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.