There’s a scene in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy when Holden can no longer contain his feelings for Alyssa. Frustrated and desperate, he pulls over to the side of road in a downpour, turns to her, and confesses everything. Guts all over the place. Sparing you the spoiler, her response is nothing short of a tongue lashing that could make Liam Neeson cry like a baby. And just to ensure the wound in his heart never closes, she twists the knife, condemning the brazen selfishness required to unburden himself with news of what she so flippantly refers to as “a crush“. In Holden’s response, she becomes privy to the gravity of his love for her, ”If this is a crush I don’t think I could take it if the real thing ever happened.”
Love nearly destroyed me the first time I fell at age twenty. Our chance meeting had left me smitten with her reserved and intriguing air of mystery, where, between a sea of wild pink hair, two piercing eyes and a daring smile had nearly brought me to my knees. On a group outing to dinner, I made certain that we were seated beside one another. And when it came that a joke would send the entire table into laughter, it was only hers that I could hear.
But being in love and unprepared meant that the laughter could not go on forever, and eventually, it faded almost completely. As it happens, naivety and passion swell equally large in young hearts without boundaries, and love disappointed is an explosive and destructive thing. At its very peak, our disappointment had turned into a dark and desperate rage. We had failed to become our best selves, and so too, had committed to a path of destruction that, soon after the year mark, culminated into a late night race towards a kitchen drawer full of knives. It was a contest of loyalty and martyrdom, of proving whose heart had been the greater victim—if only to see who might kill themselves first just to spite the other. In the end, our bodies lay prone with exhaustion amidst the yellow glow of a sink light overhead; we both knew it was over. Nothing says reality check quite like a tacit suicide pact at two in the morning.
Perhaps it was our final attempt at holding hostage what good may have survived, a morbid display of desperation meant to recapture the fire that had brought us together in the first place. But it was too late. We were too hurt to heal by the hands of one another. The good had gone—along with our empathy, swallowed up by the bitterness of failure. For all its wonder, no amount of raw, naked, and relentlessly unapologetic passion could save us. Only at the end would I learn the power of my coldest shoulder, my most cutting words, of my neglect for her feelings, because by then it was she who had turned them on me to protect herself. It was my first love that taught me true empathy—that words and actions matter in the most visceral way. In the too-late-hour of our love’s demise, it was I who had become jealous, wounded, and desperate, feeling all that she had felt throughout the worst parts of our relationship. I had been careless with her heart and could only see it when faced with the horror of her apathy and absence. I finally understood—firsthand—how it felt to be truly marginalized and it almost killed me.
At twenty-five I left the United States to live as a stranger in a strange land. I had little hope of ever loving as I did before, vowing in my vigilance to stave off any illusions that might mistake lust for love, or loneliness for desire of a relationship. I was done with love, but love wasn’t done with me. And as the saying goes, when I least expected it—or even wanted it—I fell again.
A talented classical pianist and dark-haired beauty, her creative passion was a mirror image of my own and an unstoppable magnet. From her musical compositions, to her quirky humor and cross-cultural dialogue, she demonstrated a fearlessness that would later win her a YouTube contest, casting her into the spotlight of a famed Internet personality. As we both lusted for passionate creative expression, the crux of our relationship revolved around a silent and competitive camaraderie which served to inspire and push the boundaries of our respective works. While she spent hours filming daily videos, I spent my nights feverishly writing. Each week was full with status reports about who finished what project and how many more had been planned.
At one point during my time abroad, I had fallen into a trough of self-doubt about my writing—a fairly well-established pattern of perpetual existential crisis for me—when she presented a challenge. There was an independent film contest going around the Internet for which the winner could acquire massive funding for their next project.
“Write something for the contest,” she said.
I had never written a screenplay before, and in my current state of self-loathing and pity, I was certain that whatever I wrote would be shit and a complete waste of time. At first I balked at her suggestion. But her sincerity and persistence blinded my fear of failure, and though agitated by this baseless faith in my ability, I sought to put the issue to rest:
“I’ll sit and write for 30 minutes. If I can’t come up with something I like, let’s just forget about it,” I said.
Not only did I come up with an idea I liked, I spent the next several weeks filming the feature for which I also wrote the soundtrack. My independent film “four” is among one of my favorite creative works—not because it ever had a chance of winning the contest (it didn’t), but because I felt inspired, productive, and passionate throughout its creation. For almost an entire day, I sat in my computer chair without eating or bathing, writing the music and editing the film to submission.
And so, the second love of my life taught me the importance of taking action despite fear and self-doubt. While motivation and self-confidence can be a wonderful drive toward pursuing dreams, there are times when action must come first, where the doing itself becomes the catalyst which spurs inspiration for further effort.
