A few years ago Art and I rented, “Like Water For Chocolate”, a Latin-American fantasy-realism kind of a tale in which the star-crossed lovers are thwarted by an evil matriarch who insists that the youngest daughter remain unmarried and serve her mother all her life.
In the early part of the movie, the girl and boy fall madly and tragically in love. They are drawn to each other by a chemistry so strong, that by the end of the movie it destroys them both. Sound vaguely familiar? This is yet another variation on the tragic (young) love story – Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, and we could go on and on with variations on that theme. When the two lovers finally (literally!) went up in smoke at the end of the movie, Art exclaimed, “What a chick flick!”.
What was more interesting to me than all of this was a subplot in which another suitor falls in love with Tita, the young girl. This other suitor (appropriately named John, as in “John Doe”) was a kind of stalwart, reliable and kindly man, whereas the object of Tita’s “true” love was kind of a flashy, impulsive and darkly charismatic man.
When John proposed to Tita, he broke my heart with his kindness, his obvious caring, his respectfulness. I was practically jumping out of my seat rooting for John. I yelled at Tita, “Say yes, for God’s sake! Say yes!”. But of course, she didn’t. She opted to remain unmarried for the rest of her life waiting around for you-know-who. (Sorry I can’t remember the character’s name, but he had married her sister, ostensibly to remain close to Tita, and was now obligated to wait around until the sister died so that he could pick up where he left off thirty years ago with Tita).
Finally, I realized that I had made a complete about-face in my attitude toward romantic love. Had I seen this movie in my twenties, or even in my thirties, I would have been yelling at Tita, “Say no, for God’s sake! Say no!”. My idea of “true love” for as far back as I can remember was the Romeo and Juliet model. That is to say, it conformed to the idea that there is one soul mate out there in the universe for you, and you will know it when you see it because the little hairs on the back of your neck will stand up, your palms will get sweaty, your stomach will do somersaults, and you won’t be able to breathe. Your eyes will roll back in your head rendering you blind to all of the lover’s faults, and no matter how (s)he kicks you around you will follow that person like a dog to the end of your days. This, I imagined, was ecstasy. This, I imagined, was true love. This is the romantic ideal put forth by most of the movies and novels in our culture, and it is probably responsible for 85% of the divorces in the country.
It took me many years of soul-searching, not to mention extensive psychotherapy, to disabuse myself of this notion. What passes for “true love” as described above is probably, at best, physical attraction, and at worst, the perfect mesh of one neurotic obsession with another. In my experience, anyway, such attractions are always “star-crossed”. There is always an insurmountable object to be overcome. And when that insurmountable object is removed, and the star-crossed lovers actually get a few minutes to chat, they generally find out that they are looking at a stranger who has nothing to do with the fictional character they have cooked up in their head.
This reminds me of another movie we watched, “Wilde”, based on the life of playwright Oscar Wilde. (Thanks, Netflix!). This poor man was totally obsessed with his young lover for most of his adult life. The younger man cruelly tormented Wilde and assaulted his self-esteem over and over. Wilde, at the end of the movie, having been released from prison after two years of pining for his young twerp, has an epiphany when he finally sees the younger man, symbolically, from a distance, and realizes that he is sadly disappointed with the object of his passion.
Now, What, you ask yourself, could be better than an abusive, commitment-phobic, on-again-off-again, self-absorbed and sadistic so-called “soul mate”? Well, of course, the answer is clear. It is “John” in “Like Water For Chocolate”. It is someone with the courage to commit to another person and to be vulnerable, to be kind, caring, and interdependent. To be a true, honest friend. Someone who doesn’t turn and run at the first sign of trouble. Someone invested in your mutual happiness. Someone you can play with and work with. It’s a tall order, but worth the effort.
I learned all this first-hand over the course of my relationship with Art. I would never go back to what I now consider “the dark side”. Life is much better here in the light.
P.S. Imagine a sequel to “Romeo and Juliet”. Imagine that they didn’t die in that cave, but rather, were allowed to go and live out their days, setting up housekeeping, raising children, visiting the in-laws. How long before we would hear something like this,
“My God, you are such a pig-headed Capulet!”
“Just like a Montague!”
“What was I thinking! We were only fourteen and as I recall you were wearing a mask!”
“My father was right!”
“I wish I had drunk that poison!”
“I wish you had, too!”
© Robin Munson