Here are some facts about 2009, an important year for me and the men in my life:
1. I had just turned twenty, a perfect age to consider yourself an adult (and fail).
2. I spent a semester abroad in Germany.
3. I was in the second year of my Long-Term College Relationship®, which was already starting to limp along but – by God – I was committed to making it work. I felt cocky about this.
4. I was infatuated with many, many boys who were not the other half of my Long-Term College Relationship®.
5. My younger sister Emily introduced me to Gossip Girl.
RE: #2: European travel is completely how you imagine it, about 50% of the time. As a young straight American woman, you will be charmed by every man you meet. They will treat you to tiny cups of espresso and kiss you on the cheek, which will give you goosebumps. You will spend inordinate amounts of time staring at large bodies of water. You will have a lot of revelations. You will probably have at least one regretful sexual encounter.
RE: #5: Emily and I watched Gossip Girl just before I took off for my semester abroad. First I scoffed in the living room as I sunk behind my Heinrich Böll novels, then I was in. Gossip Girl is a teen drama that follows the sexual antics of prep schoolers in Manhattan. The show’s main concept (a gossip site run by the titular character) is quickly sidelined by the fact that everyone sleeps with everyone and don’t tell anyone until, of course, everything gets dramatically revealed at the school dance. There is a lot of capital-S-Scandal. Gossip Girl‘s staple is high schoolers in short plaid skirts hurling witty bon mot and planning total social destruction on an episodic basis. Everything is very, very dramatic. The Last Straw. The Moment. All the characters are sixteen or seventeen years old.
RE: #1, 3, 4: My Long-Term College Relationship® and I had little in common except loneliness and the shared prospect of marriage after college. I was bored. So I found a willing participant, we used each other and I walked away. This seemed unusual and kind of cool. There was also lots of crying. Lots of journaling by those large bodies of water.
RE: #1, 2: The dirty secret of foreign travel is that the other 50% of the time, your life is average. It is exhausting to speak in a foreign tongue, oceans away from your family and friends, and never have any goddamn money. There will be whole days when you do not speak to anyone. You will hang out less with the charming Europeans and more with the other, desperate American students. You will spend a lot of time in your dorm room. You will watch a lot of American television.
RE: #2, 4: I watched a lot of American TV in my German dorm room. Lots of romantic stuff: How I Met Your Mother, Mad Men, Gossip Girl. Also, I see now, lots of stuff about cheating.
Related: In Germany I met a boy from Illinois. He wasn’t one of my devastatingly good looking flatmates who often walked out of the shower in tiny boxer shorts, but he was searching for The European Romantic Experience just as much as I was. It got bad when he told me he was in love with me and I thought oh shit but darn it, before that he was funny and had big enough dreams and brought me late-night Chinese food. He serenaded me on guitar, which he bought as soon as he arrived in Germany.
RE: #3, 4, 5: There are moments when Gossip Girl reminds us that we are watching teenagers. For all their underage drinking and sexing, the characters are children trying to navigate the grossly enabled desires of their hormonal hearts. A character whines to his father, “But I don’t wanna go to Dartmouth!” (I have an excellent impression of this. Emily loves it). A female character falls apart in a crumpled pile of oversized knees and elbows; the skinny bones of her back and her flat chest youth incarnate.
Related: The last night we were in Germany, the boy from Illinois and I spent the night in the airport. Living for five months in the hyper-romantic foothills of Europe had sucked all ambition from me. We curled up in the airport coffee shop and instead of having final deep talks or confessing last dark feelings, we sat with our hands to ourselves and alternated catnaps.
RE: #1, 2, 3, 4, 5: Young people have an inflated sense of their own desires. For the sake of fantasy, Gossip Girl also gives them unlimited credit lines and inherited coke habits, but when I watched that show in my foreign dorm room, disappointed by my lack of romance and running into brick walls trying to make it up, I knew at least that my urges weren’t wrong. We see network TV-level scandal, hyper-accelerated attraction everywhere. We make Mistakes That Ruin Everything. We will Never Be Forgiven. At least half the time. The other half, we are average, and this truth drives us into Long-Term College Relationships®, and, when those don’t work out, into the long-lashed stares of Illinois farm boys. How silly we were at the time, to think we’d be alone forever.
Related: I did not feel silly. In my head, like I saw on the screen, I was beautiful and damaged, loved and loathed. I had beautiful clothes, I knew I was desired, and I knew what to do about it. Everything played out in an episode one semester long. Fifty percent of a perfectly expected storyline, airing on primetime.