Love. I hoped it would happen on a train sometime during my early 20s as the countryside rolled past—cows, clothes flying on untethered lines, a murmuration of starlings, trees clothed in light—while I read a book, something by Hemingway or Salinger. Now I might say Szabo, Calvino, or Ginzburg, but I didn't know those authors yet. I'd pause in my reading and scribble a few lines in a journal my mother had given me, lines that encapsulated the entire day—short, precise, poetic.
And when I looked up again, to gaze into the middle distance, as I always do when I'm thinking hard, I'd catch the eye of a woman—pretty, probably French. From there we'd play the game of making and breaking glances until one of us, hopefully her, because I was petrified of the opposite sex, said something. And we'd talk for the next two hours about the way we were brought up, our shortcomings—the way we kept failing to live up to the people we aspired to be, our fealty to everything that moved us to cry: solitary car trips, montages, the death of our pets when we were young.
My dreams were the same as every straight boy coming of age in the '90s—find a lovely girl, talk to her for hours about everything under the sun, and then fall in everlasting love. The kind of love where, rather than finishing one another's sentences, you can't wait for them to start, to see what insights, what revolutions of the mind might pour forth. Although, now that I think more on it, perhaps not all the 15-year-old boys were dreaming of sunlit walks down cobblestone streets and existential conversations about God, The Four Quartets, infinity, and the meaning of this messy world. Rather, they were thinking of fucking. Mind you, I thought of the fucking, too. I'm no saint.
By the time I turned 15, the majority of my friends had girlfriends with whom they'd had sex or were at least engaged in the requisite hand and mouth sort of stuff that leads to it. And while they were busy experiencing the intensity of youthful sexual vigor, I was playing immersive role-playing games, not the sexy kind with French maids and schoolmasters, but the my-wizard-casts-Blaze-on-a-group-of-dark-elves kind. When not doing that, I watched romantic comedies starring Jeanine Garaffalo, Julia Roberts, or Meg Ryan. Were my teenage years typical in this way? Was everyone secretly watching B-films about finding love in Ireland?
My older sister had a monopoly on contemporary cinema in our house, and it was her storehouse I raided. My brother didn't seem to care about movies beyond Star Wars, and my mother was too tired from teaching and raising three kids to stay awake for an entire film. As for me, I had time, and I'd started to outgrow the selections my aunt had given us, ones she'd recorded from television over the years: Kirby, The Princess Bride, Splash. I have always had romantic inclinations—a foolish desire for something external to transform my internal life into something transcendent.
Philip Larkin famously says your mum and dad fuck you up, but I'd submit romantic comedies fucked me up just as much. My dad wasn't even around to do the fucking up, but I suppose that's a separate essay. Beyond the romantic comedies, the movie Before Sunrise, by acclaimed director Richard Linklater, fucked me up the most. In Before Sunrise, two 20-somethings meet on a train and spend the evening together talking in Vienna. As they wander the beautiful streets, Vienna's picturesque architectures looming, the Danube threading through the bridges, they talk about their failed relationships, fate, religion. They encounter a poet on the river, a fortune teller outside a café. They talk and talk about everything until they have sex, off-screen because the sex is tertiary in this movie, an afterthought. When morning arrives, rather than staying together, they part ways with no certainty they'll see each other again. How could a lonely teenage boy not want that? I was so quiet then. I hardly spoke to anyone. I had a rich interior life, shared with precisely no one. I should tell you, sometimes it seems as though that hasn't changed.
Love is as banal as it is meaningful, which is to say, I'm not breaking new ground here. Shakespeare wrote sonnets—Let me not to the marriage of true minds—Rousseau was curiously drawn to cross-eyed women, and virtually every popular song is about love being lost, found, temporarily misplaced, or lost and then found again. Of course, I didn't fall in love with a woman at fifteen. I fell in love with an idea—that words passing between two human beings are the only thing worth truly yearning for. In this way, the movie taught me about transcendence, and yes, a marriage of the true minds, that is only possible in conversation.
You know, I believe if there's any kind of God, it wouldn't be in any of us. Not you, or me... but just this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something.
