You — you strange, you almost unearthly thing! — I love as my own flesh. You — poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are — I entreat to accept me as a husband.
In February 2012, inside my tall dorm room, the ceiling so high we called it “the cavern,” I watched Jane Eyre on my laptop, Brontë’s novel open beside me. I watched Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska under a gnarled willow, professing love, proposing marriage. How it made me shake, yearnful along my whole self.
In my stomach, an ulcer was forming. It would bleed later, during finals week. My mother, a gastrointestinal nurse, advised over the phone that I ingest only dairy: milk, plain yogurt, ice cream. I wrote my papers, bent over in my bed, faint. Faint like Jane on the moors, after she runs from Thornfield Hall. How badly then I wanted K. to be Rochester, the Byronic hero. How much he already was.
Upon reflection, my college boyfriend, K., aptly fits the archetype of a Byronic hero: brooding, highly intelligent, moody and sensual. As I wrote my Junior Independent Study on film adaptations of Jane Eyre, I saw myself in parallel with Jane—someone to “redeem” K., to be loved as his own flesh.
A year later, in 2013, K. and I stood fuming in opposite corners of his dorm room, as if facing off in a boxing ring. It was, unfortunately, Valentine’s Day, and I was being dumped. Just that morning, K. had given me roses, to compensate for being unavailable while working on his senior thesis (and, maybe also, for being emotionally unavailable always). I gazed for hours at those roses sitting in cellophane on my dresser. A twinge in my stomach—the old ulcer rearing its bloody mouth.
I could never love anyone who doesn’t understand philosophy. K. was a philosophy major. He was explaining to me how arguing was a fundamental part of his being. That he needed someone to argue with—a sparring partner. Well, we’re arguing now, I said. It was true, I had never wanted to have long, grueling disputes with him. I preferred instead for us to go out to the Pizza Hut just beyond campus, to swing dance on Friday nights, to spoon in our Twin XL beds. I wanted to date K., not debate him.
It seemed unacceptable that this was the fissure, that this was what prevented him from loving me. I demanded—no, deserved—a better answer. At twenty-two, it was outside my romantic belief system that breakups could just happen, incomprehensible, beyond explanation, beyond my will to fix everything. I loved K. in that dizzying young way in which I forgave every hurt, in which I obsessed and prayed and spiraled him—blood circling the drain.
The history of Valentine’s Day is remarkably gory. There are actually several St. Valentines, all of whom were either beheaded or martyred. The holiday is said to be an “offshoot” of the ancient Roman festival, Lupercalia, a pagan celebration involving rituals of animal sacrifice and flagellation to ward off “evil spirits and infertility.” In the fourteenth century, Valentine’s Day was popularized as a romantic holiday by Chaucer in his poem, “The Parliament of Fowls,” in which he names “Seynt Valentynes Day” as the day “whan every foul cometh” to choose his mate.
As one would expect, in a year I had become a little more ravaged, a little disillusioned. No more Mr. Rochester under the willow. There was shame, a remorse that seemed to bruise me, marking me as a failure. The relationship had failed, hadn’t it? Often I felt like the speaker in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”:
Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape
The hardship and occasional joy of the previous year seemed always to be running beneath me. By the time Valentine’s rolled around again, I was resolute: I could not spend the day by myself, moping in self-pity. I would cushion myself in love, the love of friendship and community. On the fourteenth, I woke optimistically, texting each of my friends: Hey, anyone want to see a movie tonight?
It was a Friday and Snowpocalypse was approaching our Midwestern town. After a morning of student conferences, I retreated to my apartment, already feeling defeated as more friends replied that they had plans or that they didn’t feel like braving the storm. Sleep began to enclose me, white flakes growing on the needle grass outside.
