Each year as Valentine's Day edges closer my brain starts to make little anti-valentines lists. How to continue my own tradition of eye-rolling at February 14th in a humorous and simultaneously uplifting way? Which songs could be compiled together into a playlist to best celebrate romance as it actually is? Agonising, awesome, boring, overrated, solitary, 'melt'-inducing, shouty? In previous years I've spoken about the time I went to an alternative Valentine's short film screening with my Mum (in which one of the films turned its attention to incestuous romance) and the inappropriate homemade cards I sent in the internal Valentines postbox in Year 11.
This year I want to write about what romance is to me. Because I'm not anti-Valentine's, and I'm certainly not anti-relationship, but I'm in favour of a Valentine's that celebrates the breadth of romance; the romance that ranges from belly-flutters that you share with people you fancy, to the romance of friendship, and perhaps most importantly (because it's the sort that gets overlooked a lot); the romance of solitude.
This year I'm thinking about sending my 13 year old sister a Valentine's card, because it would be a nice thing to do. But a part of me also wants to write a message in there, that accidentally overdoses on earnestness by telling her "Hey, please ignore this card! I'm telling you that I love you but don't think that if I didn't send it you would be any less loved. Equally, don't let this legitimise you in the eyes of your 13 year old girlfriends, because St Valentine's...whatever" But I also realise this would be sort of like placing a sack of coal under the Christmas tree to warn youngsters of future disappointment and the commercialisation of December. Sometimes you just have to play along.
So once again, I will play along with Valentine's Day, just on my own terms, and that is by writing a lengthly post about romance and what it means to me. I am somebody who is always, mostly single. And because I've always enjoyed my own company, being single is generally my preferred default setting. I often fancy about six people at a time; maybe a bartender or an acquaintance or Cillian Murphy in Broken. Sometimes, like many people I go to bed at night and think, "It would be nice if there was somebody here to lie next to and give a dead arm in the small hours" But mostly I'm really happy to do my own thing. I love getting up on a Saturday morning before anyone else and eating scrambled eggs and hot sauce and reading the papers. I like being able to walk past the cinema on the way back home from work and decide to duck in and watch a film. I enjoy getting into my pyjamas early and reading in bed until I fancy turning the light off.
Last year I read this 'Ask Polly' column which now permanently inhabits a small corner of my brain because it celebrates all of the things that are really great about being single; it celebrates the romance of being alone. Sometimes being alone is crap; but that's the same whether or not you're in a relationship. But being alone and relishing it is one of life's greatest gifts. I loved Polly's response to a perpetual singleton:
"When you're older, you look back on the most "romantic" times in your life—falling in love with this or that dipshit—and they don't seem that romantic at all. But the times when you were single? Those were the truly romantic times! Not when you flirted with this or that stranger or put something in your mouth that didn't belong there. No. When you painted the dining room in your rented apartment that excellent turquoise shade, or when you spent all weekend reading Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose just because you felt like it, or when you threw a dinner party and invited 10 people who didn't know each other and made lasagna that was delicious and everyone got drunk and played the version of Celebrity where you use less and less words, and your friend Steve pantomiming Dodi Fayed has been emblazoned on your brain ever since."
In honour of February the 14th I want to honour romance in all guises, from the platonic to the sexy with some of my own recent memories, interspersed with the songs that celebrate the Great Variety:
1. My first ever backie from a boy. Diwali, November 2010.
My first ever backie, at the late age of nineteen. It's nighttime and I'm whizzing down the Curry Mile in Manchester, nipping in and out of cars, past the woman who plays the accordion, the smell of charcoal grills smacking me in the face and I'm thinking "Jesus, this is fun" which was just as well because I was also considering "I could die any minute now." I'm sitting on the bike seat, holding onto his hips as he peddles, suspended in mid-air. I'm wearing a leather skirt which has riden up around my waist, and I keep sliding off the seat and I know that the drivers behind have a pretty good view of my tights-as-trousers look but it's exhilarating and I'm in my first year of university and the boy I fancy is giving me a backie and we're on our way to meet new friends at the Diwali celebrations in Platt Fields Park.
At the end of the month me and this guy will start going out and there will be a few more nice romantic moments but mostly it will be four months of moody passive-aggressive silences over breakfast and an uncomfortable meeting of his parents. The backie down The Curry Mile will remain in my memory as the lovely pre-cursor to it all, at a time when the newness of university, the city and the beginnings of friendships was at the centre of everything.
