Despite the fervor with which I despise the manic pixie dream girl archetype, I have always found the film “(500) Days of Summer” to be undeniably charming. To the uninitiated, it is the indie tale of Summer played by Zooey Deschanel, who doesn’t believe in love, and Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is an unapologetic romantic, and their relationship spanning a year and a half. They have their ups and downs as Tom slowly falls in love and Summer slowly does not.
In a scene toward the end of the film (after they have broken up), they run into one another and Summer invites Tom to a party at her apartment. Tom is thrilled: This is his chance to win her back. The night of the party, the screen splits in two, one side showing Tom’s expectations for the night, the other showing reality. Tom’s expectations split with what the audience perceives as he is greeted at the door with a kiss, and they spend the night flirting, talking and laughing. The spark is reignited, and Tom gets the girl. It is the expected and highly satisfying rom-com ending.
On the other side of the screen, however, Tom arrives to a cordial but somewhat awkward greeting from Summer. They don’t talk one-on-one at all, and at the end of the evening Tom sees Summer showing off her engagement ring to another party goer. Ouch.
When I was in high school, I had spectacular fantasies that played out in my head. I imbued them with intricate detail, making them as plausible as I could, as if the more particular they were the more likely I could will them into being. These fantasies became expectations that led to a general and persistent disappointment in my reality. I had a lot of feelings from ages 12 to 17, as I think most people do—for example I wrote one day (likely in response to one of those expectations failing to come to fruition), “I’m feeling a lot of things, but most prominent is an eagerness to have one of my feelings validated by an actual event.”
I don’t remember what prompted me to write this down, but reading it now makes me chuckle. I’m a bit in awe of my ability to condense the entire teenage girl experience into one sentence. I watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books at 14 and 15. Like many girls, I was obsessed with romantic dramas, finding in them the promise that I, too, could have a grand dramatic arc in my life.
I moved through high school perpetually comparing my unrealistic expectations to my banal reality. There are only so many experiences the average teen goes through. I went to school, had friends, went to movies on the weekends, did my homework and spent time with my family. I probably had a better-than-average life and a better-than-average high school experience. For someone like me, though, who inhaled popular culture, there were stark contrasts at every turn.
I was only granted access to much of the human experience through back channels: TV shows, movies, novels and second-hand stories. I tried to shove my own experiences into these molds like an ugly stepsister with a too-small glass slipper, impatient to have my own stories to tell.
My life seemingly had no plot, and I felt I was being denied a rite of passage. So, I spun my own stories. As I fell asleep each night, I scripted my life in a way believable enough that I would wake up the next morning confident that this alternate reality could unfold if only this or that fell into place.
I imagined the boy I had a crush on since sophomore year would finally realize he liked me. I imagined I would suddenly learn to love exercising and get into amazing shape so I wouldn’t always feel like the girl who might be beautiful if she wasn’t a few pounds over the heroine chic ideal. I imagined I would be struck with a lightning bolt of inspiration and finally find the persistence to write a novel. I had the dedication already written.
I became very good at telling myself these stories, and they felt more and more real to me. In the 20 minutes it took me to fall asleep, I would have a first kiss with a boy, become a published author and run a marathon. I was invested in each plot, and I followed myself like a character in a book. I felt what she felt. I woke up in the morning hopeful, then lived the same day I had lived the day before. And the day before that.
So, I had a lot of feelings in high school. The problem was I imagined most of them. I craved that swell of emotion you feel when something spectacular happens to a character you have been following for five seasons or five hundred pages. I had never really felt any of those things in real life. I had to create artificial placeholders.
Since coming to college, I have experienced one or two of the things I used to only play out in my head. I have had some of the feelings that I craved at 14 validated by actual events. But when milestones are only imagined, it is easy to strip away any undesirable fallout. There are no fights with imaginary boyfriends, and you don’t actually have to sweat if you only imagine losing weight. Reality is always more complicated and a little harder than just the girl getting the guy.
Now, I think often of another, smaller scene from “(500) Days of Summer.” One of Tom’s roommates is describing his dream girl in comparison to his current girlfriend. She would have bigger boobs and different hair and be more into sports. “But,” he says, “truthfully, Robin’s better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.” An imaginary life is perfect, but it pales in comparison to the tangible messiness we get to live every day.
Kendall Hecker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org