Nail-biting, dread, excessive Xanax consumption: Valentine's Day is the most anxiety-provoking holiday of the year.
As a person who suffers from chronic anxiety I dread most major holidays. On Thanksgiving, I worry that my drunken relatives will lunge at each other and destroy the family. On the Fourth of July, I worry that an al Qaeda operative will release a neurotoxin on the subway. On Hannukah, I worry that the open flames from the menorah will ignite the drapes, rampage through the apartment, and burn my family to death in their sleep. But on Valentine's Day I worry that I'll be exposed as a total and irredeemable romantic failure -- the most terrifying prospect by far.
There seems to be no other holiday on which the stakes for the neurotic male are so high. Even New Year's, that demonic tradition, offers the ego some wiggle room: If you're single, you can celebrate with friends or watch the festivities from home. On Valentine's Day, the health of your ego depends on your having a partner with whom to share the occasion. And if you already have a partner? Well, that's even worse, for then the health of your ego depends on the health of your partnership, which depends on the happiness of your partner, which depends on your figuring out what it is on earth your partner wants. That question is a forehead-slapper even on the best of days; on Valentine's Day it's enough to make you sand off your fingerprints, burn your passport, and head for the woods.
The anxiety begins with the very concept of Valentine's Day. Is it a legitimate holiday or merely the sordid concoction of ad executives, greeting-card salesmen, and South African diamond miners? Does the distinction even matter? For many women it in fact does matter. The difficulty is in determining the extent to which it matters -- a problem that can seem as complex as string theory.
My wife, for example, a sophisticated and cultured woman, is scornful of the doilies-and-cupids industry. She finds the riot of red hearts that begins to appear in stores at the start of February manipulative and crass. If I presented her with a Whitman's sampler and a charm bracelet, she'd hurl all of my clothes out the bedroom window. And yet if in the spirit of anti-corporate dissent I presented her with nothing at all, then, I suspect, she'd start to imagine hurling all my clothes out the window -- which would be much worse.
"It's Valentine's Day, baby," I'd say. "It's a joke. A mass delusion. We don't need a holiday to show our love for each other." And she would nod, smile, and agree. Totally. Ha ha. Look at all those fools with their champagne and strawberries and expensive hotel suites. But of course she likes champagne, strawberries, and expensive hotel suites. Who doesn't? It's just that she can't enjoy them if she feels like she's being coerced into it. Which poses a conundrum: How do you simultaneously honor an occasion and protest having to honor an occasion?
Flowers always seem like a decent solution. So long as they aren't roses, flowers say, "Listen -- I know. Everyone is buying flowers. They're cutting them down and shipping them around the world like crazy this week. It's a veritable flower holocaust! But these flowers are yours. These are your favorite kind. I know you, I pay attention, I remember."
But what if they aren't, and you don't? Anxiety breeds doubt. You may think you know the right flower, but a trip to the florist is bound to destroy your certainty. Just look around. There are anemones, asters, birds of paradise, carnations, daisies, gerbera daisies, daffodils, delphiniums, freesias, hyacinths, hydrangeas, larkspurs, lilacs, lillies, lisianthuses, peonies, ranunculuses, snapdragons, statices, sunflowers, sweet peas, tulips, and about ninety-seven varieties of orchids. Which is your wife's favorite? And what does it say about you that you don't know? Would it get back to her if you called her friends and asked? Do you even have her friends' phone numbers? Florists keep the temperature in their shops arcticly low, but that might not stop you from sweating right through your jacket.
But say that you somehow survive your flower-shopping expedition. You do your deep breathing, summon a burst of heroic decisiveness, and come away clutching a bouquet that the florist has assured you (repeatedly) isn't meant to be draped over a coffin. On the way home you even shoulder into a CVS and find a blank card in which you inscribe some suitably loving sentiment. You haven't even stepped in the door yet. Once you do, what are your responsibilities as a man? Do you have to behave differently than usual? Do you have to be more affectionate? Is sex an obligation? If so, is it expected that the intercourse will be above par? Do you have to dim the lights? Turn off your iPhone? Do you have to overcome your laziness and be on top for a change?
These questions and others assault you even before you hand over the flowers, and prove to be impediments in and of themselves. How to act like Casanova when you think like Alvy Singer? That, in a line, is the fundamental problem of the Valentine's Day neurotic, and so far as I can tell it's unsolveable. All you can do is crack open the Xanax, sip a little wine, take your wife into your ridiculous trembling arms, and wait for morning. If you haven't succumbed to a panic attack, you've been loving enough.