The objects of our affection

From preppy perfume to Portuguese love songs, six writers share the Valentine's Day goodies that really get their hearts racing.

By Salon Staff
Published February 14, 2006 12:36PM (EST)

Each Valentine's Day, like clockwork, well-meaning lovers hoping to woo their sweeties spend a small fortune on roses and cardboard hearts stuffed with chocolates. Even those who'd usually prefer a slice of pizza to steak tartare and jeans to a suit jacket, somehow find themselves dolled up and sharing a candlelit dinner. For a holiday that supposedly celebrates the excitement and passion of love, hasn't it all become rather stale?

So, in honor of Valentine's Day -- and in the hopes of spicing things up -- we've revived our Object Lust column and dedicated it to the unsung romantic gifts and goodies that really set our hearts aflutter. Go ahead -- throw out your drugstore cards, your sweetheart candies and your long-stemmed bouquets. Because whether it's a favorite scent that makes 'em swoon or a stylish new contraceptive, our writers prove that the most romantic gifts don't always come in shiny heart-shaped packages.

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Preppy perfection

I'm at the store downtown where I buy my perfume and cosmetics -- one of the last, great independent department stores with chitchat and gift wrap, with a pneumatic tube that rockets your money to the customer service department upstairs. It's Clinique free-gift-with-purchase week and I'm waiting in line, daydreaming about the high-tech moisturizer that will smooth my forehead, when I notice a glass tray of men's fragrances on the counter: a reflected bouquet of matte black bottles, Windex-blue bottles, clear glass bottles filled with amber liquid and lotions, and a candy-green glass bottle with a golden lid. Ralph Lauren's Polo cologne.

I pick up the bottle and squirt it on my wrists, and it is upon me: those golden years before my disdain of all things preppy, before I discovered New Wave music, before my daily applications of Chryssie Hynde eyeliner and fragranced body oil from the Body Shop, before Morrissey instructed me that meat was murder, before I dissected the Aryan undertones of the Polo ad campaign in my women's studies class, before I wished to both fight the patriarchy and date cool, moody musicians.

I rub my wrists together and breathe in my freshman year of high school. I was a Midwestern suburbanite who favored marshmallow-scented lip gloss and designer jeans. My fragrance of choice was Ralph Lauren's modestly named Lauren, which came in a square maroon bottle and smelled like polite girls. My boyfriends wore Polo cologne and button-down Polo shirts, ironed by their mothers, their brand loyalty blind and loving.

By boyfriends I do not mean boys who professed their horny devotion. Mostly they were just boys that my friends and I hung out with during the first two years of high school. We rode around in cars drinking 12-packs of Budweiser: In memory it is always winter and hopeful, the heater cranking, the commingling of beer burps and Polo not unpleasant. One starry December night when we were supposed to be at the Christmas formal -- as if! -- we partied at Kevin Strickland's house, while his parents were in Ohio burying a dead aunt. The snow turned to ice. More snow fell. We were stranded at the Strickland house.

All night.

When I bring my face to my wrist, to Polo cologne, its lime and spice overtones, cloaking what? -- What is it? -- I'm back at the Stricklands' house. And then I'm back, not as far back, to my college dorm, trying not to cry in front of my roommates as I read Raymond Carver's short story "Distance." The last line is this: "They had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come, while everything else, the cold and where he'd go in it, was outside, for a while anyway."

And so I don't buy the fancy moisturizer, I forfeit my free gift. When I watch my cash shoot up the pneumatic tube, I think: I am a jackass. I waste money. But on the drive home I put the bottle of Polo behind the steering wheel like a dashboard Jesus and watch the sun move through the green glass.

-- Mary O'Connell


For years I bought into the conventional wisdom: Love is best symbolized by roses. (Well, OK, diamonds, but I hadn't gotten to that stage in my life yet.) And so I faked it with the men in my life. That cord of long, thorny stems, topped by an anemic tuft of pink petals? How lovely. That squashed and scentless bouquet, obviously nabbed at the last minute from the floor of the corner deli? I'm so touched. That cluster of tea roses, as tough and hard as betel nuts? Oh, you shouldn't have. Really.

