How to Fail in Love, or: What a man will do

Chapter V

[Warning: This chapter deals with sexual assault. Names have been changed.]

We didn’t last.

We could hash out the reasons for months – and we did – but in the end, perhaps it was inevitable: a transient soul meeting an intransient heart.

Chicago brought its share of challenges for Selene and me, financial and personal, but whereas in San Francisco there were common foes to unite us, now it was just the two of us sharing a single bedroom apartment in the North Side neighborhood of Buena Park.

There was much to love: the city, the neighborhood, our apartment. Within walking distance of Wrigleyville and Boy’s Town and right off the vital Red Line, we were just minutes from the Loop. We also had “our” bar for cheap drinks and billiards whenever we needed a casual date night.

Selene was able to return to school to finish up her senior year (a main reason for choosing Chicago) and my job search lasted a mere two and a half months instead of five. Granted, my job was as a sales associate in the cavernous Forever 21 on Michigan Avenue, but it provided a paycheck. Bills were being paid, life was being lived.

Unfortunately, our visions of the future were not in alignment. Over the year in San Francisco, Selene transformed from a shell-shocked new explorer to the woman who traveled to Chicago ahead of me to make arrangements. She was stronger and more resilient. Just because someone can move, though, doesn’t mean they want to.

As the months passed, Selene dropped hints about backpacking Europe together. It was an appealing idea – the classic travel narrative – but to do so would require staying at least another year in Chicago to save money. It’d mean abandoning 10 Cities/10 Years.

Other factors were leading to our dissolution, as well. There were the usual abrasions that build up on the body after two years together, exacerbated by our abnormal circumstances: Suspicions of infidelity and apathy, fights and spying, the subtle but inevitable erosion of passion. We took each other for granted, only seeing one another from the corners of our eyes.

I pulled the trigger. One March night, Selene once again brought up a European divergence, now more of an urging than a suggestion. I could no longer deny the inevitable. I felt incensed because of what she was asking me to give up, but also mortified because of what I was forcing her to forgo: a life of her own.

We argued through the night, much of it in tears. When the sun arose the next morning, we were sharing a bed but no longer together.

Neither one of us could afford to move out. Overnight, our apartment had suddenly become claustrophobic. It was late March and my move wasn’t until September. We had five months ahead of us, cellmates in a rented prison.

Some days, we were utterly miserable. Others, we found equilibrium. The fact of our underlying incompatibility was always there, but with that out in the open, we were looking at each other straight on again. At times, it felt like love; that is, when it didn’t erupt as hate. After everything else fell away, we still had passion. You can’t have the warmth of fire without destruction.

August, 2010

Four months after our break up, Selene moved out. She was staying in Chicago and had found a new apartment with a roommate who’d arrive from Philadelphia in a few weeks. Though we were cycling through one of our regular bouts of acrimony, I helped her move across town. That was to be, more or less, the end of it. We were both alone now.

2:00 am

I can’t remember the last time I slept uninterrupted through the night without the aid of intoxicants. There’s always a device by the bed, a tether to consciousness, to an unsettled world. It’s nigh impossible to disconnect.

It was late and I was asleep, but only barely, when a familiar chirping stirred me. Grabbing my phone in the dark, I read the glowing words.

“I was almost raped.”

I shot up in bed. Selene’s message sent shocks through my nervous system, that word exploding like napalm from every synapse.

In a fog, I texted back.

“Where are you?”

When she didn’t respond immediately, I called. She answered through choked sobs.

“He’s in my apartment,” she said. “I left.”

I knew who “he” was. Tommy, her friend, was stationed on a base north of the city and had come down for a Saturday night movie with Selene. I confess, Tommy had previously been a cause of discord between Selene and me. They weren’t romantic (he was married), but theirs was a charged, flirtatious friendship. I had never met the man, but jealousy preemptively bred hate nonetheless.

After the movie, Tommy went out with his buddies for drinks. Ostensibly too inebriated to return to base, he called up Selene and asked to crash at her place. She offered him her couch. What happened next is a common chapter in the stories of far too many women.

Tommy came to Selene’s room and made advances, which she rebuffed. She closed her door. Soon, he came back and attempted twice to force himself upon her. She fought him off and, with no other choice, abandoned her new apartment.

These details I learned later, but at that moment in my darkened room, all I knew was that he was still in her apartment and Selene was somewhere alone.

