“I can fall for superficial things. Sometimes I wish everything could be like a pop song, like fine, like white sugar. But it just doesn’t work that way.”
—Mary Gaitskill, “Stuff”
Once upon a time, in a past relationship, I had a boyfriend who said, “You’re not romantic at all.” It was this exact moment that would ultimately make me realize he didn’t know me at all. Like, I’m a poet for fuck’s sake! I like long drives to nowhere and thinking deeply while looking at large bodies of water. Not romantic my ass, you giant turd. But there was no argument to be made. In his mind he had already decided: She’s not romantic at all.
My sister got married recently and her wedding is what initially caused me to reminisce on this pivotal moment in that relationship. This reminiscing eventually brought me back even further and had me contemplating fairytales—“relationship goals” and Expectations vs. Reality. What the general consensus is for how love is supposed to be vs. how we, as individuals, think love is supposed to be vs. how love actually is.
And conclusively I thought: My ex was right. I’m not romantic.
I mean, I guess I never really held Cinderella or The Little Mermaid near and dear to my heart. The fairytales I liked most were all about emperors in the midst of existential crises and girls who promised their first-borns to little demonic men who flew around on wooden spoons: I’m six years old and I want the cold hard shit, dammit! I want Hansel and Gretel stranded in the forest! My tiny psyche didn’t have time for all the Disney princess sing-along nonsense it was supposed to love!
But then again, I thought, What do fairytales really have to do with romance anyway? And I immediately revoked my initial conclusion.
I’m very romantic, just not in the conventional sense.
This was a major component of my character that my ex failed to understand. For example, when we went to see The Great Gatsby together I sobbed like a baby as Daisy ran away and all of Gatsby’s dreams fell apart, then I looked over at the seat beside me and saw my ex, out cold. He had slept through, arguably, one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking pieces of literature of all time, and I was the un-romantic one? It makes almost no sense to me, but over the past few years I’ve started to understand at least one thing: Our ideas of romance—his and mine—were just, different.
It was like we were drawing pictures for each other and expecting the other to use a completely different color than the one they had chosen. Like my romance was black, and all along he expected it to be pink. (This caused a lot of confusion and often made him wonder: Why isn’t this girl swooning every time I open the door for her, or buy her Victoria’s Secret underwear?) While on the flipside, I was expecting someone a little less grey and little more blue—someone who saw that the world wasn’t as simple as black and white, someone who just understood. But low and behold, I was trying to love a person who’s entire being went against this concept; all he was, everything he knew and believed, was some variation of black or white. Muted, and side-less; so indifferent that he had no absolute convictions about anything. Not even me. And this realization stung like a motherfucker for months on end.
You see, I defined romance like Death Cab for Cutie: Love is watching someone die. And his definition of it was holding hands with someone at Red Lobster.
My older sister, Mim, the one who just got married, is a true Cinderella. Not in the sense that she finally found some prince charming to breathe meaning into her life, but in the sense that she moves up and through circumstance like magic.
Her life is one straight line of achievements; she knows what she wants and how to get it.
She graduated number three in her class from our relatively large high school. She went to Boston University for pre-med and then to medical school. She moved to Seattle (all the way across the country) for her residency, and now she’s a doctor. And just like she always knew that she wanted to be a doctor, she also always knew she wanted to get married, which was next on the list. Check, check, check.
Mim’s path to marriage was a careful experiment of trial and error that went something like a jump rope rhyme: Cinderella dressed in yella went upstairs to kiss a fella, made a mistake and kissed a snake, how many doctors did it take? 1, 2, 3, 4…Except it was more like: How many OkCupid dates did it take? Because the equation only needed one doctor, who, of course, was Mim, Doctorella—the girl who cured her own singleness by removing each snake like some kind of tumor until the one remained.
Difficulty be damned! She got exactly what she wanted again.
