New York Last Feb. 14, Liz Tuccillo called directory assistance to get a phone number for a store. Big mistake.
A message greeted her: "Happy Valentine's Day." It was the last thing Tuccillo - 43, single and the co-author of "He's Just Not That Into You" - wanted to hear.
"It is a painful holiday," says Tuccillo, whose humorous 2004 best-seller counseled women in dead-end relationships. "I'm looking up the phone number of a store, and I have to be reminded that I'm single!"
Lots of people hate Valentine's Day. Many are single. But even people in committed relationships can have a rotten time.
For some, it's because their partner, out of carelessness, forgetfulness or something worse, doesn't come through with that romantic gift or thoughtfully planned date. Others might be going through a difficult moment in their relationship. Valentine's Day is like a huge magnifying glass hovering over all those warts and pimples.
"Basically, no matter who you are, Valentine's Day will give you something to be stressed about," says 25-year-old receptionist Bennett Madison. It's kind of like the stress at Christmas, he explains, but worse: "It's got that added layer of romance. Just one more thing to make you feel inadequate."
Madison has spent a lot of time thinking about this. In fact, he's written a book, too. It's called "I Hate Valentine's Day."
Madison says he wrote the book because "all my friends were complaining about Valentine's Day. Even people who were really self-confident. It seemed like everyone was setting themselves up for something impossible. It's like they were seeing that one day as a referendum on their whole romantic life."
Barbara Feldman, who's been married for 14 years, doesn't mark Valentine's Day with her husband, Richard. Yet the day brings on feelings of guilt and self-doubt. "Why am I not driven to purchase gushing cards and meaningful gifts in honor of the romance in my marriage?" she asks. "Is there something fundamentally wrong with my marriage?"
Shoshanna Rikon knows about Valentine's Day expectations. Her phones start ringing off the hook every year about three weeks before the big day.
Rikon is a matchmaker, and her eager customers are singles in Manhattan, looking for a match. This is crunch time for Rikon. Or, as she puts it, "This is my tax season."
Most clients aren't blunt enough to come out and say they need a date for Valentine's Day, Rikon says. "But you know they're thinking about it. They see the decorations all over the place."
Rikon says there are three peaks to the matchmaking year. Just after New Year's, people want to act on those resolutions to find a soul mate. Then there's Valentine's Day. And then, in the spring, more male clients sign up. "I think it's the testosterone," she offers, rather mysteriously. "It's physical."
Not surprisingly, February is a peak season for online dating, too.
Some 5.5 million to 6 million people visit the Yahoo Personals site every month, says spokeswoman Rochelle Adams. The beginning of the year is already busy with singles ready to get back to their lives after the holidays. Sometimes a user will mention Valentine's Day outright, saying, "I hate to have another guy's night out on Valentine's Day," Adams says. Others, she adds, "might not want to admit that they don't want to spend Valentine's Day alone."
For those who don't hook up in time, the goal is finding a way to get through Valentine's Day with the least amount of psychic damage.
Madison, who sounds like he's pondered this a little too much, suggests a few strategies, in a sort of descending order of desperation.
If you're attached, he says, discuss with your mate what you expect beforehand. (Make sure she's not thinking French bistro, for example, if you're thinking Olive Garden.)
If you're alone, try to rethink what the day means to you. Remember this is an occasion to show any kind of love. It could be to your child, a platonic friend, even your pet.
If that doesn't work and you just need a date, then "just go get a damned date," he says. "It's not too hard. It doesn't have to be the person of your dreams."
Finally, the last-resort strategy: Wallow in it. Stay home. Watch the world's saddest, most depressing movies. Look at old photos of lovers you lost. Have a terrible time.
"OK, I haven't exactly tried that," Madison said. "But I bet it would work. You've inoculated yourself. The rest of the year will be MUCH better."
Madison himself will be dressing up this year with his partner and dining at a pizza joint.
Feldman and her husband will be doing nothing special.
"I might go out with my mom," she says. "It'll make her happy."