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The finest romances have the messiest stories. Not messy as in poorly written; au contraire, a good romance hits all the highest points of storytelling — the meet cute, the ecstatic joy of turning enemies into lovers, the inevitable wrench in the works, middles full of will they-won’t they tension, and a resolution that’s either a happily ever after, happy enough for now, or a bittersweet goodbye.
I am feeling particularly entranced with the genre right now having just watched La La Land. Okay, look — it’s not going to be a movie for everyone. But me? I love a good musical. I love a good homage. And I love a good love story. The prospect of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone maybe not ending up together because of the calls of their differing careers, but agreeing they will always love each other … well, let’s just say I needed several moments.
My husband is a working musician, and I’m a writer. This May, we will have been together for 16 years — eight in sin, eight married, and all 16 sharing creative careers that don’t always align. Ours has been a romance of nights apart, beautiful Sundays together, opposite schedules, and ships passing in the night.
There is a montage in La La Land that shows this all-too-familiar lifestyle of two artists — Gosling lands a big gig and is gone nights, while Stone is wrapped up in writing her one-woman play, rising early and going to bed early, so over the course of their days they end up sharing only bed space. This is the moment I shout to my husband, in the bedroom preparing for his Friday night gig: “Oh shit, La La Land just got too real.”
I go to the bedroom and tell him about the scene. He listens to me, buttoning his shirt and smiling his sad smile. We agree that his current Friday and Saturday night gig schedules are not ideal. He wraps me in a hug and we stand there, as I watch the time on our alarm clock over his shoulder. He is late.
That image of a long-haul couple eating breakfast together, sharing a morning coffee, splitting a bottle of wine after a long work day, reading books together in bed before falling asleep in each other’s arms — that has never been our reality. Do I wish it was? Certainly. But he will never ask me to give up my writing, and I will never ask him to stop playing music. The messier our lives, the more years we have together, the more we realize the value of writing our own story. Will we, won’t we make it? We’ll just have to wait and see.
This is where the great, messy love stories come in handy — I don’t need our marriage to look a certain way to have hope. Because if I’ve learned anything from these stories, it’s the messiness, not the ideal, that strengthens a relationship. Our marriage survives because we appreciate the possibility that it may not.
So don’t give me any of that happy ending bullshit. Give me the complicated, the missed connections, the big gestures, the bittersweet endings. Give me the struggle, because it’s the struggle that makes it love.
My Parents Got Sick. It Changed How I Thought About My Marriage (Mary H.K. Choi, GQ Magazine, March 2021)
Anyone who has actually experienced marriage knows that the saying “marriage is bliss” is woefully incorrect. Not because marriage is about petty arguments or seeing sides of your spouse you’d rather not see (think the Seinfeld episode where Jerry dates a nudist and then opines on the difference between “good naked” and “bad naked.”) The truth of the matter is that marriage is a little bit of good naked and a whole lot of bad naked, especially during a pandemic when fears run high and aging in-laws who live across the country are deteriorating.
Choi’s essay takes a singular comment from her husband and encapsulates it as a defining “bad naked” moment in their marriage. And, as she says, “I have never loved him more than in that moment.” As someone who has had her share of “bad naked” marriage moments, I can attest that this essay rings with glaring honesty.
Everything he’d done in support of me and my family was noble. Selfless. Bodies are a constant fucking betrayal, and that he’d strapped himself to another one that was in turn attached to a whole human centipede of decrepitude was deeply affecting. But then he’d admitted not only his reservation but his scorn. How it ran counter to his most primal instincts of self-preservation. Were he alone, with his discipline, his self-sufficiency, his precious solitary walks on Far fucking Rockaway, he’d survive this. Meanwhile, I’d demanded we head to the airport. I dared him to say no, because I knew he couldn’t. This was marriage.
The Journalist and the Pharma Bro (Stephanie Clifford, ELLE, December 2020)
Just stick with me on this one. We all remember that one guy, Martin Shkreli, who became universally known as the biggest asshole on the face of the earth for raising the price of a life-saving pharmaceutical by 5,000% overnight. Top this objectively awful-for-humanity move with his love of trolling, his shit-eating grin, and his obscenely expensive purchase of a one-off Wu-Tang Clan album — because of course, a Wall Street Bro would spend an inordinate amount of money on that. Now add in a journalist who is damn determined to humanize him. Or is she also being trolled?
I’m not saying this story is a great love story. But it will enrage you, confuse you, and make you question the patriarchy. (In a follow-up, Smythe, the journalist, insists she is acting of her own accord and that it is sexist to imply that she is in any way a “victim.”) Is she being used by the Pharma Bro to recoup his image? Is she using him to get a big-money book deal? Are they actually in love? Or has she, in the words of one of her journalism professors, ruined her life? Settle back with some popcorn for this one.
