I’ve always liked the idea of a Prince Charming. Even when I first understood, as a little girl, that the men my beloved Princesses were falling in love with weren’t real, something about what they represented still impressed me. All of my Barbies would act out stories of the perfect couple riding off into the sunset, soon to be followed by the introduction of toddler-aged Kelly. Even when they wore plain clothes — or were naked, because I had lost their outfits — they were Princes in my view. They were Princes because they treated Barbie well, as though she were the only girl in their little plastic world, and because she loved him.
The thing that I never understood, though, was the storyline that led to the Prince and Princess meeting one another and instantly knowing, in some capacity, that they were destined to be together. The fact that they both started out in respective positions of royalty and desirability rang false to me, as real life consists mostly of relationships constructed over time. I noticed, even in my childhood friendships, that I never instantly found someone who understood or cared about me. It was always part of the bargain that you had to get to know them, and decide what you liked and didn’t like about them, and treat them well enough that they would want to be around you in return.
When I would see my parents, the way they looked at each other seemed to perfectly mirror the looks exchanged between Ariel and Eric, for example — only the latter happened in an instant, whereas my parents found and re-found each other every morning. Some days there were arguments, some days there were silences, but there was always a special thing that existed between the two of them that even five-year-old me could understand. My mother would say, in a girlish voice, that my dad was the most handsome man in the world. When I looked at him as she said this, he seemed that way to me, too. It seemed almost as though her love — her exquisite vision of him — made him into something more than he was on his own.
I find myself quoting him a lot these days, but Jacques Brel always feels relevant, so you’ll have to bear with me. When talking about love and relationships, he said,
We tell little girls that they will find true love. But it’s very rare, true love. Out of, maybe, 100 girls, there are only three or four who were meant to live it, and the same is true for boys. Given those odds, they rarely meet each other — three on one side and three on the other, that’s not much! There are still many young men and women who are raised with the hope of finding Prince Charming. But the Princes are not charming, nor are they Princes. It’s up to love to make them Princes, and charming as well. It’s up to her to do that work, and to him as well. We make our own gifts.
It’s important to stop searching for the kind of Prince we were always sold, I think. It’s important to stop thinking of love as something that happens in a great, almost painful burst, all in the beginning. But I think that the idea of a Charming that you construct, bit by bit, is one of the more great things we can aspire to. There is no reason that the ideals we were given can’t be shaped a bit to reality — instead of rejected wholesale — when we all grew up wanting them so badly. While the idea of just knowing that someone is the one on sight, or falling in love with them over the course of a few particularly effective dates, is silly, the idea of choosing to see the person you love as bigger than their real-life constraints seems wonderful. You can choose, every day, to amplify the qualities you love and accept the ones you don’t so much, to smooth your vision into something that’s as forgiving and compassionate as any human relationship really demands. I know that when my mother looks at my father, she sees a fairy tale Prince in many ways. And that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know who is, it only means that she does the work required to have something great that only the two of them can give to one another.
Like her, I try to remember to remind myself of all the great things my boyfriend does. I try to think about how handsome he is, how kind, how deserving of love. I try to forget about leaving a dirty dish in the sink, or a silly argument about a light fixture. In doing this, he becomes almost more myth than person, an amalgam of all his best qualities. When he helps a little old lady cross the street, or remembers what flavor of ice cream I like most, he adds another facet to the image I have created of him. I look at him, and I only see light. I only see goodness. And I know what my mom meant when she would say that my dad was the handsomest man in the world. To her, he is, and her view is the only one that really counts. Only she can see him as he really is.