Now picture this Doctor-Cinderella hybrid in a beautiful designer wedding gown and compare her to me and my other sister, Julia—two women in favor of alternative lifestyles; creatives who are more intuitive and less practical; feminists who become quizzical and analytical in the face of all things traditional—trying to squeeze themselves, unsuccessfully for the most part, into bride’s maids dresses one hour before this said Doctor-Cinderella hybrid’s wedding…
“Maybe if we zip it up half way first, slip it over your head, and then Lane (Julia’s blonde-haired comedian boyfriend) zips it up real fast, we can get it! We just need somebody stronger!”
This is what my mom says, optimistically, as we are all brainstorming plans of attack to zip up Julia’s dress. It goes up most of the way and then, suddenly, Just. Won’t. Budge. Like: You’ve made it this far, Tiny Zipper. Why quit now?
But a pep talk is no use. It’s a defiant little fucker.
We try putting the dress on from all angles—backwards, forwards, over, under, with a sling shot…and finally, after my mother, my father, my Aunt, Lane, and myself have all made our collective attempt to zip that goddam zipper, it goes up.
Which, unfortunately, means it’s my turn: Will my dress zip up too or won’t it? It’s a matter of life and death in the grand scheme of this wedding, and I’m not about to be the only asshole who can’t fit into her dress.
But we try and we try, and my dress won’t zip.
I walk around with the thing hooked in the back and partially unzipped to reveal a gaping hole that everyone is trying to seal in vain. And it’s not that I feel fat, or ugly, or somehow inadequate, because my dress won’t fit. It’s all those people touching me, all those people wondering in the back of their minds if I feel fat, or ugly, or inadequate, that brings confused tears to my eyes.
How does anyone ever get married? I wonder.
And right then I have a panic attack.
Julia pulls me outside and says, “Get it together. Remember, this is Mim’s day. It’s not about you. No one is thinking what you think they’re thinking.” And I know. I know, I know, I know. I know it’s not about me. But I feel so stifled by myself, always. So confined to my own habits and inclinations that this dress has become an anti-comfort zone squeezing me together with all my mixed up feelings like a boa constrictor that’ll crush me to death: All I want to do is hide, but this gaping hole in my back is making it kind of hard.
Reluctantly, I go back inside. A girl sews me into my dress and the zipper goes up like nothing was ever wrong. Mim asks me to clip her necklace on for a photo and she smiles magnificently.
I shake my head no.
My beautiful happy sister.
The thought of anyone or anything ever hurting her is enough to enrage me and I can’t even extend a hand to clip her necklace on?
The entire time, all I’m thinking is: I don’t belong here. I’ll ruin her pictures.
I’m thinking: She has done everything she’s supposed to do. She’s going to be a married doctor honeymooning in Cabo while her Seattle palace built from Crate and Barrel awaits. And me?
I’m just wondering how they zipped my dress up.
Where does this dress end, where do I begin?
Where do I end, where does somebody else begin?
“You look like Aurora,” my best friend is texting me because she’s watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and she’s seeing a similarity between me and the starring princess. “Thanks,” I text back, because who am I to refute having animated sunshine hair and lips as red as the red-red rose? However, what I didn’t realize until recently, after I reread a more accurate version of Grimm’s “Sleeping Beauty”, is that I have more in common with the princess than hair color.
I’m no Cinderella (I never clean jack shit), but I’m definitely a Sleeping Beauty. A Sleeping Beauty in the sense that, it’s like, as a little baby, a bunch of fairies crept into my room and spewed a bunch of gifts and curses all over my cradle. This. And the fact that I’m so selfish that every time I fall asleep I expect the whole world to fall away with me. Like I’m just up in my castle, dreaming away, as all the idiots wind up tangled and bloody in the cursed thorns surrounding me.
No joke. In the tenth grade, I broke up with a boy and he told me, “You make me nauseous and I think you’re the devil.” I swear. Those were his words, verbatim: I think you’re the devil. And I’m going to sound like Mimi-Rose Howard from Girls when I say this, but I broke up with him because he was affecting my creativity—or so I thought. It was more like, all my alone time had been hijacked. I felt invaded by the fact that there was this other living, breathing, person—out there. A person carrying my name around in his head and slowly integrating himself into my life in a way that meant I would always have to consider him—even when he wasn’t around.
