Henry spent the fall working on a red MG sports car outside the window of my bedroom. He wore a thin white t-shirt and looked for all the world like a blond Marlon Brando from Streetcar Named Desire. ( see attached picture. Rather than post a picture of Henry and embarrass him, I have included Marlon Brando. Enjoy).
Needless to say, I was intrigued.
We lived together in a college co-operative house. When I finally got the nerve to visit his room, it wasn’t at all what I expected. Mid- century sci fi novels, philosphical treatises, and books on cosmology and number theory filled every available shelf and spilled across his desk and coffee table. Not only was he a gearhead, he was a reader. He shared his room with three possessive, ill-behaved female cats abandoned by previous tenants. His cats eyed me warily and suspiciously, unwilling to share Henry's attention with me.
I fell in love with Henry on the best night of the year, Halloween. Only I didn’t know it was love. I didn’t realize I was in love with Henry until years later. I am a skeptical by a nature, a true loner.
And then came Christmas, the make or break test of all first year relationships. Christmas is the land mine of love. Christmas reveals how romantic and thoughtful and committed you are.
If Christmas is the test of true romance, then I suck at romance.
Henry went home to Houston for Christmas and I stayed in Austin. He returned from Houston with an armload of neatly-wrapped, charming gifts for me: a white linen nightgown, and a botanical tea cup, and other ladylike things. I had nothing for him.
I forgot to buy him a Christmas present. I forget things. This is what I do.
I should have accepted his gifts graciously and apologized for forgetting Christmas, but I didn’t. Instead, I submerged my embarrassment under a thick layer of feminist ire at the lady- nature of his gifts. I didn’t know Henry well enough at the time to know that he really likes lavender-scented sachets, and linen nightdresses. Henry is effusive and romantic. I’m not.
Still, I felt bad. Covering for the fact that I forgot to buy a Christmas present with a marxist feminist rant put me firmly in horrible girlfriend territory. I had to do something to ease my guilty conscience.
I resolved to do better for Valentine’s Day.
Henry loves white roses, and so I bought two dozen white roses. Also, a box of chocolates and a lacey Valentine’s day card. I'm not a romantic person by nature, but I did watch a lot of cartoons growing up, enough to know that chocolate and flowers are the go to Valentine's Day present for sentimental types like Henry. Thank you, bugs bunny! I left the card, the flowers, and the valentine on his desk. And then I waited impatiently for him to come home from class, sure in my belief that I'd nailed this romance thing.
Mid- afternoon, Henry came home. He took one look at the flowers, the card, and the chocolates and said: “Crebble crease somebody gloves shoes.”
And then he strode out of the room. I was baffled. I’m not great at auditory processing, but I make my way through normal daily conversation using context clues. This was my first real stab at romance, and I had no context to cue off of.
I decided to ask a neuro-typical friend for clarification. I told her about leaving the flowers and the card and the chocolate, told her about his rather odd pronouncement. She didn’t even try to decipher the statement. She only asked one question:
“Did he read the card you wrote?”
“No,” I replied.
“Then it’s simple,” she said. “Woman don't usually give men flowers. He thinks some other guy sent you the flowers.”
I thought about this. And suddenly, I was able to decipher his words. Sometimes it happens this way. All I need is a bit of context to decode previously unfathomable statement. What Henry said was: “Well, at least somebody loves you.”
Henry didn’t return until late Valentine’s night. And when he did return, he was still angry, but a least he was ready to talk.
I wish I could say that he read the card and that we both had a good laugh. He read it, and was embarrassed that he'd over-reacted. I was unhappy that my first big romantic gesture had fallen flat.
Like so many things others take for granted—reading, managing time, making small talk—I had to learn the rules of romance. And it took a long time and more patience than I thought I had for relationships. Love was a book elegantly bound but in a language I couldn't read. (thank you, Ben Gibbard, for the perfect metaphor. Or is it an analogy?)
Fortunately, Henry has all the patience in the world for neglected cats and forgetful, impulsive women. He still loves flowers, but these days he prefers white lilies to white roses. And Valentine's Day, as nice as it is, has never quite been our holiday.