All three stories sound like urban boyfriend legends. But Peony Guy does exist—he colors my hair. And yes, Virginia, somewhere outside Tucson there lives a 71-year-old gentleman who is still madly in love with the girl who taught him to hopscotch. As for Mr. Ooh-La-La, I saw the engagement ring with my own two eyes and—so help me God—that diamond was bigger than my high school.
When I recount the tale of my friend's Parisian proposal to Johannes (a.k.a. the father of my child, the love of my life), there is a thoughtful pause. I know he must be doing what I did—picturing the giddy hand-in-hand walk along the Seine, the caviar on toast points at dinner, Notre Dame glowing against a blanket of stars in the night sky. I sigh. He sighs: "Hey, do you remember the time I went out and bought the stuff that turned the water in your toilet that cool ocean blue color?"
"Yeah, honey," I said. "I remember."
I am a sensible woman. I keep Bactine in my medicine chest, an umbrella in my office, $200 in my sock drawer. I'd sooner remove my own spleen with a grapefruit spoon than buy a set of sheets that require ironing. I believe in practical shoes, low-maintenance hair, and whichever frozen peas happen to be on sale. I'm not entirely sure what a bodice is, but I can tell you that I don't want mine ripped. Still, I can't help feeling that there's something to be said for moons and Junes and Ferris wheels. I believe in the power of marabou, the brothers Gershwin, bubble baths in claw-footed tubs surrounded by a bazillion twinkly white candles. I believe in strawberries coated in dark chocolate and raspberries floating in pink Champagne. I'm glad Victoria has a few secrets. I think fireplaces should be lit, compliments should be paid, La Bohème should be sung, legs should be shaved. I want Lassie to come home, I want Ali MacGraw to live, and I want Gene Kelly to dip Cyd Charisse straight into next Thursday. I'm not proud of this, but in the interest of full disclosure, here it is: I am deeply relieved when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan finally kiss. My name is Lisa, and I am a romantic.
J: What are you reading about?
L: Ida and Isidor Straus. They were an amazing couple! Instead of getting into the lifeboat, she decided to die with her husband on the Titanic. Of course, if Julia were grown, I'd do the same for you.
J: What do you mean?
L: What do you mean, what do I mean?
J: You're not getting in the lifeboat?
L: No, I love you too much to let you drown all by yourself.
J: But I won't be by myself—I think they were playing poker and getting drunk.
L: So you're saying that you'd rather play poker with John Jacob Astor than cuddle with me?
J: That's not what I'd be doing, because if you're not getting your ass into that lifeboat, then I am. We are not leaving an empty seat.
L: Oh, you're getting into that boat over my dead body.
J: Where the hell is the Tylenol?
L: Try the bathroom...you know, the place with the ocean blue toilet water.
J: You mean like the ocean you want both of us to sink to the bottom of?
Things kind of spiraled downward from there, and I still break into a cold sweat every time Celine Dion starts wailing about how her heart will go on.
So Johannes and I won't be taking a cruise together anytime soon. And no, those weren't his arms around me as I perched on a dune watching the sun come up over the Sea of Galilee; he wasn't the man who sent me a basket of French damson plums or the one who wanted all babies to have my nose. The slow dances are few and far between these days, and walks in the rain usually involve him running up ahead with the stroller.
But he did teach me how to fly a kite last summer, and we have been known to share steamed dumplings in a little East Village dive he discovered a few years back, and sometimes early in the morning I overhear him playing "tea party" with our daughter, and sometimes late at night I overhear him playing Blackbird with his guitar. He has genuine integrity, he has serious style, and he's pulled me through more than one bout of the stomach flu. Anybody can sprinkle rose petals across a big brass bed, but only a real man will hold your hair while you're throwing up.
Now, there are those who will say that references to intense nausea don't belong in a column about romance, but I'm thinking maybe it's time we broaden our definition of what constitutes romance. Ask yourself this: When the man you love realizes that half the screws are missing from the Ikea bookcase he's attempting to assemble for you, does he:
(a) Complain bitterly about herring and Volvos—vowing to forsake all things Swedish for the rest of his natural days?
(b) Leave the shelving in a heap on the living room floor and question your need to read in the first place?
(c) Complete construction using a combination of rubber bands and Krazy Glue while suggesting you fill the thing with pamphlets rather than actual books?
If you answered (c), then, my friend, life is good—because it means somebody out there loves you enough to try to get your bookcase together. That creative effort is the kind of everyday gesture on which great romances are built. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that while at the drugstore picking up the amulet of poison, Romeo also picked up a copy of People for Juliet. I like to imagine Abelard taping Grey's Anatomy for Heloise. I bet a day didn't go by that Mel Brooks wasn't funny for Anne Bancroft.
Don't get me wrong, I'll always want the chubby little cupids and coconut bonbons, but lately I find myself drawn to something richer, deeper, sweeter. Provided nobody decides to do a remake of Titanic, with Johannes each day is Valentine's Day.
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