"The day after Christmas, I took a trip to the corner drug store where I found, amidst the discounted gift wrap and unwanted ornaments, a brand new display trumpeting the next impending holiday: Valentine’s Day.

There they were, hot pink plush teddy bears clutching heart-shaped boxes filled with imitation chocolate candy and over-sized cards with gold-embossed print proclaiming tepid sentiments of love and affection that their creators predicted would appeal to the widest and most homogenized audience.

It was upon us already, before the old year even had a chance to die.

As I snatched up my necessities and sprinted to the register, I had one thought: Thank God I am married.

Contrary to popular belief, marriage takes the pressure off the holiday. For my husband and I, it’s become a stress-free opportunity to offer simple tokens of affection — a book, a charm, handmade bonbons — and share some fun with our children, as well. Of course, if the holiday went completely unnoticed, I would be sad. But, in my state of marital contentment, I do not expect great things from Valentine’s Day.

I have been informed I am in the minority. New studies show that for the first time in the history of the United States, the majority of women are living without a spouse. Whether by choice or through circumstances beyond their control, this new group is primed to mold a new set of rules when it comes to dating, relationships, courtship and beyond. With all of this new information under their belts, this new breed of presumably powerful and self-confident women is also at the helm of shaping a new kind of romance. This is certain to be a Valentine’s Day unlike any other because it marks the beginning of a new era.

All of this breaking news lets fly a bevy of possibly unanswerable questions: Are women more likely to end up celebrating this traditional holiday for lovebirds alone or in the company of gal pals? Does this mean that the boys are going to have to work a little harder to get a girl’s attention if they want to find some romance on Valentine’s Day? Or will the opposite hold true? Will all of the single girls of the world crawl off to their individual corners to sob the night away, while eligible men are swatting away would-be lovers like flies?

First, let’s hand it to the ladies. Doing it alone isn’t easy, even if you are the very image of self-confidence. You might tough it out, saying it’s just another day. But deep down, there really is something downright depressing about finding yourself alone on an evening when it seems like every other person in the world is out exchanging boxes of Godiva chocolates and sipping champagne by candlelight. You might find comfort in the thought that you will be one of the few people sans hangover on the morning of Feb. 15, but that doesn’t chase away the feeling of being the only kid on the block not invited to the really big birthday party.

I know many of you will try to embrace the holiday head on, passing out schoolgirl Valentines to your unsuspecting coworkers and organizing a staff Valentine chili cook-off. All of this before you go home and curl up on the couch, wearing worn flannel pajamas and eating raw chocolate chip cookie dough straight from the bowl while weeping your way through The English Patient for the 1 millionth time.

On the other hand, you may be one of the strong soul sisters who decided to embrace the holiday linked arm in arm with friends, laughing in the face of stigma (if any such thing still exists), going out to dinner, having yourselves a regular ball. Who says Valentine’s Day is just for lovers? Miss Joni’s advice to all single girls is to get out and paint the town red. Why not get a gang together, even go so far as to rent a limo for the night, and wine and dine at one of Indy’s finer eateries? I am giving you permission to go out and have FUN. Who better to love than yourself on Valentine’s Day?

And now a bit of guidance for you boys. These independent girls might prove more difficult to woo. A little creativity in laying forth your Valentine’s Day plans may pay off, especially if you are dealing with a female who is tired of the same old cliché celebrations. A trip to a museum or historic site gives the hint that you have put more thought into this special evening than required. Why not take advantage of the more quirky side of life and score some points for showing you aren’t afraid to let your more cultured alter ego run free every now and then?

The romantically-minded guy, especially one who might be searching for the ideal place to pop the question, need look no further than the current exhibition in the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Paul Textile Gallery: I DO!, an exhibit of 15 Western wedding gowns — 12 American and three European — plus 30 wedding garments and other nuptial pieces from Asia and Africa. Let your beloved say “yes” in a gallery filled with gowns crafted from sumptuous materials including silk satin and silk chiffon, velvet, lace, crepe and taffeta. What better way to sweep her off her feet? And the timing is perfect — the exhibit runs through Feb. 25. Best of all, after she throws her arms around you, you can both sit down to a fabulous meal at Puck’s.

