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Life Lessons

On Imaginary Girlfriends

A kissing booth in aid of the New York Arthritic and Rheumatic Foundation, charging 25 cents a kiss, USA, 1953. (Photo by Carsten/Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
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I had an imaginary girlfriend when I was 14 years old. I did NOT tell anyone at school about this. I did not brag to my (limited number of) friends about having the mythical fake girlfriend who lives in Canada. My imaginary girlfriend was for me and me alone. Her name was Gwendolyn. I remember being attracted to names back then in ways that I have since grown out of. I guess Gwendolyn was one of those hot names for me.

I don’t remember what Gwendolyn looked like, if I ever really knew what she looked like at all. I remember she was attractive, because why wouldn’t the girlfriend living inside your head be shit-hot? But her face eludes me. As in dreams, your imagination doesn’t always give you crisply defined images. Everything FEELS real but exists in a heavenly murk that allows you to fall in love with an idea of a person, leaving enough of a blank canvas for you to fill in and erase and fill in again as your teenage whims dictate.

I’ve always suffered from a form of pre-insomnia where it takes me a while to fall asleep at night because I wanna use that time frame before the sleep takes hold of me to play around with my imagination. That was very much the case back when I was in middle school. The time between lights out and REM sleep was my chance to spend quality time with Gwendolyn. We would sit together on top of a sunny cliff overlooking shimmering waters while “Fragile” by Sting would play in the background. We would go on luxe ski vacations and make out on a bearskin rug at the lodge in front of a fireplace. Sometimes I imagined us breaking up specifically so that I could imagine us getting back together. I imagined us having sex, but in a strangely G-rated way because I didn’t really understand the logistics of sex back then. I hadn’t seen any hardcore porn yet. I had taken sex ed and knew what parts were supposed to go where, but you try looking at a textbook cross-section illustration of intercourse and tell me it gives you any idea of HOW to get your dick into someone. I used to make out with my pillow pretending it was Gwendolyn: an incredibly sad visual that you, fair reader, probably do NOT want swimming around in your dreamy murk. My apologies.

No matter how I imagined Gwendolyn, the main thing was that we were in love. Madly in love, all the time. Now I was madly in love with ACTUAL girls at that age. I told her one girl I loved her outright, because I did. That girl did NOT love me back, and said so in the politest terms over and over again. So, to ease the pain, I would go to bed and think of Gwendolyn instead. She, unlike the real girl, was powerless to resist my charms, because she didn’t exist. Of course, I was aware enough at the time to know that I couldn’t love ghosts forever. I would have to get myself an actual girlfriend one day or another. It was all I wanted, really. Took me until I was 19 until I had my first kiss. That pillow had made for decent practice. I was a rookie but I understood how fucking VALUABLE that kiss was. It had been my life’s goal to get that kiss. Two years year after that I had my first actual, long-term girlfriend.

I remind myself a lot about how lucky I am that I graduated from imaginary girlfriends to being married outright. The older you get, the more your hormones settle down and you become less desperate for love, especially (and ironically) if you happen to have it. Love can spoil you for love. You can take it for granted. To stave off that ennui, I often rummage through my memory and drag those middle school feelings out of the steam trunk so I can hop into the wayback machine. Those feelings are as gauzy in my mind right now as Gwendolyn was to me back then. But that elusiveness only makes them that much more tantalizing.

I remain occasionally fixated on first love—NOT the girls who brought them about, just that addictive pain of falling in love for the first time, so much so that I wrote a novel about it (PLUG ALERT). I don’t think I’m alone. The reason Facebook grew into a behemoth was because, in its infancy, everyone looked up old classmates they carried a torch for. You could do that discreetly on Facebook and pretend the flame wasn’t still eight stories high. And Facebook offered the tantalizing possibility of reaching out to those old flames and maybe, just maybe, touching them at long last.

Because all of that early love matters. Middle school is roughly the age where you DISCOVER love, and so its pull is indelible in ways that can fade as you grow old and start having actual relationships. The mystery and the awe dissipate a little, which is a shame because adults often treat teenage love as something that is not real. It’s just a mere byproduct of hormones. People will tell you it’s just a “crush,” blithely ignoring the very appropriate connotation of that word. The love I felt for that girl at school was very much real. I pined for her all the time, “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx playing in my head on a constant loop. Rejected, I then grafted that love onto a daydream of a girl because love was the only thing I gave a fuck about. And if I had to invent ways in my mind of getting it, I was willing to do just that.

I have love now. It’s strong and everlasting. You might suspect this is some David Brooks column where I’m poorly hinting that I am unhappy in my life and marriage somehow. It is not. This is even worse than that: this is me being every thirsty husband on Twitter whose bio like “somehow married to an amazing woman!” Because I am amazed. I remain floored everyday that someone real—and highly attractive to boot!—loves me. That’s not false modesty. I used to fuck my sheets, man. That counts as legitimately modest romantic beginnings. And it’s worth remembering those beginnings, no matter how embarrassing they may be. Maybe you got a Gwendolyn in your closet. That’s all right. That’s YOUR closet. You get to put whatever you want in it. If you’ve ever imagined love, you know how precious it is when it becomes real. Don’t ever forget what a miracle that is.