Self-proclaimed “old school romantic” types often cite, in a casual tone, an aged television show or film that might explain their relationships or perceived prospects. Somebody in their late twenties might say, My boyfriend and I are like Jack and Rose, only neither of us die . . . or at least not yet, y’know? There are much, much older examples but I’ll spare you from listing them all. Point being, it’s easy to describe our lives in terms of familiar entertainment, for its handiness and the associations our fellow Americans have with it.
We measure the handiness of referentially abbreviating our experiences, ultimately, by how closely visual entertainment represents our lives, or rather how closely we think it does. Visual media rarely captures the complexity of what living is. That’s not the entertainment industry’s goal, and to expect so is wishful. Romantic comedies with predictable “loser-gets-the-girl” formulas are the bread and butter of your local Redbox machine, and “will they/won’t they” tension over the course of character arcs (sometimes seasons long) festers frustration and good ratings. These reductions of experience are synthetic, saccharine packets that go well with most cups of tea.
It’s disappointing that our lives can be so easily emulated for profit, but what’s worse is how easily it plays into the typical life of self-advancement. The driving force behind this is standardized and, unfortunately, inherent to us all: the idea that one is the leading figure in some grand narrative. The term “capital ‘I’” has a poetic significance in this way, akin to being the figure at the center of the universe. I am in charge of my own destiny. I am the master of my domain, Judge Judy and executioner. To hell with Woody Guthrie — this land is mine, and mine alone, for the taking. I’m telling you, it’s the stuff of dreams.
To play to the masses onscreen is to reflect the way in which the typical person sees others, which is to say simplistically through preconceived narratives that Hollywood only perpetuates. This is especially harmful in developing romantic partnerships: you start believing that life is as predictable as the common art, when it is anything but. My capacity for empathy was low as a former “old school romantic” type in this way, I must admit. Case in point: in high school, I assumed a kind boy’s sexuality in my quest to live a cinematic life, and truly deserved the reality check that followed.
It was precisely mid-February, 2012. Yes, it was Valentine’s Day, and worse still it landed on a school day.
My seedling identity sprouted years ago from the hidden recesses of those revered, sacred chambers of the heart, one through four, from between my wheezing bagpipes of smoky, hopeless atmosphere. (One might jokingly say it was my-asthma.) My love budded like the proverbial flower of misfortune, from between two cement squares of sidewalk. I blossomed between steps, in the space between two lives: one block was the girl wrongfully assigned male, uncomfortable with the pressures of outward masculine conformity, while the second was the girl stoked with ambitions of enrapturing self-alignment. Untended to by the hands who sowed me, my personality was nurtured by my surroundings, friends mostly. I flourished with water, sorrowful drops in my roots, and the warmth of hopeful sunshine upon me, like an undefined supreme grace. The former is forever tied to the latter: we need both in order to know the depths, and the heights, of being. We grow both ways.
Ethan was a sweet boy with whom I shared an 11th grade English class. He was fit and well-humored. He was always smiling and he made me feel warm. He was the first boy I ever envisioned myself being with: his appearance was somewhat masculine and paired well with a somewhat feminine personality.
If this description sounds shallow or plain, it’s because every infatuation I’ve ever had for others has been emotionally unsubstantiated. What makes crushes so great to begin with is the surface level engagement between yourself and another. To understand another to the extent you know yourself, and to let yourself be understood in kind, is the greatest spoil of having been born at all. It’s no surprise, then, that the mere thought of romance is something people entertain seriously, mentally preparing for enriched lives never promised.
This isn’t necessarily bad, admiring somebody from a distance. However, things become problematic when you attempt to “take things to the next level” and act on your amorous intuitions. If I knew Ethan well enough, I would have believed him when he said he wasn’t gay, or in my case, interested in a girl who presented male at the time. Instead, I was focused on fulfilling a daydream.
