Today is Valentine’s Day. Historically, Ben and I have never really bought into the commercial side of Valentine’s Day. It’s mostly a holiday contrived to give consumers another reason to buy gifts and spend money on overpriced, unnecessary trinkets. For people who are not in a relationship, it can be a day where that loneliness is even more apparent, as couples in love (or lust) gush and swoon over one another.
Today is actually the tenth anniversary of a Valentine’s Day that Ben and I have been together, though the first in that streak was more of a tacit “together” than an official one, since we had crossed the line from good platonic friends to friends who were physically involved a few months prior but had not yet overtly redefined the relationship. I actually remember that Valentine’s Day quite well. I was working second shift (3:00pm to 11:00pm) as a personal trainer and fitness manager at a residential gym in a luxury high-rise building in midtown Manhattan.
As I wouldn’t get off the subway in my neighborhood in Harlem after my shift until 11:45pm or so and I was new to the city and nervous to be alone at night, I used to call my mom every night when I emerged from underground and talk to her on the walk from the subway station to the apartment where I was renting a room. Though this was unnecessarily cautious for the most part, it was back a decade ago when that area of Harlem was not always as safe as it has come to be. There were many nights where I felt followed or wary of lone crazy-looking people, gesticulating to themselves and talking to an invisible recipient. Mom would keep her phone on her pillow and allow my brief call to disrupt her sleep. I’d tell her about my night at work and use code words to describe and suspect behavior I saw as I walked the six blocks and two avenues home. Talk about a selfless and loving mother! I always struggled with unlocking the door in that brownstone too, so she’d keep me calm as I would wrangle the key in the lock and try to get in as quietly as possible. My roommates, whom I met on Craigslist, would be long asleep (like all my other friends and family, which is why I would otherwise have no one to call) and the apartment pitch dark, so I’d fumble around and make my way to my tiny room by feeling alongside the wall. In retrospect, in sure I could have turned on a light without disturbing them sleeping in their rooms, but since I’m such a light sleeper, I seem programmed to operate line everyone else is too, and I make myself as invisible, inaudible, and undetectable as possible. Mom would know when I’d made it inside, as my hushed voice would drop a few decibels lower to a little whisper.
Once inside my room, I’d say goodnight to Mom and let her get back to sleep, though I’d stare at the screen on my flip phone blinking “call ended” and wish she was still connected on the other line. Then the real loneliness would kick in because I’d still be revved up from work and need about two hours to wind down for bed, but the rest of the world that I knew was asleep. My room was so small that the bed took up the whole floor space, so I’d climb onto my bed and stand up on it to change, carefully avoiding the ceiling fan with my head. What the place was lacking in bedroom space, it made up for in charm.
However, given my socially-avoidant, beyond-introverted nature, I was too shy to venture into the living room or lovely kitchen when I could hear my roommates (who were strangers to me) out there during the morning time, so I’d stayed holed up in my room. When I’d hear them retreat to their rooms or the front door close, I’d dash out to the kitchen and grab something to eat. The panic when one of them would suddenly surprise me by coming home or out of their room when I was in the kitchen was enough of a scare that I’d often drop what I was holding as a spooked reflex!
Anyway, the Valentine’s Day ten years ago today was a Thursday, but I had called in sick to work, even though I had been working there less than a month. Like I mused the other day, I was so often sick even in the years I often incorrectly recall being so healthy. I remember feeling feverish and exhausted that morning and as it approached early afternoon when I’d normally leave for work, it became clear to me that working for eight hours in the gym would not be possible. Given my profound anxiety stemming from “disappointing others,” I felt petrified to call my boss and tell him I couldn’t make it in, especially since I was so newly employed. Fortunately, I didn’t have any one-on-one training sessions with clients scheduled for that night, so my responsibilities for the evening only boiled down to monitoring the gym and answering any potential risk questions or helping patrons as necessary. The strange thing about the gym was that even though it was in a 32-floored building with many units and open to all residents in those units, it was embarrassingly underutilized. The building was relatively new, so many apartments in it were unoccupied. It was a buy, not rent, situation. Moreover, given its location in Times Square and its price and “feel,” it tended to attract owners who purchased their unit as a pied-à-terre, meaning that they didn’t really live there much of the time. For example, one of the clients I trained worked in the diamond industry. He primarily lived and worked overseas, but purchased his unit in the building for a dependable residence for his recurring travels to New York City for business. Although it’s hard to imagine buying such an expensive apartment and only using it less than one-tenth of the nights in a year, I guess that’s a viable choice for people who are quite a few income brackets above me!
