Has it ever, in the history of Real People, been a good idea to mend old, wretched, unrequited love? Real People are not people in stories. Things don’t work out for Real People the way things work out in love stories. A packaged ending does not neatly appear before Real People. The last sentence of a love story might be their expression of a love that never died, and fade out to a description of the sun setting, the street slowing down, his face betraying some glimmer of a shared emotion and hope for the future. This is a beautiful finale for a love story! Wouldn’t the reader prefer one of these stories? Go away. Leave this tragic tale aside. Leave it to crumble or blow away or wait for the language to die so that nobody else need be subject to whatever you will find at the end of this story. Go read your story with the beautiful ending, when the man leans over to kiss the girl and the last rays of sun sparkle in a show of silent fireworks. Sadly, Real People are left standing in the street as a possum scurries under a car, a man hocks a glob of spit on the sidewalk, facing an old flame who, in the dimming sunlight, was easily confused as bearing a tender expression. But now in the drooping darkness a Real Person can see that the expression on his face was disgust and pity all along. A confession of this caliber is best done as the Real Person pitches herself off a high peak and shouts their admission to the old lover over one shoulder, so as to never face the consequence and total shame of clinging to a love for someone who doesn’t love them back.
The reader can think of many stories that feature unrequited love as a central theme, a literary ‘carrot-on-the-stick’ to drive the reader towards the answer to the question ‘will they or won’t they?’ This happens to Real People too, but in Real Life, it is neither comedic nor tragic, but it is very messy and rarely resolved in a satisfying way. Real People must choose a life of sorrowful remembrance, to fill the void with someone who will treat them good and kind. Or the Real Person will take the alternate route, which leads them right into the path of the old flame, where there is opportunity for confrontation and confession. Or they can go to jail. Real People understand the aftermath of a passionate speech, which would be so romantic if followed by a deep physical fusion between the two, but could also result in a lawsuit.
But this is not the Real Person we’re dealing with. This Real Person has goals, ambition. She is not dumb. She is merely conflicted. And you, my reader, are in charge of the outcome of this story.
The Real Person is the person in this story. She has her life somewhat together, like a Real Person who survives heartbreak would. She is not some two-dimensional character with three or four descriptive eccentricities, like the way she rakes her flyaways back on her head when she is anxious, or likes the feel of pins and needles in her hand when she sleeps holding her breast, out of habit. What kind of Real Person would she be if the author told the reader she orders almond squares from the bakery and scrapes off the slivered nuts before eating, seeking out the gooey texture of the pastry and not the almonds themselves? Perhaps positioning the reader to empathize and relate to her in ways predestined by the author is not fair for this character. She is a Real Person, and you can decide her best and worst qualities.
For the sake of narrative ease, the reader may choose the name of a woman they loved once and now find absolutely contemptible in every way. This will give the reader a chance to reevaluate their conceptions about the Real Person as they come to love her again, or at least acknowledge her imperfections as part of a greater, more complete whole. Her name will also create empathy for the character of the man she once loved, because the reader will be in the position of the man she confronts at the end of the story. Do whatever you want. But the name you assign her should be the most loaded name for a woman you can think of, a name that makes your heart quiver with a strong emotions—any strong emotion, really, because emotions that are brought up to their absolute peak resemble other emotions that, on a lower end of the emotional gauge, are the total opposite of the one you feel. Try it. Give this Real Person a name.
So which is it? Who is she? Is her name Miriam, or Jane, or Rachel, or Taylor, or Rue, or Hua, or Prophecy, or Paige, or Ming, or Donna, or Katarina, or Ash, or Jess, or Bette, or Susan, or Mona, or Louise? Have you said the name aloud, to make sure you are not giving this Real Person a name that peels off your tongue like a bitter leaf? Right now the reader probably feels many things for the character with the same name as a woman in their life, among these feelings is a deep respect for the authors craft and manipulation of the readers mind, an admiration for bringing up a painful past in a graceful way. What a gift! The Real Person in this story will bear the name of the woman whom the reader feels little charity towards, a cause to donate their passing affection to when the mind gets bored with something else. Now that she has a name, practice saying her name to yourself until the hard edge of your contempt softens a little.
Close your eyes and remember clearly who she was.
