I was living in the 18th arrondissement of Paris the year I celebrated Valentine's Day on my own for the first time in 20-something years. I had left my husband a few weeks before, and was still vacillating wildly between celebrating my independence and not wanting to appear lonely.
The joints of meat in the boucherie on the rue du Poteau were wrapped in little red ribbons and the queue at the florist snaked out onto the rue Ordener. I looked at the long lines of desperate men, buying overpriced roses to placate their ladies on Valentine's Day, and I felt almost lucky that I was escaping this most annoying of American Hallmark holiday imports. Despite the crowd, I decided to buy some roses for myself; all I found were overpriced "Valentine's Day bouquets." I was disgusted enough to walk out empty-handed, until I spotted orchids -- at 5 euros the bunch -- and grabbed some in defiance.
Next stop, the charcuterie for a little foie gras heart -- small, affordable, romantic. Made for two but just right for one.
Next, the wine store. I wanted a half bottle of champagne. Waiting on line, I overheard the owners laughing with a customer. "I no longer ask anybody anything," the man was saying, "after what happened last year." The previous Valentine's Day, I heard him tell, a regular customer had bought a very expensive bottle of Cristal Roederer. The next day the man came into the store with his wife, whom the owner also knew well, and he asked, politely, how Madame had enjoyed the Cristal. The man turned all shades of purple and green -- and his wife's lips tightened and her back stiffened, as French women do. Welcome to France, I thought.
I chose my champagne -- the lowest priced half-bottle on the shelf, though still quite decent, and said to the owner and his wife behind the counter, "Just half a bottle. I'm celebrating Valentine's Day on my own."
The woman smiled sweetly and said something like, "It will come," as if this were my first Valentine's Day ever and someday I'll have someone to celebrate it with. I was touched, thinking I must have looked very young, though I later realized she would have said the same thing to a 75-year-old spinster who'd never had anyone to celebrate Valentine's Day with, ever. I paid for the champagne, bought a bottle of pinot noir as well to go with the lamb chops I had bought at the butcher's (my go-to meal for celebrating when I am happy or consolation when I am miserable), arranged the flowers in the wine bag, and headed for the door.
"You are spoiling yourself," said the man, approvingly eyeing the flowers.
"Yes! Absolutely!" I replied boldly.
As I was leaving the shop, he called out to me, "Continue to spoil yourself, Mademoiselle."
The exchange made me feel good, hopeful that I didn't seem pathetic after all. At the same time, part of me felt like crying.
On the one hand, I thought, how sad to buy flowers, champagne, and nice food and look forward to an evening spent with me, myself, and I. But, on the other, what could be better? No, expectations, no disappointments, just me, myself, and I. And all three of us like it that way.