Even at a young age, long before you had discovered your father’s Playboy’s in the garage or ventured down the rabbit hole of ’90s AOL chat rooms, you were mixed up and gullible about love.
You can’t construct this sort of memory without the assistance of your mother’s persuasive confidence. Everything looks hazy and unfocused when viewed through the fog of lost time, those early, early years that your mother has gleefully documented via VHS tapes and piles of crumbling photo albums.
Apparently, you had found a “boyfriend” in your kindergarten class. How this came about, it’s a mystery. His name escapes you and fortunately, your father and mother don’t remember. But the pictures show a small, pale twig of a boy in a dark, thick sweater, his brown hair snipped into a shaggy bowl cut. You are holding hands with the unknown classmate and he is obliviously smiling with little Chiclets of white teeth and you’re wearing a navy blue dress, white tights, and your mother’s gleaming white pearls. Even at a young age, long before you had discovered your father’s Playboys in the garage or ventured down the rabbit hole of ’90s AOL chat rooms, you were mixed up and gullible about love, chasing the illusive, searching for someone to not only compliment you, but complete you.
Maybe this assessment is an overreaction, a consequence of hindsight and cynicism. But looking back, you have the sneaking suspicion that this was not an accident or some universal rite of passage. You tend to define yourself not by the things that are supposed to happen to you, but all the things that never do. You read too many books and watch too many movies and feel too connected to art and so you like to think that the photographs are permanent evidence, the first page in a book that defies one genre.
Your mother lets you watch a movie called Pretty Woman. This is one of her favorite movies. You watch it in your parent’s bedroom, curled up beneath the blankets. Your mother doesn’t mention anything about the true nature of what Vivienne (played by Julia Roberts) does for a living. She is simply “a woman who worked in a bar” and somehow by the complicated magic of serendipity, Vivienne, a diamond in the rough, meets Edward, a dashing yet emotionally unavailable millionaire, and they eventually fall hopelessly in love and he gives her a classy makeover and some snooty blond saleswoman is mean to her in a gaudy boutique on Rodeo Drive.
Your mother likes to craft a teenage past that omits the poverty of the Philippines and the crime and the instances of national dictatorship. Instead, she likes to talk about all of her suitors, the ex-boyfriends and the ex-admirers and the ex-soul mates. She was the kind of girl who snuck out of her bedroom window to meet some boy after the sun went down. Your mother was only twenty-one when she met and married your father. She spoke English and heavily identified with American culture (school dances and lazy summers featured a soundtrack provided by Madonna and Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson), but she had never been out of the country. She had told you that she may not have married your father, that she had been entertaining a proposal from a British medical student who was perpetually broke but movie-star handsome with clear blue eyes.
“What made you pick Dad?” you wondered. You couldn’t help but think that there was a note of wistful regret in your mother’s voice; each time she told this story, she could still picture the British student with impeccable detail.
“Because he didn’t have it together. And your father did. And I loved him.”
You instantly notice that love is listed as the second reason, having taken a backseat to stability. Was that the true nature to love, the key to success?
Would Vivienne have fallen so in love with Edward if he were absolutely broke?
You and your friend call up a random boy you’ve “met” in a chat room. He says that your voice sounds cute and you’re probably pretty and you bask in the praise, even if it’s an illusion, even if the boy on the other end is not really a boy at all.
You’re not sure what love feels like, but this may be it.
A new student is transferred into your homeroom and your English class. He’s one of the few black students at your school. He instantly becomes the class clown, a role that he laps up with equal parts glee and deep-rooted thirst. You wonder how you can be attracted to someone so outgoing, someone so able to thrive on the quick flash of fifteen minute high school fame. But as much as your personalities are opposite, you cannot help but be drawn to his aura, this carefully cultivated image. You like his smile and his laugh and the way he doesn’t judge your occasional bursts of social awkwardness. He likes your writing and he likes being around you. That is all that matters.
After weeks and weeks of casual hand holding and one afternoon of sneaking him into your bedroom like some paranoid Cold War spy, he decides to date a different girl because you, in his very own words, “act too much like a white person.”
You’re in the club and you made sure to wear red lipstick because somehow you’ve been made to believe that a woman instantly looks more appealing with a slab of red lipstick. The unspoken uniform of the club’s patrons seems to be body-conscious and monochromatic. You try to dance without thinking of how lame you probably look; your confidence and self-worth instantly rocket up when an older man makes a beeline for you. It’s all a game (to you) and thus when you and your gaggle of friends are invited to go back to the hotel room of this frosted-tip, frat boy looking stranger, you don’t hesitate to accept. Wasn’t this the validation you were desperately craving? The stranger is sharing a room with his friend, who works with him. They offer you all a joint. Other drugs are passed around. Eventually, you make out with the stranger in his hotel bathroom, the door shut, his hands slowly slinking down your shoulders, down your hips, down the small of your back. He’s not a very good kisser but it’s nice to be kissed by someone, anyone really, even a telephone pole technician with pleather pants, because you’ve never been on a date.
You thought you had found someone who liked you for you, fumbling social anxiety, allegiance to nerdom and all. He had big, grey eyes, a chiseled chin and a boyish smirk. On your first date, he hadn’t kissed you goodnight and you had wondered if you had sent the wrong signals. On your second date, you went back to his apartment, expecting some sort of haven for a bookworm turned high school English teacher, but his room looked more like a boys’ locker room, the carpet littered with crumpled clothes, the bed spread stained, the desk cluttered with trash. He had told you that he preferred to date black girls over white girls because they were exotic and better in bed. He waited until after you finished hooking up to let you know that he wasn’t interested in anything serious, and in fact, you were his fix for the night and he thought that he may be addicted to sex. He was “like a heroin addict.”
You were too scared to leave his apartment in the middle of the night because you’d forgotten how to get back to the subway stop and you didn’t want him to walk you there. You were disgusted with him and disgusted with yourself. You waited until the pale light of a yellow sun hit the New York skyline and then quietly slipped on your clothes, gathered your purse and your shoes, and then hightailed it out of the apartment.
A week later, you have enough self-control to eventually decline his invitation to dinner. You realize you’ve been holding on to something since you were fifteen, something that prevented a head-first dive into the quicksand of a hopeless romantic.
Your mother firmly believes in the power of positive thinking and would still swear to this mantra even if a gun were pointing in her face. She says that you could probably have a boyfriend if you just smiled more, if you didn’t look so mean all the time. She seems blind to the fact that suburban Connecticut does not beat with the same hypnotizing pulse as New York City or Boston and the amount of open-minded men willing to date outside of their race in your hometown and the surrounding areas is often rare, a direct correlation to a neighborhood’s demographic.
Who knew that you would meet him in a bar, of all places? But despite all of your efforts to ignore that tiny opening in your heart, you decide to see him again. And again. And again.
This piece was originally published on July 5th 2013.