Don’t worry. This isn’t another sad pitiful tale of woe. I wouldn’t do that to you. This is about one of those unavoidable moments in life when you’re just minding your own business and Life decides to take a piss in your Cheerios. It happens. My man, Waylon Jennings, once sang, “Women have been my trouble since I found out they weren’t men.” And like Waylon I’ve known a constant sea of trouble when it comes to love. I’ve learned it’s best if you laugh about what pains you because your other options are far worse. Life is awfully funny. It’s terribly humorous. The best trick to learn is how to laugh at dark comedy.
I said this just the other day to an intelligent, rather beautiful and adventurous woman I met. She was funny and gifted with a wide-ranging mind filled with equal parts curiosity and strong opinions, the type of woman I find charming. We flirted awhile, but I was dumbstruck when she straight up asked why I don’t have a girlfriend. I told her Life’s just funny that way. She asked what kind of women I like. That’s when I told her the real reason I don’t have a girlfriend. The woman I’ve waited for was an ocean away.
Usually, it was the Atlantic that separated us, but at the moment it was the Pacific. She was traveling. The woman asked about her, I told her the story and then she said this far-away girl was missing out. With an unmistakable flare of her eyes, meant to be sexy, and it was, she reiterated she thought I was rather perfect for a boyfriend and then repeated how she just couldn’t believe I was single. Normally, when I see this sort of behavior I know it’s a clear indication the person is suffering from a head wound, perhaps dangerously low blood sugar or they have a very odd and low standard for “perfect.” I thanked her and admitted her my heart still belonged to the far-away girl despite the numerous attempts I’d made to be free of her. Then I grinned and told her I still appreciated the compliment. In a different world…
And that’s the universe for you. It’s all about timing. Had I met this woman just two days later, ours would’ve been a much different story. And that’s why I laughed till I wanted to bust open when, the very next morning, I saw… the picture.
I’d gone to the beach to go surfing and was waiting for the waves to pick-up. They were slow little peelers breaking close to shore. I figured I could snap a few pics of birds and funny trash like the one hot pink high heel left behind in the parking lot. I opened Instagram to upload a picture. Bam! It was the third image I saw as I slid my thumb across the screen. My thumb stopped. My breathing stopped. The sound of the birds stopped. It was a black and white photo of a restaurant kiss, romantic and spontaneous. And it hit me in the gut like a heavyweight boxer’s punishing fist.
I focused on the salty sting of the ocean breeze in my nostrils. My body works better when my lungs are full of sea air. Maybe it’s the ions- who knows. I took a deep and even breath. Calmed my mind like a Shaolin monk. I thought of nothing but the seaweed stink in my nose. It’s a scent that feels heavier than the rest. This is what you do when your mind is blown. You contemplate seaweed.
I sat down where dry sand met the wet edge of the continent. What started out like a punch now felt like someone with an old-fashioned hand mixer was slowly, violently, whipping up some scrambled eggs in my gut. How could anyone get so worked up over a stupid picture of a kiss? It’s not a wedding announcement. It’s just a kiss.
The worse part was, it was a cool picture. Aesthetically, I liked it. Her hand wrapped around his neck, tenderly, him leaning into her, shot by someone from across a small table in a restaurant late at night, and they were framed in the softly lit romantic setting. As beautiful a joined figure as they were, it was exactly proportional to how much it twisted my heart. But you know I stared at it. How could I not? Wouldn’t you? For a long moment, I let the image slice across my eyeballs like some graceful figure skater carving up a lonely Minnesota practice rink at 5 a.m. It was painful beauty.
Then, I realized I’d have to so something. I’d have to react. It’s bad enough I had to see it but now the image was part of my life story. Fuuuuck me. I was faced with two options: the choice to either like or not like this picture. And obviously, I mean “like” as in the social media sense. A web works both ways. Like a trapped fly you send signals across a web and silence also sends a message.
Who could possibly expect me to “like” that picture? I may be sensitive as fuck, but I’m still a man and there’s no way in hell I could bring myself to “like” a picture of some other guy kissing her. Yet, we were friends. We’d worked out a rather odd friendship with a question mark over our future. I care about her greatly. I want to see her happy. But we weren’t ever romantically involved. So she didn’t need to apologize or justify the picture to me. She knows how I feel about her and how a picture like this would make me feel. So… as her friend, am I stoked for her? Should I be the bigger man and all that jazz? Or as a wounded creature do I slink off to die alone in the shadows where no one can see me?