And finally I heard myself saying something along the lines of: You’re affecting my ability to idealize anything because you’re real and right in front of me and all I want to do is see through you, dude. Can we not do this boyfriend-girlfriend thing anymore?
Then he said it: “I think you’re the devil.”
Now, if you’ve watched the most recent season of Girls and if you know anything about Mimi-Rose Howard, you’ll know that she’s probably the sneakiest, most manipulative, little doll-faced shit on the planet. And yet, I couldn’t hate her. Not even Hannah—the girl whose boyfriend she stole—could hate her. Because I think, on some level, a lot of women relate to her in a convoluted way that says: I wish I could be more like her. Just, more detached. Detached from the opposite sex in a way that a lot of men are able to be—I know some people aren’t going to like this, but I think men are free from the wants of women in a way that women aren’t free from the wants of men. I believe that, at this point in time, this is a very obvious truth, and I think Mimi-Rose’s character was written to depict what this truth would look like if the tables were ever turned; to be immune to the wants of men on a very comic, lifeless, doe-eyed level.
Like, Mimi-Rose Howard: the girl who couldn’t see or feel beyond her own nose; a girl who could say, I got an abortion today, and never even bat an eye; a girl who sat across from her ex boyfriend as she sat next to her current boyfriend and said, I want you both, with a robotic honesty and selfishness that implied she totally expected, maybe even believed she deserved, to have her cake and eat it too.
I can be that girl sometimes!
But the difference is, I’m not detached. I’m the exact opposite of detached. I’m human, and I feel it. I know how selfish and paralyzed by pride I am, and still I feel so much potential love at the end of every nerve in my body that it’s like I’m always quietly on fire—like I’m burning and standing still so nobody knows.
Nobody can tell how much I feel—not until they touch me and find themselves bouncing backward with the reflex that comes from scorched fingers. Not until they find themselves saying something nasty like, I think you’re the devil. While, in the mean time, I’m just standing there, trying to seem vacant. Waiting to be alone so I can finally let the hot tears slide. Thinking, I told you, I told you, I told you: Love is watching someone die. If you can’t take the heat, get the fuck away from me.
How does anyone ever get married?
At the wedding reception, sometime between drinking around 4,567,538 glasses of Riesling and barfing up Indian food, I got chocolate cake down the front of my dress like: That’ll teach you for not accommodating my body-type, you unruly piece of fabric, you. Then I ran around like a drunk puke-scented maniac with butter cream frosting smeared across my chest until I locked eyes with some poor soul on the dance floor and forced him to hold my hand through “Shake it Off”. Like: Sorry dude, I know we don’t know each other at all, and I can tell you don’t know the words to this song, but you’re stuck with me and my undying love for Taylor Swift for the next three minutes—don’t speak, these moments with me are sacred.
Little did I know, he was married, and once this information was revealed to me all I could think, was: Oh my god, his wife must have been on the sidelines like, “What kind of shit is this frosting covered broad with the busted zipper trying to pull?”
But in all seriousness, this is just one small example of how my romantic endeavors seem to go. You see, it’s not as simple as a Bad Boy vs. Nice Guy paradigm. It’s more like: What person in this room will be the most hesitant of, or resilient to, the love I’m willing to dish out? Because, him, I want him.
My favorite types are the emotionally unavailable and the emotionally inept. Unrequited love is my heart’s aesthetic, give me all of it: I AM AN EMOTIONAL MASOCHIST!!!!!! However the twist to this bad habit, and these relationship patterns is, my love is never quite unrequited. More often than not the emotionally unavailable and inept want me back because, at the end of the day, they’re just as romantically fucked up as me—only, in a different way. Star-crossed lovers I’d call it, if I didn’t believe this entire concept were code for: Two selfish assholes destined to screw each other over.
For example: In the sixth grade, I once hugged a boy and he threw my bike in a ditch. On a different day, in the style of 12-year-old flirtation, I’d steal that same boy’s hat, and he’d rip it—seriously, his own hat—to shreds in an act of defiance. But then, sure enough, every night on AIM, that same boy would be sending me kissy faces and telling me every detail of his horrible family life. (It was some real grisly, middle school, Beauty and The Beast shit.) He was determined to put on some show like he hated me when he actually trusted me a whole lot. Meanwhile I got off on harboring his secrets like a pervert browsing PornHub.