“I’m heading over there!” I yelled, already dressing.

“Please don’t! I need somewhere to go. Stay at our apartment. Please!” Fighting every instinct, every screaming, wrathful cell in my body, I complied. Selene’s stricken voice was drenched in tears. I stayed. I waited.

When she arrived, she was pale, her eyes sallow and red. She lied in our former bed and I pulled the blankets over us as she cradled into my body. It was like our first night in San Francisco all over again, except I never fell asleep. I wanted to be of comfort to her, but my body was so tense with fury that it must have felt like hugging a statue.

I worked the next morning. I imagine I must have offered to call out and stay with Selene, but for whatever reason I still went. I hadn’t slept, my body was sore from clutching Selene to me all night, and my anger hadn’t subsided. It was a Sunday morning, so the train was, thankfully, mostly unoccupied. I found an isolated seat in the corner, curled up against the glass as tight as I could, and wept. Bitter tears burnt my face.

At work, I managed some semblance of composure, but it must have been obvious that something was seriously wrong. Don, a jovial, good-hearted friend approached and asked what was wrong. He hadn’t been the first to ask how I was doing that morning, but I had brushed most inquiries off with the usual prevarications. When Don asked, though, I could no longer contain the anger.

“Jesus. What are you going to do?” He asked.

“I’m going to kill him,” I promised. Don coughed a slight, nervous laugh, realizing there was no humor in my tone.

I pride myself on eschewing macho male stereotypes, but in this situation all I could think of was fighting. I craved a violent solution.

The problem was, I had little recourse to enact revenge. This wasn’t a movie, I wasn’t going to sneak onto a military base and display some heretofore unseen fighting acumen. Any hope of punishing Tommy required he return to Chicago. I also needed help.

The following day, I found Tommy’s private email address and, creating a fake account, sent him a message with a simple subject line: “Careful”

I opened the missive by laying out what I knew had happened between him and Selene. I put it in exacting detail so that there could be no question of “interpreting” events differently after the fact. I warned that I knew he was married and I could contact his wife easily.

Then I made my demands:

You will come back into the city, Chicago, at a time that is convenient for me. We are going to meet face to face, man to man.

I ended with:

You will not tell Selene you are coming here. In fact, you will not talk to her at all, ever again. Forget you ever knew her.

Meanwhile, Selene didn’t want to return to her apartment, so she stayed with me. Around her, I hoped to be a calming presence, but I was nothing but boiling agitation and rage. She knew I wasn’t letting the matter go, but I kept her in the dark about my intentions. Tommy couldn’t go unpunished. I had to prove – to her, to myself? – that this crime would be met with sufficient vengeance.

Our SoCal friend, Kate, vowed to fly out and “beat the shit out of” Tommy, but I assured her I was taking matters into my own hand.

At work, I enlisted Don and another friend, Aidan, to my cause. Knowing most of the details, they offered their tentative support, not entirely sure how seriously I intended to pursue my plan. Trained as boxers, both men were muscular and intimidating in all the ways I was not. I can’t discount the racial component either: they were black men and I was planning to rendezvous with Tommy on the South Side.

I had no devious master plan, no Machiavellian revenge plot: I wanted Tommy in my presence and I wanted to hurt him. Only his blood would pay for his sins.

But Tommy didn’t respond to my email. Two days passed before I sent another taunting email. I tried to sound threatening, in charge, but the truth was, if he didn’t respond, there was essentially nothing I could do. 

He responded. No denials.

I know i was so very wrong for this, i wish in so many ways i could reverse my actions, not because Selene turned me away, but because it was a darkness within me that i have been fighting for so very long.

It wouldn’t hold up as a confession in court, but it was enough for me.

Over the next few days, we exchanged a half dozen emails. I gave him a date to meet me. He provided excuses why he couldn’t get away from the base. I told him if he didn’t show, I’d forward our email chain to his wife and his CO. Meanwhile, Don and Aidan were, judiciously, backing out of my plan. They understood better than I that no one was making it out of this unscathed.

Finally, Tommy sent one last, clearly rattled email:

I have told my command and my wife what truely happened, they have all read your e-mail. I was given a direct order to tell you such and that i will no be meeting with you under any circumstances.

I attempted to goad him out of hiding, but he didn’t respond. So, through a fake Facebook account, I sent his wife our emails. And there it ended.

