I once had a job where the employees were required to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  This was a retail position at a mid-size corporation that sold books, music, and movies.  I spent eight hours a day alphabetizing used CDs and ringing up customers at the cash register while wearing a green smock with a button attached to it that said, “Hello, my name is Dale!  I’m happy to help!”  I was not happy to help.  In fact, I had never been so unhappy to help in my life.

Working at a corporation is a humiliating experience for the low-level employees.  Its’ not enough for those suit monkeys to monopolize your time and energy; they want your soul, as well.  This particular job paid $7.00 an hour with no benefits, which was a mere 50 cents above minimum wage, and for that extra half dollar the company expected you not only to show up on time with a smile for the customer but to also express gratitude for the opportunity to scrub their toilets and receive abuse from their patrons.  The official company motto was, Let Us Entertain You, but unofficially it was, Thank You, Sir.  May I Have Another?

At some point, a group of pencil-pushers at corporate headquarters organized a focus group and decided they needed to boost employee morale.  I can say without reservation that a livable wage and a dental plan would have improved my outlook considerably, but instead the company decided to mandate certain celebratory activities.  On birthdays, cheap cakes were purchased and songs were sung.  Cards were handed out during major, non-religious holidays, and Valentine’s Day became a compulsory activity.

Few things are more degrading for the average human being than forced happiness.  Telling someone they will be fired if they don’t have fun is a bit like requiring a POW to write out a thank-you card after his tormentors have broken all his fingers.  America has always been known as the Land of Eternal Optimism, where brilliant minds like Walt Disney and Henry Ford are allowed the freedom to realize their dreams. However, once those dreams have come to fruition and those genius brains have been rotting in wormy graves for a few decades, another American tradition takes over: greed and exploitation. In our current system, it’s not the innovators who are rewarded but those who take a wonderful, new idea and transform it into a cheap cliche that can be crammed down the public’s throat with such relentless determination that the original dream becomes nothing more than a shallow mockery of itself.

Hence, Valentine’s Day.

But I digress…

During the first week in February, the employee break room at my workplace was suddenly cluttered with brown paper bags, scissors, construction paper, glue sticks, tape, markers, crayons, and glittery paint. It looked like a kindergarten classroom for clinically depressed children. Two days later the staff received a memo stating that every employee was required to create a Valentine’s Bag with his or her name on it and give one another cards by Feb. 14. Or else! In response, I wrote my name on a bag with a black marker and placed it in the designated area. My supervisor was not amused. He called me into his office and delivered a speech similar to the one given to Jennifer Anniston’s character in the movie Office Space concerning the amount of flair she had on her Chotchkie’s uniform. I was told that my attitude was a problem and it needed adjusting. Why couldn’t I be positive about this? Was it really so bad to spread a little love and good cheer to my fellow employees? What was the issue here?

I was twenty-two years old at the time and incapable of articulating the precise reason why being mandated to spread love and cheer by an amoral, money-hungry corporation made me want to firebomb my supervisor’s BMW, so I capitulated. I decorated a new sack with various pink and red hearts, while secretly cursing my supervisor for making me do so. The bag was then filled with stupid little cards and those gross heart-shaped candies that taste like chalk. I quit two months later.

Over the years, my attitude toward Valentine’s Day has not improved. If anything, it has gotten worse, a prejudice that has often made my love life difficult. Though I have never been the type of person to date girls who listen to Celine Dion or cry during cheesy romantic comedies, most of my exes wanted to at least acknowledge February 14th and perhaps go for a nice meal at a restaurant that didn’t feature a drive-up window. Go figure. Arguments ensued and I was often accused of being unromantic and cynical, insults that are difficult to deny while you’re setting a Nicholas Sparks novel on fire. In the end, the reasons most often sited when these relationships ended were my inability to express emotions and my impulse to see the negative side of every situation. I was exhausting. And depressing. And narcissistic. And misanthropic. And I wore socks to bed.

These things are undeniably true. I am not good at relationships; I hate expressing emotions; and even though I am now in my mid-thirties, I still make gagging noises whenever I see couples feeding each other in public. (I don’t care how in love you are–if the recipient of the food is not wearing a diaper, there is absolutely no reason to feed another human being. Ever!) An ex-girlfriend who also happened to be a psychology major once diagnosed me as “a pathologically unromantic person who uses humor to hide your true feelings.” My response: “You get me!” She then added immaturity to the list.

Several years ago, I met a blind date at a bar near my apartment building. This was my favorite dating bar. If things went well and it looked like intercourse was on the horizon, I would take the date back to my place to consummate our doomed relationship. If things didn’t go well (which was usually the case), I could say goodbye to my date and get blind, fall-down drunk without having to worry about how I’d get home. It was a win-win.