(The root of this wonky relationship dynamic can be traced all the way back to when I was eight years old and the first boy to ever proclaim his love for me also threatened to kill the entire third grade class with his mind. Like that really set the fucking tone for all my romantic endeavors: Thank you, Tiny Schizophrenic-Sociopath!)
After that, my objects of affection went something like: The nihilistic atheist pastor’s son who carved a cross into his shoulder with a hot knife—he told me he liked me right after he explained that he had an affinity for girls with eating disorders; the BMXer who—predictably—loved Catcher in the Rye and lied about everything from his age to his girlfriend; the too-involved boss determined to write out his fiancé of four years and stick me, his proclaimed “dream girl” in her place; a dually formed delusion that had us stroking each other’s egos until shit got chafed and started bleeding everywhere…
I spent my latter teenage years, trying to track down a David Foster Wallace looking artist who had the personality of Adam from Girls and the same tastes in glasses as Jeffrey Dahmer. He’d call me the golden girl one day and then he’d abruptly vanish into the abyss of the next three weeks only to reemerge in the form of a text message reading: Sup? After I’d waltz through the door of some party, my fishnets snagging on the splintered frame, ready to wreak havoc on his life, only for me and my bleeding knee to be embraced as if he’d never been absent. One time he told me: “You take beauty and the beast too literally,” and I’d stare into his David Foster Wallace face and only see all the snow storms I’d willingly trudged through, freezing in my tiny pleather jacket, trying to get to him. And now, all I can think about is that moment in Girls when Adam finally gets real with Hannah and says: “You don’t want to know me. You want to come over in the night and have me fuck the dog shit out of you and then leave and write about it in your diary.” (The first time I heard that, I thought of this David Foster Wallace looking artist and felt a major pang of guilt.) Like, we were, and are, light-years away from each other at all times, and we still somehow manage to make colossal messes of each other. I can’t explain it, but he loved me back in a way that meant he was never going to do anything about it. And what the hell does that even mean?
This is kind of how I feel about every guy who’s ever claimed to have “feelings” for me; like they just want to assign me to some compartment of their life, but they don’t want all of me, and they definitely don’t want me to want all of them.
So I don’t. A girl can compartmentalize too. Like I’ve said—I’m just up in my castle, dreaming as all the idiots wind up tangled in the cursed thorns surrounding my tower. I’m convinced that even the ones who initially reject me feel something prick as they untangle themselves to walk away—some David Foster Wallace shit like, “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.” The problem with this idea of romance, however, is that it has everything to do with need and want; passion, even, but it’s got nothing to do with love.
Love is watching someone die.
This sentiment is starting to hang in my head with a big fat question mark on the end.
I read a commencement speech written by Jonathan Franzen in which he explained that one component of real love is being a bare-boned, gross, messy, old human in front of somebody else. Essentially meaning that, you have to give up your ideal-self:
“The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person…To love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of yourself.”
I read that and agreed with it, and then I started feeling strange about it. Because, the more I dwelled on it, the more I realized that the few guys I have surrendered apart of myself for always wound up doing something that proved they were unthinkably selfish—more selfish than me, even—and I can’t help but wonder what that says about me. You are what you love—is that a rule?
This time last year I absolutely adored a guy, so I took a chance by waving that white flag of surrender in his face and, ultimately, found myself sobbing at him, “I’m a really lonely person despite how funny and happy I can be. And, I really like you and I know what it’s like to get attached to someone and then to invest a lot of time in someone, and then for that person to just not be there anymore…it takes forever for someone like me to get over that. I’m tired of doing it. I know what I want at this point; I’m done playing games with people. I really like you and you have to tell me that you respect me enough to let me know if what we’ve got isn’t making you happy.”
And he responded, “I’m just really mysterious,” right before he never spoke to me again.
