Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could take all the best qualities from all your exes and swirl them together and somehow magically make a new person, someone who’s the “greatest hits album” of all your ex-loves? This wasn’t my idea. A friend said this to me. We’re both single. Often when we talk or text on a Monday or Tuesday one of us will mention how they did or did not go out with someone new over the weekend. After a particularly shitty weekend recently, my friend complained about a woman he’s been in on-again/off-again cycle with for a while now. At the end of the story, he asked me how great it would be to find a “greatest hits album.”
I gotta admit, his idea stayed with me the next day. As the question lingered, I daydreamed about what she would be like. But of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone, I had to go and notice all the unspoken emotion underneath my friend’s dream of a “greatest hits album.” Basically, he and I, we’re both tired of making the same mistakes over and over again. He made a great call. No more shitty songs- just the hits! If you’re single, you know. Imagine that person. Just the hits…
But you know what, honestly, how often do you listen to a greatest hits collection? Let’s say, you’re a world-class hipster (with a vintage solid state record player), do you ever bust out a greatest hits collection to play for your snub-nosed friends? Do you ever drop the needle on your vinyl copy of Legend, while you’re by yourself folding your laundry? No. Never. Except for a few rare exceptions, greatest hits collections are lame suck sauce. They’re artificial like sucralose. Most bands recorded an album not singles for a reason, it’s an artistic statement. It may be muttered, garbled and/or ill conceived but it’s a statement. Because we’re human, and such is our lot in life, some of the songs on any album will suck. But you still buy the album. And you learn to live with, perhaps tolerate, maybe even, secretly love the shitty songs, too.
Life is sweet because it’s bittersweet. Like those twin-headed Janus statues found outside the doors of lost ancient temples, Life is best imagined as a two-headed creature. It’s never just one thing, it’s always, always, becoming something else and thus, paradoxically, life is always at least two things. The same as how there are two sides to a coin, there is the pairing of positive and negative electrical polarity, the twin phases of day and night, Life exists in a world where two limits create and define the spectrums for the conditions of life. And here’s something no one told me, it was one of those things about Life and the nature of a spectrum I had to learn from dumb-headed experience:
All your great strengths are also your great weaknesses.
Whatever you consider your leading traits are the very same things that doom you. That’s fucked up. Let’s say, you’re outgoing, socially popular and gregarious, at your worst you could also be domineering, tiring and affected by the opinions of others. Or you’re imaginative and free-spirited, then you might also be creatively paranoid and flighty. Or let’s say you’re mathematical and efficiently logical, chances are you can also be calculating and impersonal, possibly you’ve been told you’re emotionally cold.
Labels are part of our nature. We love applying labels, diagnoses, designations, border properties, these things make us feel like the world makes sense, which of course it does not. As you know, from watching superhero movies, whatever goes up must come crashing down. And thus, all your core strengths are paired with their equal and opposite expressions, your core weaknesses. This certainly throws some shade on the idea of constructing a “greatest hits album” from your exes. Doesn’t it? But it’s such a beautiful dream. Let’s not give up on it just yet.
I once dated a woman who was impossibly close to what I imagined as a personal “greatest hits album.” She was spontaneous like a teenager who just got her driver’s license, equally brilliant as she was capricious, endowed with the sort of mind that shines through darkness and fog like a searchlight, and she was giggly and effervescent in the sort of way you only really see in Beach Blanket bikini films. She was also equally erratic, prone to moodiness that blotted out the shine from her eyes, and she could be as unreasonable as a parking meter cop who already started writing out the ticket.
Some folks reading this might think she suffered from some mental imbalance, chemical or otherwise, and I’m in no place to dispute such laptop diagnoses, but she was no darker or more imbalanced than anyone else I’ve known. She just expressed herself in a way far more unfiltered than most others. She was comfortable being obstinate or shitty about an issue that didn’t ultimately matter, but at that moment mattered a great deal to her. It was her way of being in the moment, and at times she took this to its worst logical conclusion.
She’d fight for an illusory gain in the moment then almost immediately get mad as time stomped steadily past. In many ways, she was stuck in the eternal present. That’s all she knew or trusted. They say seize the day. She took that shit hostage. And the thing is, all the qualities about her that I found so curiously enjoyable, all the reasons why I longed to spend time with her, they were all inextricably tied up with all the aspects I didn’t enjoy. You couldn’t separate out the good from the bad. I don’t think you ever can.
