Before 2017, the last Valentine’s Day I’d spent with a significant other was easily a decade ago. In the years between, Valentine’s Day has passed with little to no fanfare other than a twinge of loneliness. Just as I no longer get embarrassed picking up a pack of condoms or my anti-depressants from the drugstore, I’ve become inured to the existence of Valentine’s Day. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a holiday I feel great about, but there are far worse holidays to deal with as a single person.
Thanksgiving and Christmas sandwich my birthday, and all together, they grab me by the brain and squeeze out all the serotonin. New Year’s Eve is ghastly even if you’re paired up — you can’t even get a cab home until 3 a.m., for chrissake. Comparatively, Valentine’s is a mere nuisance. Halloween has always been a much sexier holiday; there’s something about the just-crispy leaves and swaths of black clothing and sparkly, spooky makeup that leaves me giggling. Plus, the candy is better.
But last year, I spent Valentine’s Day with a man I was just beginning to love, and it awakened a hopefulness inside me I hadn’t felt for years. A week later, he broke things off, dramatically pulling away his tenderness like Lucy and her football. Leaving me wondering why I had ever wanted a Valentine.
I met him one night last January during Sundance. After a particularly harrowing trip up a mountain in a blizzard, I was laying fully clothed in the drafty loft of a condo with a spectacular view. I felt lonely, floundering personally and professionally, and in between scanning Twitter for the latest film reactions, I perused a dating site to see if anyone I recognized was on the prowl. That’s when I noticed someone back in New York had starred my profile—someone I’d somehow overlooked in my bored but constant scouring.
He was a designer whose work was comprised of dizzying swirls and corsets and oversized shapes that mutate the human body into something from outer space—definitely not the kind of person I’d ever run into in my cramped media circles, but I’d sensed he was out there. Maybe I had even seen one of his performances. His slice of nightlife seemed impossibility chic in a gender-bendy way that appealed to me and my Sarah Lawrence leanings.
Very early in our correspondence, I wrote him, trying to sound flip but feeling utterly naked, “I’m just sort of one of those gals who dresses in all black and doesn’t go to a lot of wild parties anymore and enjoys spending time by myself, but I think it’s important for SOs have different interests. So hopefully that isn’t a deal breaker.”
“Not at all, your lifestyle sounds warm and happy,” he replied.
I thought about it. My life did sound nice and happy, come to think of it.
Our messages zipped through the ether, and we moved our conversation to email the next day, which is no small thing in this day and age. We had our first date a few days later on a frigid Sunday night.
I was so nervous beforehand that I had to pop some Klonopin on the way. “Pretty,” he murmured over tea, stroking my forearms. We walked arm-in-arm through the East Village, stopping for wine and a late dinner at a nearly empty Mexican restaurant, where he kissed me awkwardly on the cheek, and then at Ray’s Candy Shop, where he insisted I have a bite of his pistachio ice cream. I asked him if he wanted to come up and meet my cats.
On our second date, which took place later that week, he brought over a drill to hang a long swath of starry-patterned sari material I’d been saving over my bed like a canopy. We slept intertwined beneath the billows of silk, my cats reluctantly accepting this foreigner into their space and settling in on the duvet. We took turns picking movies. I subjected him to Cronenberg’s Crash, and in turn, I sat through Jerry Maguire, which I found embarrassingly moving. Our emails didn’t slow down. We compared natal charts (very favorable!) and sent each other YouTube links of songs. I accidentally trained myself to wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. to check my email, because there would inevitably be something in my inbox from him after he got off work, and I couldn’t resist replying immediately. Why should I pace myself or play timing games when he was setting the course?
I tentatively suggested that maybe just hanging out at my apartment and watching movies and cooking food was, you know, boring—especially for an artist who’d spent so much time in the nightlife spotlight—but he reassured me.
“We’ve gone from zero to sixty years old in like three days and it’s superfantastique,” he wrote.
He felt like human Xanax, so I ignored the sinking feeling that there was no way to keep up this momentum—the fear that we would flare out as quickly as we’d become enmeshed. Two typical Sagittarii crashing into each other briefly like fireworks. I ignored the red flags—a cruel comment made all the more cutting by its rarity and in a voice so soft in timbre, with a slight South California wideness, that made it impossible to sound mean; when I told him I was trying to read mostly female writers that year and he asked why; or past relationship patterns that were faintly damning when I said them aloud.