After I remember sitting in my dorm room, dumbfounded by heartbreak. It didn’t matter if we’d only known each other for a few months; I was absolutely heartbroken. Heartbroken that I’d cracked so catastrophically—with all the smeared eyeliner and snot and humiliating confessions—for someone who never planned to surrender anything for me. And more than anything else, I was heartbroken by how little I knew him—he was always choosing his ideal-self over me, and all along I was planning to tuck away my ideal-self for him, like: Bye Felicia. Communication error would be an understatement! And as one of Mary Gaitskill’s short story characters would say: “I didn’t give a shit about being interesting and mysterious. I wanted him to love me.”
Want. Wanted. Mine, mine, mine—be mine. I wanted you to be mine. What I felt for him was one step in the direction of love, but not quite.
How does anyone ever get married?
“The only conclusion I can come up with is that, we’re not meant to be monogamous. And I don’t like thinking that because everyone I’ve ever known who actually believed that was kind of……stupid. Like we’re intelligent beings! We can choose not to behave in certain ways.”
This is what my newly separated-from-her-husband friend says after I express a tailspin of doubts about tru-luv. Basically, I told her that it seemed like a lot of the married people I’d meet, or the deeply committed-to-another-person people I’d meet, were trying to fit a heart into a triangle; just rationalizing something, always rationalizing something.
Like I’ll look at two people and think they’re made for each other, and they’ll post their MCM’s and their WCW’s and some bullshit about how happy life is, and then I’ll find out he’s always messaging so and so for tit pics, and she’s always rummaging through his emails or cellphone, and after a certain point it’s like: Are we all just lying like crazy to ourselves?
It seems like there’s always some side-fantasy waiting around the corner from every “true love”; some member of the opposite sex winking behind your significant other’s back that you can’t totally reject. And this is what my friend—who knows firsthand about marriage—is saying, before she adds, “But that’s the thing, choosing not to do something doesn’t mean you don’t want to do it…and that might not be lying to your spouse but it’s definitely lying to yourself, which can still hurt whoever you’re with pretty bad. It’s not that I believe people aren’t supposed to be monogamous, but I think loving someone is a little more complicated than just being with them.”
I’m relieved that I’ve met her because she’s going to a place where a lot of people won’t go. She’s admitting that marriage isn’t just one lifelong Nicholas Sparks plotline involving a shit ton of Pinterest crafts and dying in each other’s arms.
I mean, ideally, marriage would be total surrender of our ideal-selves and our fantasies about alternate life choices and other people, but realistically humans just aren’t mentally or emotionally capable of doing that. (That really is too much to expect when there’s a cesspool of body parts and personalities and intellects out there for the picking—just swipe right!)
Therefore, in the real world, marriage must be a promise to always come home to the same person despite want and fantasy or the secret desire to crawl up your own ass and hide out for a few days—which is actually a really remarkable promise. So, whenever I watch two young people get married, I always wonder if they fully comprehend what they’re giving up…
Like I know—you gain a whole lot with marriage. I get it. But I don’t think you gain anything positive if you’re married to the wrong person. Sometimes, it seems like people my age get married solely because they think it’s the mature thing to do, or the family-oriented thing to do, or the religious thing to do, or the romantic thing to do…Or because they think something really fucked up like, they owe it to the other person. But shouldn’t actually wanting to be with this person until the day you die, from the very core of your being, be the number one priority?
So, one more time: How does anyone ever get married?
Because at the tender age of twenty-three, all I want to do is crawl up my own ass and stay there for like, ever.
Back to me being super selfish—I’m not very good at being there for other people. In fact, let me just go all out right now and list all my known faults one by one: I’m not good at being there for other people. I break promises, often. I’m secretive—so, so, secretive. I can be brutally honest with everyone, but the people I love most: Don’t read my blog! You can’t read my essay when it’s published! No, I won’t tell you where I’m going or when I’m coming back! I hold grudges better than anyone, I’m like a grudge-happy elephant: Show me a random customer I waited on three years ago, and I’ll remember every shitty thing that customer did and said! Never forget! I’m a know-it-all. I’m a perfectionist in the sense that, I cling to my ideal-self with an iron fist and only ever let it slip for men more selfish than me, people who I know are too shallow to comprehend the significance of the act, and therefore, pose no real threat of actual love: Phew! I use silence as punishment as if hearing my own thoughts aloud were a privilege I only bestowed on the very fortunate. One time, my mother and I got into a fight, and—seriously, my own mother!—said, “Don’t you feel anything for other people? Anything?”
