Today is Valentine’s Day. A few years ago I celebrated it (“commemorated” would be a better word), with a housemate named Matt. We went to a movie by the same name (Valentine’s Day) in a theatre filled with about three hundred teenage girls. Then we went out for Japanese. More recently, I celebrated it with a date at a restaurant in the Bronx that featured a guy in a toupée imitating Dion DiMucci.
Today, I am neither commemorating nor celebrating Valentine’s Day. Instead, it has made me reflect on my attraction to femmes fatales. No, not an all-female, wrestling troupe but women who lead me into trouble and who are themselves deeply troubled. I do not claim innocence here. Far from it. I am as wittingly led as they wittingly lead.
It all started in the second grade with Gabriel, a friend who lived next door. His cousin was in town one day and the three of us went across the street to play on a tree swing. His cousin was an older girl with long, blonde hair and dreamy eyes. She wore a dress with a blue sash that she wound and unwound around her slender fingers. I was smitten. How could I not be?
But there was a problem. The cousin was as vain and cruel as Stella in Great Expectations, which we watched every Christmas along with It’s A Wonderful Life and the yule log from Gracie Mansion. The closer I got to Stella, the further she moved away. Finally, she left in a huff, jumping off the swing and shooting a look of disdain at me from her cold shoulder. I was crushed. How could I not be?
Thus began a life of ritualized dancing with the opposite sex. The dance consists of my attraction to what my daughter calls “Crazy Eye,” followed immediately by Crazy Eye snubbing me à la Stella. Eventually, however, I win over Crazy Eye only to end the affair in dramatic fashion. Sometimes Crazy Eye ends it.
This is a typical dance. I thought it would end as I got older and a little less ego-driven, but relationships are complicated things. Insight alone will not make them work. They require muscle memory, which means habitual, disciplined practice. Being a target for Cupid’s arrow only extends the dance lesson and prolongs the humiliation.
Then again, we are not in control of what makes the heart start pounding. Practice doesn’t help. It is a popular truism that emotions are spontaneous and reckless but our response to them does not have to be. In that regard, St. Paul’s observation makes perfect sense to me: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom 7.15). Remember Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it”?
We all need a little excitement in life, and therein lies the rub. For we are prone to do not just the things we hate but the things we need. What’s more, it turns out they are the same thing. Does that mean we are hard-wired for soft lights and torch songs? Ask Johnny Farrell, who fell for a nightclub singer named Gilda. The singer, played by 40’s bombshell Rita Hayworth, was a first-class Crazy Eye with beautiful red hair. I think they met at a tree swing.