I have no idea what became of Tommy. I don’t know what he meant by “what truely happened.” Maybe his wife never read the messages or didn’t believe them if she did. If nothing else, I wanted the people in Tommy’s life to learn the kind of vile man he truly was. I suspect some already knew. I can only hope his “darkness” was never unleashed on another woman.

Without resolution, my anger wouldn’t abate.

A week after escaping assault, shaken but not broken, Selene returned to her apartment and a life that would continue in Chicago without me.

For the remainder of the month before I moved to Tennessee, Selene and I feinted at an amicable friendship. I wish I could say our final parting ended with hugs and fond reminiscing set to an acoustic song like some treacly TV series finale. Alas, our last meeting ended in rage-fueled tears – mine.

Still holding onto resentments from our relationship, I laid blame at her feet. I accused her of leading Tommy on by flirting with him. I did what so many before have done, what too many continue to do: I implied that a woman who dares display her sexuality gives up her right to bodily autonomy.

This was Selene’s struggle, and I had made it about me. I thought it was my war to fight, that I was Selene’s soldier. What she really deserved was an ally.

The Chapter Ends

We’d been good and bad together in equal measures. We had the singular ability to lift one another up, and tear each other down.

I left Chicago in a daze, 100% certain I would never see Selene again; 100% sure I would. I was halfway through.

Selene was no longer the girl I’d met in Costa Mesa two years earlier. So much had happened to her since moving to San Francisco – to both of us – and she’d been transformed. She couldn’t be the person she had been even if she wanted to. Change – positive, negative – is the inevitable result of stepping out one’s front door.

Skydeck View Cropped

It was September. After two hard years together, our roads now diverged.

Keep reading: Chapter VI – Nashville

Moving is hard. Sometimes, it’s brutal.

CHAPTER I

Our last meal together was at Olive Garden. It could have been worse; it could’ve been Chik-Fil-A. In a couple hours, I was to board a bus headed for Philadelphia. My second of ten years was to take place there, but before that, I had to say goodbye to North Carolina. And Ashley.

We had only been dating for a month and a half – hadn’t even known each other for three – and from the beginning it had been established that I would leave, for reasons not entirely clear even to me. That didn’t keep us from soaking up every second together, never apart for more than a few hours. Our instant rapport was built on youthful zeal and fragility, a translucent love that began fading the moment we touched it.

For my last two days in Charlotte, Ashley and I were inseparable. She helped me pack up my apartment, drive my boxes to the post office, and unload the few pieces of secondhand furniture that I owned. With friends wanting to hang out and say their goodbyes, we savored our last, precious moments alone together. Our final night was spent in my spacious but now bare apartment. I laid my one blanket out on the carpet and Ashley slept in my arms.

She volunteered to drive me to the Greyhound bus station, and it was on the way that we stopped for committee-tested Italian cuisine.

A Greyhound bus station can be many things – cold, sticky, desolate, haunted – but one thing it can never be is romantic. No movie builds to the climax of a man swooping into the bus terminal just as his lover is about to give her ticket to the wheezing, septuagenarian driver. Greyhound stations are where stories end, not begin.

We stood in line together, me with a bulging suitcase, a green backpack, and a blue laundry bag stuffed with a cornucopia of my possessions, the draw string wrapped around the wrist of my right hand while my other held Ashley’s. We had arrived early because of her inherent punctuality and now we had a half hour to wait. She couldn’t wait.

My decision to move to Philadelphia, the decision to bind my fate to my10 Cities/10 Years project, had been made before I met Ashley. I suspect if she had come into my life just a couple months earlier, my life would have been very different. I couldn’t know it then, but the year ahead of me – indeed, the decade – would be tumultuous and exhilarating, crushing and beautiful; most of all, lonely.

Ashley was crying at my side, her stoic resolve dissolving with the clock’s merciless ticking. Up to the end, she refused to ask me to stay. Fearing she would, I had briefly turned bitter towards her in our last week together, but she held her tongue. She was young, but wise enough to know better. It didn’t mean she didn’t want me to stay; it didn’t mean I didn’t want to. I am a stubborn man, though. With her tears turning into sobs, I couldn’t give her the one thing that would have comforted her.

She left me then. It was too much to ask of her that she wait to watch me step up onto the bus. She fled back to her car and suddenly it was just me, facing my uncertain future alone.

