One of my oldest friends told me, “You giving advice on romance is like me giving advice on how to be a lady.” I took her meaning right away, for while I love her a lot, she is to ladies what Chewbacca is to bunnies. I felt surprised though. My wife loves me, and I don’t remember blackmailing her or making her lick a hallucinogenic frog for her to marry me. I must have been a little romantic. I recall buying flowers a couple of times, and I replaced the kitchen faucet with a shiny one she liked. I think that’s pretty good for an eight year courtship.

But my friend got me wondering about romance and my understanding of it. I’m confident it has something to do with love, and greeting cards, and jewelry I can’t afford. And there seems to be a gargantuan commercial industry built around romance—maybe bigger than Halloween, which I find a bit chilling. It makes me feel that if I’m insufficiently romantic then I may be hurting the economy and destroying jobs.

I was my most romantic when I was still dating. Maybe I should call it courting. Courting sounds romantic, while dating sounds like a couple of tough t-bones and a Julia Roberts movie. Regardless, I tried to be romantic when I wanted a woman to like me a lot, or at least like me enough to consider having sex with me someday. Romance is about convincing a person that you cherish them and want them more than you want air. Which of course is a ridiculous lie, but underneath it sits a corresponding truth—you want them more than you want anyone else currently in the room with you.

Romance traditionally includes a lot of trappings and strategies, and maybe my friend meant that I’m not good with those. I don’t plan romantic dinners well, with fat guys playing violins by the table. I’m hopeless with jewelry. I didn’t even buy my wife a diamond for our engagement, although to be honest she didn’t want one—which just proves that I won the marriage derby. My love poetry is rather pedestrian, although it wouldn’t make a jackal barf. I do remember anniversaries and birthdays, so that’s in my favor, although my gifts lack panache. I don’t recommend giving your sweetheart a new garbage disposal for your 15th wedding anniversary.

I’m not a complete disaster. I show up with flowers now and then. I really shine when we pass a store window and my wife stops to look at something. I point to a random spot in the display and grunt, “Wow!” That encourages her to tell me what she really likes, which I could never have guessed even with a chainsaw poised over my privates. My best moment comes when my wife refuses to let me buy whatever she’s fallen in love with, and then I buy it anyway when she’s not looking. There are no mysteries there, and I can follow the logic. I just hope she remembers that when my mid-life crisis hits high gear and I tell her not to buy me that Ferrari.

However, I can tell the romance story from the man’s side. Somewhere on a holy wall in the Orient is written, “Guys don’t care about romance. They just care about sex.” I guarantee that this is a half-truth. Of course guys care about sex. But they do care about romance, just not about the romantic trappings like dinners and poetry. For guys, romance consists of certain things not happening. For example, when a woman dates a man just so he’ll pay her house payment, that sucks out the romance for him. When she only accompanies him to the prom in order to hit on his best friend, that’s a romance killer. When a woman marries a man only to break him of his bad habits and fix his obsession with fantasy football, the man can find no romance there. And so what if guys care about sex? Sex can be romantic if you take your shoes off. So for guys, romance may blow to a different point on the compass, but it still blows.

Although my friend says that I’m romance-defective, I have noticed one odd thing about love and romance. I can’t know what my wife wants unless she tells me. I have poor mind-reading skills, as I’ve demonstrated hundreds of times. On the other hand, I’m tasked with paying attention to what she wants and likes and so forth, so I can make a pretty good guess about what she wants in some future situation. This is the same skill that lets me stick my hand into a fire one time and then know that sticking my hand into other fires would not be good—except that it’s harder to do because I don’t have a burned up hand to motivate me. I have to think about it to do it. I have to be thoughtful, which means I have to be full of thought. I admit that throughout my romance career I may have been full of shit more often than I’ve been full of thought, but at least I recognize that I should be doing something here.

In the end, I agree that I’m not ready for any fancy romance maneuvers. So, I’ll stick to the basics. If I want to be romantic, I have to do some things to show you that I want her. Just saying it or thinking it really loud won’t cut it. These have to be things that she’ll like, and I have to do them in a way that she’ll enjoy. That means I must have some idea of what she likes, so I’d better pay attention and occasionally think about something besides my fantasy football draft. I hope all this will convince her to want me so much she’ll forget every dumb thing I’ve ever done. That’s up to her in the end I guess, unless I break out the hallucinogenic frogs.