In the era of #MeToo, and a growing awareness that male depictions of women are far too often clichés of fantastic figures and dazzling smiles, shouldn't I be proud that my era-defining romantic movie was about something else? I'd like to say so. Who hesitates when it comes to self-congratulation? Particularly in an era when missteps are called out and incinerated within hours on Twitter. The thing is, I'm not sure I can take any particular credit here. I was a product of the culture in which I was raised, and my older sister had a collection of movies that imbued me with the idea that romance and love were the central tenets of human relationship. And, in my heart of hearts, it's what I desired. I wanted what they had. Again, something external, learned, an idea to aspire to. But I see now that the problem is still an externalizing one, wanting someone to fill a void, in this case, intellectual and romantic as opposed to sexual. What if a person was just a person? Not a vector for meeting needs?
Besides which, my desire for love was equally met by a maniacal desire to see breasts in all shapes and sizes. My sexual desire, if not fully formed, then fully ravenous, also structured my days. But I was Christian, which means my fairly typical sexual desire was closely attended to by shame. If I loved Jesus, why did I also love nudity? I used to end masturbatory sessions with prayers for forgiveness. In short, my sexuality was a source of shame, which left a void for these romantic ideals to take root. I'm not sure I was good so much as damaged. And beyond that, when I was 15, the most salient image I had was of a girl, Leah Kimberley, bending over to help my friend and I do something, and the slow falling of her dress, the revealing of her bra.
This is another way of saying that perhaps what I've said above about love is a lie. Perhaps I was exactly like every other 15-year-old boy. I think we have a hard time not imaging ourselves as uniquely driven individuals, uniquely good, unique in our aesthetics, rather than just one more automaton watching Gilbert Gottfried's Up All Night to see people kissing in their underwear.
Of course, it was hard to tell the truth from lies that particular year, 1996. The fact is, though most of my friends had girlfriends, I was petrified of talking to girls. I was actually incapable. Whenever a group of women approached, my heart started beating rapidly and I retreated from the conversation. I only responded if I was asked a direct question, and I kept my responses short. What was that about? If conversation was what filled me with ecstasy during college, the non-drug related kind, why did I spend the majority, if not all of high school, unable to engage in it? I had only three female friends over the course of high school, all girlfriends of my friends. I made it to 18 without ever having a really unique conversation with the objects of my affection. In what ways did that allow romantic projections to grow wild?
That said, I had a brief time in eighth grade when I was at the peak of my romantic allure. To quote Mark Twain: "It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." Silence made me into a mystery. And this mystery allowed the girls to project their desires onto me. Who knew what kind of boyfriend I'd be? I never talked.
Yeah, I know, I know. It's just, people have these romantic projections they put on everything. You know. That's not based on any kind of reality.
This projection of love, at odds with reality, is at the heart of a thousand poems written to a non-existent beloved, who is never alive but in the eye of the mind. So much of romance lies in this mystery. The pretty face that perhaps lifted in a smile turning down a street corner in slanting gray rain never to be found, Rilke's lost loves, Calvino's man on the moon. The feeling that we've lost something never really ours to begin with. It's the logic used in Before Sunrise when Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train and walk the streets of Vienna with him. It is unfulfilled possibility, the implied inevitability of the paths we'll never travel. He intimates she'll always wonder about him if she doesn't get off the train, that life will be a slow succession of days, of thinking on the chances she never took.
This same projection has fucked me up. I'll own it. Eventually, every conversation that was once stimulating becomes one you've already had with your partner, wife, husband, or significant other. This is biologically proven. Human beings like shiny new things. And the problem is, at least for me, I cannot resist that flood of endorphins when I have a good conversation. I can't help thinking, like Rilke, I must change my life. Even if I don't act on it, and I don't, the idea still lingers. Maybe I should have taken a different track in life? Maybe you and I should be in love?
Inside every cynic, they say, is a disappointed romantic.