This particular date was a young woman named Michelle whom I’d met via the Internet (long story). When she entered the bar, she hovered near the door for almost a full minute, her gray-blue eyes darting around like those of a frightened mouse searching a new environment for a hungry cat. I waved. The fear in her eyes did not dissipate. Nevertheless, she crossed the room, sat on the bar stool next to me, and, in a voice barely above a whisper, told me how much she hated bars. “Actually, mostly I hate people,” she said. “And bars are always filled with people. Strangers. And sometimes they try to talk to me.” She shuddered. The look on her face indicated there was nothing so horrible in her opinion as unwanted human contact.

It wasn’t difficult to see why strange men would attempt conversation. She was beautiful in a way that was almost disturbing. She had perfect alabaster skin, a long sexy nose, a swan-like neck, and dark brown hair that she was constantly attempting to hide behind. Oh, and she had pointy ears. Like an elf.

I have always been attracted to physical abnormalities, so I asked her about these ears, and without a hint of reservation she told me it was a genetic trait called human vestigiality, which is a characteristic passed down from monkeys that still appears in certain human beings. “You know, like some people have a vestigial tail,” she said. “When you think about it, we’re really just a bunch of animals. If you condense evolutionary history into a single lifetime, we just climbed down from the trees about five minutes ago.”

I was smitten.

It just so happened that on this particular night there was an open-mic poetry reading at the bar in question. I hadn’t known this when I planned the date. I hate public poetry readings. They are most often attended by the type of annoying artsy people who wear scarves indoors and insist on talking in loud voices about Allen Ginsberg so that everyone in the room can overhear their witty repartee. This event was no different. As the room filled with bongo drums and tweed jackets, I shifted uncomfortably on my bar stool. I was enjoying the date so far and did not want to risk expressing my loathing for what was about to happen next. After all, Michelle didn’t look like the type of person who delighted in reading poems about her menstrual cycle in front of Kerouac wannabes, but you never could tell. She seemed anxious, but I got the feeling this was pretty much her permanent emotional state. It was impossible to know how she felt about the whole affair. Finally, when a a young man in a goatee and beret stepped up to the microphone and announced that he’d written a haiku about Charles Bukowski’s liver, Michelle broke down. Speaking rapidly and in a voice that sounded as though it was attempting to suppress a mounting hysteria, she said, “I’m-having-a-really-good-time-and-I-don’t-want-to-offend-you-but-I-hate-when-people-read-poetry-in-bars-I-can’t-stay-here-I’m-sorry-can-we-please-leave.”

I downed my beer in three swallows.

Since the night was young and we had no specific plans, I suggested we take a walk through a nearby cemetery. Michelle thought this was a fine idea. As we strolled, I pointed out my favorite tombstones–Adolfus Livernash, Samuel Belcher, Esther Reeks–and we talked about how much we hated open-mic poetry readings.

This all happened two years ago.

It turns out Michelle is even more antisocial than I am and just as repulsed by modern romance. Currently she works at a gourmet chocolate shop, where she spends five days a week making expensive cakes and candies. Feb. 14 is their busiest day of the year, and Michelle has forbidden me to say the V-word. After spending ten hours a day crafting chocolate roses and attaching hearts to cheese cakes, she wants nothing to do with the holiday.

There are other words we don’t feel comfortable saying, as well. The L-word, for instance. I realize there are those who believe saying “I love you” several times a day is an essential part of a good relationship, but we are not these people. We tried it a few times, and it just didn’t take. It felt forced and embarrassing, like an enema. However, there are instances when even pathologically unromantic cynics feel the need to express (blah) affection. Therefore, we’ve had to improvise.

For awhile, I told Michelle that I “lurve” her, a line from a Woody Allen movie called Annie Hall, which we both admire for its unhappy ending. Eventually, “lurve” transformed into “larve” for no particular reason, “larve” became “larf,” and then “larf” made the inevitable metamorphosis into “barf.”

This is the perfect expression for us because it removes all sentiment from the term. To say “I love you” in our current culture means to act out a scene from some cheesy Meg Ryan movie. However, to say “I barf you” is to express a shared hatred for the cliches of modern romance while simultaneously sharing something personal and sacred. We’ve never actually discussed this, because that would involve expressing our feelings to one another, which would immediately make those feelings disgusting and shameful. Therefore, we simply continue to barf one another in text messages and email. We barf each other in restaurants and we barf each other at the mall. We barf each other in the morning and we barf each other at night.

On Feb. 14, we will return to that old cemetery near my apartment building where we had our first date. We will stroll amongst the tombstones thinking about all the poor saps out there buying flowers and feeding each other chocolate-covered strawberries in an effort to reenact some unattainable bit of cultural nostalgia that has long since become a trite marketing ploy. We will laugh and enjoy ourselves. We will sneer and roll our eyes. We will drink cheap wine. We will avoid poetry at all costs. We will talk about all the things we hate about Valentine’s Day. And then we will fall in barf all over again.

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