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Coupling

Forget the hearts and flowers

It's the unglamorous gestures that count

By Aine Greaney
February 13, 2011

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“I’m just running into the drugstore,” I tell my husband. I’m on my cellphone, crossing the icy parking lot in front of the strip mall near my office. My voice is sludgy with a winter cold. He’s on his cellphone, too, between stops at his on-the-road job. “You want anything?” I ask as the doors swish open to the fluorescent lights and the jumble of overhead aisle signs. “Maybe grab a few more boxes of tissues,” he says, sounding even more congested than I do. We always seem to get our winter colds in tandem: me first, then him.

I’m in an aisle full of nylon stockings and flimsy slippers. I tell him I’ll get the tissues. Then I tell him not to bother starting dinner; we’ll just warm up soup. From the stockings aisle I’m drawn, zombie-like, into the aisle of red roses and cupids and silhouettes of lovers against pink sunsets.

Valentines. Oh, right. Right. The annual love fest. Another Hallmark hoedown. “Your kisses make me feel like I still got it,” proclaims one billboard-sized card. “I still got nothing,” I want to scream back at the card’s embossed heart. For the past three nights, my sweetie and I have slept apart. I went upstairs to the attic guest room while he stayed in our bedroom – all so we wouldn’t wake each other up with our unsynchronized coughing fits.

In the candy aisle, the teddy bears hug their miniature boxes of chocolates and satin pillows to their lecherous little chests. Candy and satin and bears, oh my. If this be the food of love, I’ll pass. But wait! I’m a woman with a valentine of my very own, the man for whom I’ve come to buy tissues. We’ve been together for nigh on 24 years. In sickness and in health. So why do I feel all this palaver is not our language of love?

I fell in love in upstate New York, on a Saturday morning in 1987, just 10 months after I had arrived from my native Ireland. I came ashore looking for high adventure, not woozy romance. In this country of Willie Nelson, Butch Cassidy, and the Grateful Dead, I was after some rockin’ good times, not love, or at least not the kind of love that puts his socks in your bathroom hamper or your name on the sewer bill.

“I have a present for you,” he announced that Saturday, across the table at a downtown diner. Although we had just shared a plateful of eggs and hash browns, we had never really graduated beyond casual dating. He was part of the let’s-have-a-good-time plan. After breakfast, we walked back to his apartment, where my newly purchased, all-American car was still parked. A week before, I had snagged the 1977 Chevy Nova for $300 cash. It was turquoise blue with a white vinyl roof. Totally groovy, even if the interior smelled like old gumboots. Even if it was missing a rear side window.

We walked past my car to his. He opened the trunk to present his gift: a rear side window. The right make, year, and model. For an entire week, he had trawled the local salvage yards until he found it. Then, for the next two hours, the tools clanked on the blacktop and his backside jutted out through the car door as he meticulously installed my gift window. Swoon.

For the next 23 years, through housing and job moves, car breakdowns and family bereavements, financial downturns and marital squabbles, it would be all about this assiduous affection. Often, in this age of branded and broadcasted romance, ours seems like the unbranded, no-label version. We have our champagne moments. But when I push the “rewind” button of us, it’s the incidental snapshots that stand out. There’s one of us on a Cape Cod beach, reading our paperbacks in quiet companionship. In another, I’m passing him the paper towels to clean up after our cat’s latest fur-ball ejection. Or there he is, climbing the stairs to my writing room with an afternoon cup of tea.

The checkout woman is scanning my drugstore purchases: tissues, ibuprofen, and a bottle of store-brand nasal spray. “Will this be all for you today?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say. “I have everything I need.”

Aine Greaney’s novel Dance Lessons will be published in March. She lives in Newburyport. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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