The odd little space thing between looks and love.

Valentine’s Day is a pretty straightforward concept. You celebrate your history of smooching someone with a tasty dinner, set of flowers, box of chocolates, greeting card, stuffed teddy bear, or sometimes even some minerals dug out of rock somewhere far away. And when you’ve taken care of all that, you get to engage in special commemorative smoochies, and on and on.

It’s a pretty good gig as long as you’re on the inside. This year, I happen not to be. So I want to talk about something that nobody thinks about on Valentine’s Day, something nobody designs greeting cards for. I want to talk about the people you never get to kiss in all your life. The people that you know will be that way from the moment you first lay eyes on them. I want to talk about crushes.

Some precision is required here. People use the word crush to describe a lot of different things, because if there’s one thing that turns our tongues to stone and brains to mush, it’s love. I don’t want to talk about crushes in the sense of people who you’re sweet on but haven’t yet developed the wherewithal to go up and ask permission to kiss them. I’m not talking about the way that teenage girls sometimes feel about the likes of 98°.

I’m talking about full-on pseudo-romantic engagement with people you don’t really know.

I should say that again. Let me stop pretending this is about the imaginary you I’ve been talking to so far. Let me stop pretending that it’s you that I’m asking permission of now. It’s hard to be honest and perhaps pathetic without telling yourself that’s it’s okay. (This is Valentine’s Day, after all.)

I have crushes sometimes on people I don’t really know.

When I think about it, the ones that stick out in my mind were the ones I had when I was in college. I always had crushes on women in my classes whose names I never even knew until months into the semester.

But it wasn’t random. There were reasons why I developed each crush. The funny thing is that I’ll never know what they were. A friend of mine once accused me: “You like her just because you like looking at her boobs!”

Strictly speaking, this was true, but it wasn’t really the whole story. I guess that’s the other kind of crush that I forgot to mention earlier — the strange attraction your genetic impulses make you feel for someone just because of the pair of legs they own. These feelings are easy to have and easy to lose, because no matter what happens, someday you’ll always find a better pair of legs in the world.

Crushes for me do have something to do with the shape of people’s faces, the way eyes can turn your inner ear balance inside out. But I don’t grow crushes on people who look like models. There’s something about the people I have crushes on that makes me happy just to look at them. Maybe the word for it is pretty or cute. But both of these words make me think of ghostwhite doilies, and whatever it is that ushers up that pineapple glow in me, it isn’t manmade, and it’s not fragile.

Couldn’t really tell you what is, like I said. It’s probably better that way. But once I’ve got it, it can last as long as I want. I never really talk with my crushes, so they never have the chance to show me that I was wrong after all, that their lives aren’t as ephemeral as they seem to me. So meeting my crushes is sort of like having an exceptionally nice patch of weather in the afternoon. It’s impossible to expect more of it than you can feel on your skin.

I sneak little glances of them at parties, the way you sometimes steal an extra hors d’oeuvre when you think nobody’s watching you. (My crushes always wear either angel wings or devil-black outfits at Halloween parties. I’ve never figured it out.)

I listen to them speak to other people and feel warm just from the sound of their voices. My crushes always have soft voices, the kind that a drowning sailor could hear in the middle of a hurricane.

And when they do speak to me, I find myself reminding myself that I shouldn’t treat them any nicer than the niceness I already reserve for all the people who live outside my body. It wouldn’t be fair, somehow. It seems irrational now. But this doesn’t surprise me.

When I see them walking along a brick path holding hands with an impossibly handsome boy, I don’t feel anything but a sense that it’s right that way. It doesn’t hurt me or make me grip onto my (hopeless, fragile, manmade) crush tighter. I think that’s what makes this kind of crush different from any other kind.

I guess that in a sense, it’s a lot like appreciating the world on its own terms, like gazing out of the window of a math class as the professor’s words grow slower and slower, and watching the wind fly through the leaves of an old tree. No fabrication is necessary. And so I think my crushes aren’t unhealthy, the way infatuations are. (How tricky words are.) Or, for that matter, a lot of relationships.

What makes this Valentine’s Day especially weird for me is that I don’t even have a crush on anyone. The holiday requires a little stamina to make it through if you don’t share a smooching history with anyone, and a little more than that if you’ve been wanting to ask someone out but have suddenly decided to do it for the big day. But it’s a little odd when you don’t even have the slightest inclination toward candy hearts.

I think it’s because I’m stuck at a peculiar halfway point this year. I’m surrounded by grown-ups now. And though I’m supposed to be one too, I’m not really there yet. I’ve only got one foot planted on the stage everybody else is milling around on, and it’s awfully hard to plant your lips on someone when you’re about as high as their knees.

So I don’t really even know what I’m going to do for Valentine’s Day this year. Maybe I’ll take a drive that night, end up in a bar I’ve never been to. (The way movies begin.) The music is thick and confusing and everyone’s skin is a strange hue. I’ll find a seat near the back, ask for a beer, and say nothing for a long while.

Then I’ll see someone.

For now, I have a crush on the future.

Article © 2002 by Chris Klimas