I blame Jordan Catalano.
Not Jared Leto, per se. Although, all things considered, it’s probably best I never met the man.
1994 marked my junior year of high school, an auspicious microcosm in cultural history peppered with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco flight from the law, and the ABC network debut of My So-Called Life. While only circulating the airwaves for one illustrious season, the nineteen episodes of this weekly TV drama captured teen angst to the nth degree. More importantly, it gave the world Jordan Catalano, the flannel-wearing, alarmingly attractive, mysterious bad boy, who wasn’t really bad deep down, but hey, that’s what made him all the more elusively desirable, right? Besides, no one has ever leaned against a locker in a more resplendently tortured “come hither and save me from my existential pain” way than Jordan Catalano.
As a captive youth in an affluent New York City suburb, I was part of a pathologically competitive, hyper-realistic class which held an aura equal parts self-effacing Seattle grunge and kill-or-be-killed East Coast elitism. Our survivalist philosophy was: Keep your friends close, but partner with your academic nemesis on all group projects lest either party gain competitive advantage in class rank. What did, however, bring our ruthless selves together wasn’t an AP cram session nor SAT prep course. Rather, it was a deconstructive analysis of Angela Chase, portrayed by a young and emotive Claire Danes, who perfectly embodied the sheer torment it required to stare longingly at Jordan Catalano as he sauntered down the hall, lingered in a car, rocked out on his guitar, or uttered phrases to keep Angela’s mind spinning all night, such as:
“I did an undefendable thing. I created my own prison and I have to exist in it. Maybe I had a wish, or whatever, to punish you. An unconscious wish. You’ve heard of them, right?”
Yes, Jordan Catalano. I have heard of them. I’ve created my own prisons as well. And I’ve locked myself inside those bars with your fictional and nonfictional counterparts for most of my life.
Now at the age of 41, far more Carrie Bradshaw than Angela Chase, I recently conducted a brutal experiment in self-awareness. Cycling through my favorite erstwhile teen dramadies, I asked myself, “At the time of viewing each series, which male love interest did I choose? Not for the leading lady, but for me?”
A not-so-surprising pattern emerged.
As a Beverly Hills 90210 beach babe, no doubt I stood cabana-side to the reckless and perpetually breathless Dylan McKay. He was damaged and wrong in all the right ways. And no one else on the planet could rock those sideburns. Coiffed hair and leather jacket aside, this James Dean incarnate was aloof enough to spark a perpetual fear of abandonment in any woman who fell for his charms. With absentee daddy issues and a Holden Caulfield complex, Dylan had the capacity to unmask his sensitive heart (and rocking body) to a bewildered beloved for a magical night, then hop on his motorcycle before dawn to go somewhere… to return someday… that is, if the surf called him back in moonlit whispers. Now that’s the stuff of tear-stained bed linens and sentimental return-to-sender post-marked letters. The sublime pain and suffering of romantic love and inexplicable loss. The hot and unknowable rebel with (or without) a cause. Of course, Dylan, I choose you.
I’m fairly certain that my 18-year-old Felicity self would have followed the brooding Ben Covington from Palo Alto, California to the West Village in New York City, simply because he wrote an emotive paragraph in my yearbook, despite completely ignoring my existence during our formative years. Fortunately, no guy measured up to Scott Speedman’s angst-ridden ethos straight out of Pelham Memorial High School. So, I wisely chose my university based solely on academic standing, not an unfulfilled crush.
This, however, does not render my fascination toward Ben’s emotionally erratic, non-committal, screw-up persona any less significant. Particularly when the handsome, emotionally available, “had-all-of-his-shit-together” Noel adored Felicity in a strikingly mature way for five years. But what’s life without the lingering potential to retrieve your boyfriend from jail or rehab? Once you do, he’ll spend all night lying in your lap, finally connecting to truth, to pain … to you…for one fleeting moment that will vanish with the sun. Your solitary reflections will include amazingly insightful voice-overs, but will you ever unite your impulses and intuition? Ben, you get the final rose.
