Since starting to write for The Grind, I’ve recently pondered the question, “What makes a good story?” Is it a clear beginning, middle and end? A plucky protagonist you can’t help but root for? Does every good story need a love story?
This led me to my next inquiry, “What is a love story?”
You can only imagine my surprise when I saw, after taking a break from writing nothing, questioning everything and deciding to open up “Modern Love,” a printed collection of personal essays first published in a New York Times column of the same name, that the first line of Daniel Jones’ introduction asks the exact same question.
“What is a love story?”
Jones continues, dancing around the question. He writes that “if we are going to try to define what a love story is, we should begin by defining what love is, but that can be even more slippery.” Instead, he argues that “love, for [him], is less about definitions than examples.” And that’s exactly what he, as editor of the original column in The Times, gives us — examples of love.
Dating back to its conception in 2004, the “Modern Love” column hoped to show love in all of its niceties and ugliness, deciding early on to interpret “love” as broadly as possible. Familial, friendship, romantic, life-changing, commonplace — any story that dealt with “our lifelong efforts to be intimate with other human beings” was on the table.
This metaphorical table has since become cluttered with stories from every corner of the globe. With approximately 8,000 entries being sent in every year, the column has published about 750 essays over the span of 15 years. Millions of eager readers pour in every week to read the newest additions, myself included.
I will admit that I have spent many hours combing over these essays, new stories finding me at the perfect moment, bookmarked favorites still able to muster up long-forgotten memories.
I ugly-cried on a cold Saturday night last winter quarter as Amy Rosenthal, a children’s book author abruptly diagnosed with ovarian cancer, poetically listed off her husband’s best attributes. In her essay, “You May Want To Marry My Husband,” she builds a makeshift dating profile for him in hopes of prematurely ushering in a new love to comfort him after she passes:
“So many plans instantly went poof.
“No trip with my husband and parents to South Africa. No reason, now, to apply for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. No dream tour of Asia with my mother. No writers’ residencies at those wonderful schools in India, Vancouver, Jakarta. No wonder the word cancer and cancel look so similar.”
This is when we entered what I came to think of as Plan ‘Be,’ existing only in the present. As for the future, allow me to introduce you to the gentleman of this article, Jason Brian Rosenthal… The following list of attributes is in no particular order because everything feels important to me in some way.”
In “The Gift of the Missing Men,” Kema Christian Taylor, a content strategist in New York City, introduces the ironic idea of a “holiday man,” a term the matriarchs of her family have coined for the absentee fathers whose quick resurfacing at Christmas dinner tables was just as soon followed by their swift exits for the next 364 days of the year. As Taylor finds herself falling prey to her own iteration of a “holiday man,” she soon realizes that this seemingly unbreakable pattern of flakey fathers has trained her, and generations of women before her, to become more self-reliant, stronger and wiser:
“Each December, when he would call to say he was coming over, I would brush my hair and put on clothes that were nice but didn’t look like I was trying too hard. I would run back and forth to the window, excited for the moment when his white pickup truck would pull into our driveway.
“He would sit next to me, cologne filling the room, his snakeskin boots wild against our Persian rug, and together we would stare ahead at a Christmas scene that was two days old. He would get everything wrong, from how old I was to what school I attended to how many suitors I had (at the time, none).
“Within minutes, he would slap his knees and tell me he had a party to go to. I would wait for his white truck to disappear before bursting into tears.”
The column, other than being able to give me premature ventricular contractions, has also managed to make me laugh. After puncturing a major blood vessel in the midst of a sexual encounter with a woman “so beautiful [he] was almost afraid of her,” Brian Gittis recounts the best date he’s ever had in his essay, “At the Hospital, an Interlude of Clarity” — him wearing a hospital gown and high off of the residue anesthesia from surgery, and her still wearing the blood-crusted dress he initially used to stabilize the bleeding:
“As we stood there, mopping up bloody footprints with our Swiffers, surrounded by wadded-up pink paper towels, I thought, ‘Either you will never see this woman again, or she will stick around a long time.’”
Still, despite the countless stories from people of all different backgrounds, sexualities and experiences, I can’t help but resonate most closely with the stories where I can see myself as the plucky, young protagonist people can’t help but root for: the essays sent in for the Modern Love College Essay Contest.
Written as a sophomore at Columbia University in 2015, one of Jordana Narin’s closing lines in “No Labels, No Drama, Right?” evoked a simultaneous gasp, giggle and tear in my eye.
“‘You know what a Jeremy is,’ she said. ‘You practically dubbed the term. He’s the guy we never really dated and never really got over.’”
First read last spring, during a time when heartbreak seemed impossible and yet, in retrospect, so unbelievably inevitable for me, I remember those 25 words cutting deeper than any line of Shakespeare or John Green. I was dumbfounded by Narin’s ability to capture my growing fear of what this impending romantic endeavor might look like for me, four or five months from then. Would I have my own Jeremy? A guy I never really dated, but also really never got over?
About five months have passed since last spring. I read through Narin’s essay again, mostly to do research for this article about my favorite Modern Love essays, but also to test myself. To see if the bandaid I had placed on old wounds (leftover from before one personally transformative summer) would possibly let me bleed out again, threatening to release ancient feelings that I have long since covered up with a toothy grin, a brave face and a deceptively unbothered air.
As expected, the wound has fully healed, and I am free to appreciate Narin’s essay, along with all 750 essays in the Modern Love catalog, for what it truly is: a love story. For herself, for me and for anyone else out there just hoping to reaffirm their belief in what makes the world go ‘round.
To address the question that Daniel Jones and I have both asked, yet have discreetly managed to forego answering, I counter with a follow-up question:
In a world where seven billion hearts are stolen, broken and healed every day (not necessarily in that order, just speaking from personal experience):
What isn’t a love story?
Contact Justine Sombilon at jsombilo ‘at’ stanford.edu.