One day she disappears. Your Real Person stops being real to you and she becomes a character. I can’t tell you how it happens. She becomes a character you can point to and describe in one or two dreary sentences what it was like to watch her try on a sweater, or drive you around with sunglasses on, her arm stuck out the window. She becomes a puppet hanging off strings, dressed in signature clothes you will always remember her wearing, but the animation is gone. She hangs on her strings, suspended above your stage in the shadows until you recall a quality about her which is starting, in your memory, to fade. Recall her now, and the puppet springs to life! Her dancing legs carry her across the stage, waving wildly for your attention. All she wants now is a space in the sunshine of your memory, where she can live on in tact, mended at the busted seams and in her party clothes, in the wan spotlight where you will always be sort of thinking about her.
So that this story does not address the authors own case of unrequited love—a story nobody wants to read—let’s switch over to our Real Person and see what she thinks of the whole sappy matter. She wrinkles her nose at the bunch of cilantro glistening under the sprinklers of the market. Light bulbs, she heard once, are different in supermarkets. There are special light bulbs that make red apples look redder, green kale shine in verdant splendor, all thanks to the coating of the light bulb above. She tilts her head to the ceiling, distinguishes glows from the bulbs she thinks differ from each other over the pineapples, the oranges and garlic. She picks off a rotted brown leaf and stuffs the cilantro into a plastic bag. It has been five years since her heart broke, and then the two pieces that used to fit together changed shape and sizes, never to press up against the other flush again. What she feels she has now are two distinct hearts, one that grew and evolved and became more complete, pounding at her chest like a cannonball shot over and over. With this heart, she moved forward, got the blood flowing again, picked herself up and started over. This heart is the heart she uses to love herself, to love others, which took a lot of practice. This is a strong and powerful heart and the love in her life now proves it. This heart is a hard-won heart, and this heart refuses to be broken again. Now, when she carries love around inside her, it must pass a rigorous test of loyalty to be admitted beyond the heart’s iron walls.
But even when she could feel the full force of the love this strong heart produced, the love was never complete. The second, smaller heart, the one she lost in the detritus and mud of an intense love that suddenly ended, beat too. Anyone can learn to live with two hearts. The second heart is not all that helpless, really. The second heart lives in secret messages. It has sprouted roots and grown a coarse skin around it, like a beet in a garden, throbbing underground. With tendrils in the dirt, her second heart soaks up the clues of everyday life and interprets them as secret messages to broadcast to the steely other heart, a plea to soften her, to fall in love recklessly again. Hidden information leads our Real Person around the city, tugging at the leash of her second heart. What our Real Person sees is a beat up paperback, but what her second heart sees is a message from the past. The Real Person is fed up with her second heart sometimes, wishing the heart would begin to see the world as logical and indifferent rather than sentimental. But, any Real Person knows it is necessary for at least part of them to be hopelessly romantic, even if the romance lives inside them alone. It’s one of our riddles.
At home, our Real Person unpacks the paper sack of fruits and vegetables, now somewhat dull under her home lighting, made homogenous by the flat glow of the kitchen bulb. She falls back on the couch and sighs, slips her shoes off her feet so her warm socks cool under the breeze of the slowly turning fan above. She picks a magazine off the windowsill from atop a pile of torn envelopes and leafs through the thin pages. She stops at Contemporary Arts and Culture, intrigued by the image of a huge green snake with yellow eyes staring vacant into the camera. The sculpture is seven feet tall, carved from stone and coiled menacingly around a warped Earth. She reads the caption. It’s you.
Her stomach falls. In the warm sack of fluids in her abdomen, breakfast bubbles and churns. She runs to the bathroom and vomits, the dairy curds fill up the toilet bowl, clenched up in the cold water from the temperature change. She wipes her mouth on her arm, leaving a snail trail of milky slime that pastes her hairs down to the skin. She stumbles back to the magazine and throws it in the trash, then removes it from the trash and throws it in the recycling. She needs fresh air, or to lie down, or both. Outside, in her socks, she sits on the porch in the shade and waits for the trees in her vision to steady themselves against the earthquake in her mind. Her minor heart bloats with secret messages.
