Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Saddest Valentine

Don't worry. I am so rarely dating anyone on Valentine's Day that it's not really a holiday I dwell upon. I think there may have been a total of five V-Days upon which I was hooked up. I'm pretty sure at least two of them didn't believe in the holiday. At the time, I pretended not care about it either, but, here's a tip, men, women would have to be pretty impervious to the insidious nature of our culture not to care at all about Valentine's Day. If you're lucky enough to have a woman in your life today, be nice to her, even if she says she doesn't care about the Hallmark Holiday.


On one particular Valentine's Day, I was hooked up. I was dating a guy who was completely out of character for me. Some of you remember this time in my life. He was categorically good-looking, not cute-in-an-unconventional-way, like most of my dates. He also had muscles, which was weird for me, because they reminded me of nothing so much breasts. Curvy breasts, growing out of his arms. Breasts on his chest. Funny how the manliest man I ever dated always made me think of breasts when he took off his shirt.

The One With All the N's just got excited because she will use this as proof that I am a lesbian.

"Manly" and I met through the print-media personals ads. I was ahead of my time. Internet dating before we used the Internet to do it. He charmed me first with his voice on the telephone, deep and soft, like a plush carpet. He had a self-depreciating sense of humor, and a charming smile. Some things about him when we first met struck me as unusual especially since I'm such a pinko Commie liberal. He described himself as politically indifferent. He didn't even vote in every election. (What? They let you vote and you didn't line up to exercise your power? I don't understand.) He also served in the Army Reserves. Not a big deal, he said. Every month he would have one weekend when he would be unavailable for dates. That part actually sounded OK. I like my space. I just thought he would disapprove of my pacifist upbringing. And, let's be honest, I sort of wanted to convert him to the Way of Peace. I definitely wanted to make sure he voted in every election (even though it was likely that we wouldn't be voting for the same candidates).

Despite these differences we got along unusually well. Manly was very into nature, and he taught me the difference between white oaks and red ones. On one of our first dates, we sat on a blanket and watched a meteor shower overhead. He lived in a cabin on Medicine Lake and he would get up early in the morning to start my car when I had to drive back to Minneapolis for work. I secretly enjoyed being taken care of. Some feminist I turned out to be.

It all changed when, in January of 2003, after we'd been together for three months, he got word that his reserve unit was activated and called to serve in Iraq. The seriousness of the situation added some seriousness to our relationship that we wouldn't have given it otherwise. What was I going to do? Dump him because he was going to war? Unthinkable. Marry him before he left? Equally so. Instead, I just held onto him a little bit tighter, trying to enjoy the time before he left as much as I could. He told me that he put my name on a list. It was the list of people to call if something happened to him. It was at once flattering and horrifying. Of course, I belonged on the list, but there was no way I belonged on such a list. We only knew each other for three months, and my name was on the same list as the names of other men's wives and mothers. It was spelled wrong (Alia), but it was on the list.

The day he left was February 14, 2003. We got up early, in his little cabin, which was packed up and ready for him to leave. He put on his uniform, and I drove him to his base. We stopped to get gas, and he cursed that the guy behind the counter didn't volunteer to give him a discount for being in uniform, for leaving me for war. I didn't cry when he left my car. I didn't cry when I returned home. I composed a letter, in my little apartment, telling him that I loved him and telling him that I would wait for him. Such things probably shouldn't come up for the first time in a letter, but we had too little time in person to say them out loud.

That afternoon, I drove to Fort Snelling, where I was allowed to drive past the guards because my name was on that dreadful list. I boarded a coach bus full of wives and mothers and children and American flag t-shirts and red, white, and blue earrings. We drove to the hangar where our friends and boyfriends and husbands and fathers and wives and mothers waited for us in uniform. I was afraid. Afraid that I would be spotted as a fraud ("Where is your flag?"). Afraid that I wouldn't recognize him in his uniform when he was surrounded by other men in uniform. Afraid that he would not want me to hand him a letter that said "I love you", right before he went to war. Afraid that he wouldn't want to say it back.

The army gave me a red carnation. The army gave me a flower. I clutched it tightly as if it could help me recognize Manly in the sea of uniformity.

I did recognize him. Even though I had seen him hours before, I already missed him. I already felt like he was a stranger. He had to prompt me to hold his warm, dry hand in my clammy one, as we listened to speeches sending our lovers off to war. "Are we glad to be here?" said the chaplain. I half-expected a patriotic yes from the crowd. "No," whispered the pacifist. "No," came the thunderous response of the crowd of flag-waving family members.

I gave him the flower and the letter. We kissed, even though we both felt awkward doing it in public. He held the letter up, and then he was gone, and I was back on the bus full of quiet, grieving strangers.

I got home to a giant bouquet of flowers and a note, with the kind of things that it's better to say for the first time in person, but we never had time.

That day was sad. The next day I marched to protest the war with hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and I felt all alone, because I had been in a much different crowd the day before. The following day was my first day of student teaching. Those three days were almost the hardest of my life. So was every day after his unit left training and actually went to war, and I had to hear about dead soldiers on the news. The day the phone rang and it was for "Alia" was the most terrible day of all, even though the news that prompted the call was not tragic. I hear they come in person for the truly tragic news.

We survived the six months he was gone. We did not survive his return. In the end, we were too different, and the "I love you's" felt more real on paper.

In the context of all of that, it's so much easier to be alone on Valentine's Day. Don't you think?


Lisa said...

Oh, Alex. This really made me ache.

Alex said...

Yeah. I was awash in self-pity on Saturday, and I wrote like someone feeling Very Very Sorry For Herself. I'm better, now, but why, I ask you, do we even need such a holiday? Isn't every day a holiday when you're in love?

Jill said...

Yes, it is. That's a great way to put it.