My first Valentine’s Day of any significance happened when I was at primary school. I must have been ten or eleven years old, and was shyly handed an envelope at school, by a boy named Martin, before he dashed off in an embarrassed, awkward hurry.
Back then, I was a very different me to the girl, woman, I am today – this was in the days of bootcut jeans, tracksuit tops and mousy brown hair. Before dark dye, before my daily ritual of false eyelashes and overdrawn lips, and before I’d had my heart bruised and broken by a string of different boys.
Martin was my friend, my messy-haired, blonde, football-mad friend, who lived on the next road over from me. He was also my first kiss. It had been quite romantic, actually, considering we hadn’t even reached our teenage years yet. It was a warm, lazy summer day, and we’d been playing football in the field behind our houses. We started walking back through the long grass, and as the sky mellowed from a cornflower blue to an orange-purple haze, we were laughing, and then we had that ‘moment’. Everyone knows them – those moments where the world stops for a second and WILL THEY WON’T THEY hangs emblazoned in the air above you, like streaks of light from handheld sparklers. He kissed me. I remember feeling like a grown up, like this moment had changed me and everyone who saw me from now on would be able to see all over my face that I HAD DONE IT! I HAD BEEN KISSED BY A BOY!
In the envelope he’d half-thrown at me, was a lilac card with Winnie the Pooh waving to me from the front, ‘Happy Valentine’s Day, from Martin’ scribbled inside. We haven’t spoken in over a decade, as primary school friendships tend to drift apart across oceans of time, but these ‘childhood sweetheart’ memories were among the first that have shaped my experiences with love, lust, romance and Valentine’s Day through the last fifteen years.
Unsurprisingly, given that I was ten (or eleven) years old, I didn’t have another Valentine’s experience until 2009, when I was sixteen. I’d been in deep, teenage infatuation with the school ‘bad boy’. You know the type, the one who always had a packet of cigarettes in his coat pocket. Always playing the martyr, celebrating every time a teacher had had enough and demanded in exasperation that he leave the classroom he was disrupting. In short; an idiot.
He knew I was head over heels, the whole school knew. The world world knew. I spent a small fortune in phone credit, tapping away on my pink Motorola Razr, lapping up every moment he was bored enough to play cat and mouse.
He’d nonchalantly texted, asking if I was free on Valentine’s Day – and I was THRILLED. Finally! He could see how amazing I was! He could see that I was THE ONE!
It turns out, Bad Boy/Idiot lived up to his reputation. After a thoroughly romantic afternoon of wandering around the local shopping centre (truly, the stuff of dreams), he’d turned to me, cupping my face.
THIS IS IT!
He uttered the practically Shakespearean, “Your eyes are really green”, and then kissed me – and I felt wholly euphoric.
The next day, however, Facebook told me that he was now in a relationship with another girl from school. It was Facebook Official and therefore the ‘real deal’. I recounted to one of my best friends, Sara, (who was also a close friend of Bad Boy/Idiot) immediately of what had happened just 24 hours previously. I still remember furiously typing out the entire saga on MSN Messenger and being greeted with her phenomenal response:
“WELL FUCK ME SIDEWAYS AND CALL ME JOSEPHINE”
To add insult to injury, he messaged me later that day simply to declare, “Commiserations.”
365 days after the “Commiserations” incident, I had an entirely more positive Valentine’s. I’d been texting a boy from The Year Above (a major badge of honour for any seventeen-year-old girl) and he’d asked me out (note: a first date on Valentine’s Day is never a good idea. It’s awkward).
I was equal parts flattered and smug – especially when I was able to use ‘Sorry, I have a Date’ to turn down a sort-of-ex who’d tried to weasel last-minute Valentine’s plans. Sorry, tattooed, floppy-haired dreamboat who was a whole two years older than me, who played guitar, and drove a Beetle – I have plans. Plans with the physics and punk-rock loving guy from the Year Above who I met at an A-level psychology seminar. An Intellectual.
The Intellectual and I went to the cinema to see Youth In Revolt, of which I remember absolutely nothing except Michael Cera’s face. I also remember that we strolled through the same shopping centre from the “Commiserations” incident afterwards, openly voicing our disgust at the pink and red displays of helium balloons, roses and glassy-eyed stuffed animals clutching plush hearts with ‘I LUV U’ shamelessly embroidered across them. Ew, love, right?
We couldn’t have been MORE teenage. Two weeks later, we were an item. Facebook Official. And together for the next two and a half years.
The Intellectual gave me three Valentine’s Days. The first was our first date.
The second, was a disaster. We’d agreed to do gifts, the more over the top and cliché the better (admittedly, somewhat of a U-turn from the year before) and I had high hopes. Images danced in my mind of red roses, of jewellery, of chocolates in heart-shaped boxes.