Another woman I dated, equally passionate, she possessed a very similar fire, we understood each other’s intensity without much conversation about it. She entered the world armed with a lifelong attitude of defiance. She expected to fight for whatever she wanted. She was also one of the most caring and concerned people I know; the sort of person who feels great pain at the sight (or imagined sight) of someone else’s suffering. She had great wells of empathy. I admired that about her.
She was also mule-headed stubborn. Her lifetime of defiance made partnership with her a dream forever unattainable, it was spoken of in glowing terms, and even imagined as part of some shared future, yet fundamentally remained impossible. Her ready fount of empathy meant she spent little time concerning herself with how she felt. She was blindsided by her own emotional outbursts, jealousies, or sudden strong convictions. The full spectrum of her kindness ranged to the far ends of a meanness that taught me the nicest people you know can also be the nastiest. In the end, our emotional spectrums didn’t really match. She was both nicer and meaner than I am. You probably know someone like this- someone who outranges you in both directions.
My first serious girlfriend was, as they say in Boston, “wicked smaht.” Our relationship was colored with all the typical flourishes of uninhibited college youth. We were often dumb, drunk and dramatic. Like, one time she winged a plate, and followed it with two glasses and then a picture frame (that I’d made), all hurled at me from across a room. I still remember exactly how it felt, the crystalline jagged-edged rain against my shoulders. I wasn’t too worried because her aim was so bad. She kept hitting the wall just above me or somewhat near me. But it wasn’t just her. We were both young, dramatic and love-stupid. After a different drunken fight over who-was-talking-to-who at a party, I stripped naked, crawled out of her bedroom window, and since it was cold I ran home naked. It seemed like the perfect statement at that moment.
We weren’t always like that. In the morning, we were still madly in love, in a way that makes you feel like you’ve finally found a kindred spirit who wants to run around the world and just play and make love in strange beds. She was adventurous. She was bright-eyed and curious. She was self-assured from an early lifetime of accomplishments and the vague assumption she’d continue to kickass at whatever she tried. In many ways, she’s the stamp for all the women who followed her. They’re all reiterations of her, I guess. Considering it that way certainly supports my friend’s notion of a “greatest hits album.”
Sadly, my first serious girlfriend became an ex for all the same reasons I just mentioned. Her emotional unpredictability eventually confused me and I pulled away. I couldn’t imagine a future with her. Her adventurousness and curiosity masked an equally flighty quality, our combined irresponsibility was an indicator of how we were living without consequences, which totally helped create a crazy-fun artificial reality. We were two kids playing at adult love. But ones who loved each other with adult sized passion. It was like we were trying on outfits too big for us, with all the zeal of kids playing make-believe.
The lasting and delicate beauty of our relationship was how well we fit each other’s broken places. Everywhere she was weak I was strong and everywhere I was weak she was strong. And we were equally intelligent, never having to explain ourselves or cite our cultural references, we were equally empathetic to others and concerned about ourselves, we had the same desire for independence and partnership, intuiting our rhythms of separation and togetherness. Unfortunately, our time was too soon.
More than eyeballing all your potential mates to see if they’re someone who shows signs of certain qualities or looking under the hood to see if they posses key aspects you desire, perhaps seek out indications of their emotional spectrum. See if you understand their full range. Find out if they’re someone whose loving words tease your ears as much as their angry words or dark silences make sense to you. Studies have shown a major risk to romantic relationships, possibly more important than the big three: money, faith and child-rearing; is how you and your partner argue. If you fight using the same style (like two kung fu badasses), you’re far more likely to weather the shit-storms of life together. Life is made sweeter when your partner complements you.
If you find someone who fits your broken places, if you understand their emotional range and you argue using similar styles… congratulations, you have won relationship bingo. This is what romantic comedies mean when their characters say lines like “You complete me,” or “You make me want to be a better man.” According to ancient Greek comedies, corroborated by our latest scientific studies, this is the archetypal dynamic of the best partnerships.
As much as I liked my friend’s notion we need to find “greatest hits albums” of all our exes, I guess, the way I see it, since you, me, him, them, everybody, we’re all dented, singed and bruised, way more than a “greatest hits album,” I want to find someone who’s my favorite album. You know what I mean? The album that makes you ugly-cry, the one you love all the songs even the shitty ones, the one that you need/want to be there with you for any long drive because you fucking love it. I want to find a woman who’s bittersweet and who makes me wanna be a better man. The sort of woman who makes a man wanna dance.