A few months ago, I found myself scrolling through The New York Times’ Modern Love column. Of course, I did not actually want to learn anything about love. Like any appropriately ambitious Yale English major, I was researching popular themes of the column in order to decide how to write a submission of my own.
Past winners of the Modern Love essay contest made me feel as if I should condemn technology, become nostalgic for a time of which I have no personal experience and admit that deep down, beneath my feminist bravado, I really do want a good “ole monogamous relationship.” The essays have titles such as “Swearing Off the Modern Man” and “Even in Real Life, There Were Screens Between Us.” They detail the unique heartbreak of label-averse lovers and the disparities between a partner’s online persona and real-life presence. It seemed like my generation was being summoned by the Times to make generic grievances that would satisfy the voyeurism and superiority complexes of Gen X editors. I felt compelled to yearn unquestioningly for simpler times, like a frat boy born in ’95 who wears Reagan-Bush ’84 t-shirts. And yet, for all my frustration with my elders nudging me to lament my place in a world of their creation, what really irked me was not the writers’ interpretation of “modern,” but of “love.”
This summer I had my first love. His name was Trevor, a sweet Midwestern boy who worked in an auto shop. He was at times childish, but what he lacked in maturity he made up in sweetness. We wrote each other letters and made mixtapes and called every day and explored each other’s hometowns. We screamed “Fuck the patriarchy” out of car windows in his conservative neighborhood. At the end of the summer, we decided that long-distance relationships are foolish, but we were the exception and we would make it work. He swore he would want to be with me a month, a year, five years from now. Now he is dating a Trump supporter named Kennedy.
Every step of our relationship was predictable, unoriginal. What couldn’t have been predicted were the difficulties my close friend Grace was going through at the same time, and my utter failure to be there for her. Grace possesses a baffling ability to drop everything to support the people she loves while remaining on top of all her projects. She embodies both fierce independence and unwavering love for her friends. We had been close for about a year when summer plans separated us. Confident in our devotion to our friendship, we promised to stay in touch and remain as inseparable as ever. I upheld my end of the promise for a few weeks before dropping regular contact, so enamored with the first real love of my life that I could not be bothered to make a call.
At the same time that I was gorging myself with affection, Grace was dealing with a personal tragedy few people are strong enough to handle, let alone handle with her level of stoic endurance. I awoke one morning to a Facebook message from her, letting me know what had come to pass.
For the first time in months, I was jarred from my infatuation. I reacted as I would have expected to. I texted back frantically, called other friends and cried on my mom’s shoulder, all the while repeatedly asking her, “Are you okay?” She insisted that yes, she was fine, only exhausted. She just wanted to go to sleep. I told her I loved her and wished her good night. About a week later we never mentioned it again. I never told Trevor what happened — it did not fit into our perfect narrative.
When Grace and I reunited at the end of the summer, it was clear that I had monumentally messed up. She avoided being alone with me. All of my questions about her life were met with one word answers. Neither of us was eager to look the other in the eyes.
If you listen to people describe the romantic love they want, they often use the language of fantasy. They say it is like a fairytale or a dream come true. Of course, there is an understanding that passion fades, and that the relationship will cool down to something that more resembles a close friendship. But in those first few months, everything is magical, rose-tinted, soft at the edges. Even basic tenets of survival such as eating and sleeping don’t seem important.
I approached my first love the same way many people go about curating their online presence. When Trevor mentioned a pet peeve, I made a mental note never to engage in that behavior. If he said he loved a movie, I looked up the plot and casually worked it into conversation. I never let him see me without makeup or a flattering outfit. I got to know my audience and gave him what he wanted. In short, I was a one-woman brand, highlighting the best and most exciting aspects of my life while rarely displaying vulnerability. Even when I was vulnerable, I allowed for only the kind of intimate information that is deemed acceptable in a romantic relationship: vague insecurities about not being good enough and staged embarrassment at the loftiness of my goals.
Grace and I, on the other hand, started our relationship on a decidedly different note. We were at a barbecue with a mutual friend. I had just dropped coleslaw in my lap when I made a joke about boat shoes and the fact that most people who wear them have never been on a boat.
“I wear boat shoes all the time,” said a voice behind me. I turned to face a girl standing over me with shifty eyes and a small, uncomfortable smile — the expression I would soon come to know as her “bullshit” face. Grace.
Our first tactless interaction set the tone for the rest of the friendship. As Grace and I became better friends, there were countless faux pas. I distinctly remember when we first hung out after the barbecue, she tried to jump effortlessly onto a swing and face-planted. Yet against an onslaught of missteps, strange revelations and occasional discomforts, we stumbled toward intimacy.
It was not, however, the kind of homogenizing intimacy I experienced with Trevor. With Trevor, I acted like a mirror. I studied him and did my best to reflect back his beliefs, likes, dislikes and quirks. We passed bits of common ground back and forth, and erased potentially isolating parts of our personalities until the only thing we had in common was each other. Grace and I, on the other hand, broke the ice with an unintended insult and an awkward silence. There was nothing to lose in revealing the less desirable parts of ourselves to each other. We know each other’s disgusting habits, embarrassing stories and least flattering thoughts. Our intimacy was an honest one, an intimacy in which things we could not and would not romanticize were exchanged. Not everything that we shared was reciprocated or even understood by the other, but we trusted one another to listen without judgment, to provide sympathy if not empathy.
My general lack of concern for impressing a platonic friend is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that I am able to be my whole, unedited self. What friends see is what they get. Of course, we all hold back when first getting to know someone, but the milestones of friendship are characterized by authenticity. That time our Uber got a flat and we talked our way into shitty Moscow mules at the nearby bar. The night with the swing. These are things we can’t plan for. There is no three-month mark where you say “I love you,” no anniversaries, no first such and such. We can’t plan for friendship milestones. All we can do is be ourselves in the moment and — if we’re lucky — the milestones are revealed to us. They are not the milestones that are widely documented and romanticized. Oftentimes we only refer to them with meaningful eye contact or a loaded word gasped between shrieks of laughter. But they are perfect in the way only a real shared experience can be, a memory that leaves two separate hearts with exactly the same feeling.
This freedom to be myself does not stem from trust or self-assurance, but a shared understanding that friendships are not as important as romantic relationships. As I scrolled through the responses to the Modern Love prompt, it became increasingly clear that there is a hierarchy of love. People may prioritize familial love or platonic love differently, but almost everyone agrees that romantic love is the ultimate goal. Being in a committed romantic relationship is the ultimate mark of maturity. It is the goal that most of us assume we will achieve, and that many believe is a prerequisite for fulfillment.
We take our friendships for granted because we assume that we will always have them. You rarely hear people talking about breaking up with a friend because we don’t apply the same standards and expectations to friendships as we do relationships. However, as I interacted with Grace after the summer apart, I realized that friendships do require the same commitment we devote to relationships. I had failed her as a friend, and I would not have blamed her if she had broken up with me.
Regardless of whether my romance took place in person or on a screen, it was not real life. It was calculated, curated — a highlight reel that I aimed to keep aesthetically and emotionally pleasing. Our romance was a castle on a cloud, and neither of us wanted to come down to earth and build a foundation. When the infatuation dissipated, there was no underlying friendship to keep us grounded. I know this is not the case with all romantic relationships, but I do believe that a relationship without friendship is no relationship at all.
After a few false starts, Grace and I repaired our friendship. Talking about the ugliness of reality was not pleasant. Our conversations had no place in a happy Hollywood montage, but they eventually gave way to countless moments of laughter, strangeness and spontaneity. I am lucky to say that Grace forgave me — not because I deserved it, but because forgiveness is the truest sign of real love.