When I was thirteen, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time. I was mesmerized by the story of Heathcliff, a homeless boy who comes to live with the well-to-do Mr. Earnshaw, his nasty son Hindley, and his spirited young daughter Catherine.
Catherine and Heathcliff become friends, then soulmates. But they can’t quite find their happy ending. They marry other people. Catherine becomes gravely ill. As she lies dying in her bed, Heathcliff bursts into her room and rages:
“Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
I remember thinking: Guys talk to girls like this? Wow! This falling-in-love business must be really, really great!
I had a similar reaction to Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, which I read soon after:
“I cannot give up these joys. I have little left in myself—I must have you. The world may laugh—may call me absurd, selfish—but it does not signify. My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied: or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame.”
And Will Ladislaw from Middlemarch:
“Explain! Tell a man to explain how he dropped into hell! Explain my preference! I never had a preference for her, any more than I have a preference for breathing. No other woman exists by the side of her. I would rather touch her hand if it were dead, than I would touch any other woman’s living.”
And Oliver Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
And as she melted small and wonderful in his arms, she became infinitely desirable to him, all his blood-vessels seemed to scald with intense yet tender desire, for her, for her softness, for the penetrating beauty of her in his arms, passing into his blood.
Needless to say, I fell in love with these fierce, passionate characters and couldn’t wait to meet their counterparts in real life.
So it was truly a shock to me when I realized that high school boys weren’t like this. They didn’t talk to me about souls and abysses and breathing. Mostly, they talked to me about sports, Aerosmith, or Ayn Rand. One guy tried to seduce me by asking me whether he could park his “airplane” in my “hangar.” (Um, no.)
One could certainly chalk up this not-swoony date behavior to teenage immaturity. But things didn’t improve much when I became an adult. My dates and boyfriends then seemed just as unromantic and uninteresting. Some of them were more Hindley than Heathcliff.
Yes, I know. Fiction is fictional and life is not. There is no way that real men can live up to the gorgeous, heart-wrenching fantasies of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, or D. H. Lawrence. I was probably to blame as well. To quote (the awesome) Stephen Chbosky: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
Still … where were the Heathcliffs of the world?
Fast forward to the year 2000. I started dating this guy. He was brilliant, kind, and funny. He liked all the right TV shows. He adored my son.
On top of which, he said things to me that Heathcliff (and Mr. Rochester and Will Ladislaw and Oliver Mellors) would have said. He told me that he didn’t believe in heaven but wished he could because he couldn’t bear to be parted from me someday. He told me that we were binary stars. He told me that he had been put on this earth to love me and make me happy.
What did I do?
Reader, I married him.