It was our first Valentine’s Day. We had met the spring before, at a contra dance, but we lived four hours apart. The day we met, I hadn’t thought we were possible, mostly because dating him would break two of my rules—Don’t date anyone long-distance and Don’t date contra dancers (both written after being burned, although I had to get burned a few times with the second rule before I decided to stop playing with the but-he’s-so-cute fire). Plus, at the end of the day we met, after we had spent a good deal of time talking, he had waved and smiled at me as he drove off in his truck, and I had thought, “No one can be that nice. I wonder what’s wrong with him.”
But, of course, there was nothing wrong with him. I was the fraidy cat. I was the one who wanted to find something wrong with him as an excuse not to get involved. Eventually, I became ready for a relationship with him. I got over my fears, we talked, we met up at dances, and eventually we became a thing—a really great thing, I might add.
And then it was February. By that point, though we were not engaged, we had already started looking for rings. What would he get for me on Valentine’s Day to show his love?
Here is how I had spent the Valentine’s Day the year before: At Elmo’s Diner in Durham, eating dinner in a booth with three friends in the most unromantic, but lively, setting. We probably talked about love, but I remember mostly talking about careers, and my particular state of affairs: being unemployed. I was telling my friends that I had been applying for jobs but had yet to land any interviews, and I was puzzled as to why because I was perfectly qualified for these jobs. My friend Mark looked at me and said, “Maybe you’re not ready to go back to work.” After all, I had been in my most recent job for eight years, and I was burned out and needing a break. Still, Mark’s comment startled me: it hadn’t occurred to me that life was bringing me exactly what I needed when I was ready for it, going at my pace, whether I realized it or not.
I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day, but I have also felt that it is one of those pressure-filled holidays, like New Year’s Eve, where you are supposed to be doing something terribly fun and romantic. If you’re a woman, you’re supposed to be dressed up in a little black dress that shows off your best features and hides your worst, the lights should be low but somehow glittery, your teeth should sparkle white, and your hair should look smooth and cascading. (Which, let’s face it, mine never does, even when it’s not a humid day.) You should be laughing in all the photographs, evidence that you are having the time of your life.
And so, back to where we started: it was Valentine’s Day, my first with this particular boyfriend who verged on becoming a fiancé. We decided, instead of one of us driving to see the other, we would meet somewhere halfway and stay at a hotel. That place became Hickory, North Carolina. We didn’t go dancing or dress up, and we didn’t have a lavish dinner. We ate at a Ruby Tuesday’s, and I got the salad bar and he got turkey minis (sliders), and we were happy to be sitting across from each other, without four hours and a state line between us. Although he didn’t want to swim, he knew I did and had picked our hotel precisely because it had a pool, and he sat on the pool’s edge and kept me company while I splashed around.
When it was time to exchange gifts, he chose the most romantic of spots: out in the hotel parking lot.
Drum roll, please.
For our first Valentine’s Day, he gave me—not a bouquet of flowers, not a ring but..... a crock pot.
Here’s the part in the story where I’m supposed to feel all deflated because the man didn’t buy me roses or candy. I’m supposed to cry or stomp my foot in anger or wonder whether this man really cares about me. But here is what happened: I loved that crock pot. I must have let out a whoop or thrown my arms around him (after putting down the crock pot) because I had been wanting a crock pot for a long time, and I must have mentioned that to him sometime in the months preceding that day, and he must have remembered.
I think back on all the romantic notions I had about love when I was young, all the gifts I was given that were more “romantic”—a diamond pendant, a bracelet of gemstones—when I was ready to be swept off my feet, when I believed love meant big gestures, when love was a dazzling sort of thing.
We’ve had that crock pot for years now. It makes a ticking sound when it’s been on all day, and that tells me it’s still working. It doesn’t make anything fancy or delicate, but I know I can count on it for the kind of one-dish meal I like best, and I’ve filled it with chicken curry, black bean chili, and turkey sloppy joes. I am prone to neglect and forgetfulness, and more than once I have left something on the stove and filled the rooms with smoke and haze. But when I use the crock pot, it compensates for my failures, or at least ameliorates the outcomes. I know I can depend on it, that it won’t burn down our home.