By the time I had returned home from overseas, my second love and I had dissolved our relationship upon the mutual understanding that neither of us were ready to marry, and that the distance spelled doom altogether. Then, twenty-seven, I had resigned to a life of intermittent and shallow relations, occasional romance without commitment or promise of permanent union. Love had proven itself too risky a challenge, and I was far too busy with myself anyhow.
Though my travels abroad had offered a more fluid projection of my identity—a breaking of a previously hardened self-concept riddled with deception—for all that might be said of one’s focus, mine was still locked into a track of deep selfishness. Born from the necessities of survival which held fast in preserving my sanity through an exceedingly tumultuous childhood, my focus of self was not of malice, nor greed, nor a negligence of others. I had not, for the purpose of self gain, sought to hurt or destroy the happiness of others. For all its commonly negative connotation, my selfishness was quite benign, serving only as protection from exploitation, deception, and false hope. This, of course, doesn’t mean to suggest that there weren’t casualties along the way. Despite a lack of conscious intent to hurt others, damage done by my ignorance was certainly damage, indeed.
That said, up to the point of returning home, my ego had run a pretty tight ship, producing an unwavering personal narrative about merits of self-preservation and how to sustain it: keep moving, keep changing; don’t let anyone get in your way, and if they do, just cut them out of the picture; you don’t owe anyone anything. It was a cutthroat policy with little room for self-critique or the dissent of others. After all, what was there to know? I was already the superior authority on my life; what did it matter what anyone else thought?
And yet, despite my affinity for the prospect of being forever alone, I could not help but hold out for hope when the mantra of “me first” began wearing thin in the homestretch of thirty. Something within me had changed—the inevitable effect of a greater worldview that dwarfed my self-concept; I was ready to face myself, to dismantle and reorganizing my ego in ways that would finally allow me to grow together with someone special. And that’s precisely when love found me again.
In the years before she would become my wife, a friendship had grown in the months that followed the first meeting of my third love. At that time, her olive skin and dark eyes had been but a prelude to her exceptional intelligence and communication skills, and it came to be that we discovered a nameless connection of a spiritual grade between us. At a glance, and without a word, we could both sense what the other was feeling. That was the spark. With no effort at all, she could tune into the subtext of our discourse with an unrelentingly commitment to the present—moments in which she would unmask me. It was an instantaneous nakedness and vulnerability, free from the distortion powers of my ego—an adrenaline shot that left me teetering on the brink between excitement and terror.
The budding romance that would eventually grow into the greatest love of my life was initially a very difficult relationship. Residual anger, insecurity, and fear left over from our previous experiences had plagued the beginning stages of our courtship. Efforts to protect ourselves often resulted in exaggerated disagreements, permitting us to lash out in favor of a witch hunt meant to expose the other for a deception no one could prove. But something interesting happened each time we did this: there was no unmasking, no intentional deception to be found. Each time we sought to prove the other false, the truth would vindicate one another’s sincerity. This effectively led to a virtuous cycle that reinforced our efforts to be genuine and forthcoming with our fears and concerns.
When the prospect of living together came up, my first reaction was sheer panic: DANGER, DANGER, DANGER. It didn’t matter that I was spending nearly four days a week at her place. I wanted to come home to my little studio space, with my mattress on the floor, my rug from the far east, and my lack of television. But going home was more than just a quiet place away from the evils of cable entertainment: it was a place to which I could escape when things got tough, where I could hide when love challenged me to let go of pride.
Having your own space away from your significant other means never having to compromise. It’s the “fuck you” card in your pocket, the ejector seat that lets you ditch that shit argument you’re flying just before it all blows up in your face. Sure it leaves a mess, but that’s the point: it LEAVES the mess with other person. You get to go home and tell yourself that story about how you were right, because living separately also means having the space and time to maintain a distortion bubble that coddles your ego.
In the shadow of ego, there can be no true compromise in love; this was the third and final lesson that love taught me. And it’s a lesson my wife continues to teach me to this day. Before being married, my ego had nearly blocked out the sun, leaving those closest to me in shadow—a protective measure driven by fear. I had always been first because, before her, no one had ever put me first.
“I love you too much,” she’d say in the years leading up to our marriage.
And I’d always reply, “No. You love me enough.”
Her words terrified me. Not because I felt undeserving of that love, but because it meant that her love for me could displace the needs of her ego at a moment’s notice—a feat of humanity I couldn’t begin to fathom at the time. But eventually, in such gestures of her love, slowly, my ego began to blur and shrink, and the singular focus of my self became unnecessary for survival in the way it was before. She became my keeper, and I, hers.
And so, when the bitterness of love disappointed comes on—as it surely will—do not fret. Instead, remember what lessons love has taught you and smile. For it will be those teachings which prepare you for becoming the person you were always meant to be, and for being with the person who was always meant for you.
Also published on Medium.