I went to a small Long Island high school on the northern shore, the Connecticut horizon just across the mercurial, azure sound. Buying Ethan a Valentine’s Day rose, anonymously through a school fundraiser, eventually traced back to me. It didn’t take a detective. I was fine with that — I welcomed it, even — but paid no consideration to what may have followed. If plans are measured by how unshakeable they are, my plan could have been used to play Yahtzee.
English was our first class that year, and served as our homeroom. That was when the flowers were passed out. The teacher ran down the list of three-odd people, then one normal person: Ethan.
“Alright, and now we have one for Ethan. Yours doesn’t have a name on it!” the teacher observed so keenly. It sounded like she was teasing him.
The half of the class that was awake at the time oh’d and ah’d and our dunce-clown chimed in the loudest about “Ethan having a girlfriend,” as if that would be a bad thing. Ethan laughed and took it, taking in its light fragrance, examining the handwriting on the tag. He looked around aimlessly, like he was trying to find somebody to thank. Please don’t look at me, I thought. I tried not to blush, but the blood vessels in my face had other plans. I hid my warm cheeks with my hands until the moment passed. I was safe for the time being.
The day went by slowly with palpable anticipation. My gal pals were so proud of me, God bless them. I was proud, too. Visions clouded my eyes in class, in gym, at lunch. What will he say? What am I going to do? What if he tries to hold my hand? Oh my God, I hope my hands are clean when he does. Maybe I should hit up the bathroom now while I still can. Or should I wait? Ugh! I’m so weird!
Meanwhile, Ethan was sleuthing — only not really. At some point he figured it out, probably from one of my gal pals, those jerks.
I foresaw the rest of the marking period going over like a YA novel or a hit movie adaptation of said book: Ethan, the handsome one, still in the closet and yearning to be free; me, the cute one, queer as a three dollar bill, waiting to share starry nights and sandy beach days together. When you would think of Ethan, my name would surely follow. We would be the pride of the already prideful Gay Straight Alliance at our school. I didn’t extrapolate it much further than that, but it could be assumed that we would go to the same college and be as queer as we wanted to be, then graduate. We’d get a place somewhere upstate with our own equally queer cat named Ziggy, after David Bowie. None of the neighbors would hate us, and we’d host dinner parties until we died just minutes apart from one another. You know, typical couple stuff.
The end of the school day soon arrived. I was delirious, mentally exhausted, my heart kicking in my chest like it was trying to abandon ship. Get me out of here! Because I had a club meeting that day, I didn’t leave school after the last bell. There was time for students to get tutoring in the time between the end of the official school day and clubs; during this time, I would either walk to the strip mall near the school or hang out in the cafeteria downstairs. It was there, downstairs, that I ran into Ethan sitting at one of the tables. It was loud in the lunchroom, fellow students enthralled in their own conversations. I had the benefit of their distracted attention, but not his. Our eyes met from across the room, and I knew I was done for.
I walked up to the table. “Hey Ethan, what’s up?”
He gave me a look instead of an answer.
I feigned ignorance. “What?”
“You know what.”
He laughed. “Did you buy me a flower for Valentine’s Day?”
Shit shit shit! Game over! Rest in pieces, Sylvia! Goodnight, sweet princess! “Yeah, why?” I said, without making it sound like a huge confession.
“Ha! I knew it!” he said with a pointed finger. “And you thought I wouldn’t find out!”
“I mean, I knew you would, maybe not on the same day. You’re a smart guy, after all,” I said, trying to flatter him.
“Well I must admit, I didn’t expect it.” He leaned back in his seat coolly. “What a great prank.”
Oh my God, he thought it was a prank! QUICK! “Ha ha, yeah, you got me!”
But of course, I didn’t have him. I was too awkward to correct him, to state my true feelings. I decided then that the embarrassment should rest with me, in that moment and in the time to follow. It shouldn’t be shared. He either truly thought I was pranking him, or maybe he understood. It doesn’t really matter, because it shouldn’t have gotten that far. He was interested in “girls that looked like girls,” and I knew this, but I didn’t take his word for it. I thought I knew him better than he knew himself, and that was wrong of me, plain and simple.
I abruptly changed the subject, and the day went on.