Valentine's day used to be my holiday. I was in love with love, and it was my high holy day. Yet over time, its origins became far more appropriate to the particulars of my love life than the Hallmark sentiments I once put so much stock in. A bloody massacre, the battle between faith and the many excellent, practical, visceral reasons to give up on belief. For most of my life, there was nothing more that I believed in than the power of love. I came of age in a haze of power ballads and Sailor Moon comic books and Libran sensibilities, a whole host of influences that left me certain in one thing and one thing only-- that romantic love had redemptive powers, than my lover would be my savior, that together we would transform one another from mere mortals into gods.
I was perfectly willing to martyr myself for this belief. I knew relationships took work, and work I was willing to do. I sacrificed over and over on the altar of love. I believed in the spell of infatuation, the mysticism of sex, the alchemy of marriage. I never met my Prince Valiant, though. Perhaps I was in the wrong places at the wrong times. Perhaps I was overconfident in my ability to kiss frogs into princes, not giving enough care to the quality of the frog in question, not being discerning enough about potential. I simply assumed that if you believed in it enough, love was a choice you could make, and that by sheer determination it would become the work of art, the spiritual revelation, the redemption it was meant to be put up with a myriad of disappointments, of offenses I was unprepared to navigate.
My first boyfriend left my high school graduation party to watch a movie with the girl he'd had an unrequited flame for since before puberty. My most recent lover only said he loved me once my own L-bomb's fall out had reached its half-life and I was crying in the street, worn down by waiting for an answer, doubt metastasizing in my heart. I listened to an ambiguously committed suitor endlessly compare me to his ex-wife as I used her old tank tops to help him wash the windows, preparing their former home for a prospective buyer. I put up with bad sex, with nonexistent sex, with careless comments about my lingerie. I let a boy converting to Catholicism talk at length about his newly adopted views on birth control and the Virgin Mary before rolling a condom down his member and enjoying my turn as one of the five women he was fucking.
What I was certain of through each trial and tribulation was that they would be my Valentine, and I theirs. I mean this in a very literal sense, tracing the name back to its Latin roots, to the word valens, meaning worthy, strong, or powerful. All the things my prince was supposed to be. All the things I thought my sacrifices were instilling in me and making manifest. I hadn't yet realized that strong women are admirable, yes, but that they would not have to be strong if there was less adversity for them to face. That love is about mutual strength against external forces, yes, but should not be defined by inner power struggles. I didn't see that the sacrifices I made to be in love, to pretend that these men were in love with me, those sacrifices didn't make me strong or powerful or worthy. I was simply spilling my blood on the alter of love, praying in vain to false idols.
Instead, I had manifested the attitude of another old Latin word, that of the victima, a word that indicates a creature killed as a religious sacrifice. It wasn't until the Medieval and Enlightenment Classicists became newly interested in exploring Latin texts and Biblical translations that the word came back into regular use, and slowly evolved from its original context to the one we use today from Law and Order SVU to discussion of victim-blaming on college campuses. As it turns, out I was a victim in every sense of the word. I bore the sins of my offenders, as Ralph Griffiths defined the word in 1750 when it started to grow in regular use. With each of my lovers I "suffered in his stead, and bore the punishment which should have fallen to him."
Whatever pains and struggles and pitfalls my lovers had experienced, whatever had shaped their lives, from painful childhood moves to the brimstone and wrath of Pentecostalism, I tried to ease their burden, even if it wounded me deeply in the process. I did all these things because I understood that faith was a decision, and that I would be rewarded for my sacrifice, for the blood and tears I'd shed, the friendships I'd severed, the arguments I'd had with my parents and loved ones. I waited for the miracle to come, although each and every time Leonard Cohen was proved right: the Maestro said it was Mozart, but in the end it really was just bubble gum. I never did hear a chorus of angels or the wedding march, but I did grow to be concerned about the degree to which I related to Rihanna lyrics and my roommates were sick and tired of hearing Jewel on repeat.
Five years after the fact, I came to realize, in black, storm-capped waves, that I'd been raped a few months after my college graduation in the process of a dizzying, devastating breakup. I went through several stages of victimhood, ones I read about in other women's narratives but only later recognized in my own. I had drank copiously, tried sleeping around (while bolstering my resolve for sluttery with pseudo-empowering Mae West quotes), started having panic attacks, road out a summer of insomnia, gained thirty pounds, and suffered gruesome bouts of depression. It was only after two years single, creating a safe space for myself by buying a house, and giving myself the opportunity to heal that I was able to admit the degree to which I'd been victimized, that this was, in fact, a very literal term, a diagnosis that explained an unfurling list of symptoms.
In those two years, I'd sensed a disconnect growing between the Girl I Used to Be and The Girl I Am, between the friends I'd once confided in and scandalized and the ones I now nodded at blankly while they detailed their conquests. I'd learned to pantomime understanding as they preened and glowed in front of the mirror before dates, as they sighed with satisfaction remarking on the sex they'd had the night before. I couldn't understand their language, so modern, so jubilant. They couldn't understand mine either, the dark, ancient Romance language of valentines and victims, of struggle and sacrifice.