That’s not entirely true, actually. Standing in the line before me was a young boy, not quite 20 (granted, I was only 23). When Ashley left, he looked at me with a quizzical, unreadable expression, suggesting neither empathy nor embarrassment. His confused, blank eyes looked like he was seeing everything for the first time.

“She okay?” He asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, doubtful.

“She loves you, huh?”

“I…” I was taken aback by his forwardness and also not entirely sure how to answer that question. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Okay.” I hoped that would end the conversation but he soldiered on. “Where are you headed?”

Since we’d soon be boarding the same bus, I saw no reason to not tell him: “Philadelphia.”

“Yeah? I’m going to Pennsylvania, too. My family lives in…” some city I don’t remember, a place that might as well have been Moscow for all I knew of Pennsylvania at that point. I flashed one of my patented half-smile/half-grimaces of acknowledgment, hoping that would suitably express my incuriosity. Typically, I might have engaged in innocuous chatter with a stranger – why not, I had nothing better to do for the next day – but Ashley’s absence was pulsing inside me, reinforcing how drastically uncertain I was of my choices.

“I’ve been in an asylum,” my glass-eyed companion offered without prompting.

Of course he had.

Feeling it prudent to give this boy the opportunity to talk about himself, I offered a simple, “Oh, yeah?”

He talked more, much more, but what he shared about himself I no longer remember. There was only one person on my mind. Was she still sitting outside, crying in her car? Or had she left immediately? Should I call her, attempt to say something comforting? Or would that just make things worse?

Eventually, the boy sensed my disinterest and went silent. Or, perhaps more likely, he had found it hard to maintain conversation with a pillar of salt.

When our bus was ready for departure, I gladly let him board first. The boy picked a seat near the front of the bus and I, avoiding eye contact (even as I felt his gaze on me), headed to the rear of the bus.

I’ve ridden Greyhound buses all over the country. From Kansas to Boston, from DC to Detroit, and countless stops in between. They aren’t pleasurable trips, but can be generally tolerable as long as you procure a few things: a seat to yourself, preferably not near a baby; a sizeable music library; and something to read that won’t give you a headache (magazines or paperback novels are good; Russian literature tends to strain the mind too much). If you’re so inclined, a few mini bottles of liquor can be of benefit, too.

Already drained of energy before we even pulled out of the station, it would turn out to be one of the most grueling bus trips of my life.

Our fully booked bus departed Charlotte midafternoon, due to arrive in Philadelphia in the morning, the following day. That trip is roughly 16 hours, a long haul, but hardly a marathon. The early going was nothing unusual. We made various stops as we progressed up the coast, out of North Carolina and up through Virginia.

When we made bathroom or food breaks, I found myself shadowed by the young, Pennsylvania-bound man. He attempted small talk, but after a few hours on the bus and still raw with emotions, I was in no mood for it. Though he eventually picked up on my unresponsiveness, he still hovered about me, always standing a few feet from me like he was afraid I and the bus would leave without him.

We were scheduled to arrive at the Richmond, Virginia bus station before midnight where I and most of my fellow bus riders were to catch a transfer at 12:30. Instead, inexplicably, traffic outside the city stopped to a standstill. By the time we got through and arrived at the station, it was coming on one in the morning and the bus to Philly was long gone.

The station was bustling with passengers. Apparently a number of delays had riders stuck in Richmond, and for those of us continuing north, we had to wait for a bus that was scheduled to depart at seven. We spread out in the terminal, hoping to find even a few feet of unclaimed floor space to sleep on (it was too much to hope for a free seat).

Even when I did manage to find the bare minimum of unoccupied space, I couldn’t sleep. I had my three bags with me, essentially every possession of any value stuffed into them, and didn’t feel safe falling asleep with so many restless, gray-eyed strangers around. For nearly six hours, I held loosely onto consciousness, but even when exhaustion began to win the battle, my growling stomach remained vigilant. I hadn’t eaten since Olive Garden, and my only options at that time of night were whatever the depleted vending machines had to offer.

Finally, sunlight peaked through the grimy windows and, with it, the promise of my Philly-bound bus. Unfortunately, when you’re sleep-deprived, hungry, and sore, the length of time between sunrise and genuine morning is interminable. As I waited for the departure announcement over the loudspeaker, I couldn’t sit still: I paced, I sat, I stood again; I carried all of my bags into the bathroom and then right back out.

To my great relief, my bus did arrive and in time, I was on the road again.

