We’re re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year’s best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
A long, long time ago, back when I was young, unencumbered, and had the luxury of spending hours upon hours thinking about myself, I attended a family wedding where, at some point between the rehearsal dinner and the ceremony, I fell deeply, unreasonably in love with a person I would never really know. He was seven years older than I was, and his name was—of course I’m not really going to tell you his name, but let’s call him Eli.
Eli was tall, a bit imperious, and foreign. His whole demeanor seemed to me at the time to contain both a quality of mystery and a kind of irresistible magnetism that made it impossible for me to think clearly. Twice that weekend, as we talked and flirted, I felt enraptured almost to the point of vomiting. We did nothing more than kiss, but when he invited me to spend two months with him in Israel the following summer, I didn’t hesitate. I flew across the ocean, and for two months we hiked, swam, played backgammon, ate falafel, did other things. There was little soul-baring or opening of hearts. But that was okay with me. Genuine emotional intimacy couldn’t compare with the love that grew out of my daydreams. My memories of those months are a softly lit montage of romance and adventure.
After I returned home, I closed my eyes every night and imagined how it would be if we ever were reunited. I imagined our reunion, our lovemaking, our bodies entwined on some exotic, sun-drenched beach. I imagined our week-long hike through a rainforest (rainforest in Israel?), our desert wedding, our beautiful, bilingual children.
This fantasy played in my head on an endless loop, probably two or three times a day for about four years, despite the fact that our actual communication during this time involved the occasional, casual phone call and emails where we’d talk about favorite episodes of Seinfeld. We never talked about anything you’d call substantive. Nothing about our families. Nothing about our friends or our hopes or our lives: all the things I imagined we’d eventually interlace. Despite the overwhelming exteriority of our interactions (save, I guess you’d have to say, for sex), I was convinced that he was truly and profoundly the man of my dreams, that if it weren’t for the infuriating fact that we lived on separate continents, we would surely live happily ever after.
Then, five years after we’d first met, I received an email from him with the news that he was moving to Palo Alto for graduate school. Suddenly we were practically going to be neighbors.
A few weeks later, I drove to his new apartment in a trance of happiness. Finally, finally, we’d be together. I sat down at the café where we’d arranged to meet, was sitting there nervously when he came up behind me and put his hands over my eyes. I smiled. We kissed. He sat down at the table across from me and we began to talk. He was very sweet, very handsome, very nice. Nice, nice guy. Great guy. Just swell. Not a bad word from me you’ll get about him.
Within 15 minutes, it was abundantly, painfully clear that we hadn’t a thing in common. I was trying to be a writer. He was an engineer. I liked to talk about and share every thought that passed through my mind in thorough, at times excruciating, detail; he seemed happy to sit in silence. We made small talk the rest of the evening like two people standing beside each other in an elevator, spent the night together (why not?), but never really spoke again.
As I drove back to San Francisco, it did occur to me that, though I’d dated other men, I’d essentially wasted five years of my life fantasizing about a version of someone who didn’t exist outside my head. But amazingly, I was able to bury this realization beneath my embarrassment and eagerness to get on with the next phase of my life.
Over a decade would pass before it would finally sink in, when recalling this youthful romance, that perhaps it was an example of how my fantasy world, dream life, whatever you want to call it, which, as a writer and a creative person, I’d always thought of as something unique and beautiful, a kind of fingerprint of my soul, could actually be a force of stasis and self-sabotage — a limitation or flaw in my character, rather than a gift.
* * *
The word “fantasy” itself sounds steamy and exciting. When we think of “fantasy,” we think of sex, love, our secret dreams and desires. But fantasies don’t, in fact, have to be erotic. They can arise just as easily from a place of fear or anxiety or boredom as from arousal. Every time I sit in a flight and imagine for a microsecond a scenario by which the plane might explode or break in half or otherwise cease being in the sky, that’s a fantasy. Every time we watch a little story play out inside our head, we’re fantasizing, whether we realize it or not, and it seems to me that, though succumbing to fantasies about other people can be dangerous or self-defeating, the act of fantasizing itself is also an essential part of being human, of being capable of both abstraction and empathy. When I read a story about Syrian refugees and imagine for a moment what it would be like to have to ride across the sea at night in a dingy with my hungry, terrified children, I am fantasizing, and I do think that without the ability to make this imaginative leap, to pretend that we know people more than we do and imagine ourselves in their place, we’d all be worse off.