The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I was supposed to get a job and save up for car insurance. Both of my older siblings had gotten jobs, my brother at a Long John Silver's and my sister at Chuck E. Cheese's. In what can only be described as a precursor to my utter disinterest in a professional career arc and money making, I spent that summer playing Dark Wizard and falling in love with Before Sunrise. My sister was somewhat in love with Ethan Hawke, probably from his role in Reality Bites. I can't blame her. I fell in love with him, too. I should point out that she hates the trilogy of movies now. She's married and conservatively Christian, and she finds the two main characters self-absorbed and irresponsible. I am no longer religious, work at a university library, am an aspiring writer, and I live in a big city. Roughly synonyms for self-absorbed and irresponsible.
I found a copy of Before Sunrise in a cardboard box where my sister kept all of her classics—Matchmaker, Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping, Reality Bites, alongside classics like Splash, Big, and lest I forget Colin Firth in a wet shirt (and how could one), the extended version of Pride and Prejudice. I can't remember if I told any of my friends about my taste in movies. I think I probably hid it, as I sought to hide the masturbation from God. I was simultaneously ashamed of my burgeoning sexuality and my burgeoning desire for romance.
The summer heat was blistering, and I was happy to turn off the lights and flip on the movie. On a slow train barreling through the European countryside, a couple is fighting in non-subtitled German. The argument causes Celine, a pale French woman, to switch seats. She sits across from Jesse, a heartbroken American guy. A dialogue begins between the two of them so wonderfully eclectic, it captures damn near perfectly the first brush with an intelligent and attractive stranger.
It's in this first scene, in a dining car, the perfect European farmhouses fading from view, when Jesse tells Celine about seeing his dead grandmother in a rainbow created by a hose when he was six. She falls in love with his words and agrees to spend the evening in conversation walking the streets of Vienna. The chemistry is all in the words, in the things that pass between them unrelated to their bodies. When you're 15, everything seems to be about the body. The body is constantly reminding you you need to fuck, and it was a relief to see that there was something beyond that, some other world, where people exchanged ideas, stories, mapped souls.
When I started this essay 12 years ago, I was in graduate school, an aspiring writer rather than an emerging one, industry joke, though I hadn't written any short stories when I entered the program. I started trying to write with the same naivety I'd once sought to love. If Garcia Marquez could write One Hundred Years of Solitude, shouldn't we all at least give it our best shot? It wasn't that I perceived writing as easy, rather, I perceived it as romantic. And that romantic spirit, the dislocation between reality and fantasy, has often led me astray. Writing, like love, like life, should be romantic, meaning filled. And if it isn't, the problem is external.
Is it the fault of Before Sunrise that it dramatizes the very thing I have always found alluring? I mean, in the 12 years since I've written this essay, two more movies have come out: Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the latter a radical corrective to the first two movies. In the final, or perhaps just latest movie, Jesse and Celine spend 35 minutes in an epic fight, cataloging the way they feel the other person has failed them. The conversation is still ongoing, but it has been stalled, beaten, broken—by marriage, children, the slow accretion of life's mundane details.
The movies roughly track my own life. The characters are about eight years older than I am; when the movies come out they act as a preview into the future. I mean, I think when I'm saying that the movies fucked me up, what I really mean to say is that the world is fucked up, or perhaps merely that I am fucked up, but it's easier to blame a movie than it is to blame yourself. In fact, I've had three friends watch the first movie, Before Sunset, then tell me I remind them of Ethan Hawke's character. Interestingly, they all also said they found him a bit obnoxious. I choose to avoid finishing the comparison.
Here's a strange project made possible by writing an incomplete essay about a movie you love: I still have fragments of that old essay embedded in this one. And it's like an archeological project to uncover them, to look down between the sediments and discover previous eras. As such, here is the original ending to my essay from a few years into my marriage to the lovely and intelligent valedictorian of my college...
Sometimes I dream about being a good father and a good husband, and sometimes that feels really close. But then, other times, it seems silly. Like it would uh, ruin my whole life. And it's not just a uh, a fear of commitment, or that I'm incapable of caring, or loving, because I can. It's just that if I'm totally honest with myself, I think I'd rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I had excelled in some way, you know, than that I had just been in a nice, caring relationship.
Somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 AM one night, I dreamed I was an artist. I tapped on the keyboard to the sound of traffic and soft rain. Somehow 30 is approaching, and I've done nothing. My mother said I could do anything I put my mind to. And yet I've failed at so much. The lamplight reflects off the glass, which reveals the bookshelf lined by a hundred authors. I try to put my mind to rest, think of the impending move to a house, children, and a yard. The impending realities of life... and I stare at the reflection in the window.
Four married years later, and I occasionally ask her to speak Swiss so I can fulfill my dream of being with a foreign woman. If she works hard enough, perhaps we'll have a staged meeting traveling around Europe this summer on a train. And we'll spend the rest of our life talking about that first day together.
Of course, as it turns out, all movies are liars, even the good ones. Or so I thought until I watched Before Sunrise again. What stuck with me most was the beginning, an old married couple, fighting in German on the train. Though it's not translated in the movie, it's clear they have grown tired of one another. And in the script, you can find the words left a mystery before.
("Go back to your mother," I can't take it anymore. Always the same. Always the same. I can't take it anymore.)
Woman: Das ist so langweilig! (This is so boring!)
Man: Ja, du bist langweilig! (Yes, you're boring!)
Woman: Ja, du auch.
The movie makes a valiant effort at showing the quicksilver moments of romantic love contrasted with something lasting. All the stories eventually get told, lines show up in our faces, ideas begin to fade, we forget whatever it is we used to dream. Sometimes we think we catch a glance of it in the darkened window of a passing train. But perhaps it was only our own reflection which we'd been looking for all along.
For now, the ticking of the clock, the hum of the refrigerator, and a candle's flickering flame keep me company in the silence of the night. It can be so quiet when you know someone so well. She's curled on the floor, her blond hair fanning on the pillows, her breathing slow and even, that conversation without end.
Years later I can tell you that bits of this original essay were prescient. We bought a duplex with a small yard in the far northwest corner of Washington, DC. We put up a privacy fence, put in a small garden with yarrow, vertiginous cone flowers, abundant black-eyed Susans. We had two children, an older girl, just like I'd always wanted, reedy thin, strong-willed, and smart, and then a boy, rounder, sweeter than the girl, the perfect two-child family.
Except we lost track of one another somewhere during those intervening years. We've been separated for almost three years now, the children dividing time neatly between our two households, which are only blocks apart. Our conversation is still ongoing... and not unpleasant... but it often revolves around the logistics of the children's lives, their progress in school, whether a slight cut has been well-tended.
At the end of Before Sunrise, the two characters don't exchange any information but agree to meet in the same spot in six months. And then the two of them board their respective trains, and the camera pans briefly to them looking outside the window at the passing scenery. The viewer is left with the sense of the contingency of life, of the fact that we needn't meet anyone in our lives more than once, the way fate is intertwined with choice, but both matter.
On my worst days, I like to believe nothing that has happened in my life is my responsibility. I think that everything—the children, the divorce, the uninspiring job—are all a product of something beyond me. I act as though the world is happening to me, as though I have not made any choices. On those days, I want everything to be as contingent as that movie. I want romance and connection to rise out of thin air. I want the world to be stimulating, so I can tether myself to something, to someone as if it is their responsibility to hold me in place. The truth of the matter is my worst days occur more often than my best. Life isn't like the movies. And yet, even if I know it isn't, some small part of me keeps asking, but what if it was? What if it was?
Rilke I say, or fuck, for years, God, how do I change my life? For now, I'm going to therapy and reading books about happiness. I'm in a relationship with someone who is kind and intelligent. I'm trying to figure out if maybe, just maybe, this life I've been living isn't so bad after all. Rather than waiting for something external to happen to me, I'm doing work on the internal. I get it, Buddhism has been around for thousands of years, but it's not something I grew up with. It's not novel to say you have to do that internal work first, it's commonplace.
But here's the thing, or rather, one of a multitude of things. Though I read a lot, I often have trouble distinguishing my views from those of an author. I tend to find every magazine article entirely convincing. The way I learn what I think about the world, about myself, is through conversation. I don't know what I think until my I becomes a we. I'm always going to be boarding trains, hoping you and I will talk, even for an hour, about what it means to be us.