We pulled into downtown Philadelphia in early afternoon, a quarter of a day later than I was scheduled to have arrived. I still had to figure out how to get from Market Street to my apartment in West Philly. I was in a city I’d never been to before, weighed down with heavy bags (growing heavier with each passing minute), and completely unfamiliar with the public transportation system.

By the time I made it to my new home, I was too exhausted to process that my new apartment – nay, my new room – was barely large enough for a full-sized bed or that the bars on my window warned of a rougher neighborhood than I was accustomed to. I pulled out my one blanket, the one I had shared with Ashley, and laid it out on my hardwood floor. Then I passed out.

That wasn’t the last I saw of Ashley. In fact, she visited just over a month later, and we reconnected a few times over the years of my project. But what I left behind in Charlotte, what I abandoned with her, would never be recaptured again. Of course, it couldn’t: when we separated that first time, we were still in the midst of our initial infatuation. Looking back on those brief few weeks is like peering at an insect frozen in amber: It will remain forever pure.

I will always regret and not regret my decision to leave. I know if I had stayed, the relationship would have fizzled out in time – not because of Ashley, but because of me, because I was still so young and so far from who I would become with the years of travel and experiences. Knowing that to be true doesn’t make the sting of that first move any softer. It was something I had to go through. Loss is a fundamental part of traveling; people rarely tell you that.

Now, when I’m asked how I can move so much, when questioned how I stand to leave behind places after such brief stays, I can only think, “It will never be that hard again.”

Keep reading: Chapter II – Philadelphia

Go. Do.

I was dating a girl named Destiny.

That isn’t the beginning of a poem – it would be terrible if it was – but it is, more or less, the beginning of 10 Cities/10 Years.

Destiny was the prototypical mid-2000s emo chick, sporting the requisite shock of dyed hair and inked with star tattoos on her wrists. A hairstylist in Charlotte, she had transplanted to the city from Seattle via Tallahassee and spoke with the soft, stoned surfer girl’s patois of some indistinct Pacific Northwest tribe from which I imagined she had emerged, punctuating every other sentence with a slurred, “For sure.”

She was my type, which is to say in those days my type was any cute girl who’d date me (still is). A regular at the bookstore where I had been hired as a barista, I would fawn over her every time she ordered her coffee. Eventually, I was promoted to Receiving, but I popped up on the book floor whenever there was downtime. One day, seeing her sitting out on the café patio – despite it being January – I made the unprecedented move to walk out and talk to her. I’d rarely been so bold in my life.

I have no idea what we said, but it was an introduction. On my next day off, a coworker at the store called me up and let me know that Destiny (or, the “hot emo girl,” as he didn’t know her name) was back at the store. I lived across the street, and under the pretense of visiting the art store around the corner, I crossed Destiny’s path.

The total time I knew Destiny was one month, neither the longest nor the shortest I’ve gone out with someone. Most of our time together was spent in her large pick-up truck – jacked up on giant tires so entering the vehicle involved a climb – listening to music.

She introduced me to quite a few bands and albums I still listen to, most notably the Magnetic Fields and the Shins’ “Chutes Too Narrow” which she lent to me. We made a lot of mixed CDs for each other; I’m more than a little embarrassed to imagine what music I would have given her at that time. Our other activities together, like attending a poetry reading and eating at diners at two in the morning, have congealed in my mind as some sort of romantic ideal, but the truth is, we barely knew each other. I didn’t even know her last name.

chutes_too_narrow

One night, when we were supposed to meet up after I got off work, Destiny left a voice message on my cellphone. Through some indecipherable noise, voices and her laughing, she had muttered something to me. When my shift ended, I called her but she didn’t answer. Days went by without any contact from her. I tried calling again a few days after she no-showed but she didn’t answer.

“Just checking to see if you’re around. I need to give you back your CD.” Destiny didn’t return my call, which is how I came to own “Chutes Too Narrow” (still my favorite Shins album). I never saw her again at the bookstore and that’s where I left it.

I’ve dated my share of women since Destiny, most more seriously than her, and in fact, only a couple months later I would meet someone who would become a major love interest in my life for the next seven years. Destiny and I didn’t have a relationship, we were just casually seeing each other. And yet, she remains in my mind a pivotal character in my story – in a way I’m sure I’m not for her. Maybe it’s just the storyteller in me – a mix of false memories and symbol creation – but those brief moments with Destiny feel important.

