The rom-com romance illusion: A personal essay

A rose and film camera
Pixabay/Creative Commons

I’m supposed to write about love. It makes sense, given the nature of yesterday’s holiday. But what do I know about love? I’ve only really been in it once, and the best way to describe that experience is the “it’s complicated” relationship status on Facebook. To be fair though, it was really fun when it was good. But I guess relationships tend to be that way. So, before you keep reading and think I’m going to give you some sort of insight or big revelation, you should know I don’t think I’m very good at this love thing.

The funny part is, you’d think I would be. I have seen every romantic comedy film ever made — almost certainly every single one. People always ask me what my favorite rom-com is, and I honestly can’t decide. Although, if I absolutely had to decide, I think it would be “Love Actually. No, wait, “The Proposal.” No, “The Holiday.” Or “When Harry Met Sally…” Oh, but also “Notting Hill.”

It’s not just the happy endings I love about romantic comedies. It has to do with the whole experience — from the way they meet to the montage of happy times before things go bad; from the agony of a misunderstanding or fight that causes the conflict to the ultimate resolution and reconciliation. This is usually the part with the big love confession. This is where Julia Roberts stands in front of Hugh Grant and tells him, “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.”

This is where Andrew Lincoln stands in front of Keira Knightley’s door with his signs that say, “To me, you are perfect.”

This is where Julia Stiles reads her poem about Heath Ledger to the entire class. This is where Reese Witherspoon says, “I gave my heart away a long time ago — my whole heart, and I never fully got it back.”

This is where Ryan Reynolds says, “Now, you could imagine my disappointment when it suddenly dawned on me that the woman I love is about to be kicked out of the country.”

This is where Ryan Gosling screams, in the pouring rain, “It wasn’t over. It still isn’t over.”

This is “you had me at hello.”

This is the part where the heart melts. This is the part where I sigh and say, “I want that.”

In high school, before I had any experience in the love department, these movies were the only insight I had into what love should be like. Then, I would definitely have called myself a hopeless romantic. I’m a Pisces, so it fits. It’s, like, written in my stars to hopelessly dream about love.

This is the part where the heart melts. This is the part where I sigh and say, “I want that.”

So you can imagine my own surprise when the time finally came, and I totally freaked out. I don’t know what it was. Maybe to make up for the fact that I live for cheesiness in movies, I despise it in real life. I can’t think of anything more horrifying than a public prom ask. Nothing freaks me out more than going to a nice restaurant on the first date — or dates in general, actually.

I sit around and watch these movies, complaining, “I just want a guy to bring me flowers.”

Yet the one time someone did, I was awkward and didn’t know what to do with them. Why is it that everything these movies make me think I want actually scares me in reality?

Last Valentine’s Day, the boy I had been seeing for a couple months sent me a little GIF that said, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” I freaked out and spent an hour trying to figure out how to respond, only to go with a GIF that said, “Merry Christmas,” because when in doubt, use sarcasm. As I said, we had been seeing each other for a couple of months already. Good thing he knew me well enough at that point that he didn’t even try to come at me with flowers or chocolate. A GIF was all I could handle. We didn’t see each other that day either because in my mind, once you hang out on Valentine’s Day, you’re practically engaged.

Like I said, I’m not super good at this whole love thing.

I know everything I’m saying isn’t making me sound like the hopeless romantic I set myself up to be. But the funny thing is, my mind continues to play out little scenarios as if I’m living in a rom-com. In my mind, a nerdy stranger and I reach for the same book in the library, or we get stuck together in a broken elevator. In my mind, I happily accept flowers and chocolates.

But the funny thing is, my mind continues to play out little scenarios as if I’m living in a rom-com.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not just movies that I romanticize. Songs are almost worse. As so fabulously explained by another great rom-com, “Music and Lyrics,” there are two types of people: those who listen to the music and those who listen to the lyrics. I’ve felt this divide — just like Drew Barrymore in the movie, I was a lyrics girl, and like Hugh Grant, he was a music guy. Maybe that’s what went wrong. But maybe that’s also what made it right, to begin with. All I know is that, unlike the rom-com version, this one doesn’t end in a love confession at a sold-out stadium tour.

But every song tells a story. And most are love stories — falling in love, falling out of love, missing love, craving love, toxic love, new love. So how can you not listen to the stories, especially when they’re often so relatable? If not relatable, then at least desirable. Naturally, I’ll listen to the lyrics and then play my own life along to them in my head.

I mean, how can you not swoon when Elvis says, “I can’t help falling in love with you” or melt when Ed Sheeran, with his voice of an angel, sings, “Darling, you look perfect tonight”?

How can you not feel it when Taylor Swift says, “You call me up again just to break me like a promise” or cry a little bit when John Mayer confesses that “no one really ever wins in heartbreak warfare”?

I feel all of those lyrics every time I listen to them. And every time I hear Halsey’s song “Bad at Love,” I just think, “Same.”

In the end, though, all my efforts to reject romance in my life did inspire me to write this essay. And although I may not be the best at this love thing, I firmly believe in Grant’s words in the opening of “Love Actually” (which I decided is my final answer to the age-old question of what my favorite rom-com is): “Love actually is all around.”

So I hope you celebrated yesterday, whether it was a celebration in the name of romantic love, friendship love, being in love, sucking at love, missing love or waiting for love because, somehow, we all seem to be in it together.

Contact Frida Schaefer Bastian at [email protected].