Real Unreal Things by Andrew David King

I. Thorn (Actual)

I was fourteen, and the rose was perfect. I’d engineered an equally perfect plan for the major opportunity my freshman-year Sadie Hawkins dance presented: one of the most admired girls in class had asked me—me?— to go with her. Over MySpace, sure, and we hardly spoke. Though my high school’s dances were always filled with pseudo-music, sweat, darkness, and throngs of hormonal teenagers, this one offered a chance.

Four hours and too many slow songs later, floodlights flashed on and ended the night. We said perfunctory goodbyes; she left to catch her ride home. I loitered as the gym cleared out, long enough to spy the rose wilting on the bleacher where she  had set it down. Before I could decide whether it was an act of forgetting or rejecting, whether I wanted to take it home or not, an older boy snatched the rose, ran through the crowd, and dropped it into the arms of another girl.

This was not part of Plan A, or B, or C. This was not even supposed to be part of any failure I’d imagined. I ran up to the boy, tugged his sleeve, and asked him where he found that. I pointed at his love interest twenty feet away, the rose against her chest, oblivious.

“Wait, uh, that was yours?” His smirk collapsed into mortification. “I can, uh, I can go get—”

I said no. I didn’t want it, not really. It hadn’t been meant for me. And though I didn’t say it, I knew it made his date far happier than it made mine. She had the rose, she loved it; to demand it back would be futile. In some indirect way, things had worked out, but not for my gain.

That night, I logged back on to MySpace, hoping for an acknowledgment or an apology or anything at all; some thanks, if I was lucky. Nothing. “Friends”—the word seemed hollow. It was almost bitter in its irony, or its exactness. Friends didn’t give friends roses. Friends didn’t touch too close. I clicked on her profile, the angled picture of her face. She wore eye shadow classily. She was pretty, but she was only a friend, in the smallest way possible.

Five years later, the rose seems far from perfect. By the standards of my freshman year in high school, it was at best a good intention, at worst an experiment-gone-awry with the opposite sex. For a portion of junior high and onward—it stings to admit—dating was something other people did, like getting tattoos or cutting class, an endeavor that didn’t seem to be governed by any logical rules. You put in tons of hard work, and you got the girl. Or you put in tons of hard work, and she ignored you. Nothing computed.

That first impression is still hard to outgrow. Today, by my generation’s standards, the physical rose is even further removed from whatever the courtship process might imply. If there was a good reason for altering the mechanics of our interactions so drastically, or if it was our choice at all, is a question I can’t answer. From passing notes, to e-mail, to MySpace, to Facebook and texting: we’ve switched our candles in for LEDs. Part of me wonders, though, if I—if we—miss real heat. The authenticity, the actuality, and the tangibility of flame.

The risk of being burned, in every sense, has its promises and drawbacks. There’s a chance to fall in love in the way a generation weaned on Disney movies conceives (or used to conceive) to be the ideal. But there’s also the fear that rejection, weedy and unmovable, might root in the soil you watered so something better might bloom. That your rose will languish on a gymnasium bleacher, petals browning.

I think this was the point where MySpace, the online playground of the day, became both problem and salve. The world was my pixelated sandbox. There was a screen, and nothing could pass through it without my permission. Every unreturned message existed in a dimension I could willfully create or destroy by clicking on the red “X” in the browser’s corner. I could suffocate any electronic fire that threatened my self-esteem by flicking a few fingers. It was as real as I wanted to make it.

My ideas about relationships changed with this discovery: instant messaging was superior to the slow burn of conversation; breakups could be instantaneous and clean. Fresh from the old way of pen and paper, I grew accustomed to my own Occam’s Razor: the simplest solution was the best one. I’d meet someone, search Google or Facebook for them later, and begin the process again. If they weren’t interested, I could minimize humiliation in seconds—no thorns necessary. This is what I told myself over and over.

II. Thorn (Imagined)

One May several years ago, I met the girl with whom I’d share my first long-term relationship. What started with text messages and impromptu Facebook chats turned into late-night drives and early morning hours spent lying on the lawns of neighborhood parks, looking at stars and talking armchair philosophy. This progressed into a solid romance that had its rough patches and breaks. But I can’t forget that it started with one Facebook chat: she was at a party, didn’t want to get high with her friends, asked if I wanted to hang out instead.

We went to separate schools, met mostly on weekends, bought each other roses occasionally. Facebook and texting were how we stayed in love on a daily basis. Soon, the vast echo chamber of the screen shrunk until it disappeared. A declaration of love, an angry comment—with time, pixels on a two-inch display attained the impact of spoken words. There was a particular language we dealt in, and it didn’t depend on paper, or on voice, to hold significance. Our online lives took on the weight of reality.

After a few years, we separated. We saw other people, then rejoined. This was our cycle. Then, at a seminar in Iowa City last summer, I made friends with a girl from New York. Time spent talking in bookstores and catching fireflies on the sidewalk seemed events almost reminiscent of themselves, parts of a narrative I’d fantasized about so strongly it adopted the aura of having happened. There was no real future for us, anyway; any permanent relationship, if there could be one, was slighted by geography.

We returned to our respective coasts. Six months of silence ensued. Then, out of nowhere, a quirky proposition: we should become pen pals, write each other letters. Real letters, on real paper, with real ink.

I didn’t believe one would ever show up. It did—and as I tore open the envelope I felt grounded, for a change, focused on the invisible line between her and me. I was at home in Hayward, California, not the effervescent “home” of Facebook or my web browser. Here was the handwriting of a human being, not an Internet cache. I felt, for a moment, less a Luddite than a romantic, that something important had fallen out of modernity’s trunk as it sped toward the future.

We traded more letters, and phone calls.

“If I lived in California, do you think we would be romantically involved?” she asked one night.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”

I collect the letters, and I still write back. There’s something to be said for real paper. It can give you a paper-cut. You can taste its adhesive, or set it aflame. It lives in this world, not a hypothetical one—though I often wonder which is which. Struck with the difficulty of actually knowing someone, of late-night drives full of the silence that pushes people closer by necessity, both Facebook and handwritten letters color in the same white space. As much as I first valued the computer for its distance, now both mediums take turns inhabiting this space of what seems real, true.

Both create realms with short half-lives and unwritten rules (the profile picture must be perfect; the fact that she’s taking longer to respond must mean something). Facebook is a universe where I can give hundreds of roses to hundreds of people constantly, hope that they respond, but not really care whether they do. Where falling in “like,” and maybe love, is both the series of blind checkmates it always was, and a calculated equation.

But opening her letters is another experience: I am the heat I felt in my chest in July, the beat-around-the-bush questions, the sheepish glances. Then I’m back online, and the minutiae of seven hundred individuals washes it all away like words scrawled in sand. Each wave of status updates—X is going out for dinner! Y Ugh, can’t believe how much homework I have—drags me back to the present. And the flame dances down its short wick.

andrew david kingAndrew David King studies English and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has received the Joan Lee Yang Memorial Prize in Poetry and the F. C. S. Schiller Prize in Philosophy. His criticism, essays, and nonfiction has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, ZYZZYVA, The Rumpus, PopMatters, and California State University textbooks. Email him at andrewking.adk@gmail.com.

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