But Valentine’s Day beckoned, and I was surprised to find that he loved the holiday and wanted to celebrate it. (Now I’m not sure if he was excited to celebrate it with me or just with someone.) It hadn’t even occurred to me at the dawning of the New Year that I might have someone to spend the holiday with; it hadn’t even occurred me to want it, but now that it seemed a possibility, a little green tendril of desire curled out of me and tentatively reached for it.
That Valentine’s night, he was exhausted from an afternoon performance and a full shift at work, but he schlepped all of his drag bags over to my place. I’d asked him a bunch of times if it wasn’t too much trouble for him to do this, but he seemed adamant, which made me feel guilty and awkward and giddy all at once. He still had a wisp of white makeup on his face, which I found endearing. Along with flowers and sweets and all the usual goodies, he gave me an earring he’d fashioned out of the material he used in his designs, painted in his unmistakable style. I felt marked, claimed, dare I say—loved. I later refashioned it into a necklace that prominently featured in Instagram photos when I was hoping to interact with him in any way possible.
In turn, I’d bought him chocolates, a copy of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and a glass pipe decorated in Burtonesque black-and-white swirls. Sometimes I wonder if he still smokes out of it. I really need to stop giving men I am infatuated with copies of that book, as if they’d somehow understand me if they cared to read it.
I asked him why he was so good to me, and he said that he was trying to distract me from realizing he wasn’t good enough for me. I didn’t believe him then.
That night didn’t feel entirely different than our other dates, because every date felt like a little shining gift, like I’d finally found some other kind-hearted being who was searching for the same sense of home and family. It seemed like we were building a reliable coziness together that felt like a life. We watched my favorite movie, Happy-Go-Lucky, and snoozed on my couch until we staggered to bed.
“When are we having sex?” he asked one afternoon, maybe the day after Valentine’s Day. He’d brought it up before, jokingly, knowing it was too soon without me even saying so, but this time he wasn’t entirely joking. Although I’m a hedonist at heart, I’ve never been good at casual sex, and I knew that it would shatter me if we slept together while there was even a chance he was interested in other people. I was already comparing and contrasting my jeans-and-black-shirts self with his glamorous exes, actual showgirls and models and artists with glitter around their eyes and flowers in their hair.
“Monogamy,” I told him. “Profiles down, everything,” I said. He squirmed and protested, and I said, “That’s what I need to feel safe. This isn’t an ultimatum.” I’d prepared beforehand with my therapist.
The last day I saw him, the weather was nice and I put on my Birkenstock clogs to walk him to the subway and get coffee, and he stared at me blankly.
“Are those Crocs?” he asked.
“They’re Birkenstocks!” I was mortified. Was this an unexpected dealbreaker? Would he ever be able to take me out among the club kids and drag queens? There’s a reason why I’m a writer, where I can hide in corners with my digital recorder, a pen, and a notepad. There’s a reason why I became a goth in high school—all the better to hide, my dear.
As we walked down my hallway together for the last time, I reminded him he left my shirt in my bedroom. “I’ll get it next time,” he said, his hands full of bags. “I don’t want another thing to schlep.”
It was just a shirt. Why didn’t he go get it? Why do I still have it?
We kissed at the subway, and he patted my back while I gasped into his mouth; kissing him always made me feel breathless. He wanted to go see a sad movie that night with his ex-girlfriend and best friend; he wanted to cry. I asked if he wanted to go to the Met the next day and he said he didn’t think so, he needed some time alone. I tried to think of a good movie to suggest that would be most effective in making him cry but couldn’t. I went and bought red lipstick and a garter belt for our next date.
“Freaked out about the solar eclipse Sunday but at least I have new red lipstick,” I wrote on Instagram, my face slightly red and swollen from crying. Venus was going to creep backwards in March and I sensed it would break everything apart, that everything was breaking apart. Better to blame the planets than him or me or anything I’ve tried to tease out in the past year of therapy. Look to the skies instead of the ways I felt him pulling away and the deep panic that stirred my guts, just like that wire mother and baby monkey I’d told him about in an early email.
When he called me, I knew it was bad.
When I cried over the phone, asking him if he was dumping me, he said in his gentle voice, “Sweetheart, we weren’t really a thing yet.”