When Shkreli found out about this article, though, he stopped communicating with her. He didn’t want her telling her story, she says. Smythe thinks it’s because he’s worried about fallout for her. While she waits to hear from him, she monitors Google Alerts for his name, posts in support groups for loved ones of inmates, and—because inmates must place outgoing calls and can’t accept incoming ones—hopes one day he will call or reply to one of her emails. “It’s completely out of her control,” Haak says; all she can do is “sit around and wait and hope.”
Smythe has only one photo of the two of them, propped next to her bed. Shkreli, his arm around Smythe, has a wide-open smile. “Doesn’t he look human there?” Smythe says, laughing.
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Tinder Hearted (Allison P. Davis, The Cut, August 2022)
God, there are so many good lines in this one, it’s difficult to figure out what I want to highlight the most. Davis, a wickedly funny writer, recounts her decade of Tinder dating and how the longest relationship she’s managed to be in from it is with Tinder itself. She downloads, has great sex, has terrible sex, falls hard with men who ghost her, ghosts men who fall hard for her, deletes the app, tries traditional dating, and re-downloads it again and again in a vicious but unrelenting circle of who gives a shit. As one of the “smug couples” who “sigh with relief when they say, ‘I’m glad I met my partner before there were apps,’” let me just say … I’m glad I met my partner before there were apps, but part of me has always wondered what it would be like to have the world as your sexual oyster in the way Tinder allows, delicious or rotten as it may be. If romance is messy, then Tinder romances take the cake. What is most apparent: Davis has a wealth of great stories to tell.
I first downloaded Tinder in the spring of 2013, seven months after it launched. I’d heard about it as a concept (Grindr for straights) but felt exempt from needing it until one evening at the tail end of a drawn-out breakup with someone I’d told myself I would marry. We were at a restaurant in San Francisco, having one of too many brutal good-bye dinners that led to this-is-the-last-time-I-swear sex, and I put the app on my phone in front of him. He stoically chugged his negroni while I marveled at the hundreds, presumably thousands of men who were waiting for me on the other end, should he decide to go through with the breakup. “Look!” I said, waving my iPhone 5 in his face. (I didn’t mention that at this early point in the app’s history, it was mostly populated by 20-year-old college students and S.F. tech bros who exclusively wore free T-shirts from start-ups.) By June, my boyfriend had gone through with the breakup and moved on — quickly and not via app — to a woman he’d met through mutual friends. I wanted to die. But instead of the sweet relief of death: Tinder.
Taking The Knife* (Randa Jarrar, Gay Mag, October 2019)
*This essay contains graphic sexual content.
“In kink, consent is queen,” thus you need to understand what you’re going to get into before you read this essay. The piece centers around Jarrar’s visit to a queer kink club where the first thing we see/read is Mx. Cele enjoying a knife in intimate spaces. At the club, everyone is asking permission to touch, taste, and harm. It’s a mind warp to think of harm and consent working with, not against, each other in the same sentence, but that is what this entire essay does. I loved it for its deft balancing act — the daily negotiations of asking for what we want, not being asked before something is taken, and the sexual freedom and safety of owning our own bodies in a culture that feels entitled to it.
I didn’t have a lock on my door until I moved away from my parents’ house. The last time I was abused, I was sixteen years old, and my father chased me around the house with a knife. I ran outside and he came after me. I ran back inside, and he finally put the knife down. But afterwards, I called the police. I’ve written before about what happened when the police came- how I smoked a cigarette with the cop who drove me to the station; how that cop later told me that my father being Arab would be a problem. I understood that this meant it would be a problem for my mother, and for me. I dropped the charges against him a few weeks later. But that didn’t change that I had been very afraid of my father and very afraid of that knife.
They Found Love, Then They Found Gender (Francesca Mari, Matter, October 2015)
And to round out this reading list, I have for you a beautiful love story. Not traditional, definitely fluid, but more romantic than most of the other narratives out there. Boy, born biologically female, meets girl, born biologically male. It’s love at first sight. They throw caution to the wind to be together in the most honest way they can — genderqueer, fluid, trans, and finally, the first queer couple legally married in the state of Texas. Grab your tissues for this one. (And for you journalism nerds out there, enjoy a conversation in the comments about the editorial choices in names and pronouns as one character, Johnny, transitions over the course of the piece.)
Now that there is marriage equality, they want to get married again, with a license that better reflects who they are — not husband and wife — but partner and partner. “When you give sexual consent, you cannot give a blanket consent at the beginning of an evening or for the rest of your life,” Johnny explains. “And we feel the same way about marriage.” So they continue to propose to one another nearly every day. Once Johnny fingered the question into the soot on Ashley’s back windshield. Just last month, Johnny wrote, “Will you marry me?” “Yes” and “No” in backwards cursive in different places on their body so that Ashley could snuggle up to her answer, letting it legibly transfer onto her skin. They write it in each other’s notebooks and songbooks to discover who knows how long later. With each proposal, they affirm their love and devotion to their partner in their current identity. For they know more than anyone else how fluid one’s identity can be.
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.
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