No one of any credibility has ever applied the term narcissist to me, but I’m willing to bet a narcissist is what I am. (Okay, I’m probably not a full-fledged narcissist, but I’m definitely someone with narcissistic tendencies.) And the thing about narcissists—I learned this recently when I read The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout—is that despite the inflated sense of self-worth and the erratic behavior, and unlike the emotionally inept sociopath, narcissists still feel. They still feel loss, and disappointment, and yes—love. They understand the concept of fulfillment and the fundamental need to connect to other people—it’s just getting to a point where these things become an authentic part of their own lives, and getting past the whole depression-I’m-a-narcissist-but-I-hate-myself-paradox thing that’s difficult.
Like remember what I said earlier about quietly burning inside with potential love or whatever? Yeah, that was code for: All I want to do is crawl up my own ass and stay there, but I can’t because I’m allergic to all the shit. It’s kind of like First World Problems, but closer to home, like: I Love My Own Asshole Problems. The kind of problems that, with a lot of time and self-reflection, give the lyrics to Brand New’s, “Limousine” a whole new meaning: I love you so much. Do me a favor baby don’t reply—cause’ I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.
(“I love you so much…I can dish it out, but I can’t take it”—what a totally tortured concept, Jesse Lacey. You must be burning up inside from all the love you never showed but should’ve, too. You are what you love. Damn straight. I am every asshole I have ever loved: You and I are one in the same J.L. You too, Self-Proclaimed-Mysterious-Asshole. Sincerely, My Asshole, xoxo. P.S. We’re all assholes!)
It gets exhausting, loving and holding onto yourself so much, so tightly. Paralyzed by pride is how I’ve described it. It’s the one feeling stopping you from extending a hand and clipping a necklace around your beautiful sister’s neck; the one feeling keeping the combinations of words like “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” out of your vocabulary; the one feeling preventing you from committing to your boyfriend in a way that doesn’t exclude him from all the secrets in your life. (Are you reading this, ex-from-the-10th-grade? I’m still the devil!)
It’s self-doubt. A fear of rejection, of not being understood, of not getting the same love back, or the response you’d hoped for like: I’m sorry, too. It’s inevitable disappointment. It’s acknowledging that you aren’t perfect. It’s reminding the world and yourself: My ideal-self is a lie, and loving you is just making this truth all the more transparent. I love you so much. Do me a favor baby, don’t reply—cause’ I can dish it out, but I can’t take it!
I look at the people I love most in the world and all I see is everything I lack.
They make me feel ordinary—the people I really truly love make me feel so goddam ordinary…
I remember a bizarre exchange I had at a bar with some guy who was from out of town. He touched my face and said, “You make me think of that movie…the one with the plastic bag: American Beauty.” And in my head I was like: You’re damn right. I am exactly like that horrible blonde girl: I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary.
If you’ve ever seen American Beauty then you’ll know that the horrible blonde girl I’m quoting is probably only one notch away from the murderous homophobe in terms of being the most depraved character in that movie. I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary. It’s such a foolish fucking thing to say, let alone believe. And I did! Do? I don’t know!
It’s like this: Being loved, like for-real, for-real, loved, is ordinary. Bone-crushingly—magnificently?—ordinary. So ordinary you could go numb to it: Love is watching someone die.
It’s not romantic in the conventional sense.
Or my weirdo masochistic sense.
It’s romantic in the human sense.
It means letting someone strip back layers of your ideal-self until only you remain—free of hairspray and pleather jackets and the shimmery cream that makes your cheekbones glow. It means you’re not allowed to be alone with your secrets anymore; you can’t hide up your own ass forever, you’ve got to crawl out and be a real person sometime. Stop giving a shit about being interesting and mysterious and reveal yourself as a real person, dammit! God, what could be more mortal and ordinary than that?
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m saying it: Love is watching your ideal-self die for somebody real and that might mean holding hands with someone at Red Lobster.
