In December 2006, my mom fired Grandma.
She’d returned home from a night shift to find a human carousel in her living room: my two sisters chasing each other in circles, each holding a half-drank bottle of cranberry juice, while I, six years old, sat cross-legged at their circle’s center, watching Sex and the City on the television. Grandma snored on a lawn chair two feet away with a drooling Cosmo in one hand, the remote dangling in the other. When she woke hours later, she was out of a job and in the early stages of a hangover. I cried and cried and cried when Grandma left that morning. My mom crouched down in front of me and kissed my tears. “Remember. She’s not your real Grandma.”
Turns out Grandmothers were fruitful pickings in Haitian circles, and the woman babysitting me and my sisters for the past eight months wasn’t my mother’s mother — who’d died long before I was born — but Grandma No. 6. This grandma stood out from Grandmas No. 1 – 5 because of her ability to handle our abundance of energy. Whenever we’d get too rowdy, she’d sit us down, flip off the living room lights, fetch a VHS cassette tape from her purse, push it into the VCR, and then watch from a distance as the movie swept us into a world that’d become my obsession: the world of romantic comedy.
In this world, love was the cure to all ailments. Characters like Elle Woods, Patrick Verona, and Mia Thermopolis were my guides through a universe of love confessions, dashes through airports and rain-soaked kisses. It was as if they told me that despite how anxious, bland and incompetent I was, there’d be someone out there for me. From When Harry Met Sally (1989) to She’s the Man (2006), the same elements existed:
- A flawed protagonist, often with a case of firemouth, trying to figure out life.
- A chance encounter with the protagonist’s future romantic partner, also known as a “meet-cute”.
- The cast of supporting friends, who adore the protagonist and are on deck day-in and day-out to solve the protagonist’s problems.
- Finally, the protagonists’ grand epiphany or declaration of love at the end of the film: “You complete me!”
In the world of rom-coms, I experienced new cities, new friends and new ways for me to fall in love in the span of two hours. And I fell and I fell and I fell. If I played my cards right, I’d have all of it and more in my world too.
I met Vincent on the first day of fourth grade at my new Catholic school. The teacher sat us at the same table. I’d crack a joke, then say sorry. He told me to not apologize so much. Vincent wasn’t my first crush, but he’s the first one who, when I ogled at him from across the classroom, ogled back. I wasn’t allowed to date then, so our friendship was all love-hate, defined by banter and playing Nintendo. One Monday afternoon, our class walked in a single-file line from class to the on-site church for weekly prayer. Vincent and I clamored into a pew before the altar and cupped each other’s hands, my body was energized by the touch of his palm as Father Jedrik’s invocation washed us with words of divinity. Father said Amen. Vincent yanked his hand away from mine and made a show of wiping his hands on his trousers. Too late, Vincenzo. There was a buzzing in my chest and heat flowing to my ears. I wouldn’t wash my hands for days. It was official. I loved romance. I loved the way it stood out from my other relationships. I loved the way it formed a sacred connection between people. I loved the way it made me love life and think life could be better.
Most protagonists have known their best friends since childhood, but I met Katie later in life. On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, 6:45 am, the A.C. was on full blast as I entered the choir room for the first day of eighth grade at a local public school. I was late, two months or so, and went through the mandatory new kid introduction ritual. I, a black girl, stood silently beside the teacher before the curious crowd of white faces. Then I chose a seat on the bleachers, the one closest to the exit, and ended up sitting at the feet of the school’s biggest chatterbox by random selection. “I’m Katie. Why do you sing so quiet? Where do you live? Why’d you pick this school? It sucks.”