From a letter, 2011: Write me a poem sometime. Not necessarily a good one, just one you think I’d like. I miss you already. I think I am hung-over from your love. Being together is practically intoxicating. I just got a text—I wished it was from you.—K.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, each Lupercalia celebration began with the sacrifice “of goats and a dog,” after which two priests were led to an altar where “their foreheads were touched with a bloody knife, and the blood was wiped off with wool dipped in milk.” The colors red and white—the red of the bloody sacrifice and the knife, the white of the wool and the milk—became symbolic of Lupercalia and, consequently, of Valentine’s Day.
Brutal red, immaculate white—embodying pain and revival, a “new life.”
I was awakened by the train, cutting just a mile from my apartment. It was just past sun-fall and my phone was littered with texts from friends excusing themselves. All except for Joe, that is, who had brightly answered, Yeah, sure! I would love to hang out.
Joe, my giant, bearded friend. We had kissed, once and briefly, at a grad student party. It had been awkward: my short stature, his burly frame, his wide face, my big teeth. I didn’t feel an urgent attachment to Joe and had decided he wasn’t worth pursuing. Still, we remained friendly. When my parents would visit, Mom would always order a pulled-pork sandwich, which she inevitably couldn’t finish and didn’t want to take home. Do you have anyone you could give this to? she would ask (I am vegetarian) and I would save the leftovers for Joe. It was always a quick transaction: he would knock on my door, pick up the Styrofoam box, say thanks, and be on his way.
Half-hoping for Joe to back out of my invitation, I told him it would be just us, that no one else could make it. My screen lit up: That’s not a problem for me. Come over at 7?
Because the snowfall was so thick and still coming on, there was a snow emergency throughout the county, meaning much of the street parking near the movie theater was off-limits for the snowplow. For half an hour, we orbited the main drag, searching for an empty space, the defroster on blast. We decided, eventually, that it would be easier to park back at Joe’s apartment and walk instead.
For a good mile, we tromped through the cold, white inches. Our faces turned wet—droplets flecked Joe’s beard, my glasses. This is a God-forsaken holiday. But I’m glad we’re doing this, he laughed. I smirked under my boiled-wool hat. On High Street, we stopped for bagel sandwiches, then dark beer at the nearby Irish pub. We sat among young couples and watched The LEGO Movie at The Princess, a theater which no longer exists. It caught fire—ironically, from an overheated ice machine—one month after our date.
I call it a date since it became so in our history—the first of many, of five years dating together. My long-held notions of love dissipated with Joe. It was a love unrecognizable, nothing like my Gothic romances, nothing like K.: what I felt was slow, un-dramatic, enduring. You’re going to have to marry him, Mom said within the first minutes of meeting Joe. He was carrying my boxes to the moving truck, to a new apartment. Mom, please, I said, but quietly, guardedly, I agreed with her. How astonished I was by the easiness of it. How easy to trust that Joe would be there tomorrow, without that desperation, without having to prove my value. I feel this still, in the home we’ve made with our cat, Soup, with our bookshelves and laundry and bed. Loving Joe is comfortable, is painless.
I am sorry I gave you an ulcer, K. said in my lofted twin bed, in the cavernous room. Just the two of us up there, waiting for my parents to arrive and drive me off to summer. It was certainly possible that the stress of dating K. had caused the ulcer. It was hard work being with him. I had always prided myself on my work ethic, in school, in jobs. Even my name, Emily, means industrious, diligent, striving. I am good at striving despite difficulty. My hand on K.’s just-shaven jaw, his straw-blonde hair. How could I possibly fail?
When my chapbook came out in 2016, and then my first book last year, each publisher, separate and coincidentally, chose Valentine’s Day as the release date. What are the odds? Each editor described how “fitting” Valentine’s would be, with my writing that is so lush, sugary, romantic. I do consider myself romantic, knowing intimately the red, indelible hurt, never fully cleaned, never separate from what follows, even if what follows is a new life.
Emily Corwin is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Entropy, and elsewhere. Her first full-length collection, tenderling was released from Stalking Horse Press in 2018 and her manuscript, sensorium was recently selected for publication with the University of Akron Press. You can follow her online at @exitlessblue.