For boys with more carnal interests at heart, why not woo your saucy vixen with a jaunt to the historic Morris-Butler House (1204 N. Park Ave.), where you can tour this wonderful 19th century abode before taking in the tantalizing exhibit of vintage undergarments, Victorian Secret. Side by side, you can examine waist-cinching corsets to bottom-boosting bustles and wonder just exactly what went on underneath so many layers of petticoats and pantalettes. (These dainties will remain on display from Feb. 14 through May 1 during regular museum hours, Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Contact the Morris-Butler House Museum at 317-636-5409 or visit www.historiclandmarks.org.)

Continue the evening with a fabulous gourmet dinner for two, served up at home. You can make life easy by arranging catering ahead of time. Plenty of local eateries are offering this option, including Oakley’s Bistro (1464 W. 86th St.). I am told that $130 will get you a tasty menu that includes everything from shrimp with horseradish sauce and herb roasted filet mignon, Maine lobster-stuffed baked potatoes and your choice of glazed carrots or mac-n-goat cheese, to chocolate brownies with Lisa’s Caramel Corn for desert. All this and a bottle of Mionetto Prosecco Frizzante to tickle your nose. But, you need to order by noon on Friday, Feb. 9. (Call 317-824-1231 or email info@oakleysbistro.)

Finish off your romantic day into night by presenting her with a Valentine gift in keeping with the theme. I suggest presenting her with a few 21st century versions of fabulous undergarments — something ultra modern or feminine reinterpretations of the Victorian relics you viewed earlier in the day.

I promise she’ll be putty in your hands when she realizes the lengths you have gone to make her feel special on Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s roundup

There are plenty of attractions crafted for everyone, all over town, this Valentine’s Day season. My advice is to grab your partner, or grab a pal, and dive in for an evening of fun. Top picks include:

• Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra: Friday, Feb. 9 (11 a.m. and 8 p.m.); Saturday, Feb. 10 (8 p.m.); and Sunday, Feb. 11 (7 p.m.) Led by Pops conductor Jack Everly, the ISO will perform many popular romantic favorites this pre-Valentine’s Day weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Music will include Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a selection from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Franz Lehar’s Overture to The Merry Widow and excerpts from Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Among the many popular tunes to be performed are “My Funny Valentine,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Moon River,” “Michelle,” “Begin The Beguine,” “So In Love” from Kiss Me Kate, the “Tango” from the film The Scent of a Woman and the theme from Love Story. For ticket information: 317-639-4300 or 800- 366-8457 or www.IndianapolisSymphony.org.

• Indiana Ballet Company: Saturday, Feb. 10. What better way to spend a romantic evening than with the Indiana Ballet Company at the Murat Theatre, complete with ballet, dinner and dancing afterwards. The evening begins with seating at 5:30 p.m., and the performance of Chopiniana, aka Les Sylphides (with music by Frederic Chopin and choreography by Michael Folkine) followed by a special preview of IBC’s April 2007 original production, On Earth We Stand. At 7 p.m., guests will be joined by professional dancers for a delicious dinner served by Crystal Catering. After dinner, guests will take to the dance floor to top off the evening. Tickets can be purchased at the Murat box office at 502 N. New Jersey St., by calling Ticketmaster at 317-239-5151 or by logging on to www.ticketmaster.com.

• Romance and Remembrance at the President Benjamin Harrison Home: Wednesday, Feb. 14. A romantic evening of Victorian love letters, poetry and readings at the President Benjamin Harrison Home, followed by dinner at the Indianapolis Propylaeum. The evening is a re-creation of an actual occasion that took place in May of 1902. For two nights, Englands’s Opera House boasted a lineup of the richest literary talent in the country and a spectacular audience. Performers include Ellis Hall, James Trofatter and Donna Wing. Tickets are $120 per couple; for more info: 317-631-1888 or www.presidentbenjaminharrison.org.

• Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra: Wednesday, Feb. 14. “Stairway to the Stars: A Valentine’s Concert” at the Indiana History Center’s Basile Theater. The Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra will feature the vocals of Cynthia Layne and Everett Greene. Call 317-921-8869 for ticket information.

• Dance Kaleidoscope: Thursday, Feb. 15-Sunday, Feb. 18. DK will present its Martha Graham masterpiece, “Acts of Light,” in their D’Klassical is D’Kool at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. In addition, the program will present classical favorites from Puccini and Handel, both choreographed by artistic director David Hochoy. Puccini’s tender yet dramatic love duet from Madama Butterfly will be portrayed by different pairs of dancers who represent different aspects of love and passion. “Water Music,” which premiered in 2003, features a new movement set to Handel’s “Eternal Source of Light Divine” from “Birthday Ode for Queen Anne.” Tickets range from $6 (for a special one-hour Mini-Matinee at noon on Thursday) to $36 and are available at the IRT ticket office at 317-635-5252 or on its Web site at www.irtlive.com. Additional info: www.dancekal.org.

• Momix presents Opus Cactus: Friday, Feb 16, 8 p.m. One reviewer saw Opus Cactus as a combination of Disney’s Fantasia, Sydney Dance Company and Cirque du Soleil. Through Moses Pendleton’s breathtaking choreography, tumbleweeds tumble, lizards leap and rattlesnakes slither as the desert wonderland is ingeniously brought to life against music that combines Native American sounds, the Swingle Singers, Bach and Brian Eno. Info: 317-940-6444 and www.cloweshall.org.

Your cheating heart

For anyone who suspects their spouse or partner might be doing double duty, Valentine’s Day can unleash anything but feelings of romance and love. According to Ruth Houston, author of Is He Cheating: 829 Telltale Signs, “Infidelity doesn’t take a back seat on Valentine’s Day. In fact, it’s the one day of the year when infidelity and extramarital affairs reach their peak.”

Valentine’s Day is prime time to catch a cheating spouse or partner in the act, says Houston, who has founded InfidelityAdvice.com as part of her campaign to inform the world about the link between Valentine’s Day and infidelity or extramarital affairs. During a telephone interview, Houston points out, “Any man who is cheating has to buy a Valentine’s gift for his lover. And it can’t be cheap. He may give his wife or mate a wilted bouquet while the mistress gets first-rate gifts.”

The primary goal is to catch the cheater in the act. As a general rule, Houston says she does not recommend hiring a private investigator to ferret out cheating spouses. More often than not, she says, they return empty-handed. But Valentine’s Day is the exception, for the simple reason that he MUST see his lover on this day — or the day before or the day after, she adds.

Another useful way to sleuth out a scallywag is to follow the paper trail he is likely to create in pursuit of his paramour. Houston says cheating spouses will often unload less-appealing Valentine gifts on their partners, saving the big guns for their lovers. Purchases of this kind can be traced, she says, simply by following the paper trail. Houston points out that any large purchase, whether by credit card or cash, will leave evidence. Even large ATM withdrawals can be traced to specific parts of town. Was the withdrawal made near his favorite jewelry store or florist? Did you find a receipt for two identical gifts?

If the boys feel we are ganging up on them, Houston adds that women are just as capable of cheating as men. If you find unfamiliar red lingerie in the laundry, you may want to consider its source. Unexplained gifts of flowers are another sign that all may not be well in Paradise.

On her Web site, Houston offers helpful questionnaires like “Is your Valentine the Cheating Kind?” to help determine whether you have chosen a mate prone to infidelity. Also available via this site are tip sheets covering 21 major categories relating to infidelity.