Enter Jess Mariano, the moody, nonconformist, and intellectual hipster from Gilmore Girls. This one hit me hard, and admittedly still does. As someone who grew up as the brainiac only child and best friend of a fun-loving, single mom in a small town that resembled Stars Hollow in all its whimsical eccentricities, one could easily argue that Amy Sherman-Palladino based Rory Gilmore off yours truly. The creators must have pulled some dreamlike wizardry to access my soul when writing Jess into existence.
It might have been his poetic tenor, or his innate brilliance, wit and sarcasm. A punk rock historian, an indie-culturalist, a voracious reader, a fiction writer to Rory’s journalistic self. A hardened loner with a harsh upbringing and a runaway birth father. Despondent, in desperate need of love, a life without compassion, unwilling to accept it, but so clearly seeking it. My kingdom for a man who carries a faded copy of Howl in his back pocket, makes an ice cream study break feel dangerous, and says things like:
“I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I don’t like anyone else.”
Yes, Jess. I’m the only one who gets you. You’re the only one who gets me. Occupy and envelope me. Let’s live together, reclusive and hidden from the world.
“I just wanted to put some notes in the margins for you.”
No one is allowed to touch my books, let alone borrow them. But you… you I will allow to take pen to my paperbacks, to scribble your musings into my margins. I shouldn’t trust you with my heart. But I trust you with my books, and that means the same thing. You will, of course, violate that trust repeatedly. You will run away from me. You will come back to me. You will run away again. I will lose several precious books in the process, but that’s ok. I grant them to you, to the universe. Every time you leave, I will love you more; the chasms in my otherwise complete bookshelf an aching reminder of your absence.
“It is what it is. You, me.”
The summation of fated loves across the millennia. Romeo and Juliet. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina. Yes, Jess. We exist, outside of space and time. So when you’re gone, you’re still with me. I’m yours. You’re mine. Forevermore. The end.
This brings us to Gossip Girl’s manipulative and seductive Chuck Bass. In a six-year series filled with hot prep school guys and sexy father figures, the devious young heir to the Bass fortune had me from Season One, Episode One. His voice was entrancing. His gaze, hypnotic. His language, cunning. A singular phrase, “I’m Chuck Bass,” powerfully opened doors… to any VIP room or woman’s soul. He was a teen, play-acting a man, defined by libidinous orgies, debilitating addictions, and emotionless stoicism. The devil makes it easy to feel safe in the arms of a psychopath.
What engenders my romanticized attraction to Chuck Bass worse than all others was my age while succumbing to the lurid temptations of this fractured Upper East Side Machiavellian egoist. By the time these Manhattan adolescents created a new zeitgeist of privilege, I was well into my 30’s, renting my own studio apartment, and working at a financial newspaper that was far more AMC’s Mad Men than CW teen dream network. Naturally, the wise, healthy, and mature choice for someone of my personal and professional stature was an unscrupulous, serpentine gigolo with commitment issues. Sure, Chuck, I’ll hop in the back of your limo. XOXO.
The inevitable problem, of course, was that my sustained attraction to the dark and mysterious wounded archetype did not remain confined to the television screen nor my hot pink copies of Seventeen Magazine.
Recognizing this self-divined pattern, I reluctantly threw myself into years of cognitive behavioral therapy to unmask the schemas ruling my subconscious object choices. Fear of abandonment (so sure, choose an emotionally unavailable guy who will undoubtedly run away just so I can prove to myself that I am unlovable); Fear of vulnerability (yes, a man who hides from himself and from reality is a surefire way to avoid intimacy); Fear of defectiveness (of course, if the gentleman is equally wounded, then he won’t judge the broken version of me). It was not a quantum leap to determine why my injured soul would be attracted to (and likewise attract) equally disastrous men.
In my therapist’s tiny Manhattan office, and years later by distance phone consult, we worked through a series of my so-called loves.