I’d decline invites to kick-back at her place after the final bell. I wasn’t looking for anything serious. Inevitably I’d soon discover a new yellow final notice on my kitchen counter and be off to a new school, a new town, a new classroom. But thanks be to whomever needs to be thanked that she never got the hint. Although I insisted the only friendship I needed was with my sisters Megan and Rachel, Katie broke down my wall more each day. The jokes we cracked in the choir room never fell flat, our weekend phone calls lasted hours, and the cherry on top was that we both agreed white supremacy stunk, which is a challenging chord to strike with most middle schoolers. For a year I tried to convince my mom to let me hang at her house; when she finally approved, the first item Katie and I checked off the bucket list was throwing a movie night in her bedroom. She suggested we put on (500) Days of Summer. I heard the ending was dreary, so I suggested Pretty Woman instead. As Julia Roberts and Richard Gere embraced on a New York City fire escape, Katie and I snuggled underneath the comforters, and she became the first person I said “I love you” to outside of my family.
Then in December 2016, during our junior year, Katie met Connor. Akin to a modern Romeo, he slid his bid for her affection into her Instagram DMs: “What’s the social studies homework?” By January, they had exchanged “I love you”s, and Connor was a permanent member of our movie nights. I liked Connor. He was witty and fun and genuine in his care for Katie. As her best friend I needed to be happy — none of the rom-com protagonist’s best friends complained. I didn’t mind when Katie stopped calling on the weekends, or when Connor unexpectedly dropped in on our hangout sessions, or when our conversations started to revolve around one point: him. The summer before college, I brought up my concern to Katie as we lounged on her bedroom floor.
“He’s my boyfriend,” she said, which I understood to mean, “he’s my priority.”
Then she pressed me: When would I finally see the soft, pink lights of romance?
She wasn’t the first to ask that. A few people have even accused me of being immune to love. But it wasn’t long ago that I’d close the door to my bedroom, search kissing videos on YouTube, and practice smooching my future partner on my hand. I was meticulous: make a fist, thumb over fingers, remember, this time no teeth…
My lip muscles became extraordinarily strong, but I still hadn’t put my skills to work. The closest I came was during my senior year when I attended a scholarship retreat in Rochester. I befriended an aspiring optometrist with whom I spent almost all of my time, but I didn’t realize he was interested in me until the last day when he passed me an origami rose inked with his phone number. My immediate instinct was to flee. His flirting sparked in my fear of devotion, like he expected me to cut off my arm and hand it to him. Once I returned home, I’d rarely responded to his texts, keeping it friendly when I did. Then one day he called me. When I picked up he said, “I know what you said.”
Confused, I asked for clarification. Apparently, I’d butt-dialed him while talking to my sister; he’d heard me describe him to her as “a friend I made at the treat.” He sounded hurt. I told him that he was great, I just didn’t want to date him, but—
“Don’t say it,” he said. “I don’t want to be ‘just friends.’”
One version of a classic genus of rom-com dialogue. The soundtrack comes on heavy as the protagonist runs through a crowd to their bae, grabs them by the hand, peers into their eyes, utters, “I want to be more than friends.”
I bolted downstairs and dished what happened to Megan. She put down her copy of Saga, amazed, and said, “Everyone treats relationships differently.”
People weigh their relationships differently, I thought.
This wouldn’t be an issue with my sisters. When I was twelve, we created a system for who would get to be each other’s Maid of Honor: Sister A is the Maid of Honor for Sister B, Sister B for Sister C, and Sister C for Sister A. As we got older the obvious solution was for us to have two Maids of Honor, but the idea’s sentiment remained true. There were no favorites among us.
My mother’s in a league of her own. We are the only love in her life. She’s had a few friends over the years, but I’ve never seen a partner by her side. Once she told me my dad was her soulmate, but he was also too ambitious for her own good; he booked it to medical school in Mexico. He stole the rent money for the month and left my mom pregnant and on her own with three kids. She said good riddance.
If you’re reading this and thinking “Black? Poor? No father? God!” kindly put down these pages and pick up a Tyler Perry flick. There you’ll find all the material you’re seeking, packaged in a neat ninety-minutes, ready for your consumption. I have no interest in roaming the hallways of my inner mind, digging through the files behind some forgotten door, rubbing puzzle pieces together to fill a man-sized hole in my heart because there is no hole. There are no daddy issues to be tackled, no daddy to search out. I’m not in the PI business; I’m in the love business.