The problem arises when we allow our idea of a person, what we want or need them to be, to stand in for what they are. In On Balance, the psychoanalyst and literary critic Adam Phillips notes how Anna Freud famously said, “In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can’t eat them.” He elaborates: “So satisfying are our fantasies that they can become a refuge, a retreat from reality; if real sexual relations are too difficult — too frustrating, too pleasurable — in our fantasies we can have our relationships cooked exactly as we want them.” This tendency, this reliance on dream-life to make my reality more palatable, has been a part of my makeup for so long that I have no memories of life without it. Eli stands out in my mind because of the duration of the fantasy. But the truth is that, on a smaller scale, this basic story has played out more times than I can count — with the men I dated when I was single, and more recently, with friends, acquaintances, family members, colleagues.
Generally, it goes something like this: I meet a new person, a new friend, another writer, a cool mom. This person enters my life and I say to myself, oh, yes, this is an excellent person, super-smart, super-cool, funny or charming or some amalgamation of the human qualities I most admire. This is my kind of person, I say to myself or to anyone who will listen, usually my husband. I adore this person. I idealize this person, this new friend, new acquaintance, whoever. But then, gradually, something happens. Or often, nothing happens, and that’s the problem. The excitement wanes. The idealization fades. Life strips the relationship of the sheen that made it so initially irresistible, and what I’m left with is an actual person, with actual problems of their own, with constraints on their time and irritating habits, an actual, unedited other person, and of course, myself. What fun is that?
This past winter, I wrote about my odd, intense friendship with a person who, upon meeting, I instantly believed was the coolest, most uninhibited, sophisticated, badass woman I’d ever known. In my mind, she came to represent youth, freedom, literary hipness, the excitement of single life in the city, all the things that I, as a married mother, felt my life was missing. For months, the brightness of the fantasy I created around how exciting and brilliant she was made everything else in my life seem dim by comparison. But as our friendship evolved, I began to see how much of this excitement I’d projected onto her, how much of it arose precisely from the fact that she wasn’t actually in my life the way my other friends and family were.
When I confessed this to her, she didn’t argue. “It’s true,” she said to me one day on the phone. “That’s just your own shit that you’re projecting onto me. My life is really quiet and boring. Last night I stayed up late watching clips of Bernie Sanders and Larry David while I ate pistachios in bed. That’s my exciting, single life.”
In the months that followed, we were able to build upon the ruins of this fantasy something more like an actual friendship, but the experience was disturbing enough that it made me begin to reexamine other adult relationships, to wonder if I’d really evolved much from my youthful fixation with the handsome stranger from abroad.
A few years before I’d met this woman, I’d created another idealized friendship, this one with a fellow instructor at a writing program where I taught. Because our office was virtual, we chatted and emailed throughout the day — about work, yes, but also about movies, music, my children, his labrador retriever. I realized, oddly, that the best part of my work day was often spending half an hour debating with him over the best way to roast a chicken, or scrutinizing line by line the latest episode of The Wire.
I liked him so much, found him so amenable, as the narrators in all those old English novels always used to say, that I began to worry aloud to my therapist that I was developing a crush on him.
“So what,” she said.
“But he’s so great,” I told her. “I feel like we could be best friends.”
“Kim,” she said. “You’re as emotionally guarded as a toll booth. He’s going to pay his quarter, pass through, and move along. And then there will be someone else. All of that is fine. Just don’t create trouble for everyone by holding up the line. Also,” she went on, “it’s not possible to be best friends with someone you’ve never met.” I took her point at the moment, but in retrospect I wonder if there’s something antiquated in this thinking.