You, the artist, are in town for a show. You have come back to torment her, to smear your success across her window of sanity. She wants to extract herself, to squeeze out of the city before it closes in. To hop in a car or plane before you arrive with your art and posse in tow, with your svelte girlfriend from some beautiful Caribbean island. Or maybe from Los Angeles. Nope. She should get out, get on the highway and go stay with her parents ten hours north, sleep until noon in the guest room and take up with dull but moderately handsome boys from her high school who work for Allen-Bradley and play in a ping-pong league on weekends. Here, she should find herself drinking big glasses of red wine and watching the convoy of fishing boats return from the lake, patched with discolored paint from the polluted waters at the edge of a collage campus, where the fishing is bad but the chance to impress girls is good. The Real Person with the name you gave her should find old photographs of her parents, standing beside a bicycle under a palm tree, or leaning out of a Cadillac to pet a Saint Bernard, photographs from before she was born, or maybe shortly after. She imagines this world in the photographs and longs to be dropped from the sky, from the time she is living in, and begin fresh in a time and place where the events in her life did not add up the way they did. It’s a silly idea.
Instead of all this, our Real Person makes a pot of rice and watches a TV show called When We’re Gone about the plants and animals that take over earth when humankind dies out. She sprinkles soy sauce and parmesan cheese on her rice and thinks about the last surviving human, how part of her is kind of jealous.
Night arrives. Our Real Person isn’t dumb. She understands there is love and there is Love. This kind, she thinks, the kind that makes her vomit, is Love. But the thing about Love is this: it changes, mutates like her two hearts, and one day feels the same as Hate. Just like you, reader, must have felt when you gave her a name. When opposite strong emotions converge, they feel pretty similar. Real Person is not interested in starting the process over again, but she imagines a chance to finally close a door and rest her little heart for a much deserved eternal sleep. She lays down in bed, chest pressed against the mattress. Before she curls into her favorite position, she listens to her two hearts beat softly against the mattress. The mattress is a drum. Her heart is a hand that taps the drum.
The day comes when she decides to confront you. She tells everyone so she will actually do it. Her therapist says this is a bad idea. Her mother says this is a bad idea. Her girlfriend says “who?” Her big heart says “please don’t” but her little heart, the stupid one, says “hooray!” Her dog looks back at her and thumps his tail. She puts her face in his neck and tells him exactly what she is going to do. He groans and lays down. He is never sure when she is being serious anyway. The day arrives and our Real Person has second thoughts. She paces the room. She drinks too much coffee. She takes a shower and turns the water all the way to cold. By the end of the day, she has prepared what she wants to say. She looks decent, too. It’s not something you would have picked out for her, but you barely know her anymore, so you don’t have a choice. Go ahead and imagine her now in a nice outfit that you would not have chosen.
Here we go, reader. This is your Real Person we’re talking about. She’s about to take a leap off a high peak and land on her feet or on her face. Here we are in the gallery, with the green snake from the magazine magnetically pulling the crowd of people into its pee-yellow eyes. The person Real Person is about to approach is you. Now you must imagine your best outfit, your most attractive friends, your most winning smile, and go stand by a piece of art you are proud of. Be brilliant and modest. Everyone is here for you. Real Person takes the last gulp of wine. She feels like an athlete, ready to sprint the long track, to run ahead at top speed as her peripheral vision blurs out the crowd. Her flyaways have gone rogue again and she rakes them back into place with one hand. They spring right back up.
Bear with me, reader. It’s almost time.
Say her name. Just for practice. Say it with a smile as she approaches you, awkwardly at first, then something in her step changes and she regains confidence, a confidence you saw in her when you first met at that party. You imagine Real Person in the same plaid brown skirt and thrift store white top she was wearing the night you met. How young you both were as the room swirled around you! How dear it was to conceive an origin story there, at some party, when both of you started a whirlwind ride with no clear end. Maybe I’ll tell that story next. Or better yet, I’ll let you tell it. As the sun leaves behind a periwinkle sky, Real Person comes forwards, looks into your eyes, and speaks.
Real Person says something you never thought you would hear, something that fills you with one of the emotions that fits right back into the space she left, in your own heart, your own life, like a puzzle piece.
She said it. You heard her. Don’t ask her to repeat it.
The room moves to give you space. It’s your story now.
What do you say back?