Some months ago, one of those 1.5x speed, flailing late night conversations life sometimes grants us produced an epiphany and that is – you can’t be both a Fuccboi and a Zaddy. To refresh on the etymologically recent but spiritually ancient concept of the Zaddy: a Zaddy is an attractive, (almost always) older man who is not necessarily a father but gives off that innate aura of responsibility. Do you ever think it would be kind of hot to be sternly told to get your shit together? A Zaddy is the type of person who could fulfill that fantasy. This is not to say that all Zaddies are good partners. I think the dark side of a Zaddy romance is probably be a man who doesn’t cede enough emotional territory, is patronizing in an unsexy way, or makes you feel messy and small. I mean, I am messy and small, but come on. I am already tired of typing the word Zaddy but I will forge on!
Golden joy, silver sorrow/everything so far/for your sake, for love’s sake alone/let’s empty these two bowls
So ends the baleful, synthed-out theme song to the 1991 anime Brother, Dear Brother as images of carriages, antique clocks, and parasols fade off the screen. The scene is set for something sweeping and operatic, the kind of story where destined love must overcome war, class divides, or even death. It’s a fair expectation from a Riyoko Ikeda story and director Osamu Dezaki, the same combination on The Rose of Versailles, which had all of that stuff. Then the first episode starts and it’s about…Nanako, an everyday 16-year-old, and her first day of high school. Brother, Dear Brother dares to establish a setting where the chasm between epic romance and mundane teenage life isn’t that wide. It may not exist at all. The characters’ minor dramas – being slighted by the school’s most exclusive clique, low grades on midterm exams – are placed up against dark secrets, mysterious terminal illnesses, and the kind of unrequited love that can destroy lives.
I have a weakness for art that is overblown, baroque, and unafraid to lean into its Too Muchness. My fondness for melodrama is because it actually touches me. Especially resonant nuggets of truth about the human condition are often at the heart of the biggest, heaviest-handed stories. When a character in Brother, Dear Brother is compared to a historical prince, we are rewarded with a freeze frame her dressed as a royal and surrounded by fluttering cherry blossoms. Anger and conflict are punctuated by sudden storms, lightning highlighting wide-eyed expressions. The protagonist’s crush actually has a rose in her teeth at one point. It’s all ridiculous. And very charming. Most of all, it conjures a world of female adolescence that forces the audience to live in its visceral experience instead of gawking at teen drama or hiding behind cynicism.
The Affair has relied heavily on drowning and ocean metaphors since its pilot in 2014. Its moody opening credit footage of crashing water fit the rustic landscape of Montauk and set the mood to think about the capricious and overwhelming nature of lust and love. In its four seasons, almost every character has cheated or imploded their relationships in some way, but When Fiona Apple sang “there’s only one thing I can do and that’s be the wave that I am/and then sink back into the ocean” I always had the sense that those lines, or maybe the song in general, were about Alison. Alison who starts the story defined by a literal drowning – the death of her toddler son. A woman who is afraid of the ocean, but is treated as a siren by most of the men in her life. I started watching The Affair to pass time, and because I’m drawn to stories and discussions of infidelity. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved or feel so seen by a character, but Alison has come to be very special to me.
**spoilers for the latest season of The Affair**
I just finished the fourth and latest season and while it expanded far beyond the actions of its original affair and into overly soapy territory, I couldn’t look away. Even at its worst the disastrous orbit of these characters – the “main” couple but also betrayed spouses, children, and new relationships – was bleakly addictive. Most importantly for me, Alison remained the emotional heart of the story. Her extreme choices and darkest turns never felt contrived and campy so much as tragic. No main character hated themselves more or tried harder to have a purpose; to be understood, loved, and chosen. As you may have seen in entertainment headlines lately, Ruth Wilson has left the cast. In the show, this meant the fourth season climaxed in Alison’s death. She never got to rewrite her narrative as she wanted. Her story, in her own words at least, is now over, but I imagine she’ll be on my mind for a long time.
Next month I’ll be 27. This isn’t a number I’m too thrilled about. Plenty of older people rush to call me young if I verbalize my discomfort, but not as many as in past years. It’s too close to 30 to have many excuses anymore, but I feel like I only stopped being a child in the last, oh, two or three years. It wasn’t marriage, divorce, or physical aging that finally caused the break. It was a slow realization, the remolding and hardening of a series of decisions – not all of them bad but all of them difficult and messy – that I had set into motion on my own. I played with real narrative weight in my own life long enough that the distance between my emotional reality and the ability to go home again became too great. The grief of losing touch with the pre-adult me and the comfort it brought is a brutal amputation. I see other people my age (and much older for that matter) shambling through the same mourning process. The world is bad and we all know it. My generation grew into something far more bleak and doomed than we were ever prepared for. It’s not a world that my friends and I want to be in most days, and the thought of bringning anything else into it seems irresponsible at best and cruel at worst. My body doesn’t care about this at all.
