We are fast approaching yet another Valentine’s Day and the endless stream of invectives that seem to follow it like sea gulls after garbage trucks, and the taunts of “Hallmark holiday,” the spate of date-night flicks with which to fill that frosty February evening and the songs that invariably get trotted out to illustrate one’s undying devotion to another, and the melodrama and hyperventilation it all seems to conjure. To them I say, go for it.

I actually don’t have a big problem with Valentine’s Day. Sure, it has less to do with making love than it does making money, but that’s every holiday, be it ancient or recent. Besides, it’s a harmless diversion from the fact that we really don’t know a damned thing about love. At the sound of the word, the mind kicks off a short list of nouns that seem to be connected: roses, champagne, pink greeting cards, nasty little chalky candies with frisky sentiments on them. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, except perhaps the candies which would be better used to plug holes in your drywall. The reality of love tends to be a whole lot less floral, and it is that divide that I believe causes so many relationships to wither away.

Love is, in fact, shit, piss, and pus. It is being up to one’s elbows in it, alongside blood and phlegm and that inner-you is screaming and cursing in your head, telling you to run, to get out before you start gagging. You don’t want to be there, but you will stay. It’s beyond compulsion, it’s nowhere near obligation. It’s also something few think about in the middle of romantic reverie.

Love is the older couple at the doctor’s office who receive the bad news. The husband looks into his wife’s eyes, asks “Will you still love me when I’ve forgotten you?” and the answer is communicated in the purest, most non-verbal way imaginable. Love is the mortgage taking a dump, the bills starting to pile up and, in spite of the unavoidable tinge of tension in the air, the resolution that this team of two will remain even after the last lock has been changed. How foreign to believe that’s possible after the financial crisis, after the reports of ascending divorce rates blamed on money woes. Foreign, but not fiction.

I’ve known two couples in my life that couldn’t be more different. Couple number one was faced with the death sentence of cancer. The husband moved a hospital bed into their living room and stayed with his wife, day and night, until the end. He slept in the geri chair provided by hospice, even after its odd design caused his circulation to be adversely affected. At the end of their trial, his feet were like eggplants, ballooned and purple and swollen from retained water. He hadn’t even noticed this happening until after the fact.

Then there was another couple with similar circumstances, only this time the wife was admitted into a hospice program. The husband visited three times a week, and in between those days he hit the bars, hoping to line up a replacement when the inevitable happened. To the last, he would proclaim his love for his wife, and in some twisted way you couldn’t help but believe he was sincere, and he conveyed such a desperation to avoid being alone, but sometimes love is being alone. Sometimes love is about being broken into pieces and staying broken for awhile. Sometimes love requires more from us than what we want for ourselves.

The tired old line is, “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s also explicitly wrong. Love is never being afraid to say you’re sorry, but it’s also about being cognizant enough to try avoiding things one would end up being sorry for. I knew someone who was a bouncer at a strip club once, and he told me that he would physically have to remove a patron a week. It was never the same person but it was the same mania that swept over them. They would somehow gravitate to a dancer, get it in their heads that all it took was a flash of devotion to prove they were “the one” and suddenly lines were being crossed. It didn’t help that they were often drunk as hell, but even so, that wasn’t a good enough excuse. The bouncer told me, “I don’t know what gets in them. They know what this is all about, but then they start going on about this being love and shit. Love has never walked through that door, let me tell you.” He then told me the story of a guy who fell headlong into a crush on one of the dancers, how his wife found out about it but didn’t do anything. He knew that she knew and he told her that he was sorry. That didn’t keep him from going to the strip club, though, and one night she simply packed up and left. For weeks afterward, he wallowed in the misery of what he allowed to be lost, indeed what he threw away. It wasn’t long after that he was back at the club, though, now unshackled by the constraints of his marriage. The new object of his affection was genuinely creeped out by his endless attention and adoration and told the bouncer. He had the guy removed, but the owner of the place was so put off about the prospect of losing a paying customer, he fired both the bouncer and the dancer. He asked me, “Why’d I get fired for doing what I was hired to do?” I didn’t have an answer for that question either.

How much of what we identify as love is really just steroidal infatuation? When Mariah Carey sings about her love that never, ever dies and will always remain, what is the recipe there? How much is the real deal, how much is hormone cocktail, and how much is just an age-old songwriting formula in full flow? When Dido sang “White Flag” did she realize how uncomfortable those lyrics and sentiments were? Did she truly understand them and, consequently, make those imbalanced ideas as much a social experiment as they were music filler? Maybe it was a far more cynical thing and she said to herself, “Well, nobody really pays attention to the lyrics anyhow.” The answer depends, as it always does, on the listener. Some people still view the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” as just an intense, passionate love song, not an ode to stalking. Pop music has come to a crossroad on such things, and many of the current hit tunes aren’t worried to be strictly about the sex and not about relationships. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing, even if a good portion of those songs are merely juvenile fantasies. At least there’s an honesty to be had from a plea (or sometimes an outright demand) for gratification, freed from any pretense of heart’s devotion. Humanity’s artistic pursuits are often as ill conceived as our emotional pursuits.

I have three sets of grandparents (it’s a long story). One was gone before I was born, but the other two lasted forty and sixty years, and my great-grandparents beat that mark blindfolded. I wouldn’t say any of these couples had Shangri-La on Earth, and I most certainly wouldn’t lie to you and say they never fought. At the core of each of these duos was still a sense that, no matter how incensed the one made the other, or embarrassed, or offended, or uncomfortable, there was something of a bond between that was stronger and finer than the obstructions. It could survive the hundredth appearance of the “Pull My Finger” joke, the occurrence of disregarding the other’s directions and winding up lost on an alien highway or just the plain discomfort of proximity everyone occasionally feels in close quarters to another. Love is never being afraid to say back off every once in awhile.

Finally, let’s talk about regret. The person who says they live with no regrets is a person you should never lend money to. I’m just sayin’ that the honest person would never make such an outrageous claim. Every act in a relationship has a side exposed to regret: the thing you should have said when you had the chance, the thing you shouldn’t have said because you knew it was potentially damaging, but you couldn’t resist shooting your mouth off. There are things you shouldn’t have done and there are stands you should have taken, versus being cowed by the possibility of voicing an opposing opinion and winding up being seen as dishonest. These are the avoidable unavoidable, the things we’re doomed to and, thus, things we’re bound to regret. My favorite example comes from the classic Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, when his former underling Mr. Bernstein is interviewed after Kane’s passing. He relates a story of a fleeting glimpse of a woman, how he never got the nerve to approach her, and how every day he regrets having not taken that step. That’s not necessarily love either, but it’s a great story.

I have a moment that I wish I said something but didn’t, but that’s over now. It’s funny. I can speak to you through my column, rambling in my stream-of-consciousness, cracking jokes that may not be particularly funny or, worse, not be particularly appropriate or, even worse than that, not seem like jokes at all, but when it comes time to say that necessary thing, it’s all silence. We know much of regret. We don’t know a thing about love. I don’t know a thing about love.

Dw Dunphy – The Testimony Of Mr. Bernstein (2004)

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