What I received, on the one year anniversary of our first date, on this supposedly ‘over-the-top’ day, from my boyfriend and Valentine… was a keyring. A keyring shaped like an engagement ring, which was hurriedly proclaimed to be a ‘joke’ so that I didn’t take it too literally and screech “I DO” across Prezzo. The second gift was a toast-press, so that I could push hearts into my morning breakfast. No roses. No jewellery. No chocolates.
A keyring and a toast-press.
He did better the following year, sending surprise flowers to my university halls. Not red roses, but I still cried when I picked them up from our on-campus post office. How lucky I was! How special! I felt like the envy of every female fresher.
We split up six months later, but I still smile when I think about those flowers.
The next five Valentine’s are bittersweet to look back on, a flurry of emotions that swirl like the flakes of a snowstorm. After the Intellectual, I met the Sailor. He was both everything I’d ever wanted and everything I should have left well enough alone. He was handsome, charming, ambitious, perfectly balanced with easy dishonesty, long-distance and casually cutting remarks.
I was obsessed.
It was almost like a movie. He would spend a month at sea, sailing the oceans while I thought about him daily, finding comfort in the moon each evening, knowing he was seeing the same one. It made the world seem smaller, and him seem less far away. He’d return, we’d spend a precious, intense few days together and then he’d leave again, and so the cycle continued for years.
For every sadness, there was a romantic gesture.
There was the surprise flowers at the door, only for another girl I’d never heard of to publicly thank him for a Valentine’s gift he’d apparently given her the same day.
There was the thoughtful, handwritten letters and poetry to counteract his responses of “I love you, for now” to my “I will always love you”’s
There was the surprise trip to Rome to balance the news he would be changing his career path and would now be sailing for five months at a time.
There was the room filled with candles, glasses of prosecco and chocolates on the table…. Which eventually wasn’t enough to counteract the long-distance, or his emotional unavailability.
We broke up, and as with every love we lose, my heart felt as though it would never heal.
The first Valentine’s Day after that was…different. I wasn’t in a relationship this time last year, and I remain consciously uncoupled now.
My best friend Emily was in the same situation, having also had to accept her long-term other half was a main character of a story that had finally succumbed to its final page.
We were nursing our broken hearts together, finding comfort in each other and pulling one another out of the slumps that come with losing the person you’d perceived to be your soulmate. With the harsh acceptance that that in fact, was not the case, we decided that we would instead be each other’s Valentine.
We traded gifts, we made a point of wearing red lipstick, and we ate and laughed and cried and drank our way through a romantic meal.
This year I have something wonderfully similar planned – a meal booked with an unattached friend to celebrate one another and remind each other that love does not have to come from a relationship in order for it to be real and meaningful.
Of course, Valentine’s Day is focused on romance and red roses and sex and the smug satisfaction that comes with being an ‘us’.
But each and every Valentine’s Day I’ve experienced has taught me something infinitely valuable;
– Martin taught me that sometimes the smallest kindnesses can be appreciated and remembered fondly fourteen or fifteen years later
– Bad Boy/Idiot taught me that infatuation is not the same as love and cannot be confused as such
– The Intellectual taught me that it really is the thought that counts
– The Sailor taught me that even the grandest, most romantic of gestures cannot be used to gloss over problems. They will remain, and the cracks will deepen regardless of how many stunning photos you take inside Italian churches
But the most important lesson I have learned is not to dismiss the love I’ve been guilty of overlooking, in the quest for romance and roses and kisses in the rain.
The ceaseless love of my family and my friendships (I received three ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ texts today – two from my girls and one from my dad)
The love from my best friends, who I have spent a decade with, always there with a shoulder to cry on or messages of encouragement. The family I chose. The women that I have grown up with.
The love from the co-workers who are SO much more than desk-mates. Throughout my working life, I have felt immeasurable gratitude to be sharing a shop floor or an office with a precious handful of truly remarkable people.
Not only have I been gifted with homemade cookies and personalised chocolates today, but I have also spent the afternoon howling with laughter, tears pouring down my cheeks, feeling a rush of love for the people that I work with that I wouldn’t trade for a thousand candlelit dinners.
At the end of the day, the love that surrounds us may not always be romantic, but it is still deeply valuable, and it’s so important to be appreciative of this type of love – the kind that makes you feel heard, like you matter, like you’re just as special to someone as they are to you. The kind that you can ugly cry in front of, that you can share secrets with, that you can depend on.
I may not be receiving red roses this evening, but I will be clinking glasses with one of my closest friends, and ending the day knowing that I am loved by so many incredible, individual people who all bring something unique and beautiful to my life every single day – even if none of them are the other half of a Facebook Official relationship status.