It’s no secret that I have a stupid heart. Like many other smart women, my romantic history is rife with inappropriate choices and poor communication.
It’s funny how long it took me to figure that out. You spend a lifetime trying to balance the need to rise above what you read in women’s magazines with the intense self-scrutiny that is required to be a thoughtful citizen of the modern world, only to realize you’ve inadvertently spent the better part of your adult life loving a bunch of jerks.
That was the epiphany I had a few years ago when my friend Z and I were sizing up the contestants on the television program Survivor. (Apparently all my epiphanies occur during conversations about Survivor.) There was this one guy who was sort of funny, but also really mean-spirited and egotistical. His personality showed clear markers of sociopathy, yet I found him compelling.
“I don’t know why I like Tyson on Survivor,” I said, “but I do.”
“Well, that’s hardly a surprise,” Z said. “We all know you’re into assholes.”
While he is a skillful logician, I hardly expected Z to turn our conversation about reality television into a platform for hardcore Truth Telling. But there it was: BOOM. I was like, well, jeez. I guess I’m going to stop thinking so much about all the complexity and hypocrisy surrounding my identity as a woman in the 21st century and just try to focus on not liking assholes anymore.
As it turned out, I didn’t like anyone very much for almost two years. Part of it was a conscious effort to spend some time figuring out why I had been making so many bad decisions. Part of it was the kind of sheer disinterest in other people that you feel after someone breaks your heart. And part of it was that one time, right around the midway point when I felt the faintest glimmer of interest in someone, I puked my guts out at the end of an otherwise enjoyable evening we spent getting to know each other. It was stomach flu, but I took it as a sign from the universe that I wasn’t ready for anything quite yet. Maybe ever.
After dedicating a truly embarrassing amount of time and analysis to figuring out WTF my problem is, lo, I found myself capable of liking someone who’s not a jerk at all. (Feminists everywhere are so proud, I’m sure.) But what I have found to be the legacy of romantic apocalypse--even after I moved on and even after I had taken the critical (but totally fucking excruciating) step of accepting personal responsibility for it--is an unhealthy amount of worrying about what is going to happen with future relationships. More specifically, what is going to happen if things go nuclear. Which is, needless to say, a sort of toxic mindset when you’re going about the strange and delicate business of starting to care about someone.
I’ve told you that I wonder if writers fetishsize the idea of The End. In any narrative, a writer is working towards it. The End is always the goal, and you have to hunt and slay all the story’s possibilities before you can reach it.
I’m so tired of thinking about endings.
Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series, those books that made reading a game where you got to make decisions about what happened next at critical points in the plot? You might be presented with two choices on page 12:
Do you want to fight the sea monster or run away?
I was the kind of child who would flip ahead and read both outcomes before committing one way or the other. I knew that reading ahead went against the spirit of the books, but I couldn’t help it. I was too worried about not choosing the best adventure to let myself have any fun.
I often found that those stories let me down. They inevitably petered out into a single sad thin paragraph that never lived up to my expectations. Still, there was this magical moment just before I looked ahead that I recognize now as the thrill of possibility. I experienced it, just for a second, before I snuffed it out with my neurotic urge to analyze both outcomes and decide which one was better.
I think I would tell a robot that possibilities feel like a chest full of fireflies: all buzzy and lovely, but ephemeral.
Now I’m going to repeat myself a little, because there’s an idea I’ve been trying to articulate here for a long time.
My idea is about transience, the natural ways in which people move in and out of our orbits.
I think if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a handful of people in life who thoroughly delight you. It’s not just about whoever they are; it’s who you are with them. They’re these faceted creatures that cast new light on the tired old world, and on your tired old self.
As you get older, you learn more about the ways in which facets turn to fissures and you grow leery of that fragility, its implied threat. And when you have a stupid heart, it’s hard not to become your own nervous father, demanding that every suitor pledge his honorable intentions.
I have been fighting that urge. I guess I’m trying to relax!
Meanwhile, I’ve written you a love story.
Once upon a time, you had a chest full of fireflies, but they flew away, one by one, when you weren’t looking.
Now all that’s left is just one little loner, and you can tell it’s preparing to leave.
You cup it in your palms. Its light shines through the cracks of your fingers.
You won’t want to let it go. But you will, eventually.
You’ll watch as it drifts away, flickering like a streetlamp in a movie just before the light fails and something bad happens.
You realize that’s the best and worst part: the privilege of holding it in your hands before you bury it in your heart.