The thing no one told me is, romance always entails grief. Always. No tears, no romance.
Let’s start with a familiar story. A leader arose whom some people believed would change to world. She seemed to emerge from nowhere, and traveled the land drawing followers. Inspiring them. Making them believe that by loving and caring for one another, they could overcome the problems arising from their petty, selfish perspectives. Her stature grew, and the leader seemed poised on the edge of success when suddenly it all fell apart. One of the leader’s most trusted followers betrayed her, and the leader was arrested, tried, executed all in the course of a single day. That night, and throughout the next day, her followers were in chaos. How did it go so wrong so quickly? They wondered whether they would be next. Should they flee? Should they take up the leader’s work, whatever the consequences?
Now, in the story, on the next day, the third day, the leader reappeared. She wasn’t dead; the movement wasn’t over. They could still change the world; they could still overcome by loving and caring for one another. The third day brings a happy ending. A new beginning. Stories are nice that way. You can flip to the end and see that it turned out all right. So often I’ve lived life waiting for the third day. Telling myself that some magic moment, all my dreams will come true. But most of the time, the second day is where I live.
On the second day, we find ourselves huddled in a room; we find out who we are and what life is about and who we can count on and who we can’t. The sun shines but we don’t trust it; the normal sounds of people and traffic rise from the streets outside, but we don’t believe them. Today we want to hide. Today we go through the motions, or pretend to. Because we’re waiting for the next terrible thing. We see the bad win. Watch them erase the good that was done, and wreak havoc and destruction. We pretend to believe life goes on as usual, but we know we’re pretending.
In short, romance begins on the second day. Romance? Let me tell you that story.
Stage 1: First Contact
Searching, while pretending not to search, you come across that Special Other. In a bar. At a party. On a website. Just when you’d stopped expecting it, surprise after delightful surprise reveals itself. You and Special Other instantly feel compatible, simpatico beyond belief. You complete each other. You find each other hot. You will be happy forever, effortlessly.
Stage 2: Isn’t That Charming
Eventually you discover that sometimes—and this is funny; this will crack you up—sometimes the two of you don’t like the exact same thing. You notice tastes and ways of being that diverge. You go for black and white films made by dead directors; they can’t wait to see the latest installment of a superhero series, already attuned to its feminist subtext. You love jazz and blues and classical. They’re into contemporary country and hip hop. Ha ha. Isn’t that funny? Isn’t it charming? But you don’t worry. You’ll expand one another’s horizons. Maybe you’ll grow to love Blake Shelton, and they’ll come to appreciate Miles Davis’s journey from cool to fusion. This will be fine. This will be great.
Stage 3: Uh oh
We enter the realm of romance proper when That Thing the Special Other does reminds you of a thing your ex, or your parent (or your ex’s parent, or your parent’s ex), or your sibling used to do. “No biggie,” you say. But you can’t manage to let go of That Thing. Not that you say so. You both begin to tabulate the unsaid annoyances: how you stack the dishes in the dishwater; how you sometimes forget to brush your teeth before bed, or take up too much space in bed; or how you go on and on about small, irrelevant distinctions.
Somewhere in this territory, you begin to see the gaps not as quirks or jokes or funny little differences but as flaws. It occurs to both of you that there might be things wrong with one another. And each of you realizes that the other might dislike rather than be drawn to your little shortcomings. Romance begins when you start to see your weaknesses reflected in the Special Other’s eyes. Will you turn away? Will you ghost each other? Will you build an impenetrable silence that you both tacitly agree never to mention?
Stage 4: Inoperable/incurable
Or. When I was a boy, I stumbled onto words and made a pact. I would recognize language as beautiful and terrible. I would adore and fear it. I would twist and be twisted by it and watch words visit mercy and cruelty, condemnation and salvation. And in return, language would see right through me, name every weakness and sin, peel me from the inside out, and heal me. We would cleave–and cleave to–one another until that manifestation called my body ended. Of course, I’ve tried and failed to renege.
The central struggle in romance take place within me. It involves finding the courage to claim my true names, and to decide whether I deserve them. Have I earned the name runner, writer, Black, mentally ill, man? What do these names even mean? Because for every self you name, for every identity you claim, a narrative lurks in the world ready to strip those names from you. The denouement of romance happens when you announce, “These are the names by which I know myself.”
Like the suspended, uncertain Second Day life we inhabit, romance begins in tears and disappointment, grief, and doubt. It occupies the space between the collapse of our imagined utopias and the blissful arrival of our happy endings. And this is the space I’ve returned to explore in words.