I would lay alone in my bed at night trying to remember how it felt to sleep next to a man, to hook my leg over his body and nestle my breasts into his shoulder blades, to feel my hands cupping his soft, round belly and smell his shampoo as I fell asleep. I would stand in the bathroom each morning and pinch the rolls of fat that had grown around my midsection, wondering if they were really a barrier I'd subconsciously built so I wouldn't look like her, like the Girl I Used To Be. I would pet the tightly nested closetful of expensive clothes I'd purchased, so few of them my style, in an effort to be someone else, someone valiant, someone brave and powerful and worthy, someone that would never be victima.
I'd thought I was valiantly coping, that I was fighting back in my writing and my candor, in my conscious restructuring of my life to be one about work and career and without room for romance. Instead, I had simply become a different sort of victim. It's one thing to have your body taken against your will, to say "no" and find yourself having sex anyway on a corduroy futon. It's one thing to sacrifice myself when I didn't know who I was. What was there to give up but the idea of my own naiveté? There was nothing to loose back then but the painful sense of longing I'd held fight in my stomach since I was thirteen, the sensation of still having yet to be or do much of anything, of waiting for it to all be happening. So much had happened since then. Meanwhile I'd gained so much more to lose.
In those two single years, I'd started discovering myself, little by little. I found that I still loved to dress in black, that I still liked my hair long, that I still liked comic books and The Cure and Joy Divison, as I had when I was, as Morrisey put it, sixteen clumsy and shy, and so sure I'd outgrow these early definitions. I learned that I was perhaps my best self when I was fourteen, and so unabashedly faithful in love and friendship and optimism, so besotted with my own sexual power and confident in my every aesthetic decision. I had started writing again, ironically because I had dated an aspiring poet, and later to make ends meet during a bout of unemployment. I realized that there were things in me that had been there all the time, that were incredibly beautiful and interesting and valuable, thinks I had never seen as valiant, although there were full of worth and power. I'd been so eager to sublimate myself into some vision of perfection, into all my rock gods and literary heroes, to give up the best of me for a masculine fantasy in a leather jacket.
With all my romantic sacrifices having run their course, when I had no more blood left to spill for false idols and the altar of my life was strewn a decade's worth of rotting fruits and burnt candles, I was forced to reconcile what kind of a victim I had become. That this time, there was no one but me to blame. Of course there was broken trust, a host of broken promises, and one broken engagement. Of course those things led me to this place. But for me to be valiant now, I have to admit that what happened after in my new, solitary existence was my own choice. I built up walls. I bought bigger jeans and roomier dresses. I had dreams I was pregnant with my rapist's baby, that I pushed him down flights of stairs, but took no such agency in my waking life, despite carrying a similarly heavy burden. I created a life that was decidedly, purposefully about my career, about my writing, about my image. There was no time built into it for dates, for flirtation, for mornings spent ignoring obligations for lingering caresses and banter. If I was going to take myself seriously, I needed a serious life. It seemed monastic in its purpose, yet there I was, a high priestess on the run.
For a sense of security, I had sacrificed my beliefs, my faith in love, my open heart, my childlike capacity for imagination and belief. I had been willing to self-immolate if it meant ascending into true love, but instead I had burned the temple and all my idols. Yet it slowly dawned on me that the answers lay elsewhere, that like Saint Valentine I would be better served by maintaining my faith and my integrity. The poet Lorca wrote once about a great singer's performance, about what was required of her to create art: "She had to rob herself of skill and safety: that is to say, banish her muse and be helpless, so her duende might come and deign to struggle with her at close quarters." To really live, to really be myself, to embody valens rather than victima, I needed to go beyond skill or safety, to summon my duende.
Duende is an almost untranslatable word that refers to the sensation of man's struggle with death, a kind of profound loneliness and longing deep in the soul, the very sensation that always drove me, in utter fear and hope, to take lovers, to cry out into the night, to pray for redemption. The word comes from a much older Spanish phrase for "the master of the house," from the Latin for dwelling. To be in touch with your passion, to enter that mystical place of creation you must enter the space between protection and peril, between the hearth and funeral pyre. So it is with all faith-- you must go beyond yourself, into the unknown and the uncertain, must offer up something tangible in exchange for what may never be proven, to root the certainties of your existence in that which is, by nature, uncertain. To love, and love fully, is an act of duende, beyond skill and safety, to be simultaneously helpless and capable, to be vulnerable yet valiant.
This year for Valentine's I'm cooking myself a steak and pouring myself a glass of Merlot. I will cut into my steak, red and rare, decant my dark, rich wine, and this is its own bloody communion. This is my commitment to love. You don't need a partner to affirm your allegiance and belief in romance. We find salvation in duende, in our belief in our own valor, in acknowledging that there is, in fact, a form of power in being a victim. Before I didn't know the value of what I was sacrificing. I offered it all up, was prepared to be completely consumed in my quest for salvation.
The late, great P. D. James once said "I do believe in redemption through love." What I never realized before is that it isn't your partner who redeems you, but instead the infinite number of times we save ourselves by renewing our belief in love. We are resurrected each time we trust in the power of connection, in the possibility of something not only greater than ourselves, but tucked deep inside one another. Today I make a sacrifice of a different sort. I lay down the parts of myself that could not discern between charlatans and miracle workers, that did not see my own miraculous beauty, my own strength, the power of forgiveness, the worthiness of my love. I choose to be my own Valentine, fierce, beautiful, and proud.