A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[The fourth installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress essay.]
We see them, these movies, and we know we're not supposed to believe in them, but we want to believe in them. It creates a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, for impressionable optimists like me - born of two parents who got mutually thunderbolted when they set eyes on each other across a crowded room at a party one night, and continued to love each other for over sixty years. Growing up with many of my friends' parents divorced or miserable, I was living in an anomalous cocoon. Watching Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not on TV with my folks only further warped me. It was a wartime melodrama that was in fact a rom-com documentary, in that it depicted movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall actually falling in love.
You can see it happening, in the deliciously salacious way that 'Slim' tells 'Steve' he can always fetch her by whistling ("You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together, and... blow"), in how he looks at her as she sashays away from him after saying it. Real people didn't talk to each other like this, yet the real erotic tension between Bogart and Bacall made their dated, double entendre-loaded encounters feel timelessly hot. My parents laughed knowingly at the couple's shenanigans with an appreciation that the pre-adolescent me could sense was illicit. I had little idea of what was going on here, but I knew it had to do with what made the adult world go round.
By the time I was an adult, old enough to comprehend that the myth of Mom and Dad's perfect marriage had complexity behind it, with some real pain lacing through the merriment, the damage had been done. I'd spent a great part of my romantic life searching for a perfection that had never existed in the first place, and the romantic comedy had played me right along.
For the form of the romantic comedy is a cheat. Just as the hero almost alway prevails over villainy in an action picture, nearly all romantic comedies end in coupling, and the real lie at their core is that this is where the story ends. The tale of a wish fulfillment fantasy of near-mythic dimension like Sleepless in Seattle is wholly dependent on the movie ending within five minutes of its lovers meeting in person for the first time.
I've often fantasized what Meg Ryan's Annie might say to Tom Hanks's Sam as they descend in that Empire State Building elevator that could deal-break their romance (e.g. "God, I just hope you're not one of those asshole liberals"), but nothing so dramatic would be necessary in the real life version of this kismet fantasy. Over time, Sam and Annie might merely wear each other down with their interlocking, ever-conflicting neuroses and end up divorced, like so many couples whose union was founded on little more than fate.
We are only able to buy into the movie dream of the perfect, endless romance because most romantic comedies end precisely where most real life relationships begin. With its tyranny of eternal courtship, the romantic comedy avoids the traps of reality by generally pretending that consummation of desire is the climax of a story. Whereas those of us living in life, not fiction, know full well that such consummation is only a start. And that what happens after that is rarely happily forever.
After all, Claudia wasn't my first wife. I'd been married once before - but it always amazes me, the way we say this, those of us who have had that experience. The sentence always sounds so flip, like you're saying, "I had a cheeseburger here once and it was over-done," when what you're referring to so glancingly can be years of, well, everything: passion, rage, molten sex or the aching lack of it, boredom, loneliness, seconds of nirvana, even the creation of newborn live human beings and the corruption of their innocence, over time. Yet somehow all of it, every air molecule of the millions shared over that time is gone, replaced, as if with a placard, by that phrase: I was married once before.
So who is this person, this witness whose history has been summarily reduced to such a nub of near non-meaning? There should be a badge, a scar, some symbol to be borne that could identify us survivors, so that we could recognize one another without judgment, and without trivializing what no longer exists. We lived a life with someone, this talisman would signify, though the shape and color and intensity of such an object seems impossible to imagine.
And where is the romantic comedy that would speak to the dimensions of what was gained from within that life, and what was irretrievably lost?
[To be continued]