My first Valentine's card will always be special. I remember how my teenage heart leapt as the letterbox rattled that morning, and how it raced even more as I ran downstairs dressed in my school uniform. I had no reason to receive anything, but somehow I knew that I would; and there it was: a baby-pink envelope with my name on it. I bent down and grabbed it, and stole away as quick as I could back upstairs to my bedroom, where I stared at it. When I did eventually break the seal, I had no idea who it was from, and so I spent the whole day at my all girls' school asking myself: who could possibly like me? And before you state the obvious, it wasn't a joke and it wasn't from my Mother. I had what every teenage girl dreams about: a secret admirer.
The secret admirer, it turned out, was a lad seven years older, and we knew each other, but we'd never really spoken and even after this we didn't. Neither of us overcame our shyness and seven years is quite a gap when you're young. I never knew if he was just being kind or if he meant his Valentine, but since then Valentines have been thin on the ground and dating has been precarious. You're meant to throw yourself into it - I was at one point with gusto – but it always felt more like walking into a lion's den or entering a cattle market. A domestic chore that had to be done to be accepted. It's what you do: try to behave laddishly and attempt different dating strategies. When you find the 'one' or anyone, get married and have a family. Drinks in pubs and clubs, dinner dates, cinema dates, with always more expected. I resented how my life was being mapped out for me. If you want to settle down then dating is unavoidable, but did I want to? Was I doing this for me or to fit in with society?
Four years ago, I turned my back on dating and relationships, but I still find watching other people's attempts attractive. Blind Date, Street Mate, Dinner Date, Take Me Out, The Undateables... People randomly matched or specifically chosen. According to ratings, there's a large number of us who like to see singletons paired up so we can comment out loud on it: “What is she wearing!?”; “Oh, he shouldn't have said that!”; “Don't pick number one, pick three!” The search can come across as shallow and crude, or sweet. People get dismissed for their quirks, their work, their shoes; others get picked for their attractiveness, their interests, their food. And, of course, at the end of it we all want to know: Did they find it? Love that is, not fun and frolics on the Isle of Fernando's. Dating has become rather like a shopping list: you write down the qualities you want and search for a model to match it. If a potential fit displays characteristics not on the list then it's unceremoniously rejected, and unfortunately dating shows mainly reflect this attitude: deviations from the spec will not be tolerated.
It's a myth that a soulmate has to tick all the boxes, and even if you think you find 'the one', there will always be something. But that's the point: love is imperfect, and a person without quirks is undateable.