On Love, Being In Love, And Waiting For A Train

Between Hans Zimmer’s oft-criticized but legitimately impactful score to Marion Cotillard’s Marion Cotillardness, there are a few reasons why the surprisingly rewatchable “Inception” has slowly and unexpectedly inched its way onto my “25 Favorite Movies Ever” list.

The main reason, though, has nothing to do with the special effects, the screenplay’s ambiguity, or even the experience of seeing Tom Hardy and thinking to yourself “Wait, that guy played Bane???” and everything to do with the fact that it contained one of the best (and perhaps the best) explanation of how it feels to be in love I’ve ever heard.

Mal: How could you understand? Do you know what it is to be a lover? To be half of a whole? 
Ariadne: No… 
Mal: I’ll tell you a riddle. You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you; but you don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter to you where that train will take you? 
Cobb: Because you’ll be together.

In the past several years, I’ve gone back in forth with whether it was necessary to feel this way about a person—an extension progressively fused into your whole, to be down for whatever as long as you’re together—to be in a fulfilling relationship. When I last wrote extensively about love, I argued that butterflies—and “butterflies” in this instance describes the collection of feelings possessed when in a certain type of love with someone—were insignificant, too fleeting to be able to influence something as serious as the decision to spend the rest of your life with someone.

My feelings since then have evolved. I’ve come to realize that being in love—the characteristics of it, the feelings and actions cultivated by it, even the importance of it—varies from person to person. We all have our own capacities for and expectations of love, and, while there’s really no right or wrong answers here, it’s paramount to find someone whose definition of the word mirrors your own. Basically, some people need butterflies. Some don’t.

More importantly, that butterflies post was dishonest. It wasn’t intentionally dishonest, but it was written from a place of fear. The idea of being so into someone that I literally felt their everything merging with my own scared me. Shit, it still does.

Even the language usually used to describe what happens when first realizing you’re in love (“falling”) suggests a tenuousness that should be avoided instead of pursued. Who in their right mind would sign up for a perpetual state of weightlessness, a psychosis where you allow one person—not a deity or even an idea but a living, breathing, and bleeding human f*cking being just like you—to be your everything? What sense does it make to grant someone that power?

It scared/scares me so because I knew then what I know and will admit to now: I need it too. 

I am one of those people who needs to leap, catch, and be caught in order to be fulfilled. Who looks forward to embracing both the powerlessness and the fear cultivated by it. Who needs to want and wants to need someone. Who knows exactly how all of this sounds—and exactly what all of this means—and doesn’t give a damn anymore.

What I thought would be restricting—admitting to needing something so fleeting and uncommon—has actually proven to be liberating. Owning to what I truly want has cultivated a single-mindedness that makes things a bit clearer for me now, a bit less ambiguous.

I’m waiting for a train. A train that will take me far away. I know where I hope this train will take me; but I don’t know for sure. But, as long as she’s with me, it doesn’t matter, and I hope it never will.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

the butterfly effect: how the “you give me butterflies” lie is blinding us

90 minutes or so into the godfather, michael corleone–who’s been exiled to sicily–sees his first wife (appolonia) for the first time, and is so overcome by her that one of his bodyguards remarks that he’s been “struck by the thunderbolt“. to drive this point even further, the next scene shows michael asking appolonia’s father for her hand in marriage, despite the fact that he hasn’t even met her yet.

the father accepts michael’s offer, and michael and appolonia meet. he courts her, they marry and, if it wasn’t for an unfortunate plot-device car-bombing, they would have lived happily ever after.

i first watched this movie when i was 8 years old. for the next 15 years, i convinced myself that the love at first sight “thunderbolt” (or “fireworks”, “butterflies”, or “spark”) wasn’t just the right way to be in a relationship, it was the only way. in my mind, any romantic relationship that didn’t involve a perpetual fireworks display when you were in each other’s presence was illegitimate. you were either soulmates or just wasting your f*cking time.

this is where you’re probably expecting to read about some relationship adversity i faced that ultimately led to a “the thunderbolt doesn’t exist” epiphany, and you’d be (partially) right.

my first interactions with my ex-fiancee mirrored those of michael and appolonia. we met on a saturday, and by that next saturday we’d already met each other’s parents and slept together twice.

i had it all, the thunderbolt, the fireworks, the butterflies, the spark…and it was all bullsh*t. i allowed that initial thunderbolt–which was really just a mix of lust, like, and years of built up relationship idealism–to delude me into ignoring multiple red flags. and, thinking the thunderbolt couldn’t have possibly been wrong, i stayed in the relationship a full year past its expiration date.

it wasn’t her fault, really. i was so blinded by the butterflies that once a bit of adversity removed my gaga goggles, i realized we weren’t who i thought we were. but, no one could have lived up to that ideal. we were doomed from the start.

i realize my anecdotal evidence doesn’t “prove” the thunderbolt is bullsh*t any more than watching the godfather or the notebook “proves” it exists. i’m sure there are couples out there who fell in love the first time they locked eyes with each other. some might even be reading this right now, and i salute them and their matching snuggies.

but, while those initial thunderbolts, fireworks, and butterflies are possible, they’re improbable…and you can be perfectly happy without them.

in fact, the vast majority of people in good relationships follow the exact same script:

he thinks she’s cute. she thinks he’s cute. they like each other. they get together. they stay together. they die.

that’s it. no fireworks, no alignment of the stars, and no thunderbolts unless you’re within 10 miles of a cumulonimbus.

wait, actually that’s a lie.

they do eventually come, but not until you’re convinced your life is better with that person than without, and that can happen anywhere from 5 months to 5 years after you initially meet. you don’t build on the butterflies, you build to the butterflies. thinking that you need them in place in order to pursue a relationship is like waiting to win the lottery before you open a checking account.

i always wondered what would have happened if appolonia didn’t die in that explosion. would michael have stayed in sicily? would he have left the family business for good? would their eventual daughter still end up sleeping with her first cousin? who knows?

these questions are futile, though. her death was necessary. the thunderbolt scene resonates so deeply because appolonia’s sudden death fossilized her perfection, allowing the viewer (and michael) to reflect wistfully about the idealized version of what might have been instead of the realistic and nuanced version of what actually would have been. she convinces us that we need those butterflies to be perfect, to be happy, and she had to die to preserve that lie.

—the champ