I was left with the distinct impression he thought he was doing me a favor, that he was helping me dodge a bullet—and he probably did. What hurt was his ostensible concern over my mental health, his fear he was making my anxiety worse, that he was a liability, and perhaps that’s true, but only because I could feel him pulling away millimeter by millimeter. It was like I was being punished for the very things that had initially attracted him even as they embarrassed me; it was like having all of my confidences, the vulnerability of leaving my pill bottles out on my nightstand, thrown back in my face.
This is what I get for leaving myself open to attack, I thought; this is what I get for allowing myself to get sentimental over Jerry Maguire and Valentine’s Day.
I have worried over why he broke things off and I have come up with nothing. It honestly doesn’t matter anymore, because I have come to the slow realization that even if a man’s art—his whole life—is about subverting the ideas of gender and the human form, he can still be a toxic bro deep down in his stripy socked heart.
I spent the next few months after the break-up going through every goddamn Elizabeth Kubler-Ross step. I bargained. I raged. I lit candles and consulted my witch friends. I journaled. I pulled tarot cards and made notes. I cried. Nothing worked, so I went back to the most tried-and-true method of healing a broken heart there ever was.
I decided to go on a sexual walkabout.
I didn’t have a particular checklist of acts to consummate or particular partners to seek out, unlike 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney, but it felt that part of why my Valentine left me was my too-much-ness, my great gaping need that threatened to devour him, and that it would be much safer to try and fill that hole in more physical ways, with people whom I had no interest in or chance of loving.
While my methods were far from anthropologically sound, I did make a number of startling discoveries.
It is possible to go on decent and even enjoyable dates with people who aren’t right for me and not be destroyed by the fact that they don’t like me even though I don’t like them anyway. I went on several dates with perfectly nice men that were set up by matchmaking guru Amy Van Doran, who I was writing a feature about. Amy owns the Modern Love Club in the East Village, which serves as a dating services hub, an art gallery, a pop-up shop, a performance space, and basically anything Amy puts her mind to (which is a lot). I sat on a fabulous silver couch and sobbed while I recounted my romantic history to Amy, who is warm and funny and has outrageously orange hair and generous but fake eyelashes. She met her boyfriend doing yoga in a graveyard. She is the kind of person who does what she wants, and the universe provides, and she makes you feel like you can do it, too.
Amy recommended I read Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, which I devoured in less than a day. Even though I’ve been in therapy for-fucking-ever, this book made everything click into place—my amorphous boundaries, the way I sensed like a nervous rabbit when a paramour was beginning to pull away, the hopeless feeling that that person was my last chance ever at love. When I ran into her on the street one day and sheepishly mentioned I thought she might know my not-ex—in fact, I knew she knew him—I imagined I saw something flicker across her face before she told me, “He can’t sustain a relationship.” Then we joked about sending him a copy of Attached.
Amy asked for photos she planned to send prospective dates along with my bio, but she took a quick look at the pics I normally used and told me that I was much cuter in person. So, she connected me with her friend, photographer Kirsten Bode, who taught me how to use a curling iron to tame my unruly hair, generously apply lip liner, and pose for a camera without feeling like a moron. Her photos look like me, in sexy and cute way that feels real. Normally I quirk my eyes or my mouth in photos, preferring to look away than flash my toothy smile, but Bode—a sexy blonde bombshell herself—made me feel like less of a dork and it shows.
One thing my not-ex opened my eyes to is that I am much more attractive to the male gaze than I’d long assumed. “You look like a painting,” he told me one night, and I believed him. I’m not sure if it’s the current sexual climate obsessed big asses—wherefore art the lovers of soft, supple bellies? The gentle FUPA?— or if hitting forty gave me an ease in my skin I’d never known before, but suddenly I was grokking my own fuckability. Bode’s photos also helped me realize that and they helped me meet other people who helped me realize that.
Which leads me to my second point. It is possible to have good, great, or even transcendent sex with terrible people. In a way, I have my not-ex to thank for that, too. I am terrible at navigating casual sex, even if I think I can at the outset—a lesson impressed upon me again and again, especially this year—but I figured, if I expressed my needs to someone I cared for, who ostensibly cared for me, and still didn’t get what I wanted (i.e. monogamy and sex), then I might as well find some way to get some of my baser needs met.