It was with Destiny, the two of us sitting in her apartment while she smoked weed and we listened to Billy Joel on vinyl (she had eclectic tastes) that I first started talking about 10 Cities/10 Years like I was going to do it, not just as a fantasy. I remember distinctly telling her, “I’m moving in June.” My little idea had gone from a hypothetical dream to a plan, and with that touch of reality, my life gained direction.

Perhaps I imagined I could impress her with my confidence, or maybe as winter set in, I simply realized that I was running out of time to luxuriate in a dream. Whatever the case, by mid-February of 2006, 10 Cities/10 Years was reality.

At some point in all of our lives, we have to reach a tipping point, that line we cross when a dream becomes a pursuit. At some point, the words we use must transform from “I would love to…” to “I’m going to…”

This isn’t some sort of mystical, Oprah-approved, The Secret pablum. I’m not talking about “Telling the Universe what you want.” At some point, though, if your dream is going to be real, you have to go from talking about hypotheticals to making plans. You will never save money without a reason, you will never take the big leap if you don’t know where you’re going to land. You don’t have to know everything before you start – almost nothing about the next decade of my life was planned before I set out – but you must take concrete steps.

When I returned from Spain last September, I realized that I needed a new direction. Ever since I’d finished my project, I had been living without a plan. Ten years is a long time to live by a schedule, and I needed a break. But after a year with no distinct goals, I realized I was ready to have a plan again. So I made one.

It’s great to dream, it’s the hallmark of all creative people. With enough time, though, dreaming transforms from an active to a passive activity. At that point, you need to live with a different set of verbs: Go. Do.

So once again, I’m going. I’m doing.

 

Love Letters, Emails and the Impossible Task of Memory

Memory

I’ve been writing. I have created drafts of the first 2 chapters of 10 Cities / 10 Years: The Book (not the title). It was in those first cities – Charlotte and Philadelphia – that the foundation of the whole endeavor was set, both in experience and in patterns: Move; Meet; Learn; Love; Detach; Disintegrate.

For much of what I’ve written, I’ve relied on memory, an imperfect capsule. I didn’t start out trying to capture every moment as it happened. I didn’t keep meticulous journals and notes to document my travels or my evolution as I progressed through 10 cities. Instead, I have snippets of remembrances: poetry, letters, rants written down, the occasional diary entry. The fullest details are left to be reconstructed through the loose connections and misfilings of my frayed synapses.

This is how myths form.

How I reassemble this story, as a series of events building up to a decade, will not be how the other participants – those who only appeared for a short time, a year or less, maybe only a month – will remember it. I will tell stories that some people won’t remember at all. I will leave out happenings that others will have believed to be of utmost importance.

The final product will be a version of history. Not history.

Emails

I have taken to reading old emails to fill out the memories. I’m lousy with names, always have been. If I’m introduced to someone, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll have forgotten the name by the end of the conversation. Part of the problem is that I’m a visual learner. When I see something written down I am 10 times more likely to remember it.

The other problem is I prioritize my socializing: If there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to leave my life and I will never see you again, I won’t put much effort in storing the information.

Now, as I’m sitting down to recount old stories, I am realizing that there are ancillary characters who, though not particularly vital in the grand arc of my story, still played an important role for a brief moment. And their names are mostly lost in a mixture of time, space and liquor.

Thankfully, I was a better documentarian than I realized. It turns out that my aversion to phones (seriously, don’t ever call me) served a purpose: I have written literally thousands of emails to friends and lovers over the years. Sometimes they were nothing more than a single sentence, a brief greeting when I was feeling lonely or I knew the recipient was having a rough day. Much of the correspondence is built on long forgotten inside jokes.

But there are longer letters in those digital file cabinets in which I wrote at length about the events of my days. In one email to a friend, I discussed attending a house party after my first week in Philadelphia. I have no memories of that party, and the letter is short on specifics, but I did list the names of my neighbors: David (the landlord), Phil, Seth and Alexis. None of these people were especially important to the direction of my life, though I did spend a number of nights attending parties and shows with Alexis. Knowing her name doesn’t strengthen my memories of the year, but it does provide a precise detail by which a reader can latch onto her as a character.

It’s these kinds of details that make me grateful for the nearly limitless storage capacity of Gmail. And yet, in those dusty tombs are also the fragments of many lost relationships.