Anyway, my boss wasn’t pleased that I was calling out sick, although he said he could hear my illness through the phone. I rested all day in bed and ate ice cream directly out of the container. I remember how the remainder melted into a wasteful soupy mess that I had to wash down the sink because I was too reluctant to risk venturing back in the kitchen to return the uneaten portion back to the freezer. Given how miserly I am and how much I love ice cream, that I would opt for wasting this precious, delicious, and expensive (back then, it was so rare to find half-gallon ice creams in our neighborhood markets) resource goes to show the extreme lengths I went to avoid chit-chat and socializing and how this need was so prioritized over all else (and to think we had no idea I had the social problems typical of an autistic person!).
Ben and I chatted on Gmail messenger during his regular 8-5 workday, and I informed him that I was sick in bed. He was kind enough to come over after his work day and lay on my bouncy mattress for hours watching movies on my TV, which sat on a narrow shelving unit designed to go over a toilet. It was the only storage shelf I could find that had a small enough footprint that I could wedge it in my room between the bed and the wall. The TV balanced on top, and most of my other belongings were jammed on the shelf below. The underneath void, where the toilet tank is supposed to sit, I stowed my upright suitcase that housed most of my bunched up clothes. I did have a closet, so the rest of everything I brought to NYC in my move resided in that small cubby.
Ben and I ordered in Indian food from our favorite fast-casual takeout place. It was delivered by bike messenger, and I always had Ben go out and grab it and any necessary glasses of water and forks from the kitchen, even when I wasn’t feeling sick, so I could hide away, safe from any potential exposure to my roommates (who, for the record, were perfectly nice. They were just a good ten years older than me, strangers to me, and I hated all social interactions, not just those with them). Although I didn’t feel well, I only had a fever and the rest of my symptoms subsided over the course of the day, so it was an enjoyable, sweet casual date.
Eventually, we went to sleep. We were jolted awake a little after midnight when Mom called my phone and then Ben’s phone in a panic. In my malaise, I had forgotten to tell her earlier that I wasn’t going to work that night so when I failed to call her at 11:45pm for our standing phone date for my walk home, she feared something terrible happened to me. It was one of those moments where it clicked in my mind how much a mom truly loves her child. All those nights that I called mom on my walk home for the prior four weeks since I had moved to the city, I figured it was a total pain and major favor she was doing me to make me feel safe and capable of getting home. It certainly was, but it was also important for her to know that I, her baby, was safe and okay. I figured she’d sleep through the night since my calls presumably woke her up every night, but my mom is one of those moms so loving and devoted in her role as a mother that her body became accustomed to waking around that time we checked in, and hearing my voice and the final clink of my keys into my home assured her I was okay and then she could sleep. I felt absolutely awful when she called in frantic state, terrified something had happened. My phone was on silent so I missed her frenzied calls and tearful voicemails. She knew Ben and I were best friends and he had lived in the city for a year or more, so she called him on a prayer that he’d know my whereabouts or help her ensure I was okay. His phone rang audibly and bolted us awake. I apologized profusely and tried to calm her understandable panic by asserting I was just fine, but had missed work because I was sick. I still feel guilty for that scare I caused her all these years later!
I had never really paid attention to Valentine’s Day. I could have reported that it was in February, but other than that, it was not something I celebrated much or paid attention to for the most part. I had one boyfriend in college that celebrated it with me via a nice date and the exchange of sappy cards. Even though Ben and I were “dating” in February 2008, it was still unofficial and hung as an undiscussed progression of our long-term friendship. As such, Valentine’s Day wasn’t in my mind that year and my sick day from work on that particular day was entirely coincidence rather than a planned date night. Had I gone to work, Ben would have been asleep by the time I would have been done with my shift and we would have not seen one another since we lived in different apartments. Therefore, our impromptu stay-at-home Indian food and movie “date” a decade ago today was a Valentine’s Day happenstance, though one I will always remember. In the ten years since that date, we have “celebrated” with similarly casual activities. Although our love and relationship status has been fully professed every holiday since that one, we’ve never showered each other with expensive chocolates or dozens of long-steamed roses. If we went out on a dinner date before all my food allergies precluded the possibility of restaurant eating, it doesn’t stick out in my memory. Instead, I remember the cards we’ve written each other, the love poems I’ve received, and the sentiments of romance, care, and deep love exchanged. Today, Valentine’s Day 2018 is no different. We shared words from the heart electronically-sent to one another. I received a beautiful touching poem that, in typical penned-by-Ben fashion, brought tears to my eyes. I will prepare one of his favorite meals and we will enjoy special time together this weekend. Lately, we are gelling together so well. We both feel it, like we’re a synchronized team. I’ve heard cheesy lines in books and movies about how love grows and “I love you more today than ever before,” but I’ve got to say, that honestly rings true for how I feel about Ben. I love him so much and I’m lucky that I’m looking forward to all our future days together. Valentine’s Day or otherwise, they are all days I will love him.