COVID, stupid, love

Saturday, February 6, 2021 - 3:24pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

When I think of Valentine’s Day, I think of a hard-shelled, cherry-red, Saran-wrapped version of love that bores cavities in your teeth and sits on your tongue like the aftermath of a bad French kiss.

I think of the time in middle school when I made a list of my “future boyfriends” using a pink piece of construction paper and red crayola marker, and I think about the freckle-faced love interest who picked it up and then forced me to confess my feelings for him the next period. I think of the hundreds of elementary worksheets vandalized by my semi-psycho repetitions of “Mrs. Grace Smith,” adopting the surname of whichever dimpled specimen I decided I was in love with on that given weekday. I think of entire lunch periods spent with other pony-tailed fourth graders passionately debating which Drew was the more “attractive Drew” in our class (I oscillated teams constantly). 

There was always a certain level of embarrassment that came with that hallowed day in mid-February, when teachers and real, grown adults fashioned love into platonic paper crafts, like you hadn’t spent every second of your adolescence thinking about just that: boys and crushes and this Drew or that one. 

Much like the blaring beat of silence that comes when teachers announce they’re expecting a baby —  each student realizing what step was taken to get to that bit of news —  the launch of private, romantic affairs into public consciousness is awkward. And in middle school, Valentine’s Day was a whole day of just that.

I first experienced the sickening embarrassment of being crushed on publicly in fifth grade, when a pale and freckle-faced boy named Liam confessed his love for me via a stack of valentines. The mess of red paper slips, overflowing like confetti from my glittered Valentine’s Day box, was an adorable stream of boyish consciousness. His endearingly scribbled handwriting read:

“I like you so much, Grace.”

“I like your eyes, Grace.”

“Do you like me back? Choose: Yes or No.”

“Will you be my valentine?”

It should have been my dream come true: A boy was pouring his heart out for me — he was maxing out my Valentine’s Day box in just the perfect way, my desk showered with enough notes of affection to make a single girl cry.

But I could not have been more appalled. All I wanted to do was tear each valentine one by one, ridding myself of any speck of Liam’s affection that remained on that desk. 

Maybe it was a mixture of embarrassment, confused feelings and being confronted with a tsunami of real-life boy attention I had yet to receive as an adolescent. But either way, the essential truth is this: The introduction of the private, Liam and my enduring flame of love, into the public, Mrs. Parker’s fifth-grade classroom, was a wildly uncomfortable affair.

And thus, we arrive at the dreaded Valentine’s Day paradox: the idea of a collective day when private celebration is thrusted into public consciousness and punctuated by obtrusive spells of commodification all the while. It’s brutal. 

Originally founded in Christian and ancient Roman traditions, the romantic sentiment associated with Valentine’s Day was made tangible beginning in the 15th century, when written notes were traded to convey affection. Then, in the 1840s, a woman named Esther Howland, now revered as the “Mother of the Valentine,” began to mass-produce those coveted greeting cards, finally liberating us from the burden of having to put our thoughts to pen and paper. 

Around this same time, Valentine’s Day was in the process of being rebranded. An 1849 edition of Graham’s American Monthly harnessed the day’s full capitalist potential: “St. Valentine’s day...is becoming, nay, it has become a national holyday.” 

And thus, Feb. 14 had turned into a whole new woman: Suddenly, drugstores were stocked with pastel-colored valentines, a Bostoner invented the beloved Necco candy hearts and holiday merchandise in an array of blushed tones littered store windows. 

Public criticism surrounding the rapid commodification of the holiday was almost immediate: An 1847 New York Daily Tribune article chimed in on the anti-Valentine’s angst, saying, “There was a time when Valentine’s Day meant something … We hate this modern degeneracy, this miscellaneous and business fashion.”

Degenerate as they may be, Valentine’s Day shoppers still dished out all they could in preparation for the coveted day in 2020 , establishing a new record high of $27.4 billion spent (the top expenditures consisting of candy, then greeting cards, with an “evening out” coming in at third place). Alas, a day for lovers had become a consumer’s paradise. Regular old rituals, the flower bouquets and the nights out, had been reconfigured “... in terms of vast markets, private exchanges, and standardized commodities.”

But what happens when love, possibly the most precious, most non-capitalist affair in the world, becomes commercialized? Will couples be forever bombarded by the pressures of the capitalist market inside their own homes? Will we lose all sense of emotional currency, exchanging thoughtful moments for kitschy acts of consumerism?

Eva Illouz, renowned sociologist and author, examines these very questions in her study of the ways commodities have “penetrated the romantic bond.”  In essence, she finds that your contemporary couple has come to associate consumption within the public sphere — the French dinners in low-lit restaurants and the travel honeymoons to far-away places — as inherent to romance.

Moreover, Illouz found that the date nights and weekend get-aways all operate on deeply socialized constructs of temporal and spatial boundaries.

“(Capitalism is) demanding that people be hard workers by day and hedonists by night,” she explained. As a result, couples began to schedule in romance as being separate from the, “ordinary time of everyday life … preceding or following work or domestic chores.” 

And spatially, Illouz found couples to have classified romance as a “moving away” from their domestic spaces, and establishing an “island of privacy” amid public spaces, the restaurants and the bars and the movie theatres.

Illouz postulates that it is through a public commodification of romance as it’s privately experienced that these acts, these rituals of romance go about “retaining their collective and public meanings.” That is, when we began to translate private affection into Valentine’s Day cards, bouquets of roses and other commodities of romance, these acts became ritualized, privately experienced but collectively celebrated by all couples. And in this way, they started to carry greater significance. 