2. A lazy solo Saturday, Autumn 2012.
I'm now in my third year of university. It's a Saturday night and I've just finished dinner at my friends' flat above a bar in Withington, Manchester. The amount of meals we've cooked together have mostly merged together; this could have been any number of things, maybe a sweet potato curry or a mean chicken pie eaten at the big wooden table which has Queens Park Rangers carved into it by a previous tenant. There is talk of going to the pub but I feel like heading home to watch a film. I pass the cornershop to buy an incredibly indulgent tub of ice cream. I bump into Jim and his really good looking friend who has just moved here from Australia and decline their offer to join them at the pub. I pile into bed, crack open the tub, watch The Last Days of Disco, love it to the core and spend the rest of the week listening to Dolce Vita by Ryan Paris.
Are my 'romantic moments' the ones that involve me enjoying an easy view from the backseat while somebody else drives? Either way, I'm in the backseat. Driving along Route 1 in California. There are jumpers and pillows in the footwells and a pile of sweating avocados and strawberries and Sierra Nevada and Hoegaarden which we picked up on a bountiful pit-stop. Whilst there we shared a crab sandwich and oysters and tried samples of herb-infused honeys; as ever it all about the food. So it's me in the back of a teal Toyota named 'Shandy', with a hulk of gourmet aphrodisiacs at my side. Jim is driving, Charlie has her feet up on the dashboard. It goes without saying that windows are down, hair is flying, the Pacific is right there, look at it and we're alternating between Burt Bacharach, The Velvet Underground and Black Moon. I am a smug person personified, in love with my friends and the view, with my cynicism waiting for me back in England. We camp the night in Pfeiffer National Park and the next day we take acid (my first time) and hang out, playing in the meadows and running on the beach (and I shit you not, playing Pink Floyd from a set of speakers attached to a rucksack- who do we think we are?) We wade through shallow streams feeling hazy and Charlie keeps wanting to stop to rub the sand out of her toes. Occasionally we return to reality, bumping into All-American families on the trails and getting the giggles when we meet their silent expressions, knowing what we must look like to them. I've fashioned a pair of bunny ears out of a wire headband.
4. The Lady With The Braid by Dory Previn.
Oh, this song, everything about this song. Dory Previn invites her manfriend to stay the night; no, pressure, but it's a long drive and you should stay, and oh, by the way, I papered that wall myself. And I sleep with the window open, is that okay? This is my kind of love song.
5. Being told something nice by somebody who meant it. April 2013.
The steaks we ordered were disappointing but the rest of the evening with my Dad was brilliant; one of those nights we have once a year when we both drink lots of wine and have fulfilling conversation and tell each other dark jokes which toe the line and then sprint beyond it and my cheeks feel nice and hot by the end of the night. My Dad pays the bill and heads back to his hotel and with the right amount of wine in my belly I decide to join two of my guy friends in town; we go to see Mr Scruff at Band on the Wall and we dance and dance and dance. I'm still wearing the same clothes I've been wearing all day, sweat rings appearing on cotton, but it's okay. The crowd at Band on The Wall is always good; a mix of students and flashes of wedding rings; couples who have paid for a babysitter and are having a bloody good time together. Nobody is looking around to pounce on a potential stranger, we're all just dancing and doing our own thing. My two friends are perfect dancing companions; our rounds consist of sharing one can of beer between us at a time. Later on, the right one leans over, somewhat intoxicated but not too much, and tells me how sexy I look. It's not sleazy, he's just telling me how sexy I look dancing; and do you know how good that feels? To be told that you look nice when you're completely in your element and not thinking about looking attractive? I do now, and those few words were all it took to undo the hangups and damage done by the passive aggressive breakfasts that summarised my only real relationship. We continued dancing, to this among other things:
6. Dancing in my living room, last week.
My housemates are all out. Working in bars and restaurants on a Saturday night, schedules stubbornly clashing with my 9-5. I'm cooking, slicing piles amounts of red cabbage, sloshing them with vinegar. Steamy broccoli fried with garlic is cooling on the side. Bulk lunchbox preparation for my meals in the week ahead. I'm working my way through the Arcade Fire back catalogue and throw myself into dancing enthusiastic and alone in the living room, turning the music up louder like a teenager but without parents to shout from the other room. Maybe dancing without any care (even the concern that someone might actually walk in at any moment) is better after last April. I get particularly sweaty and head-bangy to Empty Room, consider it an anthem to fine, fine, solitude and then wonder if I could just dance like this 5x a week to hit my exercise quota.