Monday, February 28, 2011

Nico and the Gaping Hole

Even as I love to deride Twilight and the anti-feminist, pro-chastity bent of it, I have to admit that I have read the entire series, gobbling it up like so much junk food. I get the appeal of being loved for having done absolutely nothing to be worthy of it – of finding that amazing Other who will just get you and love you for you. But that universal teenage girl desire is for another blog post.

The thing about it that I had the hardest time with was how helpless and lost Bella was without her Edward. How completely incapable she was of simply making her peace with it, valuing herself and moving on. Who among us hasn’t had their heart ripped out by someone for whom they were head over heels? Sure, you cry your eyes out for a while but then you have to get that he’s not coming back, pick yourself up, put away the Ben & Jerry’s and move on. The gaping hole Bella describes in her chest due to Edward’s absence doesn’t strike me as devoted and romantic but pathetic and self-absorbed. Her complete lack of a sense of worth or purpose – that need to define herself as valuable only in conjunction to him completely pissed me off as a feminist and someone who abhors co-dependence.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much the teen-angst-wired author had tapped into something. How much that hole hurts the first time you feel it and the work it takes to learn to close it.

After long and tortured high school years, I finally acquired my first boyfriend in college. His name was Nico. He was half Italian, half Vietnamese and in the real world far too short for me. But by god he was mine. I poured every Disney princess fantasy into our relationship. Like the velveteen rabbit, I finally felt real. I was worthy of existing because someone else finally saw my value and wanted it for himself. And so I prostrated myself before him. Cleaning his kitchen without being asked, spending hours making thoughtful gifts and mix-tapes (back when one made mix-tapes to prove one’s love), putting my schedule aside so that it worked with his. In disgusted retrospect, I completely lost myself in him.

To his credit, having a worshipper rather than a partner didn’t work for Nico and he dumped me. I completely broke apart. I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t smile or keep from crying for any length of time. I only listlessly dragged myself to classes because some part of me remembered why I was at college. I sat spacing out on campus benches oblivious to the beautiful spring days around me – even resentful of them. How dare they be so lovely when my whole world had collapsed into nothing? I was too young to realize that a relationship was not about giving yourself up.

One day as I was moping on a bench, Ayesha, the girlfriend of Nico’s roommate happened by. “Hey! How are you?”

I looked at her incredulously. How was I? I’d been crying for weeks. How could she even ask that?

She noticed my dour face. “Why are you so bummed out?”

“Nico!” I blurted, astounded at how thick she was. Didn’t she realize she was not looking at a fellow girl, but a gutted husk of a human? Didn’t she see the open chest wound I was harboring? The gaping hole that sapped my very life force?

“Really? You’re still hung up on him?”

Still? My life would never be the same. “Come with me,” she smiled and took my hand. She walked me into the library and while she made photocopies for a report, she told me all about the Nico I never saw. She told me he’d roll his eyes and deride me every time I left the room. That he and her boyfriend, made fun of all my homemade gifts and mix-tapes. That they’d purposely made bigger and bigger messes in the kitchen just to see how far they could push me. Her litany of denigration went on and on.

That did it. The thing in me that had broken fused together in a hot fire. Somehow hearing how much he’d disrespected me let me find the respect I’d lost for myself. I hugged Ayesha and walked back out into the warm spring sun feeling the kind breeze on my legs, the soft sway of my skirt, content with the proud blaze back in my eyes. I had poured myself into making his world a better place and he had ridiculed me. And why wouldn’t he? I had sold myself out in order to earn his love. I was embarrassed to see the desperate, simpering creature I’d become. I was furious with myself for being so spineless and with him for having been so cruel. I’d never been loved before; I didn’t know how it worked. At least now with what Ayesha had told me, I was pretty sure it didn’t work that way.

So when I dismiss Bella’s ridiculous crumble into worthlessness, I sheepishly remember my own. At first it saddened me to realize I could not hold myself above such foolish, self-loathing behavior but then that’s part of the series’ brilliance. Who among us has not known a weak moment? Because just like what I had with Nico was not real love, the impulses under Bella’s feelings for Edward are not love either, but obsession, and that desperate teen-age hope that we’ll find our value out there in his eyes.

We all have to go through that experience of learning how to close that gaping hole with our own hands. I learned how to have a therapeutic pity party, let all the pain out and move on. I learned that self-respect is about the sexiest quality one can have. I hope all the readers who idolize Bella will too.

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