I’ve spent most of my life treating childlessness as a foregone conclusion; an internal imperative so strong that pregnant women and mothers seemed fundamentally apart from whatever I am on a source level. They have different boundaries, as if the lines around them were pleasantly fuzzy. And there’s me, so hardwired to be self-contained within the limits of my own body. I’m sharp; a set unit you would never think to add to or subtract from. If I try to imagine myself pregnant, or with small children, my brain short circuits like the blue screen of death. The mythology of motherhood as a sacred and primordial mystery, the deepest source of feminine power, is not something I’m interested in contributing to. Really, it’s only strange inasmuch as any experience we find ourselves utterly locked off from is.
And yet, after over 26 years of bullheaded confidence, something is wavering. I pass couples with young children in Prospect Park and I try to project onto them, but not because I want it. A snapshot moment of a happy family is of course not the whole picture. Those couples fight and get too tired to fuck and those children throw tantrums. It’s still a slice of something I’ll never know. These moments didn’t use to register as anything, but now seeing parents with a stroller feels like peeking in people’s windows at night. TV plot lines about couples strained over whether to have kids make me sad now, but not because I want it. “We’re pregnant,” announced my brother’s friends at Easter brunch, and I looked away and excused myself. I started crying in the bathroom, but not because I want it. I’ve become consumed by what not wanting it means.
I do not want kids for the reasons that we’ve mostly agreed are bad reasons. There’s no legacy I care about passing on, my parents are fine enough that I don’t have a compulsion to fix their mistakes, and I know it’s selfish to create people in hope that they’ll take care of you when you’re old or sick. So what are the right reasons? No, I really want to know. Those happy kids in Prospect Park will probably grow up and mourn the loss of their childhoods in a world that’s even more unforgiving than mine. Even if the future looked better, it’s hard to imagine inflicting womanhood on another person. Are those mothers who express relief at only having sons, who say “boys are just easier,” actually relieved that they don’t have to pass on that particular millstone? It seems like there may not be a reason right enough to justify the risk anymore. And yet.
Maybe it’s that I’m almost 27 and some chemicals in my brain are nudging me to consider things because they’re attuned to rhythms and deadlines unparsable by my rational mind. My body doesn’t care about the doomsday clock any more than the world cares about me. But maybe it’s that I’m so sad and so bad at handling grief that I fantasize about experiencing hope and innocence vicariously; a fairy tale witch lying in wait to leech a sense of security and optimism from another generation. Do people want to have children because the only way to re-experience the veil of real safety and open-endedness is to draw it over someone else’s eyes?
As so many things do, I was reminded of The Age of Innocence. In particular, I thought about the sum of May Welland, the character most invested in and protective of the status quo. ” …the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change. This hard bright blindness had kept her immediate horizon apparently unaltered…she had died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own… ” I have always focused on the other main characters, on Newland Archer and his crippling fear and obligation or Ellen Olenska and the price of her unconventionality. The mutant strain of longing for a family is the first thing that has made May truly click with me. There’s an allure in being so naive that you sail right by the painful severance from your pre-adult assumptions. How lucky to raise children in the glow of your own childhood.
I’ve always liked the word weltschmerz and I think my unpackagable sadness over having children is the essence of that feeling. The world of split-second fantasies and lives I’ll never lead isn’t a reality that actually exists. It’s not even that I want children. I want to think about whether or not I want them in a world where the odds wouldn’t be stacked against them from the start.
I’m on a train from Boston to New York after spending the weekend at Readercon, a sci-fi and fantasy literature convention. On this leg, I’m spread out at one of the cafe car’s diner booth tables and I’ve decided this is actually more romantic than the side-by-side seats.
Cons are weird. They are little suspended worlds of textured beige wallpaper and malnutrition where time works differently. Even if you travel across the country to go to one, you end up spending so much time in hotel lobbies and ballrooms, cut off from sunlight, free from rules about when it’s appropriate to drink. This was entirely book-centric and even the small dealer’s room was strictly selling the written word. It tempered the bizarre con effect, but not entirely. I’ve been to Anime Expo and SDCC and D*Con – those are truly flash cities. Unsurprising trivia: I’m a person who is uselessly upset that I wasn’t alive for a World’s Fair.
