I used to wholeheartedly believe that as a child, some sort of twisted Valentine's Day curse had been cast upon me. Not to be dramatic, but Feb. 14 has always felt apocalyptic to me. Let's see — it all started in the eighth grade, when I waited all day for my middle school boyfriend to text me, only to end the night crying into a carton of ice cream. Alas, it wasn't until I got dumped on Valentine's Day that I learned the true woes of "falling" for someone.
Falling inevitably means that you are either fated to land on your own two feet, or say, doomed to crash into a herd of cattle (or something equally as climactic). When the latter happens, there's a good chance you'll get hurt. But I've since learned that only then, can something truly miraculous happen: You force yourself to get up, and begin walking again — this time, taller than ever before. That's exactly what happened to me: Ending a relationship on the most romantic day of the year allowed me to let go of the seemingly high expectations I had placed upon falling in love. And in due time, I was able to look for love again — but this time, in all the right places, with all the right people.
I met Paul* in college, upon returning from a semester-long study abroad program in Paris. After four months of getting lost on charming side-streets and emulating a young Gertrude Stein, I had come back to campus with a certain ambivalence, an "I'm over this" attitude. I was yearning for excitement, for instability; instead I was met with pointless parties in the same rooms with the same people singing "Gold Digger" for the five millionth time. So, when I was introduced to a mysterious new coworker who shared my affinity for the Alabama Shakes, I was intrigued.
We began to flirt with each other while on shift at the bodega where we were both employed — he manned the cash register while I stocked the shelves. One late night after locking up, he suggested we retreat to the Washington Monuments and check out the stars. In the wake of a whirlwind night that lasted until 4:00 a.m., I returned to my bed, thrilled that the taste of adventure had returned to me once more. What followed was a series of adrenaline-riddled dates. I cut my jeans hopping a fence so we could sneak out onto the football field at night. We sat by the Potomac River and passed a bottle of wine back and forth, swapping stories about our families. He filled a small hole that had been growing inside of me ever since I had returned the States: The absence of who I was once and the comfort that I had once felt being surrounded by my peers, which now felt lost to me.
When Valentine's Day came around a couple months later, I was cautious — hyperaware of my V-Day curse, I couldn't help but be suspicious of the holiday. So, I called in reinforcements. My little sister took a train up from New York into Washington D.C., prepared to stay with me for the weekend. Having her by my side gave me a sense of security and a rare feeling of calm. Thus, I made an effort not to freak out in anticipation of the dreaded holiday, which fell on a Saturday. My sister and I spent the day together at the zoo, and getting lost amongst the red pandas. It felt mindlessly fun and carefree! I even made arrangements to introduce her to Paul, by sneaking her into the sold-out comedy show he was performing in that afternoon. As we laughed side by side, I couldn't help but thinking, "This is too good to be true." No Valentine's Day had ever gone so well.
The night of, Paul and I had planned to work the closing shift together. I wasn't scheduled until 11 p.m., so I grabbed dinner with my sister and roommate beforehand, voicing my excitement to be spending Valentine's Day with him. They both reminded me to manage my expectations — after all, we had been keeping whatever we were doing a secret from our coworkers in an attempt to avoid outside speculation. With our relationship left somewhat undefined, I was afraid to get my hopes up, only to watch them crumble back down.
I showed up to the shift doused in perfume, and smiling widely as if I'd been struck by Cupid's arrow. Everything felt normal — we listened to music, partook in some passionate debates, and catered to our customers. But as the clock struck 1:00 a.m. and doors locked behind us, I decided to lean in for a kiss. "What are you doing?" He asked. I was confused. Had we not chosen to spend Valentine's Day together? Had I somehow misinterpreted his feelings or misunderstood his intentions?
Paul began to ramble. He spoke quickly and aimlessly, but between his soft-spoken words, I caught several sentences. He wanted us to be coworkers in public and intimate in private. Unbeknownst to me, his love life was complicated and there were more people he owed answers to. Ultimately, I uncovered that he had feelings for his closest friend that he had yet to unpack.
I listened to everything he had to say, then shut my eyes tightly. His rant had exhausted me, and I had heard enough. So, I gave him an ultimatum: We could put this night behind us and pursue and real relationship, or nip it at the bud right there and then, and remain friends. He chose the latter. We were done. I turned around just as it began to snow. As I walked away, I secretly hoped that he'd call out after me. He didn't, and I treaded slowly back to my sister, tears in my eyes and flakes on my lashes.
After sobbing into my sister's shoulder for the remainder of the weekend, I finally gained enough distance and perspective to see the situation a bit more clearly. The truth was, Paul and I were never truly attracted to each other — rather, we were drawn to the idea of one another. We both sought the thrill of romance. We craved the ache that sits at the bottom of your belly after sharing a good laugh or cry. We had human needs, and desired human interaction, but with different human beings. Ultimately, Paul was never destined to give me what I wanted — because what I truly yearned for wasn't company, but to feel complete in my own body. I had felt like a shadow of my former self ever since I had returned to school. Admitting that felt good — great, even. I was ready to become acquainted with the new me. An Iman who welcomed change and laughed in the face of curses.
It's been many years since that fated Valentine's Day breakup, and I can honestly say that I'm happy that events unfolded in the way that they did. Ending my fling with Paul made it painstakingly clear to me what I did and didn't want from future-partners: long-term commitment, not fleeting moments of satisfaction. But first, I had to feel happy in my own skin again. So, I decided to take a break from dating and instead, wine and dine myself. And you know what? We really hit it off — it was a perfect match.
All curses are bestowed, only to broken. Three years ago, after meeting my current partner, I put an end to mine by unexpectedly using Valentine's Day as an opportunity to utter those three little words, "I love you," for the very first time. I undid my hex with something even more powerful than love: faith. The faith that even if I were to fall once again, that I'd find myself back on my own two feet, taller than ever, with a smile on my face. Faith that maybe, falling isn't so scary after all — because for a brief moment, you get to fly.
*Names have been changed.