It started with Disney princesses. Belle was my favorite. I twirled around in a yellow dress, dreaming about the day I would find my Prince Charming. Middle school brought me the Brontës. My romantic fantasies shifted from cobblestone and castles to visions of the British moors. I imagined frolicking through the hills with my Byronic hero. He would be darkly, enticingly romantic. I would be studious and subdued.

I saw epic love in more than the pages of books. I saw it between my parents. They ran into each other on a beach at sunset and fell in love in a treehouse in Northern California. Even 30 years later, they get butterflies when they see each other.

When I was a little girl, I heard so much about the promise of love, how rare it was and how wonderful it could be. Growing up, I tossed around the word "love," trying it on for size. My first words were "I love you"—said on a park bench to my big sister. I spent seven years in a sheltered, all–girls school bubble. Because of the absence of romantic love in our lives, my friends and I idealized it. We watched rom–coms and joked about our passionate love for Channing Tatum. I was convinced I "loved" the older guys I met at summer camp. Then I came to Penn, and I met him. I'll call him Charlie.

We locked eyes at a downtown. I was awash in blue light, feeling beautiful and bold, when he pulled me aside. Squeezed my hand. Told me he loved meeting girls from California. We chatted in a distracted, people–filled haze, each of us shouting into each other’s ears. We discussed spring break, summer and all the people we both know. It’s such a small world, we agreed. It’s amazing we met each other in it.

In the blue–black darkness, I was a couple drinks in and babbling, “I went to an all–girls school, I’m very innocent, I don’t usually do this sort of thing,” and he smiled sweetly, cupped my face in his hands and kissed me.

***

When Charlie told me he wanted to see me again, I felt some kind of spectacular. He was casual about it. I overthought everything. How he said my name with an uncomplicated tenderness. How he found my inexperience adorable.

We started seeing each other on weekends. It was always the same: We hung out, talked about our classes and parted ways. My friends told me not to fall for him. I admitted it was too late.

The entire time we were seeing each other, questions pounded my brain: What are we? What are we doing? What does this mean? I never asked them because I was scared that to Charlie, this was just a fling.

And it was. Time brought the dissolution of whatever we were: carefully composed texts on my end, radio silence on his. I ghosted him, hoping deleting him on social media would help delete him from my mind. 

I used to criticize myself for being the kind of person who cares. Why couldn’t I shut my emotions off and bounce breezily from one encounter to the next—another notch in the belt, another meaningless night with another meaningless guy?

Over time I acknowledged I’m not that person. I can’t quiet my inner romantic, the little girl who grew up hearing stories. My parents have a beautiful love I hope to find someday. It may not happen for me at Penn, and that’s okay.

***

Hook–up culture left me feeling demoralized and deflated.  Later, I would see it wasn’t Charlie I had fallen for. I was so in love with the idea of love that I projected my fantasies onto him. I re–wrote our dates into fantastical adventures. 

Losing Charlie was easy. Losing the idea of Charlie was hard. He became so built up in my mind it took months before he came crashing back down. When he did, I realized Charlie wasn’t my romantic hero—he was just a regular guy.

I’ve never been in love. I’ve only been in lust. I used to think they were the same thing. Movies and books set unrealistic expectations. I expected to be kissed in the back of a car as the city lights blinked behind. I expected rapturous embraces in the rain, boom box serenades and the Dirty Dancing “lift.” I know that sweet, fairytale love is out there.

I have a feeling it’ll happen as soon as I stop looking.


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