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On the front of the first Valentine’s Day card I ever received was the following: “Before I met you, Valentine, I didn’t know what love was.” On the inside of the card: “Now it’s too late.”

Gina Barreca mug

Gina Barreca

I didn’t realize at the time that the smart-alecky tone embodied by that initial billet-doux would, for the next five decades of my life, shape and reflect my understanding of romance and love.

I talk for a living, but it’s still hard to talk about love, especially when it’s officially mandated by the calendar. (Men, of course, think Valentine’s Day is a woman-dated occasion.) It’s hard to talk about love because most of the time, we have no idea what we’re talking about. We mutter; we fumble; we blush; we purchase plush toys. None of it makes sense.

And I say this as a woman who loves her spouse and is loved by her spouse. We’ve been married to each other for 28 years. We are still figuring out what love means and are still having fun gathering information on the topic.

For Michael, love means shoveling the walk, dealing with the taxes and taking the garbage to the dump. It means being happy to see me when I come back from having given a talk on the other side of the country, even if he has to wait at the airport because the plane is late, which it inevitably is. It means dedicating his book to me. It means making me laugh. Love means not giving me a cookbook as a gift, which he did on our first Valentine’s Day together and never, ever did again.

For me, love means cooking fabulous food that we both eat together almost every night (“fabulous” can mean seared sea scallops with lobster or a grilled cheese sandwich). Love means keeping the cats fed, their boxes clean and their fur shiny so that when they sit on his lap in the evening — preferring him to me as they do — they are ideal creatures. It means not being bitter that, even though I do all that work, the cats prefer him to me. It means learning how to identify makes and models of cars, both foreign and domestic, going back to 1957, when Michael had a Chevy of which he still dreams. It means keeping tabs on all birthdays, buying gifts for all occasions and preparing for all holidays, including reminding him that since Feb. 14 is on the horizon, he should be driving off to a card store.

One of our ways of saying “I love you” is to say “Be careful driving.” I’m not kidding. “Careful driving” is the intimate phrase we whisper in each other’s ears before going to sleep. It has nothing to do with that Chevy, either. We also say “I love you,” because they’re important words, even if we’re still figuring out the meaning.

Plenty of folks define love by employing the negative. Shakespeare spent a whole lot of time delineating what love isn’t: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds;” “What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;” “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.”

The Bible tells us that love doesn’t envy, boast or keep records of wrongs, nor is it proud or self-seeking.

Even that ultimate authority, ABBA, asserts that “Love isn’t easy.”

So what is it? It’s an unbuttoning of the self. Not an unbuttoning of the clothing covering your sexy self, but the reassurance that, without any camouflage, cover-ups or compromise, you’re safe. You’re in the presence of another person who would rather be with you than with anyone else.

Love is a gift, and as such, it can’t be earned. One of the most puzzling aspects of love is its lack of justice. It’s unfair. Love can elude people who seem to deserve it while it’s heaped on those who appear to ignore it, run from it, or slough it off as too restrictive.

Love is inconvenient. Love is untidy. Love is relentless, ruthless and rapacious. Done well, it’s hilarious, playful and redemptive.

And unlike what that original Valentine’s Day card announced, I have learned that love, whenever it arrives, is never too late.

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Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.

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