Love, am I right? What is it about love that leaves us so unsatisfied? What is it about this grand concept – that is constantly being touted as the end all be all that defines our whole existence – that defies our understanding? Who are we in love? Who are we without it?
“I don’t understand,” Professor Xander Kaplan said while his girlfriend sobbed into a pillow. “I thought you liked tulips.” “I do,” she said. “It’s just– you get them for me every year. It’s starting to get a little impersonal. I mean, this time, you didn’t even include a card.”
Xander winced. Her reasoning was sound. “I apologize,” he said. “I obviously made an error in judgment.” He tried to take her hand, but she pulled it out of reach. “Do you remember what I did for your birthday?” She said, “I got you that new Bunsen burner you wanted. I knit you a pair of wool socks so your feet wouldn’t get cold in the lab. You never make that kind of effort for me. All you do is think about yourself.”
Way before most of us ever personally experienced the joys of romantic love, we were already indoctrinated with images of what it should look like. From the very first stories we heard in childhood there has always been a predictable story line: Two people meet, overcome some odds that life throws at them, and through perseverance (and not one too many magical aids) the story ends. Love, the ultimate trophy, is given and received, forever to rest upon our protagonists’ marital mantelpiece. The perfect little narrative, summed up all nicely in a box with a little bow on top.
It doesn’t take very long before that bubble gets popped. As any teenager who’s thrown into their first encounter with the beast will tell you: Love sucks. The storybooks are lies, the adults they know nothing. At some point we all learn that love is not an easy ride into the sunset, unless that sun is setting over a battlefield. Weary veterans will shrug dirt off their shoulders, the remnants from their last offensive, while shaking their heads in pity at the new recruits among them, still shining with hope in their eyes that maybe, just maybe, this war they’ve wittingly or unwittingly signed up for will end. But it’s the old gang who knows: Love is a lady who doesn’t let go easily. There will be no discharge here; once you step onto her battlegrounds you are left there for life.
“Xander was an atheist and believed fiercely in random causality. But by the end of the [first] shared subway ride [with Emily], he was sure he’d experienced a miracle. This wonderful person had shown up out of nowhere and given him a chance at love. And in return, he’d given her three years of misery.
“He thought about all of his Saturday nights at the lab, ignoring her calls, making excuses. He thought about the way she cried when he handed her the tulips. How could he make up for three years of romantic ineptitude with a single birthday present?”
We often, in the name of getting what we want, delude ourselves to the importance of the thing that we are wanting. We become laser focused to the task at hand, seeing only the next steps we need to take to inch ever closer to the object of our desire. Never mind if that object is, in itself, worthy or not. Never mind entertaining the thought about what life would be like after we reach our goals – in our current tunnel vision mindset there can be no after, there is only the moment of achievement, nothing more. Let me just get what I want. I want what I want, what I want.
And once we get what we want, now what? The days that follow “happily ever after” are murkier than mud thrown into water. What happens after you finally get together? You’re supposed to be in loving bliss yet somehow now you’re arguing about the dishes – are these fights for real or just superficial? When they happen for the first time, when they happen for the hundredth time? What does it mean if you get so comfortable with someone it can cross the line into boredom, is that just a phase or a warning sign? How do you manage the balancing act of loving for yourself (setting up expectations of what you deserve / desire) and loving unconditionally (loving to give, love is a one-way street)?
“Xander parked his time machine by the 116th Street Station and dashed into the subway. It was 3:45 AM a little over three years in the past. Emily was standing by the turnstile, swiping and re-swiping her expired MetroCard. He took a deep breath and approached her.”
Did Cinderella and Prince Charming ever end up in couples’ therapy? Did Snow White ever cheat? Relationships we see are always presented as picture perfect, but what is going on behind closed doors? What kind of work is needed, how many compromises, just how much sacrifice? In the end, we will never know. We will only ever know our own battles, and be left to wonder if we are normal, or if we are insane.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked as the train pulled into the station. Xander averted his eyes. He worried that if he looked at her, he would start to cry. “I need to take a different train,” he said.
“Well, at least let me pay you for the–”
“That’s all right,” he said, his voice breaking. “It’s a present.”
“He was about to turn away when she leaned over the turnstile and hugged him. It was exactly as he remembered it, her long brown hair brushing softly against his neck, his entire body tingling with warmth. “Thanks,” she said. He tried to say, you’re welcome, but the words got caught in his throat. He waved goodbye as she boarded the train, then he marched out of the station alone.”
No two love stories are the same, even when they are happening to the same person. We like to draw comparisons to what we’ve known in the past, but the future is a tricky thing to predict. Even when we have all the supporting evidence we need, compiled anywhere from days to decades of past experience, somehow the present always finds some way to outsmart even our most diligent planning.
Love will never fit into a nice clean box with a little bow on top. It is messy, it grabs us by the shoulders and shakes us awake; it is demanding, it is boring. But love is also what holds us, supports us, sustains us. Sometimes, like for Xander and Emily, love is not the end all be all; it just ends, all of it. And sometimes, with a lot of work and even more compromise, love does become just that – it is worth it, it is everything.
Author’s Note: The quotes in this article are excerpts taken from the short story “The Present” by Simon Rich from Rich’s book, The Last Girlfriend on Earth. I highly recommend reading the story in full, and Rich’s other works as well, for his poignant and hilarious outtakes on life. In other news I am back on my writing grind, and looking forward to getting these posts out on schedule and on time. See you back next week! Don’t forget to Subscribe and Comment, I’d love to hear back from all of you!