I had felt safe in the expectation that the reservation he made at our favorite Indian restaurant in the Old Market signaled a sweet night ahead. Sitting opposite one another in the booth, a small candle flittered as we beamed at one another across the linen table cloth. He reached to retrieve a small rectangular gold box with an extraordinarily elegant matching bow and placed it in front of me.
My heart leapt at the sight of it. I love beautifully wrapped packages, and this was exceptional. Given its shape and size, I suspected a bracelet. I desperately tried to lower my now raised expectations, envisioning perhaps handmade dark chocolate truffles. John looked pleased with himself as I resisted the urge to clap my hands like a toddler about to open a new toy. I lifted the lid and folded back the delicate dark brown paper. There it was: a solid dark chocolate piece of male anatomy.
In an instant he knew he’d made a mistake. I masked my horror with a sickly grin, pooling tears at risk of ruining the double coat of mascara I’d applied for our Valentine dinner. The man didn’t have an unkind bone in his body, but in this moment the hurt he assumed he’d inflicted was undeniable.
John was a playful man and my best teacher for not taking myself and life so seriously. On that Hallmark holiday, I fell victim to my own expectations created from a lifetime of linking this day on the calendar to all things pretty, pink, and romantic. Delivering flowers to friends around the city. Baking raspberry filled heart shaped cookies. Hours spent selecting perfect lingerie and linguini in the hopes of making a lover happy. I had enthusiastic expectations.
That disappointing dinner became a story that for too long left me feeling sad and somewhat shame-filled. Many years later, I can finally laugh. Having repeatedly inflicted self-imposed suffering because of my insistent expectations, I have robbed myself of joy and meaning far too many times in life.
Luckily for me, John the prankster had a compassionate heart in the presence of my undeniable vulnerability. The result: a heartfelt chat about good intentions and a prompt decision to put the awkward moment behind us. A choice by both of us to be loving saved the night.
As this Valentine’s Day approaches, our culture and our past are likely to infuse us with expectations. For those experiencing divorce, it can feel as though every other person in the world has a sweetheart, a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, a diamond bracelet to give or receive, and hot sex awaiting. If we once had any of these, emptiness can couple with expectation, adding to the ache.
I remain a fervent believer in expectations. I just struggle to make sure that they are ones I can control. The seasons of my life, the situation of my holiday, and the circumstances of my relationship often are beyond that. So my plans this year? Morning coffee with the New York Times, a winter walk with friends, a chocolate indulgence of some sort, and a long soak in the tub with a good read. I suspect my expectations might even be exceeded.