Valentine’s Day in high school usually meant a pile of yellow slips stacked on the teachers’ desks, messages from the front office to various students notifying them of something needing pickup. By lunch, the front office looked like an abbreviated flower shop with roses, teddy bears, hearts and candies. Some were sent by family members, usually a parent praising their child for one thing or another. Probably most of them were sent by a romantic partner or, in a certain case two, expressing amour in one of the textbook ways we learned from fantasy romance. A few were likely sent by a sympathetic someone who just didn’t want their kid left out.

My friends and I, along with every other person not in a relationship, celebrated it as a “Singles Awareness Day” though we didn’t call it that. Jealousy reigned over us. Those Valentine gifts were an outward sign that someone else valued those folks and not us. Sure, anyone can “value themselves,” and some people need only that validation to walk on through a throng toting bouquets and oversized stuffed animals without feeling the pang of disappointment. Due to a flaw of personal integrity, I was not one of them.

As soon as the Valentine paraphernalia showed up in the local grocery store, I’d start daydreaming of what it might be like to receive something. I knew flowers were expensive and didn’t last, and though I thought of it as a beautiful gift, I convinced myself that it was impractical and therefore pointless to desire. A pocket sized Teddy bear seemed more convenient and affordable. Maybe I’d receive one of those. I’d pick it up from the office with my little summons slip and carry it around for a class or two until I had no more excuses to avoid my locker.

Senior year, Alice Gerkin did that with a two dozen rose bouquet. I got to lean over so far I nearly fell out of my seat in an effort to see around the damn thing until Mister Benson asked her to put it in the back of the room. She looked a touch smug as she paraded it in its fancy crystal vase straight down the center aisle the whole length of the room. Normally one who sat in the back row, we all knew this was deliberate. Rumor circulated it came from her boyfriend, a freshman at St. Cloud State who graduated the year ahead of us and all indications supported this. I remembered despising Alice for her arrogance and envying the fact that, despite her being smug, whiney and slightly dog-faced, someone loved her enough to purchase that monstrosity so she could show it off. For nearly half the day, she toted that thing around like a 40 pound baby on her hip before the principal made her leave it in the office since there was no reasonable way it would fit into a locker.

On my way out of the building at the end of that day, she cut me off coming out of the office with it balanced on her hip again and her two friends flanking her. I overheard her comment that Mike, her boyfriend, was too dense when it came to romantic things. She had to tell him what to get her for Valentine’s Day, but she would keep him because he did exactly what she told him to do.

They got married a month after she graduated and rode off into the sunset. Not sure how life went for them after that, I don’t care to know because I can guess.

Alice, by default or design, was ignorant of something I learned over years of being alone and watching stories like hers unfold. Though I understood the concept, even practiced it from time to time, it took a little reminder to summon it from the depth of my demented brain.

The other day, I was driving home and doing what I do every year around this time, daydreaming of a Valentine’s Day surprise. However, Buck is an unconventional guy and is more likely to go against convention than run with it. Just because everyone else is going out and buying stuff for their significant other doesn’t mean he will. Truth is, in his mind, Valentine’s Day is just another day of the week. So, I knew not to expect anything special this coming Sunday.

Then, when I came up the hill and saw the plume of smoke trailing out of the chimney, I realized my own shortsightedness.

Buck is like a gas-powered engine on a hot summer day. He can wake up ten minutes before he has to leave for work and he often does. Starting a fire in the furnace takes between one to three minutes depending on the age of the wood and whether or not the kerosene supply has run out. Doesn’t seem like much, but considering he often gets up early to do this, he deserves more credit than I’d given him that morning. Buck knows I hate being cold, and that I’m perfectly capable of building a fire myself, but he takes the time to build a fire so I get the luxury of coming home to a cosey, warm house after a long night at work.

It’s little things like that, sprinkled throughout the year that I’d been overlooking. Too often, people grow to take these little tokens of consideration for granted. With loved ones, especially significant others, we sometimes let the conventional norms creep into our expectations of how someone demonstrates affection. We think we have to get flowers, a gigantic engagement ring or some grand romantic gesture in order to know we are loved because this is what the romance genre is all about. In reality, the language of romance varies from person to person. The gesture doesn’t always have to be grandiose

I’d give two dollars to know what Alice thought of the movie Hitch with Will Smith. It’s still one of my favorite romantic comedies, partially because of its message that each lover is unique not just in who they are attracted to, but also what endears them to their match. It strikes a blow against the expectations placed on romantic relationships by overblown fiction. The fundamental truth in that story is that every person has their own operator’s manual. Being in a relationship with them means learning that manual and following it. 

However, that doesn’t mean that missing the minutiae of your lover’s hints destroys your relationship. That’s the other extreme. The point is to appreciate people you love year-round, not just on Valentine’s Day or other special days. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, let alone the next holiday.

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