My desperation for love starts every year like a sudden fever in the middle of January.
It’s there, amid the cold, gray days and long, dark nights that I feel most alone and more alive than any other time of the year.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed in the power of Valentine’s Day. Share Feb. 14 with someone special, and that person will have a significant impact on your love life in the year to come.
I’m not sure how I came up with that cursed tradition since I have never been in a relationship during the month of love. Perhaps that’s why I’ve wanted it so badly.
Maybe the fires of my unrealistic expectations have been stoked by shows like One Tree Hill, the CW drama filled with enough riotous teen angst and confetti-laden kissing scenes to make anyone believe they could meet their one true love at any moment. Or maybe it’s because at least once a year I pore over Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love only to rediscover that I, too, have the uncanny ability to fall helplessly in love with the mere possibility of a man.
It’s in that possibility — the thought that maybe this is the one I’ve been looking for my whole life — that I am utterly and completely wrecked.
For weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, I would try nosediving into a relationship in the most unflattering ways.
I’d put Taylor Swift playlists on shuffle and pretend my speakers were a Magic 8 Ball, asking questions like, “What will my next boyfriend be like?” before going to the next song (despite 98 percent of her tracks being impossibly catchy tunes about getting your heart crushed).
I’d send a flurry of messages to men online, always complimenting their eyes first and asses second (because I wanted them to know I was a good Christian woman who could also be an incredible lover if you take the time to sweep me off my feet).
And eventually when none of that paid off, I’d find myself sitting at home on Valentine’s Day trying not to weep over a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream while watching A Walk to Remember (because nothing says “I love you” like getting married in the face of a terminal illness).
But a few years ago, I tired of the idea that I needed to be with someone on Valentine’s Day. The holiday fell miserably on a Monday, and I was determined not to sit at home in silence while the rest of the world basked in the glow of coupledom.
My friends had been spouting endlessly about self-love being the greatest kind of love you could give and receive. So I doubled down on that idea with the hopes that I’d come out on the other side a little brighter and more enlightened.
I went to Barnes & Noble, bought a red and romantic iced raspberry white mocha and browsed the shelves until I discovered David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, a pocketbook novel in which microscopic moments of love unfold in alphabetical order.
Then I took my book to Red Lobster (because it is a simple place to celebrate most any occasion) figuring I’d find fewer couples out on romantic dinner dates at the low-key venue (I was wrong).
As I stood in line for a table, couples lingered in the lobby, holding hands, bent over in laughter. When it was my turn, the host asked if I needed a table for two. When I told him I was, in fact, by myself, he gave me a raised-brow look as if to say, You don’t belong here.
I let it slide as he escorted me past the lobster tank to my booth in the far back of the restaurant. All I wanted was to eat my fill of Cheddar Bay biscuits and read my novel in peace. I wanted to not think about eating alone and feel confident being by myself.
As tables around me filled up, I’d occasionally put down the book and study the laughing, bright faces of couples in love, when a black, middle-aged couple sitting directly across from me caught my attention.
He wore a black fedora and a matching suit jacket. She had on a silver-sequined dress that shined with even the slightest movement. They held hands throughout the entire meal, never letting go of one another even as they lifted their forks.
For some reason, they felt different than the others. She rarely took her eyes off him. Her face was effervescent with joy.
I wondered how long they’d been together, if they had children or if perhaps they were newly in love, not yet jaded by the complicated mess of emotions that so easily wear down relationships. I imagined they were always this happy, even when they fought.
Their joy was so blinding I almost didn’t notice when the man suddenly stood up, bowed on one knee and pulled a small jewelry box out of his right pocket.
They were only just beginning, and yet it seemed they had as much happiness behind them as they did before them. When she said yes and other tables joined in applause, I just sat there, twirling my half-eaten shrimp pasta with a fork.
I flagged down my waiter. I didn’t expect The Lover’s Dictionary to cover such situations, so I ordered two desserts — a fudge brownie smothered in vanilla ice cream and a slice of New York-style cheesecake — and they gave me hope.