Seemingly nobody at the University celebrated Valentines Day on February 14. Lovers citing hectic Monday nights and stress-filled seventh weeks have turned the Friday and Saturday before the actual saint's day into "Valentine's Weekend." Even those without boyfriends or girlfriends host Valentine parties, where revelers can chase their gin and tonics with heart-shaped sugar cookies. But I do not intend to bemoan the expansion of the holiday. I like pink cupcakes, red roses and The O.C.'s Valentine's Day episode. So it was with this enthusiasm that I set out on the Saturday before St. Valentine's Day to see how University of Chicago students were honoring romance. It was an evening that proved less sweet than the sugary conversation hearts that kept asking me to Be Mine.
My roommate emerged from her room in a tomato-red dress and a pair of shiny silver pumps. She and her boyfriend were celebrating early; they were going to a play and then dinner. How sophisticated.
I had been invited to a Valentine's Day party. The e-mail invitation was an act of seduction. I was tantalized with promises of a "workshop on how to mortify the flesh in pursuit of a chaste and spiritual love." The hosts would be leading very esoteric discussions "on the proper appreciation of women, as put forth by Schopenhauer," and reading from an original work: Thirtysomethings I Have Loved. Most auspicious was the call to make out in the closet. My appetite was whet for a marriage of the mind, soul and body, the likes of which Plato would never have dreamed.
When I arrived, already tipsy from the half-bottle of champagne that I had consumed in anticipation, I was one of 11 people at this party. None of the activities promised in the e-mail were taking place. Instead, the partygoers were sitting around, sipping vanilla-flavored vodka tonics and licking icing off the heads of tiny cupcakes.
But there are worse environments in which to spend a Saturday evening than one that is supplied with novelty alcohol and baked treats. So I sat down and began chatting up my fellow guests. All was going well until the toilet overflowed while I was in the bathroom. I've been in some pretty embarrassing situations at Hyde Park apartment parties before, but this one topped them all: There I stood on my tiptoes while water rushed from the toilet tank, eyeing the plunger in a spirit of helplessness. I had had enough. I flooded the bathroom and still didn't really know what Schopenhauer thought of women. I downed the rest of my champagne, grabbed a couple of candy hearts for the road and took off.
I cruised into Jimmy's, formally known as the Woodlawn Tap, and breathed a sigh of relief at the smoke-heavy aura of the place. At least here I would be a paying customer, not just a girl who waltzed into a party, broke the plumbing, and fled. I mentioned to my friends that I was writing an article on Valentine's Day at the University to a chorus of cynical chuckles.
Kevin, a recent graduate, wryly recollected his last Valentine's Day, when he made his girlfriend cry. A failed attempt to go to a New York-style pizzeria coupled with a stressful day left the young lady fretting about their relationship and about their inability to execute a successful date. "But eventually we ended up at Piccolo Mondo and had an OK time," he concluded. All's well that ends well, I guess.
We weren't the only ones with romance, past and present, on our minds. Two tables behind us an attractive, well-heeled foursome was gleefully knocking back cocktails. A pair of guys in slick suits had taken the ladies out on the town before rounding out the night at Jimmy's. Well, from the look of things, the evening would probably end with the foursome dividing in two and then retiring to bedrooms. Nice to see people getting lucky due to Weekend Before Valentine's Day magic.
I decided to view my somewhat ill-fated pre-Valentine's experiences optimistically, as a means of getting all the bad luck out of my system before the big day. Flooding a friend's bathroom at a party meant that I wouldn't commit a similarly disgusting and embarrassing gaffe on Monday. And as for my friend's tale of past Valentine's woe, he and the girlfriend he brought to tears on the year's most important day for couples are still together.