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How do you know when you’re in love? True love, not that dinky fairy-tale princess stuff that Disney spits out every couple years. Not that sexually-charged Megan Fox image Hollywood plasters on glossy posters for drooling teenage boys. And not the little kiddie, chaste kiss-on-the-cheek type of thing parents sell to elementary kids either. You know. The type where giant friendly storks carry little bundled babies from the distant lands where babies are made. The type where Mommy and Daddy will love each other forever and always, and it’s not your fault when they stand in the kitchen arguing until the wee hours of the morning and eventually cite “irreconcilable differences.”
Because I’ve been through the middle school crushes, and the high school flings, and I even went steady with an older college boy for two years, seven months, and one week before he started getting too pushy and I called it quits. Afterwards I sat in bed all day with the blinds down eating Rocky Road ice cream and watching depressing soaps, almost as if I had gone through a divorce myself. But I got over it faster than Mom ever did. Mom never got over it.
She was one of those women who hung her hopes and dreams around her husband’s neck, the antithesis of feminism. When he walked out, her reason to live did too. He had been her life, and without him she didn’t know what to do with herself. After the divorce, she rented a derelict apartment downtown and lay in bed facing the wall, guzzling cheap vodka, and hoping for death but too scared to slit her own wrists. Eventually she overdosed on Ambien and Valium. Like Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, no one was sure if it was intentional or just a fatal accident.
I like to think she finally got the nerve to do it herself, but sometimes I still wake up at 3AM in a cold sweat, dreaming of the night she died. Her hand shakes as she pours the little white pills from the little white bottle and they all spill into her glass in a little white cascade. She holds the glass to her trembling lips, unaware of the danger, and I scream and cry and pound on an invisible wall until my hands bleed and swell to the size of balloons. But she never hears me. The glass goes to her lips and the pills slide down her throat. She dies with a terrified look in her eyes, because she never chose to live and she never chose to die.
That’s how it happens in the dream. I hope that in real life, she ended it intentionally, fully aware of what she was doing.
Mom never stopped loving my father, and he never really loved her. Believe me, nothing in my experience was ever love, the real kind of love. Mom loved my father for his wavy golden hair and blue eyes, and he loved her for her porcelain skin and delicate wrists. At least, he thought he loved her. Then she hit forty and got a pear shape and dumpy thighs. Dad found a girl twenty years younger with whiter skin and thinner wrists and thighs like long slender flower stems.
I was in tenth grade the year of the divorce. I floated through most of it without ever realizing what was happening. But then Dad packed his things and left for good. Mom sold the house. Suddenly my world fell apart around my ears, and I was still standing stupidly beneath the wreckage.
I had thought it was just another of their fights. They had been fighting for years. It was almost comforting to hear them fight. In seventh grade my best friend Bethany’s parents divorced, not because they argued but because they barely spoke to one other. I had thought that as long as Mom and Dad kept screaming and shouting, it would eventually get better again. Dad had threatened divorce before, and I had learned to either plug my ears or lock myself in the basement so I could cry in peace.
But this time was different.
After the divorce, after I realized that this was real, all I can remember is anger. Anger at Dad for leaving. Anger at Mom for letting him go. Anger at them both for getting married in the first place and putting me through this. Anger at his stupid girlfriend for stealing him away. Anger at God for existing and not stopping it. Anger at God for not existing and not stopping it. Anger at God for not giving me a sign that he did exist by stopping it.
In high school, most of my dating relationships felt like I was living out that Natasha Bedingfield song: “I’m in like with you/Not in love with you quite yet.” Well, I felt like that after the breakups. Before the heartbreak, while I was still flying high, I was singing something more like the Miley Cyrus tune: “He could be the one/He could be the one/He could be the wu-uh-uh-uh-uhn.” I always thought, Maybe this is the boy. Maybe this will be the one I’ll see waiting for me in a Gucci tuxedo at the end of the aisle. But then I moved on, and I kept on singing Hannah Montana to the next twenty boys standing in line like some kooky pre-teen enamored with the Disney Channel and Justin Bieber.
The boys came and went like butterflies flitting in and giving a splash of color to a monochrome canvas. I lived for boys. Really, they were the only thing worth living for. Family? Ugh. School? Blah. Boys? Yes! I was never without some sort of pseudo-boyfriend throughout middle school and high school and college. They made me feel special, and they told me I was beautiful, and when they touched me my body went hot and then cold, and tingles raced up and down my spine. They danced like butterflies in my stomach, and I walked on air.
But in the end it turned out they were all just crushes, all of them. Just colorful, romantic splurges that in a few years I could barely remember. Eventually all those pretty splashes of color went flitting back off the canvas, staying just long enough to leave a memory. They were like sunspots burning my eyes long after I turned my gaze away from the sun, and I regretted almost all of them. Every one of my exes became symbols of my father, of the divorce, not one of them able to bridge the great chasm yawning between me and the land of True Love.
But I made it through high school alive despite the drama. I managed to snag a thirty-one on the ACT and get a full ride at a nearby college majoring in psychology. Freshman year I vowed no boys. I would focus on my studies, graduate with honors, and get a job as a top psychologist or couples counselor writing for a major psychological journal published in New York.
At least, that was The Plan.
But every time I ran into a cute face or a nice smile, I found myself head over heels again. And that’s what made me wonder, how do you know when you’re in love? Is it the giddiness? That warm feeling in the pit of your stomach? Is it the fact that you lie awake half the night picturing his face in your mind’s eye? Is it the love-drunk buzz that sustains you through the eight-hour workday?
Throughout college the dating kept getting more and more serious. I started picturing what it would be like to come home from work with this or that guy waiting for me in front of the TV. I pictured what our kids would look like. I pictured what he would look like in thirty years when he was fifty years old, how the subtle curves around his mouth and the furrows along his forehead would deepen and his hairline recede and his stomach expand. I wondered if he would think my cooking was atrocious and live on fast food, or muscle through the first few test-dinners before I mastered all my wifely duties. I was desperate to graduate college with an “MRS” degree, and sign my name as “Mrs. ________ _____________.”
But every boy left soon after he came. I left college as lonely as I entered it, the world still a black and white canvas without any color to light my life.
The years passed. I count them in boyfriends like my own parody of the Chinese calendar. “The Year of Jason.” “The Year of the Creepy Stalker Guy.” “The Year of Eric and His Twin Brother Aaron.” “The Year of the Guy Old Enough to Be My Father.” The list goes on.
I’m twenty-nine now, still single, teaching a class for gifted students at the local middle school. I switched majors soon after I got a D- on a paper for Psyche 101 and graduated with a teaching degree instead. I write articles for the school newspaper on the importance of washing hands and having a set study period every night before bed.
I keep hoping that I’ll meet The One. I keep hoping for that burst of color to come flitting into my life and decide to stay. I keep hoping there’s a reason I’ve been chasing butterflies all my life.