My college years introduced me to a Midwestern golden boy with a storied past. Over mid-day lattes, evening study sessions and late-night phone calls, he revealed snippets of a life less ordinary… the anguish of growing up too fast, the shocking loss of innocence, the melancholy of unresolved grief. He was always running late, but sent me orchids and enchanting tokens to lure me back to his time zone. He had a knack for spilling coffee over his crisp white sheets, which I found endearing instead of careless. No other men could exist for me, while I held myself captive to this mythical idol. That is, until he decided to love a man instead.
As I entered my thirties, so entered a man who embodied an enthralling paradox of boundless contradictions: equal parts soulful and empty; calming and maddening; rational and unbalanced; anxious and peaceful. Needing me, then avoiding me. Omnipresent, then radio silent. Stable, then disorienting. For six years, he was my Manhattan, that is, only when he wanted to be. Until one day he took a much longer walk away from my apartment and into silent oblivion.
The magnetic European playboy captured my attention at a friend’s elegant party one winter’s night. His seductive energy was so overpowering, it knocked me over at the entryway door. Literally. His tales told of a lonely jetsetter’s life; a deficit of substance and connection, a surfeit of materialism and play. But he was a fleeting fringe fantasy. A spellbinding distraction. He was another flawed hero to my tragic heroine, but in a dashingly expensive suit and a posh jet off to Dubai. And like all journeys through the desert, he eventually faded like the mirage that he was.
Since it wasn’t sufficient to mourn televised heartbreaks while weeping over my own in the living flesh, I was eventually granted a man who was an amalgamation of every character (both real and fictional) who had come before him. Onlookers described us as enmeshed mirrors of each other. The three years we’d attempted to manage our transcendent connection served as a treatise on how to move and manipulate energy; how to delineate and blur identity. The dominance of transient power. The ease of accepting submission. Everything a Milan Kundera character must viscerally experience.
We had a precarious dynamic – one of mutual solace in our intersecting tragedies. His abuse was at first subtle – admonishing me for wearing a hat, scolding me for drinking coffee, repeatedly spelling my first name incorrectly with two L’s instead of one. The escalation was insidious … manipulating me into believing that I was the manipulative partner; disparaging me for failing to worship his version of God; weaponizing silence, then shunning me for trying to break it.
Unworthy of such a gift, I nonetheless bestowed upon him an unlimited “Get out of jail free card.” We were etheric partners, our worlds in flames, embers burning regrets of phantoms past. I believed my intuitive compassion could heal us, individually and collectively. Instead, he leveled me, mentally, emotionally, and finally physically. It took a lot more than ice cream and Netflix to emerge a phoenix out of that destruction.
Upon awakening, I realized that I could not hold these men accountable for their own metaphysical and spiritual journeys toward darkness or enlightenment. But I could hold myself accountable for continually choosing them. So I made a firm decision to step away from romantic illusions until I could sit comfortably and confidently with the reality of myself.
Ten months into my subsequently self-imposed exile from such entanglements, I nonetheless found myself cautiously trusting a man I met by happenstance while out of town for a day on business. Mere weeks into his dynamic chat app courtship, he quoted lyrics from the pop song “Broken,” by lovelytheband:
“I like that you’re broken, broken like me. Maybe that makes me a fool. I like that you’re lonely, lonely like me. I could be lonely with you.”
Great. Thank you, universe.
With my mental checklist, I conducted a comparative analysis between this new guy and my teen dramedy boyfriends. With no overt allusions to Chuck, I figured my chances of performing a drunken, spell-bound strip tease for him in a burlesque club were fairly slim. Hints of Dylan and Ben indicated a slight cause for concern. But, despite sporting a vastly different hair style, in every possible other respect, here was Jess manifest in the flesh. He swore that he’s never once watched Gilmore Girls. I asked. Twice.
At the very least, he surpassed his real life predecessor’s track record: he spelled my name correctly. But taking a self-respecting cue from the esteemed Angela Chase, I decided what to do should that change. After being twisted and turned by Jordan Catalano, his lyrical sadness, the mournful silence in his eyes, their clandestine kisses, his conflicted hand-written notes, she vowed to reclaim her own being; to be whole without his broken self.
Confidently walking away from him, she bellowed in his direction:
“And by the way, I spell my name with one L.”
Yes, Angela. So do I.