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Mirages of Flight April 3, 2000
When sweet nothings come to just that.
I knew he loved me because he sent me a paper airplane.
There I was, hanging around at his friend's house, surrounded by people I didn't really know and feeling pretty uncomfortable, when a paper airplane came whizzing into my lap. I opened it, and the scrawled pencil message read 'I love you, Jenna.'
Warm fuzzies exploded all over my insides. 'He DOES love me,' I thought. 'Here we are, in the middle of a party, and he's so proud to be with me that he's not afraid to show everyone in the room how romantic he can be.'
Neurons short-circuited in my brain as I analyzed this ten second gesture for the next several hours. It was clear; he saw that I was nervous around his friends, and this plane signified that he was my wingman. He was attuned to my needs and wanted to send me a silent reassurance that he was always going to be by my side. He was so in love with me that he wanted his proclamation of loyalty to soar through the sky for all to see. Heck, what a guy. I had really landed a good one this time, for sure.
I held onto that paper airplane for years.
Every time we had a fight, I'd take it out and run my fingers over it and remember the innocent gesture. The way it made me feel. The wide-eyed look he flashed me when I unfolded it in front of his macho buddies.
Every time he didn't show up on an important day, I'd look at it and remember that even if he had a poor memory, he loved me.
Every time he got drunk and left me to fend for myself at a dance club or bar, I'd clutch that paper airplane and remember that even if he had a little problem with alcohol, he loved me.
Every time he hung around after work to party the night away with his friends and forgot to call me to say he'd be late, leaving me to sit and wait until three in the morning when I had to be at work by nine, I'd pull out that paper airplane and remember that even if he was sometimes thoughtless, he loved me.
That piece of paper was his 'get out of jail free' card for years. It was the proof that, no matter what, there was this inkling of hope. There was this small sign that underneath all the carelessness and inattention, he had a heart.
That's why it took me so long to realize that I was dating a jerk. That one, neatly-folded piece of paper was a curse, because it let me hang onto a false perception of who this guy was.
Sure, little romantic gestures are wonderful, but they don't excuse big unromantic blunders. How many times had I given him the benefit of the doubt and erased all the negatives from my mind just because he'd occasionally done something cute? How could I have underestimated my own worth so much that I'd allow myself to pin all my hopes to one token of love?
'You can do better,' my friends would say with amazing regularity. 'He didn't even show up to your opening performance.' Of course he didn't. I was an actress, and whenever my shows opened, he had a reason to be elsewhere. He couldn't get out of work. He had an early morning the next day. He had to go shoe shopping with his mother. (Oh, you think I'm kidding about that last one, don't you? I'm more than a little embarrassed to tell you I'm not.)
'But he loves me,' I'd say, and I'd get a mental image of that paper airplane flying across my mind. They just didn't see the real him, I knew. They just didn't realize what a sweet and sensitive guy hid under all those missed performances and lapses of good judgment.
Fortunately, along came one of the worst days of my life. It was his birthday, and I spent all month preparing a ridiculously elaborate surprise party. I invited everyone he'd ever known - childhood friends, co-workers, schoolmates, family... everyone. I drove six hours to rent out the bar in which he'd worked in college. I decorated it top to bottom with streamers, balloons, and hand-made posters, had it catered, and brought a CD player to make sure all his favorite Bob Marley and Grateful Dead tunes would ring out when he arrived.
I could barely breathe when the big moment came. 'Surprise!' they shouted, and his eyes lit up like a little boy on Christmas morning. I'd done well. He smiled at me and thanked me for the greatest party he'd ever seen.
Two minutes later, he was gone - he went out to get high and drunk with some old buddies in the parking lot. I tried to keep the other guests entertained as I searched for him. Every time I spotted him, he'd disappear again. His buddy would offer him a birthday drink. He'd take it. His coworker would offer him a birthday smoke. He'd take it. I think I ran into him twice, but he didn't want to stand anywhere near me. He was too caught up in getting as hammered as possible as quickly as possible.
Within forty-five minutes, I had to carry him out of the place. He threw up for eight hours, and I sat watch outside the bathroom door with water and damp towels for his forehead. While I was gone, one of his 'old friends' stole my CD player from the bar. (The friend - and my CD player - had vanished by the time I went back to settle up the astronomical bill.) The next morning, he expressed his gratitude again by announcing he was going for a week-long road trip with friends, leaving me to make the six hour drive back home alone.
Suddenly, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't imagine that paper airplane. The fantasy had dissipated. This wasn't a man who loved me; it was a boy who was shallow and troubled and adolescent, who accidentally once scribbled some sweet words on a piece of paper and sent them airborne.
I didn't need this guy. I didn't need to be so desperate that I would settle for discount-rack displays of affection in lieu of real love. I had to learn that 'sweet nothings' were aptly named.
I sent that paper airplane off to crash and burn. It takes a lot more than four words on a piece of paper to make a real love fly.
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