My therapist compared it to Phantom Thread, and not just because of the similarities between the not-ex and Reynolds Woodcock’s profession and propensity for drama. People try and get their needs met in all sorts of fucked-up ways, and although I’d probably stop short of Alma’s machinations, everyone has his or her own poisonous mushrooms to lean on in a pinch.
I went out with a rogues’ gallery of weirdos and creeps this year, and while none of my experiences were situated within any sort of healthy emotional framework, they were mostly pretty fun—until they weren’t. And, as is crucial for any writer, they were all really good stories.
There was the forty-nine-year-old wiry, tattooed punk who picked me up at a Damned concert the October before. We dated a few times that fall before he got extra sketchy and I called things off, but I remembered the sex we’d had—which had broken a considerable dry spell—was so good that I drove around listening to Prince over Thanksgiving to reassure myself there were plenty of more great lays in my future.
Then there was the cute musician who lived in some artist’s loft in Bushwick; he was high or drunk the first time we met in real life, and propositioned me to go back to my place and make out. I was weirded out but turned on, an uneasy mixture triggered by some of his Cronenberg-like characteristics I think of as the Sex Creep—think James Spader in Crash or Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises or Jeremy Irons as doomed twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers, and you get the gist of it. I wanted to see what would happen. So I finished my cider with a shrug and brought him home with me.
One night he blew me off, only to come over at 4 a.m. and drink iced coffee with me on my roof while the sun rose while we took pictures of each other. He adopted the plant my not-ex gave me when he saw it wilting on my balcony. I told him to take it with him; I never wanted to fucking see it again.
“Someone gave this plant to you,” he said. “Who gave it to you?”
It was pretty much the most insightful exchange we ever had.
I’d emailed Amy to see if she knew him. “Totally out of touch, pretentious, and a creep,” she replied, adding that she and her assistant were working on finding me a date. “But don’t quit the Internet; it only takes one and then this whole dating charade will be behind you!!” she encouraged me.
When I came back a few weeks later to do a follow-up interview with Amy, I bragged about my adventures. It felt so decadent to juggle two men at once. “You gotta cut this stuff out,” she told me, and she was right.
After a few disappointing Tinder dates, October brought a bisexual barista/bartender from Bushwick literally to my front door. He regaled me with Grindr tales, while I pressed him for details, but the hotness wore off quick when he wanted to invite someone over to my place to join us. Let’s save something for our six-month anniversary, my dude. And he ghosted me after I pegged him, which is extremely rude. Still, it made for a sexy and exciting Halloween season while it lasted.
I turned forty-one at the end of November, and was unwilling to do more than watch an Oscar screener and order in with one of my best friends, who presented me with fabulous gifts including a new set of tarot cards that instructed me to stop playing the victim.
In December, my birthday gift to myself was a tarot reading from my friend Angeliska Polacheck of Sister Temperance Tarot in Austin. She told me I needed to refill my own cup, and until I did I would never be able to attract what I need. That I was so busy blaming and puzzling over the behavior of others, I wasn’t seeing how mine played into these patterns. Sex is great, we lustily agreed, but it creates connections—etheric cords—whether we want it to or not. And it’s time to stop letting people in our beds and bodies without reciprocity.
That was when I got my last, and perhaps most important, lesson about boundaries. Despite klaxon-like warnings going off, I went on a date with a guy I’d matched with on Tinder. And Bumble. And OKCupid way back in December 2016. We’d been texting for a few weeks, and I was just too curious. Wouldn’t there be some poetic justice if we hit it off, effectively making all of the pain and empty pleasure of 2017 worth it? Wouldn’t it make a great kicker to the story of my life and my year?
Because of that, I ignored his tantrum when I called him out on a transphobic joke; in fact, he wanted to call off our date (and all of my friends agreed) but I insisted on meeting. By the time I walked over to the bar to meet him, I was already dreading how I could possibly get out of the night, how I’d say goodbye, how to end the conversation and escape.
But that Saturday night before Christmas, he was cute and kissed me sweetly, so I ignored it when he mentioned going to the women’s rights march last year and how important the #MeToo movement was and how if we hadn’t elected Trump maybe none of this would have come to light. And because I wanted to keep kissing him, I invited him back to my place. I had a coffee date with a big bear of a man the next afternoon that I was really looking forward to, but it was still early. It was entirely possible to enjoy each other’s company for a little while longer and still get to bed at a normal hour.