So in thrall was I to the cult of the rose, that when my true love gave me a calla lily one Valentine's Day, I was taken aback. In flower literature, callas are associated with "magnificent beauty" -- not such a bad thing. But where were my roses? What was this odd trumpet of a flower? It looked so dignified in its vase, even slightly uptight, like a floral Katharine Hepburn. But the longer I studied it, the more I began to fall under its sway. The stem curved slightly, and the flower drooped just a bit, as if bending into a lover's arms. The petals were a chaste white, true, but they formed lips that encircled a fleshy, turgid stamen in a manner that could only be described as ... suggestive. The velvety whiteness practically begged caressing. My flower was a magnificent beauty with a dirty mind -- a virgin waiting, so to speak, to be deflowered.

Accompanying the flower was a Georgia O'Keeffe card, "Calla Lily on Grey." The suggestions written on the back can't be printed here, but they involved lingerie, hot fudge sauce, and a scarf. (It turns out, by the way, that calla lilies make great ticklers.) I keep the card on my dresser as a reminder that I can armor myself in the most staid suit, or don the chastest white nightshirt -- and still not be wearing underwear underneath. And that's worth remembering every day of the year, not just Valentine's Day.

-- Juliet Eastland

Heartache, overheard

Can sadness be sexy? Ask the Portuguese. They invented the musical form fado, and they gave the world its queen, Amalia Rodrigues.

Fado is the sound of raw longing. It's the taste of something you never had, or maybe had once but haven't been able to get out of your head since. While the style, which takes its name from the Portuguese word for "fate," frequently touches on the hardships of life or the love of the sea, it never strays far from its deeply romantic essence. Fado is the melody that comes streaming out of taverns, places where the smell of nicotine still hangs in the air and wine flows freely. It's music played very late at night, in dark corners, to accompany stolen kisses.

In a genre that has been virtually unchanged in nearly 200 years, no one has ever quite stamped such unique sincerity and bittersweet beauty on the music as Amalia. To listen to her voice, wrapped around the soft strum of a guitar, is to be quietly dazzled by the universality of the emotion she conveys. Though she's lesser known in America, Amalia is an icon in the Portuguese-speaking world, one of the true international stars of the 20th century. A native of Lisbon, she hit her career stride in the 1950s, and recorded and performed through the rest of her life. She died in 1999, a bit of timing one could chalk up to fate itself. Is there a place in the 21st century for songs of lovers swept away by storms, for voices that would never win in any television popularity contests? And while of course there's a place for songs that ask what you're going to do with all that junk inside your trunk, what about music that grapples with the "sad fate" of "hard passion"?

So, should you find yourself alone one night with someone who will be gone in the morning, put a little Amalia on while your candle burns at both ends. Does it matter if you can't translate the words? No more than it does to go weak in the knees at the sight of a lover, to feel a shiver at a touch. Hers is a voice that scrapes, that trembles, that strives not for technical perfection but simple release, however fleeting. And if later, you find yourself just plain alone one night, put on a little Amalia again, and revel in the exquisite sting.

-- Mary Elizabeth Williams

Safe sex, made stylish

Every time I stroll around my neighborhood drug store, I'm amazed at all the products you apparently need to have sex these days: condoms, lubricants, massage oils, feminine washes ... And what's up with Trojans new vibrating ring?

But lest I appear ungrateful for the bounty of the Sexual Industrial Complex, I'd like to thank the folks at Blairex Laboratories for coming up with a stylish, convenient way of keeping me from getting knocked up.

I'm talking about Encare vaginal contraceptive gel. One push of the pre-filled applicator coats the cervix with the sperm-obliterating agent Nonoxynol-9. The Columbus, Ind., manufacturer boasts it has an effectiveness rate of 94 percent. But since it doesn't protect against STDs, I like it best as a backup with a condom. That way, if your latex layer slips or breaks, you can still chat with your sweetie about where to get eggs benedict the next morning, not a prescription for Plan B.

Yes, I know that spermicides have been around at least since my high school health class in the mid-1980s. (Family lore has it that my presence on this earth is attributed to the failure of some low-quality foam product.) Well, the greatest advantage of the gel, which Blairex brought out in 2003, is that it works instantly -- as opposed to waiting 10 long minutes for the old waxy suppositories to melt. (This is sex, after all -- not a yeast infection treatment!)