Love Letters

I have never intentionally thrown out a letter or a note from a friend. If it was handwritten, I most likely have it somewhere. Even if it’s nothing more than a Post-it note, it’s likely stored somewhere in my file of papers. When I was a child, I received an odd penpal letter from a boy in Russia (odd because it was in response to a letter I had never written) and I’ve kept it ever since (I never wrote back). There is just something about words written with pen or pencil that hold so much power.

Most of those notes are from old lovers. There are letters of courtship and eroticized notes from the height of romance, but there are also desperate recriminations and sad postmortems from the failing or failed end of a relationship. I’ve kept them all. They are history, not told by the victors, but by the defeated.

In the early goings, when I left a city for the next, I had 1 or 2 ex-girlfriends who were reliable e-companions. I was always trying to stay friends with exes in those days, and so our emails back and forth still included pet names and the occasional admission that feelings had not faded. But we were trying (or trying to try) to be platonic.

There is nothing sadder than an old love letter, except perhaps an old love letter that was never meant to be a love letter. To sit down with the specific intention of expressing one’s feelings in a letter is a reflection of love, albeit a calculated one. To sit down, though, with the simple idea of writing about one’s day, only to be so overwhelmed by your need and longing that you pour out your feelings on the page, well… that’s just love.

11-23-2010

And it’s gone.

Ex-lovers move on, as they should. They get engaged, they get married, they have children and they don’t go through their old emails and love letters and reminisce about some phantom to whom they once foolishly devoted themselves.

Well, perhaps they do. Even in happiness and contentment, they must wonder about the past and try to remember how both the pain and the pleasure could have felt so intense. They wonder if it was ever real. They have their doubts. They have their memories.

An Impossible Task

When this decade ends, I’ll string together a through-line from Charlotte to Brooklyn, attempting to assemble a cohesive story out of 10 disjointed, directionless years in which I spent as much time trying to forget as I did remembering. I’ll piece it all together with love letters, emails, notes on scraps of paper, photographs and, most importantly, memories. Yours and mine.

It will be a lie. It will be a myth. It will be a kind of truth. Like a love letter.

Not Titled

It’s not okay to be in love. It’s, in fact, a very dangerous thing. I’d recommend you avoid it, but it’s not much of a choice, is it? You know how the girls are, which is not how the boys are, except when it’s exactly how the boys are, when they are all afraid that the next one is the last one, or the last one will be the last one, or that there never will be a last one. So they can be quite shitty to each other; we can be quite shitty to each other. We can also be quite beautiful in moments, the way a storm is beautiful when it’s holding court up above and a bird flies in place and for a few minutes it feels like the whole planet stopped turning; the sky is purple, your heart is a wind chaser, she is a safe place to rest and this cyclone keeps on spinning. No one asks to get off, but only one ride lasts forever and it takes all we have just to make forever feel like a full life. So we give in. To love. To being loved. And in the fall, we think, this is yet another of my many mistakes for which I will surely pay a dear price, but.

We can’t not.

Unreliable Perspectives

What is to be made of an unreliable narrator? Generally, our cultural narratives are presented through an omniscient perspective, so much so in fact that often we miss or are simply incapable of recognizing when we’re presented with a dubious point of view. It is so engrained in us to trust the narrator or protagonist to tell the true story, we are far too often easy marks for unreliable narrators or liars. Even when the story lets it be known upfront that it is the subjective experience of a particular character, audiences are often burdened by their addiction to literalism.

Unreliable perspectives were used notably in a variety of popular films in the 90s and early 2000s, particularly in The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Memento. Strangely, after the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind in 2001 fooled us with the perspective of a schizophrenic, mainstream Hollywood movies shied away from such narrative chicanery. That’s not to say that such films didn’t exist, but they have either been poorly received by audiences or just plain poorly made (2004’s Secret Window being both). In the wake of 9/11, did our need for distinct heroes and villains make unreliable narrators less palatable?

Summer Days

Occasionally in this young century, a film (or book) has broken through the mainstream with an unreliable perspective, but audiences largely chose to take the presented narrative at face value.

500 Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer (2009) is one of the most glaring examples in recent years. The movie, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as ‘Tom’ and Zooey Deschanel as ‘Summer’ is ostensibly a romantic comedy that indulges in a variety of symbolic and playful cinematic flourishes to tell the story of love found/love lost. While there is a (basically) omniscient narrator throughout the movie, the perspective of the movie is Tom’s, and the film lets the audience know early on that not everything he believes is necessarily true (we are told that as a child his romanticized view of love led him to misread the ending of The Graduate).