My mom’s lack of romantic intimacy and my sheltered lifestyle meant it was rare for me to see the romantic displays of affection on TV in real life. The grandest gesture of romance I witnessed was at thirteen-years-old when my sister Britney broke up with her boyfriend, Timmy. Determined to win her back, he stopped by the house one afternoon and climbed the stairs of our backyard patio with something in his pocket. He gestured for me to get her attention through the glass door. He waited until my sister turned around to face the door, revealed a knife, and slid it into his stomach, then threw himself down the stairs. My sister told me to stop screaming and to call the ambulance as she rushed outside. As I grabbed the telephone, I blamed her in my mind for not distinguishing the good guys from the bad ones and myself for buying into such dualistic thinking. I blamed him for hurting himself to manipulate her into staying with him. Where’d he learn to do that, anyway?
In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter delivered what could be considered one of many obituaries for the romantic comedy. The Golden Era was over. Viewers hit rom-com fatigue in the early 2000s, the classic tropes devolved into clichés and the white, cis, heteronormativity of the genre became a bore. The voices of underrepresented audiences grew louder and demanded love to be depicted in ways they could relate to. Then, in 2018, in a likely attempt to resuscitate the genre, Netflix declared summer to be the “Summer of Love,” introducing the world to Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a hit which likely made space in the box office for diverse movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Someone Great, and Love, Simon. This new era of rom coms was the genre’s second chance, driven by a new narrative: everyone wants to be desirable.
The Summer of Love was the summer I left for my first year at college. I looked forward to making new friends, learning new things, and, maybe, dating cute college kids. I went to my first party with my group of melanated friends expecting that a boy would ask me to dance. Instead, we were squished into the corner of a frat bro’s room as inebriated couples sucked face on top of us throughout the night. My friends prepped for hours in their dorm rooms, and their efforts showed in their glammed up hairdos and beat faces. Yet every person who entered the party drifted past us, toward the fairest in the room. The implicit rules of the love game were obvious. We were dating while brown; therefore, our dating pool felt like an ankle-deep puddle.
Back at the lounge of my freshman dorm, I sat with my friends and RAs and posed a question: “Is it okay to have a racial preference?”
One of my dormmates, Greg—a white boy from Princeton, New Jersey—stopped playing pool to eavesdrop. My friends didn’t know what I meant, so I explained what happens to us at parties. “You can’t help who you’re attracted to,” Greg said. “It’s biology.”
I disagreed. I explained that who we’re attracted to stems from what we’re familiar with. Or maybe how we’ve been conditioned by media.
“It’s not racist.” He shook his head and walked back to the pool table. “Even if it is, everyone deals with it, so it doesn’t matter all that much.”
Later that night, while my RA and I were doing homework in the lounge, he leveled with me about the earlier conversation: it is a little racist, but it’s all part of the dating hierarchy. For instance, my RA, a dark-skinned South Asian man, was dating a white girl in his grade and noticed the power imbalance when it came to dating options. At the start of the quarter, he and his girlfriend made a Tinder. “Just for fun,” he said. They both put the same proximity. But while he swiped right on every person who popped on his screen, his girlfriend only picked who she was attracted to. She had over fifty matches, while he only had six. He laughed it off but admitted that if they broke up, he knew his girlfriend’s inbox would be overflowing with new people, while he’d still only have six.
“That’s awful,” I said.
“It’s part of the dating pyramid: black women and Asian men are at the bottom,” he said. “We’re the least desirable.”
The closest I’ve come to a breakup was with my friend Willow. We met by virtue of a tenth grade English project. We each wanted to partner with a mutual friend but, to our low groans, the teacher paired us together instead. After school in the local library, we discovered we had more in common than our taste in friends and went on to talk about anything but homework. While Katie was honeymooning with Connor, Willow and I spent all our time together. We’d sit in the town’s java shop for hours and stress about college, the crude dude moving into the oval office, and our checkered pasts.