At the time I met Eli, I’d only recently opened up my first email account. Sometimes I wonder if part of my enthrallment had come from the novelty of this new mechanism of electronic relationship-building. For so much of my young life, I’d felt lonely, isolated, cut off from like-minded people. I yearned for human connections and relationships with the sort of people I knew only from books and movies, a lifeline into some other, richer world.
Now, such isolation is hard to imagine. In addition to the relationships I have with the people who share my physical space, I, like most of us with a computer, have email relationships and Facebook relationships and texting relationships and Skyping relationships. At least 20 times a day, I move my eyes over black marks on a screen and, like magic, hear someone’s voice in my head, sometimes a voice I know from memory, other times purely invented. I can’t touch these people or walk beside them but, to varying degrees, I care about them. I feel like I know them. I feel like they know me. This is absolutely true, and also, pure fantasy. It is a fiction my mind creates that feels so much like reality that it might as well be reality.
“Do you think,” I asked another friend, “you can fall in love with someone you don’t actually know?”
He laughed. “Of course,” he said. “I think it’s much, much easier that way.”
* * *
Eventually, I had the chance to meet my new work friend. He was visiting family in the city where I lived at the time and asked if I wanted to have lunch. “Are you kidding?” I said. “Of course!”
I spent two hours deciding what I’d wear, 45 minutes on what shade of lipstick. Then, at the last minute, as I went to step outside, I found that I couldn’t open the front door of my apartment. I reached for the door knob and physically couldn’t open it, became nauseous and dizzy and texted him that I was so sorry, but I was coming down with something.
At the time, I told myself that I was demonstrating caution and self-restraint. But in retrospect, I think it was something much worse. I didn’t go to lunch with him because there was a part of me that didn’t want the fantasy to wear off, that needed to keep that shiny, idealized idea of him in my head to get through the the grunt work and dirty dishes and of every day life. So many of my real relationships had gone the way of my Israeli lover. I valued these real relationships. I didn’t want to lose them. But at the same time, I felt I couldn’t quite get from them what I needed, that I needed these other, romanticized connections to make me feel real and exciting and alive.
My work friend and I continued a virtual low-level flirtation for some time until one or both of us grew bored of the low-levelness of it. I had no interest in endangering my marriage. He had better people to woo. We probably started to annoy each other. It hurt to think of this, what had been so emotionally enlivening, as just another part quick-lived spark of an intimate friendship. But I also knew that I valued that spark, that minor fissile event, far more than I would another occasional-coffee-and-polite-kvetching friendship that seemed to be within the accepted confines of interpersonal activity.
For years, maybe for my whole life, I continued to walk this line — on one side, actual people I cared about or loved, on the other side, a shadow of them I created and projected, a thing I could keep for myself.
The problem, of course, is that sometimes, those on whom we project our fantasies get hurt in the end. For years, I thought about the disappointment I’d experienced when I discovered Eli wasn’t the person I thought he was. But what about poor Eli? Did he ever stand a chance, competing against not just another suitor but an idealized notion of himself, a facsimile I could constantly embellish and adjust to my liking? What about all the friends and relatives who, in the end, couldn’t measure up to the people I thought they were, the people I wanted and needed them to be?
A few years ago, Keith Ridgway argued in The New Yorker that though we may fool ourselves into thinking there is objective, biographical truth in our lives, what we’re actually doing when we live, love and fantasize is write fiction. He writes that, “when you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones — they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor — please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me.”
This observation stays with me as I try to become a better observer of my own mind, a better editor of my way of moving through the world, forming new bonds and maintaining the ones I’ve formed. Unlike my years of being madly in love with Eli, or the Eli of my dreams, now I have relationships with a husband and children I love, other steady figures in my life who aren’t so easy to re-envision to my liking. Because I love them, I try to hold in my head a knowledge of who they really are. Then, even as I’m holding it, they change, and I must learn to hold this changed self anew. Again and again we do this, merging what we think we know of people with what they know of themselves, forming, revising, recreating, erasing, and reinventing each other in our minds, working and struggling to see each other better.
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