Dear Abby,

It’s me, Matthew. You remember? I wrote to you once about the best way to win friends at Christian Camp. You suggested playing miniature golf with people, so I ended making up an invisible friend named Happy, and he always won! I tried to get Happy to go on the tandem ropes course, but the instructor kept insisting that “you’re just one person, kid. Can’t go unless you have a friend.” Happy promised me it wasn’t because of my weight.

Anyway, I need your advice again!

I don’t understand relationships. And I don’t mean this in a complicated, philosophical way, but in the way that color-blind people don’t see the joy of red and green Christmas lights. Enlighten me please, Dear Abby. What is a relationship?

In movies, it’s so easy. For example, do you remember “Beauty and the Beast?” According to the hit animated feature film, a relationship starts once you release a beautiful maiden from a homemade prison, have her talk to your singing kitchen appliances and then turn into a prince.

And when you’re in middle school, relationships also have this kind of simplicity that dies with age. For instance, initiating a relationship was so easy in the seventh grade, when I could ask out my first girlfriend on Instant Messenger:

Mattg711: Hey Hope?

HopeFurst: yes?

Mattg711: Want to go out?

HopeFurst: ok.

Mattg711: Great! Let’s not do any of that nasty stuff.

HopeFurst: …

HopeFurst: …

HopeFurst: what?

Here is a surprise: We had the least physical relationship between any two people since Lot and his wife post-Sodom. But who cares? Because at least there were only two options: I was “going out” with somebody, or I was not. (The breakup, as it turns out, also happened over Instant Messenger, while I was in Colorado for the summer and she was back at home having her friend break up with me over IM.) Life was as simple as a Lisa Frank backpack: direct, spry as a tiger and covered in sparkles.

But my God, something has happened since then. There was some magical relationship rule book that was written and I never got a copy (I am waiting for that book along with my “How to Enjoy Exercise Because It Seems Everyone Else In The World Does But You” pamphlet). Now, it seems, there are stages of dating that you must follow. What are they? I have no f-ing clue. Years of rejection have led me to make up my own list:

1) Flirt Friends — “Hey, I loved sitting by you in Chem today! You’re hair was like Molybdenum!”

2) Flirtation Leads to a Meal — “Wanna share O2 over some Fritos? I know this great bench by the dumpster.”

3) Admitting You Like Each Other — “I can’t say ‘I love you’ because that is too strong, and I sound ridiculous if I say ‘I like you,’ so let’s just pretend we understand our feelings.”

4) Seeing Each Other — “No, no, no: Go ahead and make out with Ralph Jenkins, we are just seeing each other so it’s okay, I can’t get mad.”

5) Dating — “Ralph Jenkins has written these really explicit and nasty things about you on his blog, but I still can’t get mad because we aren’t exclusive. No, I haven’t made out with anyone yet, but thank you for your permission.”

6) Dating Exclusively — “You promise that isn’t true about Ralph?”

7) About to be in a Relationship — “No, no, I understand how powerful of a word ‘girlfriend’ is, I can wait a week or two more for you to mull it over.”

8) Girlfriend/Boyfriend — “Sick nasty, you finally broke down! I can put this shit on my Facebook!”

9) Anxiety — “No, I understand that Facebook is just a joke but it seems a little strong to be engaged to Ralph Jenkins.”

10) Liking The Parents of Your Significant Other More Than You Like the Actual Other Person — “I’ve always liked mature women, Ms. Rhineheart.”

11) Back to step one.

As stupid as it sounds, there comes a point where the relationship itself is overshadowed by whatever the shit you label it. A person can’t just have feelings for someone else and then get to spend time with them, like in a fairy tale. You have to file them away under some clear label so the rest of the world knows what to call you.

Of course, relationships have weighed more heavily upon the mind after having seen the wonderful production of “Summer and Smoke” this past weekend. It is one of those plays that has a plot summary as boring as bleeding to death (“Girl loves guy, guy doesn’t love girl, girl boinks a traveling salesman”), but when you see it — MY GOD, is it good. I could hardly breathe the whole time, although my diaphragm is severely constricted by my waist when I sit. But you’ll never guess what eventually beat this poor woman down: the expectations of her society. She was so f-ing worried about how she would be perceived by others that she never took the time to love the man! And then at the end when she finally did try to win his affection via stethoscope, he had moved on to some little tart of a schoolgirl who was forward enough to admit her feelings right at the get go! THE TWO LOVERS JUST MISSED EACH OTHER! IT WAS THE MOST EPIC OF AWFUL!

And it seems that many of us are doomed just like this poor, poor lady, except we don’t have the aide of absurdly cool dancers to interpret our feelings. If it were up to me, I would forget these stupid labels because all they do is add a third party into a two-person tango. I would just be with someone until I got sick of them. For example, I don’t need to have a relationship with a bag of Cheetos to enjoy the shit out of them. If only people were Cheetos, then we would never need to label anything but could just enjoy until the bag was empty (or until the greasy orange powder ate through the inner layers of our stomachs). My God: What is the point of labeling a relationship anyhoo, except to be justifiably pissed when someone cheats on you?

So I guess I am destined to never understand the rules of dating, my Dear Abby. It seems like everyone else in the world does, which is funny because everyone else in the world insists that they don’t.

Well, at least I will always have Happy. He will always be the ending I can count on, even if he’s only pretend.