Yesterday was, as swarms of optimistically half-dressed people trying to find space at porch and rooftop bars can confirm, like real spring. It was a similar day two years ago that I moved into a 4th-floor walk up in Hoboken, New Jersey. The 2-bedroom with exposed brick and blessed with in-unit laundry was above a nail salon, down the block from a 24-hour diner, and across the street from the bus stop I would take every day to Manhattan. Some days I didn’t like it; didn’t like the fellow commuters in their 20s who seemed both younger and more put together, didn’t like the yuppie families who never moved their strollers out of the way on the sidewalk. Sometimes I just resented not living in the city, worried my co-workers were thinking less of me as the only non New York State resident or annoyed at myself for falling short of my dream of a cooler Lower East Side life. But it was home. I hesitated to call it that, especially when the relationship that made it home was destabilized, but it was. Though I haven’t lived there in any real way since November, I had to leave it for good yesterday.
Becoming a member of the church I spent roughly ages 11-18 going to involved, among other and more bureaucratically complicated things, choosing a “life verse.” I never made it to membership, which turned out to be dodging a bullet, but had come down to two choices for a life verse. My new testament pick was Philippians 1:6 – For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. It had been the focal point of a lesson at my evangelical middle school and I kind of liked it. Over time I cooled on this verse in line with my diminishing confidence that anything, let alone a “good work,” had indeed begun. My alternate choice stuck with me.
Jeremiah 29:11 goes “For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. I like the New American Standard translation here. I think it’s the drama of the word calamity. Some versions go with “not for evil” but that’s much less of a mood. The past few years have meant throwing out most of my preconceived notions about how my life would go and what kinds of experiences would be viable for me. There are times when words like calamity don’t seem too far off. Jeremiah 29:11 is appealing on a visceral level because the thought that something, somewhere knows my plan is superstitiously calming. Jeremiah’s “I know” is more reassuring, more solid than Phillippians’ “confident in this.” It’s a verse that is at once soothing and stern, in the way being told to snap out of it can sometimes be a balm.
Time and time again I’ve said and written that my obsession with skincare is a way of micromanaging my whole exterior life. A blemish or a wrinkle is a flaw, and if someone catches one flaw they might just pull the whole thing apart. I’m deeply afraid of aging because that, too, skews the calculations. The world is more forgiving of young women, and my brain is already something that comes with disclaimers. The more placid a surface I can create, the harder it is to pin down my actual age, the less people will be tempted to look behind the curtain. My corrosive personality takes up so much space that I don’t have room to make physical mistakes.
I’m not a Pretty Girl, because from a very young age you either are or aren’t one, and I was not. Being a Pretty Girl is really just lines of input from your mom, your friends’ moms, your socialization as a girl, and your various privileges that you receive and compute to form the right output. In a vacuum it may not always translate to beauty, but it affords a sense of security. My mom, a great beauty who countless people have fallen in love with, is also not a Pretty Girl. And neither of us can spin those loves into confidence or assurance that we’re lovable. It all just bounces off.
Like countless people who have had to live any amount of time presenting as female, my relationship to my appearance is made up of my actual connection to my own body and my awareness of others’ connection to it. This is how I can begrudgingly acknowledge that enough people find me beautiful even though I hate myself and sometimes look in the mirror and think everything is angrily and badly put together. Knowing you have the ability to be beautiful but not being able to reap any personal benefits from it is a unique pressure that you can’t talk about because people find it obnoxious. Anyway, it’s there, and sometimes I wonder if people who were never told they were any of the superlative adjectives feel more free to let their partners see them with bad skin, to eat a big meal in public, to just get dressed and walk outside.
A writer I like explained once that she relies on language as a way of preceding and apologizing for her body and the space she takes up. It works the opposite way for me. I’m such an awful, vain motherfucker because I feel like my face is the only true apology, the only consolation prize, that I can wedge between the world and someone who has surely already worn our her welcome.
I do not like the word family held up as the highest title you can bestow on a friend or a romantic partner. This can be on its own or in the phrases “found family” or “chosen family.” Maybe this is largely on account of my privilege as a person who has a supportive immediate family. The way I love my family, particularly my parents, is rougher and more complicated than the way I love anyone else. It involves brokenness, waxing and waning trust, and rebuilding that I most likely wouldn’t be willing to go through with a romantic partner. The concept of unconditional love has always seemed like an excuse to not work harder to be good to each other, but my actual family is the only structure in which anything close to it exists. It is a unique dynamic, but does it make it more sacred than friendship and romantic love? No, I don’t think so.