“You live on Long Island and you’ve never been in the water?” she said one day, when I told her I couldn’t swim. The same weekend we boarded her father’s boat and she introduced me to the Great South Bay. I gripped the bow railing as her father jetted over the water — I’d left the spare life jacket back at the dock.
“How are you going to explain to my mom that you killed me?” I shouted over the roaring motor.
Willow cautiously stood us up, raised my arms to my side, and transferred her life jacket from her chest onto mine. “Just hold onto me and I’ll never let you drown.”
Her father anchored the boat in his lucky clamming spot. In between us wading through the water where a family of blue-claw crabs pinched at our toes, Willow taught me how to float. We buoyed with the push-pull of the lagoon’s tide as she commented on income inequality, the dying Bay, and love — a new subject of discontent for her. Neither of us dated anyone before, so our romance records were both imaginary and bottomless.
“Do you believe in soulmates?” she asked, dodging a string of eelgrass inching toward her temple.
“Like Love & Basketball soulmates?”
“No, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soulmates.”
“Depends how you define it,” I decided. “I wasn’t born for anyone. If I meet someone and we can talk and we like even the worst versions of each other, then I want them in my life.”
“Soulmates, I think, is meeting someone who knows you from the inside and outside of your shell,” she said. “Someone who sees me.”
“I think there’s more than one soulmate out there for us. Like Megan. Rachel.” I paused. “And you, of course.”
“Of course,” she said. “Do you think we’ll be friends in ten years?”
A few months later, I didn’t see her off when she packed her dad’s car for New Haven, but we promised each other over the phone that nothing would change. We were soulmates. And I’m sure we meant it.
I texted Willow three times throughout my freshman year. The first message was an inquiry about her time at college, sent on my first day of school. The second was a reply sent four days later, spastically between my classes. The third text was a drafted message accepting her invitation to talk on the phone. “I’ll send it later. I need to work on the phrasing,” I told myself. Six months later, the message continued to collect dust in the draft box. I knew I blew it.
That summer, I stressed about her to my sisters. Rachel said, “She’s your best friend. Plus, friendship doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. Just call her.”
I texted Willow that day on the train home from my internship. I crafted chunky, humiliating paragraphs apologizing for falling out of touch, for not fighting harder for us. When Katie read it, she told me to re-write it because it sounded like groveling. But I sent it anyway because sometimes love requires groveling.
Willow read it that night at 7:55 p.m. She responded the next day, Thanks for the response. Let’s talk about it over the phone this week. We set up a time. She never called. And it didn’t even hurt me as much as I wanted it to.
I sulked in bed the next couple of nights, my entire body throbbing in pain. Rachel placed a bottle of Advil on my bedside table. (500) Days of Summer played on my laptop as I popped open the bottle, Joseph-Gordan Levitt’s dispirited eyes looking straight into mine. “Do you ever do this, you think back on all the times you’ve had with someone and you just replay it in your head over and over again and you look for those first signs of trouble?”
I bitterly engaged in the cartography of how Willow and I derailed. Then I remembered. Willow and I met up at the java shop during Winter break. It was only for an hour, and she insisted we walk to a nearby pizzeria instead. “The vibes here are off today,” she said. On the way there, I laughed too hard at her jokes and tried not to let on how uncomfortable the silence between us was. She raved about new friends and confessed she never felt closer to anyone before like she did them.
“Oh, and I met someone at college.” She told me about a boy in her dorm who she hooks up with. “We went to second base.”
“What does that mean?”
She chuckled. “That’s cute. You’re so innocent.”
I looked at the time. I lied and said my mom wanted me back home, but I just wanted to end the meeting early.
She asked, “But we’ll hang later?” Of course.