My finger hovered over the tiny heart inside a dialog bubble that’s the “like” icon on Instagram. Oh look, more irony. A red heart as a message. Mine was busy working overtime just to hold itself together. What a terrible moment of digital indecision. Is this what life has come to? This is fucking ridiculous!
Being a guy I don’t like to stop and think about how to externalize my emotions in things like social media “likes.” I tend to express my emotions sloppily and all at once like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. I burn with passion. But I caught hold of myself- she’d already seen too much of my passion.
Do I transcend my own bullshit and “like” that she looks so romantically happy? Or do I go with my male response of a slow, “Fuuuck…,” followed by silence?
I could hear the tiny voice inside trying to shout over all the other emotional noise raging in me: When you really and truly care about someone, you want to see them happy, even if it isn’t with you. She looked very happy. It was a good-looking kiss.
Irony forced a laugh from my throat as I stared at the picture. A memory flashed. I was almost on this summer trip. She’d asked me if I wanted to meet her and travel together through Mexico. We’d spend some IRL time together rather than rely on the internet. I told her sure. We made a tentative plan. She was still arranging her travels with a girlfriend, and it kinda seemed like she was trying to squeeze two trips into one. Later, their plans changed from Mexico and the Caribbean to going to China and Southeast Asia. I thought, “Well… what’s a little while longer?” I figured I could fly over and meet her in the autumn after she returned home. It seemed she was finally ready for romance after her bad break up with her ex-boyfriend.
You think you know which decisions will alter the course of your life. What college you attend and what neighborhoods you decide to live in will matter a great deal. But it’s also those small weird decisions like “Mexico or Hong Kong?” those are the ones that often give your life its real shape. And often those decisions give someone else’s life shape as well. If only they picked Mexico. What then? We’ll never know.
In the picture she looked quite stoked with her choice. I laughed again. She was indeed ready for some romance. I have no idea about their future, obviously. It could be a travel romance that doesn’t last much past her return home, or it could be a beautiful love story’s first chapter, all I know is it looked like a very special moment. Part of me wanted to tell her I was stoked for her. And part of me wanted to fling my phone into the waves and cuss about how the guy looked like a boring pretty boy. And I wish I were the guy who could be supremely cool with it all. I’m not there yet. I’m the guy who works hard to overcome pride, stubbornness, and arrogance. This time I didn’t make it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t “like” the picture. That just felt masochistic.
The moment melted away. I slid my thumb to pull up other pictures. Wouldn’t you know it- she also posted a picture of her at the beach, posed on a rock like the famous Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. Damnit! She totally knows how much I love the ocean and mermaids. I’d be a liar if I didn’t “like” that picture. My silence would send a message. It was like a friendship test. I wondered how anyone can be emotionally honest in our modern social nets. I laughed at my fate as I hit “like” on the picture of her posing like the Little Mermaid.
These moments of digital deliberation are now part of how we externalize our emotions. What were once messages secreted back and forth by carrier pigeons, letters conveyed in the saddlebags of the pony express, cables from the telegraph, and eventually long distance phone calls, text messages, emails, it’s all been boiled down to a “like” button. You can send a rather detailed message to someone you care about with just a social media “like.”
She always told me I looked at love too naively, too romantically, that I imagined happy endings and love conquering all, ignoring the fact those are clichéd confections. I don’t care. I still believe in people falling in love from great distance and in sudden surprising beautiful romances. I’m a writer. In order to avoid one of our greatest occupational hazards, I quit using cynicism to get me through the day. But, as she knows, I’m still rather new to communicating in such raw, honest and loving language. It often comes out sounding sweet like I’m some love-struck teenager. She liked to tell me my view of love doesn’t match how life works. That it isn’t realistic. But what I know that she doesn’t know is, Life is funny. So that’s why she’s the one who got struck by romantic lightning. She made fun of my naïve sense of romance- until it happened to her. (Hey Alanis Morissette, that’s ironic!)
I guess we both got schooled by life. She learned with her lips why believing in romance isn’t bullshit or cheesy. It can happen anytime and anywhere- you never know. And I learned how to love in a more adult way. I hated that moment, seeing the beautiful picture of their kiss. But to see her look so happy and tender, after being hurt for so long, balanced out the shock of my pain.
I took a deep breath, stared at the sea and let the salt water cure me. I tossed our romantic dream onto my pile of growing memories and moved along. You may call me naïve, or a hopeless romantic; but I’d say I’m more like a 50-50 romantic. It happens. Or it doesn’t. Either way, life rolls on like the swells of the Pacific. If this wave isn’t for you, then maybe the next one is.