Many fans of the movie seem to enjoy it non-ironically as if it were a traditional rom-com, while almost every criticism of (500) refers to Summer as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (a popular term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin), which is derogative shorthand for an idealistic, quirky, nigh-perfect (usually she has some insignificant flaw) female who helps the male protagonist grow and better understand himself, or love, or the world. Or all. The true defining characteristic of the MPDG is that outside of her role in the male protagonist’s life, she has little to no personal drive.

The irony of this film’s critics labeling Summer a MPDG is that that’s precisely the way Tom sees her, a dream girl who exists to save him from the drudgery of his greeting card-writing life.

The first hour of the movie allows Tom to indulge in this fantasy, but reality abruptly reasserts itself about halfway through the story (overtly symbolized by the split screen party scene). This shift clues the audience in that Summer is not just a plastic doll for Tom’s fulfillment (or, contrarily, a ‘bitch’ as the opening narration asserts). Rather, she is a living, breathing woman with her own desires and her own proclivities in sex and relationships. She’s not perfect, but she’s also not a monster. At the risk of spoiling the ending, those who leave (500) with the belief that Summer is a MPDG are either misapplying the term or are trapped in the same delusion movie-watching mindset that gave Tom his rose-colored view of The Graduate.

(I’d argue that 500’s final scene meet-cute with Tom immediately falling for new girl, Autumn, is actually a subversively pessimistic suggestion that Tom hasn’t grown at all, but I digress.)

Learning To Question Ourselves

I wish more movies and books in the popular canon indulged in unreliable perspectives. While common wisdom claims this is the generation of irony, earnest narrators and protagonists remain quite in vogue. There is nothing wrong with sincerity, and in fact I frequently prefer it to irony which in the hands of lesser artists is nothing more than a feeble cover for having nothing to say. But fiction (and non-fiction, for that matter) benefits from a willingness to suggest, “Here’s one perspective, but it’s just one of many, and maybe it’s not even a very good one.”

In Steven Pinker’s (2011) exhaustive analysis of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he suggests that one of the major factors in our species’ shift towards more benevolent treatment of each other was the printing explosion that made it possible for books (especially novels) to proliferate and spread. Reading allows us to recognize that other people from completely different backgrounds still have recognizable experiences, beliefs and thoughts. It’s harder to dehumanize an entire group once you’ve been in their head.

Unreliable perspectives in our narratives can help us go even further: They make us more receptive to the idea that our own views might not necessarily be correct. In a culture dominated by Right vs. Left, Red vs. Blue, Us vs. Them, is there any doubt our civilization would benefit from more people being willing to say, “Well, this is what I believe, but I might be wrong”? When you read a book with no definitive perspective or watch a movie that questions its own premise, you are being trained in the valuable art of self-evaluation.

A recent scientific study has revealed that reading literary fiction improved “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence” in participants. Literary fiction is one of the few genres (alongside mystery) that frequently uses unreliable narrators or perspectives. However, whereas a mystery might use an unreliable narrator to fool the reader, the unreliable perspective in literary fiction is used to question traditional viewpoints and undermine simplistic interpretations of events.

This Is Not A Love Story…

Looking back on a number of my past romantic relationships, I can recognize the perspective I had at the time, I can even understand how I came to the view I had. But with time, those views seem less like mountaintop outlooks and more like the perception of a guy in the valley, just like everyone else. That doesn’t mean there isn’t objective truth, or that real wrongs weren’t done (on both sides), only that the story I tell myself and others originates from an unreliable narrator, just like all of our stories.

That’s really the message of (500) Days of Summer: Every story has two sides, and both are probably wrong. It isn’t the first movie to attempt that message, and it won’t be the last, but it is unique for coming out in a time when most media seemed locked into the Good Vs. Evil paradigm. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it does something better than almost any romantic comedy in recent memory: It gives both parties their own agency and trusts the audience to judge them for who they are, not for who they present themselves to be.

We live in complex times. Our art and entertainment should reflect that. It should challenge us to question what we know, and in doing so, it will teach us to be more engaged. Not just with films and books, but with the world we dance, kiss, screw, cry, scream, sing, laugh and, ultimately, live in.