I was a fool sporting rose-colored glasses. I thought I could replicate the type of love and bonds I found in films in friendships. And I let the fiction of the rom-com world convince me that once a relationship like that began it would not end. It would instill a sense of fear about the actual romance — I hated it. I hated my enthusiasm to step into its world. I mistook the movie characters on screen for guides, but they were sirens. Their goo-goo words led me down a peony-kissed path of expectations — “you’re my exception”, “to me, you are perfect”, “death cannot stop true love” — and right off the rom-com cliff. And I fell and fell for what? For a string of tropes embedded into a system of fiction, destined to everlastingly fail my imagination? I deserved the wake-up call awaiting me at the scree.
Ciera and I properly met when my friend invited me to their weekly lunch date. Over an acai bowl, she recounted her summer spent hooking up with girls. Of course, it didn’t turn into anything, she added slyly. Ciera appeared sculpted from obsidian rock: dark glassy skin, nose wide, hair kinky. As she spoke, I ached to grab her and break the news, “Don’t you know who you are? Don’t you know the rules? We’re at the bottom!” But the difference between me and her was that she didn’t hide behind statistics, she was out there.
I’d spent so much time rejecting and cutting off people that I wondered how many opportunities I’d overlooked. How many origami-making optometrists are out there?
I remember the one time I confided in my sisters about my frustrations with Katie and Connor’s consuming romance. Rachel sympathized with Katie. She said falling in love can be like a trip; it feels so good and it’s all-consuming. I argued that friends can feel good too.
“You don’t build a life with friends. You don’t buy a house with friends,” she said.
“You could if you wanted to.”
She rolled her eyes. “You just won’t understand until you’re in a relationship.”
There, somewhere in the tiny corner of my brain, my mind left me. Like someone had removed the VHS tape from the VCR and smashed it to the floor, the film reels pouring out.
I thought back to our promise to be each other’s Maid of Honor. In my mind, I’m clad in a pink suit beside my sister as she exchanges vows with her partner. As the minister announces them legally wed, the altar begins to tremble. I think it’s an earthquake, but then the floor beneath the newlyweds breaks off and begins to levitate above us, their heads dipping down as they upon us. Everyone claps as they ascend to a place that’s higher than God, higher than me. And my sister’s beaming as she waves goodbye, because she found someone that she felt she couldn’t live without. Her priority.
I felt like one day I would be pressured to find a partner I couldn’t live without. But what if I don’t? What if my heart’s saturated with love? There’s the idea of romance that’s performed via film, then there’s the romance which exists between two real people. Romance and friendship don’t operate in the binary, but I was still crushed by the fear that anything could “surpass” the love I have for those already in my life. I’d rather be caught in limbo than find out the type of person romance made me out to be, especially when I could lose it.
Last week I video-called Katie to congratulate her on her four-year anniversary with Connor. I don’t know why, but after I hung up, I opened a tab on my computer and typed Vincent’s name in the search engine. This isn’t the first time I’ve googled him, but it’s usually a dead end. I scrolled through Facebook and wondered what a reunion would look like between us. “Vincent,” I’d say warmly, smiling as he entered the coffee shop, “I missed you.” He’d sit across the table. He’d straighten his spine. “I missed you too.” He’d comment on my appearance, how much I’d changed. My ears would grow hot. “Things change,” I’d say. “Remember how much fun we had back then?” His eyes would soften as he looked at me. I’d feel comfortable enough to admit to him, “I compared every single guy I’ve met to you and the way you made me feel.”
He’d want to know: Why didn’t I call him all those years ago? Why call now?
I’d take a moment to think. “I’ve missed lots of opportunities in my life. I guess I’m just haunted by all that potential energy.”
He’d nod. A moment would pass, then he’d reach across the—
Facebook updated its result page. There was a profile that wasn’t there before, with a picture of a boy. He had a square face. It looked like him. At least, I thought it did. I stared at the profile. Maybe it wasn’t him. Even if it was, I probably wouldn’t recognize him.
Contact Christine Delianne at delianne ‘at’ stanford.edu.