The assumption that friendship and romance as their own paradigms don’t hold enough weight seems wrong to me. While I can see the comfort in the idea of found family – particularly if your own blood has been a litany of disappointments and failures to connect – it’s just not a barrier I want to cross. I used to want it so badly it caused me incredible grief. In the interest of being a more reliable narrator, my distaste is probably in part just an attempt to forge that grief into something more dignified. But like an indignant child, I am here to tell you that I also buy where I’ve landed, really, I do.
I think the idea that some of our most important relationships are held together by nothing more than choice can be terrifying. We can understand the positives and power of it – wow, they have no reason to be here beyond their own belief in my place in their life – and still desperately want to construct a buffer. And what better safety net than to compare someone to the one relationship you had no choice in – that you can singe off through estrangement but never truly erase? The people who do make that break face oppressive stigma. Even abused children are often told “she’ll always be your mother!” I can’t help but see the need to declare our self-made bonds familial as a sort of stake in the ground; a salt circle in which relationships that are as fragile as any become fortified.
My parents are, of course, family. Were their previous marriages families before children were involved? That’s an interesting question to me. When pressed, I think most people would say that marriages in and of themselves are family units, but you still hardly ever hear the phrase “childless family” vs. “childless couple.” I’m biased, because my own experience with marriage is a facet of my problem with the word family. I fear marriage because it stands in bureaucratic defiance to my belief that people should be able to leave relationships at any time for any reason. Before and during my divorce, I bristled at my husband referring to us – two people increasingly incomprehensible to each other – as a family. I’m comfortable saying I belong to my family; that I am a member of it. I’m not comfortable saying that about anyone else. Just as I am cynical about the prospect of ever getting married again, it’s hard to imagine calling or wanting to be called family by a romantic partner.
It’s not that I don’t take obligations and responsibilities to our friends and partners seriously. I do, probably more now than I ever have. But the nature of those commitments is so different than what I feel toward my family. I know if my friends and I had gone through some of the rough patches my siblings and I have, we would no longer be friends. Romantic love in particular is delicate and conditional. The work is messy. When it involves terribly contentious things like fidelity and boredom and sex it becomes a different beast than any other type of relationship. The difficulties of romance can be very lonely and it’s not pleasant to realize how tenuous and easy to lose it is. I think it’s tempting to want to call it family, to override the potential for pain, to believe we have a reason for being together beyond wanting to, and still wanting to the day after.
I know that when most people call their friends family, they only say it as the highest compliment. I don’t mean to disregard their personal sorting systems and the places in which they hold their loved ones. You could (rightly, probably) accuse me of having the darkest possible take on these words. But I do aggressively believe in being good to the people we love, and that it’s difficult, and that part of that difficulty involves being honest about what things are. Or maybe I’m just envious.
Here’s a story that may sound familiar. There’s a teenage girl who’s reflective and mature enough to have trouble connecting with her peers, but is still emotionally naive. She and the boys her age look past each other. Like anyone, she still wants to experience love and acceptance. She wants to feel seen and heard by someone equally reflective. The first person to scratch that itch is a teacher, a coach, a mentor – an older man with the kindness and sensitivity she’s been craving. The gap between their ages is inappropriate, but so what? This is the closest she’s come to what being in love is supposed to feel like and age is just a number.
The age gap relationship is a taboo and often distasteful topic in real life and fiction, for good reason. It’s all too common for adults to take advantage of the skewed power dynamics at work with a younger love interest. The alleged responsible party is often just…not. There’s also an insidious tendency to blame the instigation or fallout of these relationships on young women (shout out to the people who nicknamed me Jailbait at 17). It’s disingenuous, however, to pretend that there isn’t compelling evidence for why a young girl would develop such feelings in the first place. The dark side of these entanglements have led to some of the most long-standing traumas in my life, and yet…I still find myself drawn to stories of scandalous age differences. It’s hard to know where to categorize these feelings in the context of my past, but I believe there’s a place for processing and experiencing healthy fantasies through fiction. Two stories that have been positive or even healing for me are good old Twin Peaks and the winter 2018 anime Koi wa Ameagari no You ni (Love is Like After the Rain).