Valentine’s Day is a day for lovers. I used to be a lover — a certified lover boy at that. Or at least that’s what I thought I was until I experienced a Valentine’s Day from hell.

You see, prior to turning into the Grinch that stole Valentine’s Day, I took pride in this holiday. So much pride that you would think I was Cupid himself.

It all started in second grade, where I’d beg my mother to buy all the young ladies in my class, including my teacher Ms. Dee, heart-shaped Reese’s cups and decorative cards. The result was I was liked by all of my girl classmates. I also became the target of a few jealous boys in my class. As the Gen Z kids say, I was an opp, or slang for opponent or enemy. I didn’t mind. I loved competition.

By the time I got to middle school, I developed a deep love for poetry and thus learned to write love poems. Looking back, my poems sucked terribly but my seventh grade girlfriend thought otherwise and considered me “deep”. She loved my “I love you like a fat kid loves cake” poem so much that she saved it in a big binder with other photos — an early 2000s trend.

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When I got to high school, I had graduated from Dollar Store V-Day gifts to buying my then-girlfriend a Build a Bear. We would give our bear a cute nickname and Nextel “chirp” all night, caught up in our puppy love.

As a broke college student, I had to become more creative in my approach. I’d save just enough money from my tax refund check for Edible Arrangement fruit displays and one heart balloon. If I had no money, I would create a Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt around campus that would ultimately lead my Valentine to an intimate location, usually the library, where we would laugh, share good conversation and kiss.

But my love, creativity and competitive nature for Valentine’s Day ended in 2013 when I was in a post-college relationship with a young lady that we’ll call Shaylah.

Shaylah was perfect to me. So perfect, that whenever I saw her, the song “Dilemma” by Nelly and Kelly popped in my head. Her black crinkly hair seemed to always blow in the wind and her slicked-down baby hairs and light brown eyes would sparkle. She always smelled like buttercream too.

She stood 5′3″ and as the great T-Pain would say, she had the body of a goddess. She had the smoothest butter-pecan skin and the most perfect dimples — ones that could fit a Hershey Kiss when she smiled.

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Shaylah was soft-spoken, warm and educated. And like me, she was fresh out of college, but fortunate enough to snag an entry-level government job. She articulated herself well in the office and in social circles, which gave her a confident aura that some might say was fiery. And I liked fiery women.

I was on the opposite end of the post-undergrad spectrum. Stuck in the euphoria of graduating and still figuring it out. I was still living in a frat house with my roommates and had not yet found a job worthy of my four-year degree.

I was working full time at H&M doing everything from loss prevention to folding clothes. Thanks to that gig, I always had a decent fit when I took Shaylah out; she was really impressed with my style. “You really know how to put it together,” she’d say.

And even though I didn’t have a lot of money after paying rent, buying food (mainly Chipotle), and breadcrumbing Sallie Mae student loan payments, I always made a way to put it together. I would go above and beyond to plan dates and surprise Shaylah with small gifts. I was also living outside of my means.

The dynamic in our dating changed on our first Valentine’s Day, when I believe the honeymoon phase of our love wore off and my February 14 tactics were exposed.

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We had agreed to stay in and meet at my house to exchange gifts since Valentine’s Day fell on a work day. I picked up carry out and Sutter Home moscato, and the night started off smoothly.

I opened my gift first because I’d been conditioned to understand V-Day wasn’t about me. Shaylah opened hers next as I began to play an imaginary drum roll.

Now here is where you imagine Kanye West’s smile that turns into a frown on Shaylah’s face. “Oh, Wallace,” she blurted out, her tone indifferent but soft. “This is … nice.” She paused, stuck for words. “But you know, next time, get me a Michael Kors watch instead of a little ole Guess watch?

My heart sank. It was as if all my years of being a skilled romantic went down the drain. When it came to giving Valentine’s Day gifts, I not only assumed I was flawless, but that I was also God’s gift to women. But her words cut deep, and my confidence crumbled in an instant. We didn’t argue that night, but my ego was so bruised that I ended the relationship a few weeks later.

The male ego is extremely strong but very fragile, because from that moment forward, I couldn’t shake the feeling of inadequacy during gift-sharing holidays and birthdays. Whenever I thought about it, I tensed up and froze. The joy I once found in giving got overshadowed by the fear of disappointment and rejection.

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That same fear trickled in every relationship that followed, morphing me from a “gifts should be from the heart” type of guy into a guy that hated giving gifts. I despised Valentine’s Day so much that I allowed bitterness to linger and destroy my affectionate ways all around. I developed gift “anxiety”.

But time has passed and wounds have healed. And I realize that gifts are an ingredient in the recipe of love, not the final dish. What should be perceived behind a gift is intentionality, affection and sincerity, not a price tag. I understand this now, and I am selective and cautious on how I approach gift-giving these days.

This Valentine’s Day I’m ready to pick back where I left off. I’m ready to be the the priest from SuperFly of Valentine’s Day that I know I can be (just joking), whether that is through creating a card, planning a date, cooking a romantic meal or creating a ’90s R&B playlist.

Happy Valentine’s Day — even to Shaylah.

Wallace Lane is part of The Baltimore Banner's Creatives in Residence program, which amplifies the work of artists and writers from the Baltimore region.

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