I still don’t understand why my wife thought this was more romantic than paintball.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I must observe that my parents taught me how to break into cars. They taught me other useful stuff, like how play poker, when to over-tip, and to always buy the coolest presents I can afford. They taught me to frame walls, but for God’s sake to stay away from wallpapering. They taught me to break the rules I think are stupid, and to make it look like I was following those stupid rules all along.

However, my parents failed to teach me an important thing. They did not teach me how to get a girl. I have a great girl now, but I’m mystified about how I got her. It seems like luck. It’s as lucky as if lightning struck me 15 times, and it merely gave me a great tan and fixed my teeth.

Perplexed, I recently asked my parents how they became a couple. How did my dad get my mom? Maybe I did something right by chance, and it would be nice to know what it was. I guess my parents like me, because they told me their story.

My parents both grew up in the same town. That’s the town in which I grew up too, by the way. Their families had known each other for years. My future father was 5 years older than my future mother. His younger sister was my mom’s best friend, and my mom’s older brother was my dad’s best friend. When you’re a kid, someone 5 years older than you might as well be a thousand years older; my parents each were aware that the other existed, but they couldn’t possibly care.

At age 18 my dad joined the Marines and went to Korea. After three interesting years in Korea, he came home when he was 21. My mom was just 16 then, and he still barely noticed her. She didn’t pay much attention to his existence, either. Two more years passed in the way years tend to do. Now my dad was 23, and my mom was 18. My dad now noticed my mom and found he wanted her to be aware of his existence, and also to consider it a good thing. But my dad suffered from incredible shyness, and he couldn’t think of anything to do that would make this happen.

He asked his younger sister if she could help him, and she said, “You bet I can!” His sister asked my mom to go out Saturday night, as they often did, and my mom said sure. On Saturday my dad and his sister arrived at my mom’s house in his car. My mom thought it odd that my dad was there, but she shrugged and got in the car. Then my dad’s sister said, “Oh, I forgot I have something to do!” and she buggered off, leaving my dad and mom alone on what had just become a date.

They went to the local establishment where everyone in town gathered on Saturday nights. My mom knew everybody, and she laughed, and danced, and had a great time with her friends. My dad was slightly less outgoing. He sat in the corner all night drinking beer and saying nothing to anyone—including my mom.

The evening ended, and the time to go home arrived. In the parking lot my parents found that someone had parked their car behind my dad’s car, and he couldn’t get out. He solved this problem by picking up the back end of the offending car and dragging it out of the way so he could leave. My mom thought, “Huh.” That is exactly what she later told me she thought, word for word. During the ride back to my mom’s house, my dad still said nothing. He let her out at the curb and drove away. My mom went into the house and thought that this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her.

On Sunday evening, with no planning or discussion, my dad pulled up in front of my mom’s house. As my mom looked out the window, she felt perplexed and unsure of what to do. She didn’t see many options, so she went outside and got in my dad’s car, and they drove away on their second date.

Six months later they were married.

I found that story to be charming, but not immediately helpful. I’m pretty sure I did speak to my wife at least once before we became a couple. I didn’t drink much beer, and I never picked up anything that weighed 10 times as much as me. Perhaps things were different in my parents’ time. Perhaps I’m different. Maybe it’s all just luck.

Then my mom mentioned that my dad did in fact speak during those six months. In fact, he and my mom both spoke quite a bit while driving around all night on a whole lot of occasions. So that was it! My dad demonstrated the ability to talk for six months without saying something fatally stupid. Now it all makes sense—I must have been lucky enough to do the same thing with my wife.

I find this all to be an enormous relief. I know how I got my girl, and I can put those doubts away. I didn’t blow it when the critical moment came. Because to be honest, I’ve never been able to drag a car out of my way, and part of me suspected that my parents taught me to break into cars so I’d be prepared when the moment arrived.