I was resolute that I would end the date after a few drinks, and then I was resolute that I wouldn’t do more than fool around a little if he came up, and then I was resolute that he wouldn’t sleep over. I made a lot of resolutions, and I broke most of them. He was more annoying than dangerous.
On Sunday morning, he wouldn’t leave. He drank the beer from the night before. He was walking in the direction of my coffee date, and I panicked because I am a very bad liar. First, I’d said I was meeting a friend for brunch, and then I said we’d changed plans and were meeting at the coffee joint, and luckily we were early and my date was late, but by the time he arrived I was hungover and beyond rattled. As I was trying not to puke, I went into full interview mode. Question after question like I was writing a cover story on him. What’s that ring you’re wearing? Tell me about living abroad! We barely hugged goodbye, and when I suggested over text we meet up after Christmas, he listlessly agreed, though we never did.
On Sunday night, I took a long, hot shower and poured Florida water on my head, letting the fragrant perfume wash away the vague uneasiness that crept around me. I changed my bedsheets and saged my bed, and I vowed yet again that no stranger’s head shall touch my pillows to dream their foreign dreams until they’ve earned the right. While I remain relatively unscathed, my desire for love or sex or even romantic companionship has been slightly dulled for the time being.
I attempted to ghost this sex pest, and then I tried to explain why I never wanted to hear from him again, but he was shockingly unfazed. “That’s cool no biggie,” he texted, and then he asked me a question about a mutual Facebook friend—someone who’d actually confided in me that he’d done the same thing to her in high school. His modus operandi hadn’t changed in almost thirty years.
It felt like the final nail in the coffin of 2017.
It’s been just over a year since that first fateful date. A family emergency took me home for the anniversary of our teahouse meeting, and being away from my apartment—with my former Valentine’s shirt hidden in my closet, the flowers he gave me dried and framed on the wall—made it easier. I wound my way through the streets as if I were living an alternate life, the one I’d always wondered about, where I drive to get Starbucks and adjust to driving seventy miles per hour on the highway and rattle around in a too-big house that’s eerily quiet at night except for the noise of cats in heat.
I’d thought at the very least my former Valentine and I would be friends by now, but I’d given up on even the social media facsimile of a friendship months ago.
“Keep your energy on your stuff; anyways you like him too much to be friends, so you gotta scrap that idea for a while. I’m sorry,” Amy emailed me in August, along with an emoji kiss. I’d already unfriended the punk and the musician on Facebook, and the e-Valentine was the last to go.
It felt like finally ridding myself of an albatross, although I still wince in embarrassment at how much I miss him—the other night I dreamed he stole my cats.
Valentine’s Day is once again upon me. I was dreading it, wondering if I should leave town for the night, but as a freelancer I can’t even keep track of what day it is, never mind holidays, so who cares? Maybe I’ll go dancing, but who am I kidding? I’ll probably just order in, watch a movie, and luxuriously get in bed at 9 or 10 p.m. to read. I have long made my own coziness.
For a hot second, I got a taste of what it felt like to be with someone who, as my friend Chelsea puts it, looked at me with heart-eye-emojis, and it was everything. There are times when I worry I’ll never feel that way again, or if I do, that it won’t be returned, or that two people staring at each other with heart-eye-emojis will create some powerful Care Bear Stare that’s too beautiful to withstand. But writing this has cauterized several seeping wounds in a way I’d forgotten writing can do, and all that’s left is scar tissue and a little bit of anger.
Mostly, I feel annoyed that I can’t quantify the lessons of the past year. I want empirical evidence that I learned something, that I will stop seeking out Sex Creeps, that my boundaries are firmer than ever, that I will throw the next sex pest out of my apartment on his head.
I thought I was putting Attached into practice—I even left a steady freelance job that I sensed would never take me where I wanted to be—but really, the lessons are still unfolding, and sometimes it seems like I take five steps back for every one step forward. The only way to figure out the meaning of this past year is to—with all respect to my fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey—Just Keep Livin’ and see what happens when I meet the next strange muppety man who will steal into my before-bed musings.
Photographs of Jenni Miller © Kirsten Bode. All photographs provided courtesy of author.