I’ve never gotten a Valentine from anyone except my parents and my first through third grade classmates, back when you had to give a card to everyone, and I’ve been given flowers exactly once, from the guy I was dating when I was sixteen. I’d just had a fight with my father so I didn’t want to go back inside to put the flowers in water, so I put them on the dashboard of the guy’s car and they wilted and died. (#mylovelife.)
Some people are probably thinking, “You poor thing—no cards and no flowers!” Others, “Yeah, who wants that stuff anyway?” I am firmly in the second camp. Not because there is anything wrong with cards or flowers—hell, I like getting mail, and flowers are beautiful—but because stock romantic gestures really don’t do it for me. Even if they’re proffered with sincere feeling, most of these things (cards, flowers, chocolates) are given because they have become simply The Unthinking Things You Do To Gesture At Romance. Well, I don’t like chocolate, and I loathe unthinking.
But … I write romance novels, so surely I don’t hate romance! There must be something I find romantic, right? Of course I don’t, and of course there is. Specificity, baby—it gets me every time. Specificity is the opposite of rote, generic gestures. Specificity is the opposite of listicles like “10 Romantic Gestures To Melt Any Woman’s Heart.” Specificity is focusing on the person you’re expressing romance to, and thinking about what they need, what they love, what they would appreciate.
In my novel In the Middle of Somewhere, Daniel is an English professor who falls in love with Rex, who makes custom furniture. Rex doesn’t have the internet in his remote cabin, but after Daniel mentions that he uses it to check papers for plagiarism, Rex has it installed, and the next time he invites Daniel over, he casually mentions that he has it. To me, this is the ultimate romantic gesture: It’s something that Rex does purely for Daniel; he does it without drawing attention to it, so Daniel doesn’t feel burdened by expectations of extreme gratitude; and he does it to make it easier for Daniel to spend time in his home, even if that time is spent working.
In my new novel Small Change, Christopher owns a coffee and sandwich shop called Melt. Ginger is not very good at telling Christopher how much she likes him. But as she spends more and more time at Melt, she re-makes all of Christopher’s menus and signs. As a tattoo artist, she’s practiced at lettering, so she matches each font choice to the food it describes. She expresses how much she cares about Christopher and his business by giving him something that he can’t do himself but that he appreciates. It’s practical but not necessary, and every time Christopher looks at the signs, he smiles because he thinks of Ginger.
Sometimes, romantic gestures are described as being specifically non-practical. Flowers, cards, candy—these are all meant to be pleasurable, not useful. By this definition, installing the internet at your house so your boyfriend can spend more time there or re-doing the lettering on your boyfriend’s signs are not romantic gestures. But romance, for me, isn’t fantasy. It’s taking deep pleasure in the realities of what make people themselves. So the gestures that I find most romantic—and that my characters find most romantic—are the ones that frame romance as part of daily life. The ones that inject the pleasures of romance into real life, rather than those that give us small moments of escape from it.