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It’s Not You, It’s Me

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I’ve always been big on romantic fantasy.

I’m not just talking about daydreams of passionate encounters. I’m talking about whole relationships I construct in my head. Maybe with someone I see on the subway, or with the friend of a friend whose name I can’t remember ten minutes after I meet him. It doesn’t take much. I’m shaking his hand and already I can tell you about the apartments we’ll share, and the breakfasts we’ll eat on patios, and the walks and arguments and jokes and boredom and secrets. I can tell you how our blankets will smell.

Fantasies don’t have to come from a place of embitterment or dissatisfaction. They can be playful explorations of the relationship we have with ourselves. If we wear them lightly, revel in their silliness, they can keep us on our toes, open us up to change coming from other quarters.

You can tell a lot about my mental state from the kinds of fantasies I’m having. And that’s because I’m not sure these fantasies have much to do with other people. Generally, the romantic partners are props. Set dressing. Generic background for a process of working out my relationship with myself. That may sound depressing: after all, shouldn’t we be dreaming about profound connections with full-blooded human beings? That my fantasies have so little to do with real people is a good thing, though, I think. If they don’t harden into too serious a fixation, elaborate romantic fictions can be a nice complement to the negotiations and uncertainties that exist between real partners. If we’re silly enough in our imaginative lives, we’re open; and not just to daydreams—to other people, too.

When I say that my fantasies can be a way of working out my relationship with myself, I mean that they can provide clues to what I feel, deep down, I’m missing. Sometimes they’re an expression of discontent; other times they’re an exploration of possibility.

Here’s an example of a discontent-based fantasy. A few years ago, I might have gone crazy dreaming about someone who looks like this. Oh boy. The life I’d have with him. I’d work less. I’d dress well. I’d sleep late and pad down to breakfast with a dozy smile on my face. I’d spend afternoons idling in a café with a newspaper and an espresso. We’d spend our evenings jetting from one glamorous party to another. Speeding along a mountain road in the backseat of a car, talking about art and cities in Europe and sex.

I’d say it’s a fantasy born in discontent because it describes a life that has nothing to do with the life I’m living now. I’m a different me. I’m pretty, well-dressed, suave… I go to lots of parties, and start conversations with wit and finesse. I don’t stand in corners and pretend to do things on my flip-phone. I don’t wear what I’ve worn all this summer: cut-offs with a hole in the crotch. There’s crankiness there. A sour dissatisfaction with my life as it is. It’s easy for such a fantasy to tip into over-serious longing, and from there into frustration.

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Skip ahead to the last year or so, to a fantasy that feels more like a cheery dip into the Wouldn’t-It-Be-Nice River. I go to a movie starring this guy, and during the credits I’m already dreaming of a shared life unfolding, me and Gael. This time, though, it’s less extravagant. Less like a piece of clothing I’d never get the courage to wear. It’s… comfortable. I get up early every morning and go for a walk. The sun’s just burning the mist off the lake. I return with a handful of wildflowers for the kitchen table, then settle down to write. The kids play with yarn and wooden toys on the rug. Two big dogs are sleeping in the corner. Nights, Gael and I cook together, and then, under a bright wool blanket, on our screened-in porch, we listen to the crickets and watch the stars.

After all, the people we share our lives with will change us, too. They will shift the rhythms of our days. They will dislodge our habits. Like second imaginations, they will draw us into unfamiliar territory.

There’s a difference, right? The self I see living with Gael isn’t far off from the self I live with every day. The circumstances are a bit preposterously nice, Gael García Bernal is still Gael García Bernal (which is to say, unattainable), and there’s a little magicking away of rent-money realities. But all in all, the universe just conspires to let me live a calm, settled life, doing what I know I already love to do. In the Fu’ad fantasy, I’ve reworked my whole persona in specific ways. In the Gael fantasy, I could be exactly who I am now – or not. But I certainly haven’t registered a list of desired modifications. I’m just savoring a slightly decadent “what if…?” and speculating about what kind of life, what kind of self, might follow.

But what happens when we wake up to our real lives, and find ourselves with a real person as a partner? You could argue that a habit of living in elaborate fantasies gets in the way of meaningful interpersonal connections. A lover isn’t a sofa you pick out to match the carpet. A real lover is a person, with his own habits, and discontents, and private pleasures. We can’t succumb to the temptation to convince ourselves that our partner is a known quantity, changeless and predictable. One writer who strikes me as wise has said that “People become real to us by frustrating us; if they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy.”

I understand the worry, then, that fantasy can hobble our efforts at mature human connection. The key, I think, is remembering that fantasies are things we have on our own, and relationships are things we have with other people. Fantasies don’t have to come from a place of embitterment or dissatisfaction. They can be playful explorations of the relationship we have with ourselves. If we wear them lightly, enjoy their silliness, they can even open us up to change from unexpected quarters.

A lover isn’t a sofa you pick out to match the carpet. A real lover is a person, with his own habits, and discontents, and private pleasures.

Fixate on one or two fantasies, rooted too deeply in discontent, and they get too serious too fast. They grump us up on our friends and family. They curdle the flavor of our daily lives. We start to relate to the person on the other side of the bed as a character in the story we’d rather not be living. He becomes a fixed image of what he once was, or of what we always hoped he might be. We make him responsible for the gap between our wish and his reality.

That isn’t fair.

With a real partner, I have to do my best to listen, and to stay open to the unexpected – to ways of being that may have never crossed my mind, or occupied my fantasy life. After all, the people we share our lives with will change us, too. They will shift the rhythms of our days. They will dislodge our habits. Like second imaginations, they will draw us into unfamiliar territory.

So – here’s to fantasy. He’s to the hypothetical, especially when the hypothetical is silly. He’s to imagining extravagant possibilities for our own lives. But here’s also to meeting someone for the first time, looking in his eyes, and not deciding right away that I know what’s twinkling behind them. Maybe I’ll hold his gaze – for a week, for a month, for a year, for a decade. Maybe both of our lives will change. And maybe the self I become can be as inscrutable and intriguing to the self I am as, in this moment, each of us is to the other.

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