Before I wrap this thing up, I think I have to acknowledge that ideals are a two way street. We idealize other people just as much as we idealize ourselves, and we’ve got to let go of any idealizations we have of other people, the same way we have to let go of our ideal-selves, if we’re going to love them. Otherwise, things will fall apart.
My absolute favorite fairytale as a little kid was Hans Christian Anderson’s, “The Nightingale”. I reread the story when I was in the process of writing this post and now, as an adult, I realize it was probably my favorite fairytale because it’s all about the destructive nature of idealization, and the simple truth that, you can’t honestly love anyone from a place of possession or control.
Here’s my summary of the story: A spoiled Chinese emperor becomes obsessed with a songbird called the nightingale. Eventually, his servants find the nightingale, bring her to the emperor, and he orders her to sing. After hearing her song, he commands her to stay and live in his palace. She basically becomes a tiny prisoner who gets walked (how you walk a bird, I don’t know) once a day by like, fifty servant girls or some shit. Anyway, some guy eventually brings the emperor a bedazzled mechanical nightingale that sings on command, and when this happens the real nightingale escapes. However, nobody cares when the real nightingale escapes because they’re all preoccupied with the mechanical one. Ultimately, everyone agrees that the mechanical nightingale is better than the real one because it’s more “reliable” and “predictable”. Everything is hunky-dory for the emperor until the mechanical nightingale breaks and shit hits the fan. The emperor becomes ill and realizes only the song of nightingale can distract him from some crazy existential crisis he’s having. And right when he’s about to die, or be overwhelmed by some massive panic attack, the real nightingale shows up and sings to him, ultimately saving his life.
I interpret the story this way—the nightingale’s character is split in two between the mechanical version and the real version, which is just another way of saying the ideal nightingale and the real nightingale. So when the mechanical nightingale breaks, it’s one heavy-handed metaphor. It’s the equivalent of saying: Ideals break. And that’s just the thing—they do break. Dream boys and dream girls, relationship goals, Gatsby’s fantasies about Daisy, all the Prince Charmings trying to twist their way through the thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauties, they all break. They bleed and dwindle and die because whatever was on the other side of those ideals, those dreams, those fantasies—that thorn bush—was never real to begin with. And even when it is, you still can’t have it. It’s never going to be yours.
And that hurts. It hurts so badly when, like the emperor, you’re basically screaming at the object of your affection: Sing! Please sing for me! Make the world less boring and less cruel for me! You owe me! I’ve given you everything! And your pleas are just met with a static silence, and you’re left alone to stare at some broken mechanical bird with all its glorious springs popping out in a way that looks a lot like mockery.
Ideals man, they break.
And the disappointment of this realization might be enough to kill you, but you’ve gotta get over it if you’re ever going to actually love anyone. Like, the only reason the emperor liked the mechanical nightingale more than the real one was because he could control it, and he could possess it; two extremely selfish compulsions that are the foundation of all idealization, and ultimately, the antithesis of loving relationships.
When the real nightingale returns and saves the emperors life, he begs her to stay and live with him in his palace forever and she tells him no; she says she can’t make his palace her home—bitches gotta fly. However, she promises to return and to sing to him about the “good and the evil kept hidden” around him. She promises to do this every night. She tells him, “I love your heart better than your crown, and yet, there’s a breath of something holy about the crown.” And then she makes him promise to not tell anyone that he has a little bird who tells him everything, “That will be best,” she explains. And he agrees.
That ending is so beautiful!! It’s everything I’ve been yapping about! It’s like, love doesn’t necessarily mean holding a flattering mirror up to each other and reinforcing each other’s ideals—it means being real with each other; encouraging self-reflection in each other; pointing each other in the direction of whatever it is that the other lacks, lovingly. It’s not about possession or control; it’s about watching someone thrive, and being totally at peace with it. It’s allowing someone to fly away and come back different, over and over again. Let the person you love be ideal in life and ordinary in love.
Remember the big picture: You can never know everything about the person you love and they can never know everything about you. In one way, this is a tragedy; it’s the loneliest truth in the world. And in another way, it’s the most beautiful mystery we get to keep in life.