So, perhaps Liam’s heap of red paper slips were just paper slips until he gifted them to me, around all those classmates on that sacred day in February, and only then did they become valentines, something romantic.

But cut to today, when every kind of invitation is followed by a sad, pixelated Zoom link as opposed to a real-life home address. When cushiony restaurants booths that once donned the derrieres of many a dinner party have been left cold and empty for months. When what before was an overly intimate remark drunkenly made to a stranger in a bar has become sheepish direct messages at the bottom of a bleak virtual call. 

An airborne respiratory virus means that we’ve been encouraged to space ourselves a safe six feet from any sphere of consumption and strangers of any kind. And I, in all of my singleness, am spending this season of love worrying about the COVID couples: What will they do? How does “going out” operate when there’s nowhere open to go? How might they find an “island of privacy” amid a public space when the concept of public life has been awkwardly converted to Zoom calls and video chat?

Ironically enough, it was through these very digitized forms of communication that I was able to express my inquiries to a few of the University of Michigan’s pool of coupled students. As the day of St. Valentine approached, I took to Zoom to learn more about where and how couples are finding romantic rituals amid the global pandemic, when the constructs of the private versus the public sphere have effectively dissolved. 

First, I asked for a look at what romance had looked like to them before the dawn of COVID times: What is your ideal “date night”?

LSA junior Kirsten Birman offered an easy chuckle when she said that she and her partner, LSA junior Justin Hutchins, stuck to the simple stuff: getting dinner, seeing a movie, hanging out. 

The pair moved in together, starting their apartment lease early in mid-March of last year, when the pandemic was nothing more than a bit of breaking news and classes were presumed to start after two weeks of a glorious pseudo-spring-break-extension. It would be their first time living together.

The pair has been dating for six years, and when Birman reflected on the ways her and Hutchins’s date life shifted between high school and college, Illouz’s “temporal and spatial boundaries” stuck out to me like bolded font.

“When we were dating in high school, we were pretty much confined to just going places on the weekends,” Birman said. “Once we got into college, we’d hang out more often, but when we wanted to do a legit date night, or get pizza or something, we would (do that) on the weekends when we had more time.”

And now, the pandemic has challenged the pair with forming new boundaries: The two work at the same desk, and Birman said they’ve come to understand that if they’re both sitting at the desk, it’s work time, and when they’re not at the desk, it’s time to spend together. 

These “his and her” workspaces, she said, are “... cute in theory, but sometimes in practice, when we’re both having meetings, it’s kind of awful.”

LSA junior Marlon Rajan and LSA senior Zoey Angers, who were both working as resident advisers in East Quad when they met, had to be particularly strategic when setting those kinds of space and time boundaries. Romance and R.A. duties didn’t exactly coexist well.

“The context of most of our dating … or the first months of our dating experience, we were like, ‘Oh we can’t really kiss in public’ because I don’t want the other R.A.’s talking about it behind our back,” Rajan said.

The pair, having been dating for almost a year and a half, decided to move in together at the end of last year. Their move was pure serendipity: Angers had plans to remain an R.A. but decided by the end of the semester she’d rather move to an apartment, just as Rajan was considering moving out of their house in search for a less-packed space. Rajan didn’t feel their decision to move to an apartment was a hard one.

“Being an R.A. during COVID f---ing sucks and housing sucks,” Rajan admitted in between blips of frank laughter. 

Now that the two have settled in together in their new space, they’re finding ways to make what Illouz once classified as the “ordinary” aspects of life — the work schedules and the domestic spaces — feel a little more special.

When asked if they’ve developed any new rituals since moving in together, Rajan settled into a warm smile. “We’re both creatures of habit,” they admitted while the two pet their new cat, Sid, and glanced around at the little home around them.

“A major thing is like, every single morning we get up and make breakfast together … That's like our nice start to the morning, and at the end of the day, we play a board game,” Rajan said. “Every single night.”

Behind them, fashioned as wall decor, is a map from the board game, known to most as “Gloomhaven” but affectionately referred to by the couple as the “board-gamified” version of Dungeons & Dragons. They proudly presented it to me, the map hanging just over their heads.

“We’re getting very nerdy about (the game), because it’s the only thing we do and every day (we’re like), ‘can’t wait to play it later’,” Rajan exclaimed, scrunching their fists in child-like excitement as Angers laughed. 

Then, the grand-finale of all couples questions: What are your plans for Valentine’s Day?

Birman carried a realistic sentiment in regards to the heart-shaped holiday: “There’s really nothing inherently special about Valentine’s Day … it could be any day.” She and Hutchins will most likely have a date night to celebrate, but Birman was quick to dismiss any expectations for “... a bouquet of roses and chocolates or the whole ‘shebang.’”

Rajan, who considered themselves a retired Valentine’s-Day-hater, shrugged their shoulders when they said, “I don’t have any strict rituals for Valentine’s Day … (the day is) just an excuse to be silly.” 

***

To most, approaching Valentine’s Day means resisting a socialized expectation that love exists in commodity, in whatever the capitalist market of the public sphere can offer us: store windows and grandiose dinners on white tablecloths and long, seductive nights spent in crowded restaurants. The whole shebang. 

But if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that expectation is feckless. Things, ways of life, schisms between “public” and “private” are ever-changing and deeply flawed. And love doesn’t have to involve an act of dining “out” or going “out,” rather, there is an intimacy found “in” — the take-out dinners and the living rooms and the nightly board games. That’s where love lies now and always, pandemic or not.