This is our truth, tell us yours
I have a jaundiced view of Valentine’sDay. The first girl in our school to get a Valentine’s card was also the girl who marked her 14th birthday party by announcing that she was pregnant. Being boy and girlfriend too soon was indelibly associated, in my head, with adult life intruding too soon.
As a bisexual slut Valentine’s Day provided all too many opportunities for hypocrisy, by me and others. Yes, dear reader, I have had sex with a man who, before leaving, told me he had to remember to get a Valentine’s card for his wife, and did I know of anywhere local that stocked them? Obviously, since I’d picked him up in a cottage adjacent to a Newcastle park less than two hours previously, I wasn’t expecting a card myself, but he could at least have asked for my phone number. Such moments are never enlightening, although he was a decent fuck. And I have not been immune to the game myself. A friend who owned a greeting card shop used to mock the men who would buy two Valentine’s cards in one visit as braggarts or deceivers; she took her husband’s card out of the left over shop stock and bought one for me in WH Smiths. I bought her some earrings to avoid the risk that a card might be discovered, or, more likely, dumped in a litterbin somewhere between the restaurant where we lunched and the marital home.
If I sound jaundiced and cynical, maybe even a bit battle hardened, that’s no surprise. However, it’s not the whole story. Jem wrote brilliantly yesterday about our kind of relationship, in a way whch made me smile a happy, uncomplicated smile.Valentine’s Day is entirely the right day to focus on the traps, the trip hazards and the inertia imposed by the relationship escalator.
It’s also a good day to talk about love. Here’s a really good rule for life. If you have to tell someone you love them, especially if that involves a card or a message, a song or a gift of a small cuddly toy, you’re doing it wrong. If you only know someone loves you, because they tell you, you need to think again about what love is. To paraphrase the philosophical genus that is Ronan Keating*, if love is a rollercoaster you shouldn’t need to be told you’re on it.
Love is a way of behaving, not a set of phrases or a bear with a heart stitched to it. Regulr readers will know what’s coming next – a quote from Eric Fromm. “Love requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.”
When I first lived in London you could still see the old hands practicing the Find the Lady game in the streets of Soho, collecting their drinking money by relieving tourists of both their money and their innocence. I avoided the mistake of being roped in by the classic shill/ mark switch (good Find the Lady teams sometimes set the mark up by persuading them they’re being recruited to help shill someone else, who is in fact a shill themselves…) but on the occasions I saw them I always wondered at the way in which marks so often believed they could beat the game, that their knowledge that it was potentially a scam would let them beat the dealer. They usually departed poorer, and sometimes wiser, although the persistence of scams like Find the Lady suggests that some punters never learn.
Vaelntine’s Day can be like a game of Find the Lady, where the apparent performance is never quite what it seems. It’s a ritual of signals and exchanges, whose meaning is better understood in terms of what happens if one player doesn’t perform the ritual, or by the layersof meaning that might lie behind the performance of the ritual. The married man I fucked who wouldn’t have dreamed of buying me a card? He could not buy a card for a man, even one he desired, in case it suggested that he was interested in an emotional relationship, rather than just being fucked. Like many men who are bi in practice, he could not picture himself saying kind words to another man for fear it would be an admission that he was queer.
If the card shop lady I referred to earlier hadn’t sent her husband a card, even one from the remainder pile in the shop, she would have been confirming what he already suspected, that their relationship was dead, at a time when it suited her for him to think otherwise. By buying me a card, and telling me about the effort she had made, the cardshop lady was telling me that she thought we had a relationship that wasn’t like the one she had with her husband. And did I have the wisdom to stop and wonder, at that moment, if I was the shill or the mark?
Of course not.
The trap the mark falls into, in the classic game of Find the Lady, is believing that it’s a game that can be won, in which you can read the play and counteract it. Commercialized romantic love is like a game of Find the Lady; there is no alternative ending in which you can win the game and scoop the prize. The only way of walking home feeling better about yourself is not to play, but to try instead to be a person who loves, and allows others to experience their love as part of their lives.
*Yes, I know Rollercoaster was written by the guys from the New Radicals, not Ronan, but the sentence didn’t come out that way.