By Kara Hildebrand
Let’s call him Damian, a name which means to tame or subdue in Greek. I decided he was The One for me with stars splayed out before my eyes and cool blades of grass scratching my cheeks. Despite my resolution, my palm seemed to recoil under his. He said he loved me and I may have kissed him so I didn’t have to reconcile the feelings of need and utter repulsion.
Our culture’s infatuation with love stems from years of romance novels and radio-numbed love songs. I believe stories, perhaps above all else, are what shape our expectations for relationships. My favorite book, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun, spotlights the complexities of love and art, and is an excellent example of how the two are inextricably linked. The title comes from a game that twins Noah and Jude play where they divide up the world and exchange its parts. Jude trades most of what she has for a sketch that Noah unknowingly drew of the man that she would later fall in love with. This is what love is in I’ll Give You the Sun: something predestined, constructed of pieces that click into place in the perfect moment.
‘I gave up practically the whole world for you,’ I tell him, walking through the front door of my own love story. ‘The sun, stars, ocean, trees, everything, I gave it all up for you.’I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Within the pages of I’ll Give You the Sun, love is art. Noah sees the world and passion through color and hypothetical paintings, the so-called “invisible museum” the novel describes populating his mind. This explosion of beauty as he kisses Brian is what we yearn for as we read “just one more page” of our beloved romances:
The blindness lasts just a second, then the colors start flooding into me: not through my eyes but right through my skin, replacing blood and bone, muscle and sinew, until I am redorangebluegreenpurpleyellowredorangebluegreenpurpleyellow.I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Love is taught to us through starry-eyed brushstrokes as a phenomenon so earth-shattering and raw that it leaves us reeling. Of course, we want to mean everything to someone and discover the antidote to our vexations on the tongue of a perfect stranger. We want someone who would trade the world for us, who we would trade the world for. Novels like I’ll Give You the Sun paints an enviable picture. Brian and Noah’s slow-burn transcends time, distance, and homophobic antagonists, and Jude and Oscar’s romance is fated by prophecies from dead parents and even the universe of the novel itself. Such depictions may be beautiful, but that doesn’t make them realistic.
We’re conditioned by our media to crave love, and consuming novels with passionate, colorful romances inevitably becomes a stand-in as we wait for a well-timed vessel to project our fantasies onto. A vessel that, like Damian, can be ultimately worse than the absence of a lover ever could be.
Skin on skin
Your female crushes were always floating past you, out of reach, but she touches your arm and looks directly at you and you feel like a child buying something with her own money for the first time.In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
We confuse love with passion and passion with anxiety. Anxiety that they won’t like us. Anxiety that we’ll be alone forever. Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House dissects passion, queer love, and abuse and shows how they are operate in conjunction with one another. Machado’s own experience with abuse demonstrates how it can disguise itself in unassuming gestures in addition to being loud and cruel. The relationship in this book is incredibly passionate, but it is not (for the most part) loving.
When Damian and I had been dating for a while it became clear that I was to meet him on his terms if I was to keep the peace, which meant nothing less than blind compliance. When he decided he wanted to see other people. When he changed his mind. I lost myself in the butterflies, confusing turbulence with worthwhile intensity, but he never particularly cared how much of me was there anyway.
Toxic relationships simulate passion because they prolong the asking of the “will they/won’t they?” question. Lovers caught up in them build their lives clinging to something volatile rather than risk loneliness. Machado’s relationship in In the Dream House is built upon physical desire and hostile arguments. Her lover that once seemed incredible begins to turn cold. She yells, she’s jealous, she throws things, but the turning point, for Machado, is while they’re making benign conversation with her girlfriend’s mother and she digs her fingers into her arm.
It is the first time she is touching you in a way that is not filled with love, and you don’t know what to do.In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
The toxic relationship deceives you over time, mutating you into a person that nods your head and bites your tongue. The passion sweeps you up in its current, carrying you miles away from your starting place until you have no way of finding your way back. In a brief chapter of In the Dream House, one of Machado’s friends overhears her girlfriend making her cry and turns cold to her even though Machado wishes that he would just pretend he hadn’t heard anything. So deep into the abuse, Machado is terrified of having to reckon with the reality of what she’s experiencing. Or the consequences if her girlfriend picks up on it.
The expectation for love to conquer all allows for love to conquer all, and love, or its doppelganger, destroys much in the process. Relationships become delusions guided along by empty promises; our self image becomes reliant on something we cannot grasp, fingers slipping through water. Words become love letters. Words that seem to bruise. Words that build up worlds and tear them down.
You would let her swallow you whole, if she could.In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Soon I was unrecognizable. Forgiving past all rationality. Forgiving past straying kisses and bitter insults. Love is not twisting reality in our minds to make the pieces fit. It’s not chasing down that spark of nervous energy, which fades with a relationship on its dying breath.
The Green Light
When the dust and the butterflies settle, sometimes we realize we were in love with ideas, not people.
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her.The Great Gatsby By F. Scott Fitzgerald
In many ways, the story of The Great Gatsby is a story of tensions between former lovers who will never understand themselves or each other nearly enough to be a good match. The two are at odds by their very natures. Jay Gatsby’s entire life revolves around becoming this person he’s crafted in his head. Of course, he wants Daisy, but perhaps more as a puzzle piece in the completion of his self-image. Daisy Buchanan is routinely being shoved into a box she never seemed to quite fit into. By her influential family, by her abusive husband, and even by her so-called true love Jay Gatsby. She was always the product of others’ views of who she should be, and, perhaps out of rejection for such things, she’s fundamentally careless. She likes to appear wild and free only as long as it’s reversible, and this is potentially why she entertains Gatsby’s advances at all. The two are and never were on the same page, and Gatsby is too blinded by the idea of who he could be with her to notice.
I decided Damian was not the one for me in the white-hot midafternoon between sixth and seventh periods.
Want to hang after school
I realized, all at once, that nothing sounded more miserable. That primal need to contrive something in him that didn’t exist: just gone, like it was simply plucked from my chest. I didn’t even cry.
Gatsby, on the other hand, dies waiting for a call from Daisy that will never come. He’s stuck on this memory, this romanticization, of Daisy that the woman before him will never live up to. He hauls himself up the social ladder, makes a name for himself, throws lavish parties, all in the hopes of reconnecting with his true love, but what he never gets a chance to realize is that she’s not the woman she was when he first loved her, perhaps she never was. Nick tells Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past and Gatsby gives his famous response “Of course you can.”
Real love doesn’t lie in the static of buzzing nerves, the intersection between a romanticization and an available body, words translated into promises. Real love is the euphoria that comes with feeling comfortable. Contorting your neck for a kiss, hovering inches above the ground.
Somewhere along the way, we realize that our idealistic notions of love and lovers will never be and that our search for something like them can betray us, leading the unsuspecting romantic into the arms of people unfit to love us. We grieve people, but it’s less common for us to adequately grieve ideas. The version of someone we fell for, even if they were never real, to begin with. The perfect earth-shattering kiss in the rain. The lover is sculpted by the author’s nimble hands to be kindselflesswittybeautifultalentedcaring.
What is left when the misconceptions dissolve away? There’s only one way to know.