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I’ve always been a hopeless romantic––obsessed with this all-consuming, selfless, forever kind of fairytale love. The kind that makes you stay up all hours of the night talking on the phone in hushed whispers to that special person that helps you feel weightless. The kind that makes you text emoji stories and gifs and memes back and forth all day long.
The kind that our parents teach us exists.
Watching my favorite show growing up, One Tree Hill, I was anxious about the star-crossed lovers of Lucas and Peyton (Chad Michael Murray and Hilary Burton). The tortured poet and artist––both emotionally scarred but equally desperate for connection in a world full of people who do nothing but hurt you and leave you.
I wanted that. That destined, one true love that would never wound or abandon me.
My parents went through a rough patch after my brother moved away for college in the summer of 2005. From the time I was fifteen until I went away to college at eighteen, most school nights were spent staring up at my ceiling in the dark listening to Dad shout as my mother came home late yet again. Maybe things would be said. Raised voices, sobbing, slammed doors. Promises to never do it again. Threats to never come back.
Dad would say, “You’re breaking my heart. You need to get help. I won’t live like this.”
To which Mom would say, “Then maybe I’ll just leave and die somewhere. You and the boys will be better off without me.”
The muffled sounds of my dad pacing the downstairs living room, of socks dragging over carpet, of feet slogging up and down the creaking stairs, remain like a stain. Those sounds always bring me back to sleepless nights wondering if Mom died or finally left us for good.
Left me for good.
Before I went away to college, the idea of my parents’ perfect marriage shattered like ceramic, and I realized a harsh truth: our parents are just like us. Human, imperfect, lost. Their love wasn’t impenetrable. So if I was the sum of my parents, and we love later in life how we were taught to love early in life, how could any love I had possibly be as perfect as Lucas and Peyton?
I’ve self-sabotaged more relationships than I can count. Fear of committing, of ending up like my parents, of being abandoned, of not living up to the impossible societal expectations fairytales instill in us. My brother left when things got bad, and he never knew our house was broken. My mother stopped coming home when the casino took her mind off my brother’s empty room and the absence of his crooked smile under the kitchen lights. My dad stopped noticing how depressed and reclusive I became when all his thoughts were on when and if Mom was coming home. If she blew her paycheck again. If she stole money from their shared account.
10:00 PM became 12:00 AM. 12:00 AM became 3:00 AM. Empty checks and maxed credit cards. Second mortgages. Collections agencies ringing every single day.
My piggy bank––one my mother had bought when I was four months old––had been broken into when I was twenty-one and returned from college for winter break. Around $500 was taken. It still remains empty.
Over $400 went missing from my emergency money that I hid in my room when I was seventeen. Never to be seen again.
My savings account I’d had since I was a baby had been dwindled down to $295.13 when I was nineteen. It used to be a little under $30,000. Also never to be seen again.
My CD that was linked to my savings accounts had well over $20,000. Whereabouts unknown.
My dad still doesn’t know the extent of it all. I’ve never told anyone.
I guess you can say I have trust issues––if I ruin a relationship before it gets serious, I can cut all losses. Can’t get hurt if no feelings are there to hurt. Something broke in me that I thought couldn’t be––an intangible reflection of myself that felt rotten and burned beyond repair. I could never figure out exactly what it was. But it wasn’t Mom’s fault. She has a disease. Gambling is her illness like never feeling good enough is mine. We both channeled our addiction into unhealthy avenues to cope.
There’s an image in my head of the type of love I want. I want two or three kids. I want us to take night drives to nowhere specific listening to music. I want to talk all night until the sun comes up even when we have to work. I want us to talk about our hopes and dreams––our fears and regrets. Cuddling on the couch under a blanket with popcorn watching scary movies. Nights we can go out and have fun or stay in and cook a romantic dinner. Go out on humid, July nights and catch fireflies.
I want to find my Peyton, one who will never leave. I want to be okay.
But there’s another part of me that’s terrified that those kind of self-sacrificing, all-encompassing loves don’t really exist. Or if they do, that I don’t deserve them. Will never live long enough to experience them. What if real honest-to-god love is just a lie we tell ourselves to make everything seem okay?
Because no matter what my brain knows is true, I can’t help but feel that it was me, that I wasn’t enough to fill the void my brother left in my mother. Maybe my father didn’t pay attention enough because I’m just not loveable or valuable. Maybe the three girls I’ve ever loved in my life all left me for another guy because I’m worthless.
Maybe I’ll never be good enough for someone to love.
So I pull back. I haven’t had many “serious” long-term relationships. Part of me won’t allow myself to be happy long enough. Like happy is somehow wrong or taboo. If things feel too normal, I run. If they become toxic, I stay.
We accept the love we think we deserve.
Nowadays, my parents are much better. They still sleep in separate beds, but they don’t argue. Mom stopped gambling. Both my parents have since apologized about not being there for me. My brother, in his own way only siblings can understand, doesn’t have to say a word to know he now gets why I am the way I am.
I love my family, even if I don’t say it as much as I should, and I know they love me too.
This is how I’ve come to realize a universal truth: everybody is broken inside. No one is perfect. From the outside, we see the fictional star-crossed lovers, we see our friends who get married and post infuriating yet adorable engagement posts on Instagram and Facebook, and we see our friends’ parents that live seemingly normal and average lives and assume that they know a secret the rest of us don’t. We accept that we’re just not cut out for good things, so we settle for what we’ve always known to be true.
But love is work. Perfection is an illusion. The view is a fairytale from the outside, but everybody has to work to be okay on the inside. People keep secrets; they project a facade to the world. But people also have trouble admitting when they need help.
My parents have to work at their marriage. They’ve been to counseling.
It’s not perfect. It’s not like it was. But it’s something. It’s real.
So I keep my online dating accounts. I consider match suggestions from friends of friends, but that voice in my head that tells me I’m inherently broken and unlovable, that there is something inside me that deserves loneliness, doesn’t go away. Maybe a part of me prefers fictional love to real love.
Forever in search of my Peyton until the day comes where I tell myself it’s okay to accept healthy love. That I deserve happiness. That I’m a fucking catch. That it’s even okay to not be okay.
For a while I nodded and smiled; I turned to humor to mask my own pain. None of my friends knew what I was going through until I decided that I, too, couldn’t shoulder my pain alone. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes it takes those around to show us the way.
And I try. To let people in. To open up. To believe the people in my life do the best they can, even at their worst. If my parents found a way to get back to each other, then there’s hope. And sometimes hope is all you need.
You can never get hurt if you never put yourself out there.
But that’s not really living. Is it?
Bio: Christopher M. Tantillo earned his MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. He currently lives in Buffalo, New York where you will find him forever in search of gelato to eat. He is a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, and he loves the misuse of the term literally. When not devouring Young Adult literature or writing it, he spends his time binge-watching Netflix shows, writing poetry, adoring independent films where characters talk endlessly about life, and people watching for fun. He takes his love for tea seriously, and enjoys partaking in awkward conversations with anyone willing to humor him. He is currently attempting to sell his first two novels.