Encare vaginal contraceptive gel is discreet; applications come in pretty hot pink-colored wrappers that fit neatly into any purse and look like tampons, in case relatives stumble across them while digging for gum. It's fun; partners can play while assembling the plastic pump and barrel. And it's functional; the colorless, odorless gel works as a lubricant, too.

Most of all, it's just liberating. It gives women who forgo the pill more birth control options. And at about $1.60 a romp, that's a deal.

-- Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Rock 'n' roll romance

Screw flowers and chocolate. What girls really want is rock 'n' roll.

Or that was the theory, anyway. To my last three girlfriends -- at least the ones that have been around on Valentine's Day -- I have given "Loveless," My Bloody Valentine's 1991 white-noise masterpiece.

When "Loveless" was first released, I was 14, listening to a steady diet of "safe" rap, Pearl Jam and the Dead. But the album has been an object of my own lust ever since I discovered it at a party in college. At the time, I was smoking a good amount of pot, but they could've been bong hits of air, "Loveless" was that amazing. Forty-eight minutes of soaring, shimmering feedback, melodies melting and reappearing, vocals that seemed breathless. It was the rock studio equivalent of Mount Everest, and unlike Nirvana's "Nevermind," also released in 1991, most girls didn't know about it -- so it was mine to give them.

To a guy tired of hunting down exotic florists and boutique chocolatiers, it seemed like the perfect V-Day gift: the irony in the album's name canceling out the band's; its cover, blurry and pink. My junior year girlfriend was the first lucky recipient; she cried, we ate chicken, put it on the pink stereo in her dorm room and made eight minutes of soaring, shimmering love to it. We broke up later in the semester.

For my second swipe at "Loveless" gift-giving, the exchange was a bit more awkward -- not because she didn't like it, but because we had only been going out for a week and a half. Turns out Valentine's Day is a weird holiday for couples who begin dating on Feb. 3.

So when the time came to give my last Valentine's Day girlfriend her gift, I was well seasoned -- if a bit emotionally detached -- from the whole tradition. Still, I did it right -- bought the original 180-gram vinyl pressing on eBay U.K. for 50 pounds, put it on the turntable and let the ocean-sonic sound crackle all around us. She later said it was the best Valentine's gift any guy had ever given her. Which does little to explain why on the next Valentine's Day she hooked up with a dude from the NYU track team who wore New Balances and an anklet -- a scenario I discovered when, hoping to surprise her, I climbed the fire escape adjacent to her apartment, flowers in hand. I don't remember much else about that night -- I passed out in a dive bar on the Lower East Side.

But even without the girl, I still find comfort in those 48 minutes of blissful noise -- and in the knowledge I'll always have one Valentine's date I can count on.

-- Dylan Stableford

Dirty and delicious

Two weeks ago, while watching the Super Bowl, I was reminded of one of the world's most underrated aphrodisiacs. No, not muscled men in tight pants. Bar food.

Don't feign disgust or go all low-carb on me; if you live in America and you enjoy sports, chances are you've licked fingers, smacked lips, and swallowed entire nacho plates, cheese fries, buffalo wings and pitchers of Bud only to find yourself shortly after sharing a bed -- and indigestion -- with an equally greasy someone.

It's a clichi to say that bar food is about repressed desire, that only something so bad for you can be so good. The truth is much simpler than all that. Bar food itself is not the turn-on; it's where you find the food that gets to our basic instincts. I'm at my best not when I'm trying to be sexy or look good, but when I'm relaxed enough to roll up my sleeves and eat. And in our quest to connect, aren't our odds increased if we let loose a little, stop sucking in the fat, and act like ourselves? I'm not talking about loosen your tie, and kick off your heels -- I mean unbuckle your belt. While there may be some regret in the morning, there is no pretense about bar food. A wing is a wing. Sex is sex. As much as we think we want to be wined and dined, wooed over meals with multiple forks, maybe going to a bar, eating with your hands, and washing it down with beer is all it takes to make you realize life is perfect.

-- Sarah Goldstein

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