"Sooner of later in life, everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable." - Primo Levi
The first movie I saw in a theatre was Disney's Cinderella. There I sat, mostly bangs and limbs, mouth agape at the colossal screen before me. I studied Cinderella before I was ever taught to study: her graceful lilt; the twirl of pretty feet; dainty fingers kissing just so. A nod to naïveté, this belief that I, too, would soon find a Happily Ever After -- with a dashing prince! and costume changes! and white horses!
My disillusionment with romance began in that moment, in Small Town, California circa 1987. The beginning of the end.
Then I went to school. I learned about grammar, of comparative and superlative adjectives. From the word happy, there is happier; happiest. There is also the "un" prefix, to derive the adjective unhappy.
I would come to think that Cinderella -- during times like parents' divorces, the deaths of best friends and ex-boyfriends, and break-ups from boys who were "unhappy" -- should come with a warning label. Or be Rated "G," for general inaccuracy.
The question, then, is how do we dispel the spell of fairytales?
For as long as girls have floated on their daddies' shoes, the elusive Happily Ever After has been a perennial must-have. When should, or can, we learn that bliss is only tangentially connected -- or perhaps entirely disconnected -- to some swept-off-your-feet love?
I'll be the first to admit: I am wedded to the idea of becoming a Mrs. So-and-So. This often blindsides my better judgement, and I have been quick to believe that any boyfriend, especially as the years close in, could be The One. I've tried to shoehorn the wrong relationship into that glass slipper -- accumulating emotional blisters and a bad limp along the way. I forget to ask, "Is it love I feel, or just attachment to someone who has grown familiar?"
My 28-year-old girlfriend was over at my apartment a few weeks ago, she of the Rosario Dawson beauty and law degree. Stretched out on the couch, a glass of rosé perched on the armrest, she listlessly tinkered with Pandora on my iPad. "Mama," she said to me, "I'd rather be in a bad relationship than no relationship at all. I am sick of being single, I just want to be a plus-one."
I commiserated. Her thoughts have been mine, in moments when I've felt pressure to have the career, the love, the life -- "pouf!" -- all appear by age 30.
In Cinderella, a fairy godmother appears in moments of despair and provides repose. In reality, if we weep on a bench because of some missed opportunity, no one appears to save the night. We learn the hard way. Sometimes what we learn is subtle; sometimes it's of the palm-smacking-forehead order. Whatever it is, whatever stage of (un)happiness we learn it in, it's empowering to know each triumph and mistake was ours to make.
The French painter Frederick Frieseke once said, "The key to your universe is that you can choose." You can choose to cry about it, or not. To share pillows with the wrong person, or not. To make the right decisions, especially those that eclipse the wrong ones, or not.
You can choose to be a plus-one, or just a perfect-one. Uncompromising -- and quite possibly, happy.
A few days ago, I was having dinner with said girlfriend, a few blocks down from her newly purchased one-bedroom on the Upper East Side. "I used to think turning 30 and not being in a serious relationship would be awful," she said. Then, smiling broadly to reveal gleaming white teeth, showcased by her take-no-prisoners cherry lipstick: "Now I think, if it happens when I'm 33, or when I'm 50, so be it. I'll still be thrilled."
Your story may not be the stuff of golden binds. Your story can unfold slowly, or unfurl awkwardly. It can stay in the prologue for longer than you'd like.
However it happens, here's to reinventing the fairytale romance. It won't happen in a running time of 80 minutes, it won't be a path lined in rose bushes (peonies are better, anyway) -- but it will be uniquely yours. And that's worth the wait.
In the meantime, have a romance with your friends, your parents, with passing strangers.
Have one, with yourself.