of circumstances that had brought us to that Safeway, to that card aisle, at that time. We exploded into laughter — well, mostly my mom and I did while my dad kicked at an imaginary scuff on the linoleum floor with a sheepish shadow over his face. Through her spasms of laughter, my mom sidled up to my dad for a hug, right there in the aisle, as I looked on, understanding this to be the sort of stuff that might break other couples. But it’s exactly what keeps my parents together.
My mom broke their embrace, tears of laughter still clinging to her eyelids. She rejoined me, but not before tossing over her shoulder at my dad, “Don’t even bother now!”
I think I’ll take the same advice.