Close your eyes, and imagine.
You are a 12-year-old girl and real boys do not like you, and you are not sure if you like them. But the ones in movies—the ones in films and TV shows, the ones in fantasy and sci-fi stories, the ones with wings and horns and fangs and elf ears—you like them. You like when they are nice, except you also like when they are mean. They’re hurting, maybe. They need someone to be kind.
Your heart beats faster when you think about being kind in this way, to this kind of person. There is something growing an inch a day inside you like a well-watered sunflower. There is something reaching for the light, and you do not know what it is named.
In real life, you know that boys will laugh at you or ignore you altogether. You have a moon face and a bob that curls up unstylishly. You exist at two ends of the academic spectrum, either raising your hand with feverish desperation to be called on because you know the answer or doodling or reading under the table because you cannot be bothered with long division. You don’t know any of the members of *NSYNC, and you can’t tell any of them apart. None of them can do magic, so you don’t really care. You check out fat books from the library and delight in how hard it is to fit them in your backpack. You are, in short, a hard sell to a boy your own age.
But your girl friends who also like elves and pirates and vampires, they don’t see anything strange about you. They can be just as loud, take up just as much space, when they see you in the hallway. They invite you to the movies and then to sleepovers so you can debrief over the men, men, monstrous men, the stranger the better.
In real life, they like you for who you are. The stranger the better.
In real life, you start devoting yourself to female friends in a way that other girls do not.
Do you like the male characters that you have all bonded over, or do you like the bonding with the girls more? Do you like writing longhand in the notebook about how they will fall in love with you all and take you to live in a mansion, or do you like the way they are delighted by your stories?
Perhaps they are the same plant, a cluster of shared roots, but these feelings sprout separately, and they do not look connected from the surface.
Imagine you are in high school and you can’t decide if you’re gay because you still pine for the men you see in the movies. You play at dating boys. You want them to like you, but when they do, you start to hate them. When they show you attention, you feel smothered. You notice their every flaw with scientific precision. You break up with your first boyfriend at your locker because you don’t even want to look at him anymore, even though he never did anything wrong. When you tell him it’s over, he makes a face that you’ve never seen before.
But you’re boy-crazy, right? Can you still be boy-crazy if you only want boys that can never be attained? You think maybe you’re girl-crazy too, but that is the part you do not say out loud. No one seems directly opposed to it—your parents voted for Obama and spin David Bowie records, and your grandmother speaks fondly of the gay men she worked with at a now-extinct airline. Still, you feel a little dizzy when you think about telling people you’re girl-crazy. It is easier to talk about elf men. It’s a little easier to believe that you will be the queen of his kingdom than that your feelings for someone else might be returned.
You want to believe this isn’t all there is. Boys who tell their sisters they’re fat, boys who share their girlfriends’ nudes. Boys who flirt with you as a joke, the joke being no one ever really would. Boys who follow your friends home until they agree to date them. Boys who do not know their girlfriends’ birthdays or eye colors. This can’t be all there is. Please, God, this can’t be all there is.
Imagine, now, you are in your twenties. You are openly bisexual. You are in graduate school. You’re doing what you love, right? You’re doing what you love?
You’re studying creative writing and you’re going to teach and your dreams are coming true and you are so stressed that you have developed a persistent twitch in your left eye. When you look up reasons that might be happening to you, Google says that it may be caused by caffeine intake and anxiety. You have just received word that a family member checked in to an inpatient mental health facility, and you understand that now is not your turn to break down. Maybe next week. Maybe after this paper.
Really. You are doing what you love. Promise.
By now you have decided that you do not want an ordinary man at all, and your youthful attempts to date them look silly and costume-ish, like when you used to wear your mom’s homecoming dress, pretending to be a bride. You talk to women online. You meet people who don’t really fit into any kind of gendered category. You flirt. For the first time in a long time, you are pursued in a way that feels good by people who are your own people. Imagine a dog who keeps turning back to make sure it is being chased, a dog grinning as it runs. You like being chased.
But it is the imaginary men who have brought you together. They are the reason you have met. They are the ones you’re escaping with, when the reality you’ve always desired is now making it hard to inhale all the way. You all felt the same way about the same men.
There is a word for this now. Fandom. You aren’t unusual, now, people like you, the acolytes. All of you together, plotting their every move, making them kiss, making them beg, dressing them up like paper dolls in war uniforms and tuxedos and chain mail. Which man, you ask by creating these works, is most like you? Which one can you make most like you? When you write, who are you inhabiting? Who could love you like they love him?
You do not really doubt that you are a girl, but these men are not solid forms, they can be stepped into, they can be worn. You can give him life, in your stories, and he can give you confidence. You can imagine—you can imagine someone might love you with the piercing desire that this man, whichever one you’re thinking of, has been loved. He is not even real but he is so loved, and you are real but he has been exalted by a thousand keyboard clicks in a way that you can’t even get your head around. If he has died in fiction, he has been mourned in real life. If he has killed or maimed or betrayed, he has been forgiven. This, say the acolytes, pointing to a man who has committed atrocities, is my baby.
It is not strange to you that the other fans you talk to were brought to you by these sorts of men. The people you meet might also like baking and houseplants and true crime, things you enjoy independently of this fantasy world, but you would never have found these friends if these men had not been the chapel in which you all gathered. It is not strange to be connected by how you will hurt these men, in the privacy of your fiction and in the public square that is online fandom. It is not strange to bond over stories where they cry, where they lose one another, where they hate one another, where they cry again. These works are offered up to the crowd like a sacrificial lamb, tied and presented before a blade.
The spectacle can be overwhelming, but it sends your blood rushing. It reminds you of being a girl and thinking about placing the bandage on the monster’s wound, how it might growl and pant and flinch but not run away. It reminds you of studying art history and seeing saints, dazed and sobbing, ecstatic at the sight of what no one else could see. You could be on the shuttle bus or in a common area on campus, but in another universe, waiting for him to appear, him, him, on your phone, in your head.
You meet someone online. You meet a person who sees you like a medium sees ghosts. They see you like you have never quite been seen. At first, you imagine you need to put all this away, for their sake. You’re loved romantically by a real person now, so what do you need with your silly little monsters and villains? But no mad scientist can truly destroy their own creation, and you have spent years, decades, breathing life into these imaginary men. You cannot kill your darlings, not this late in the game.
And maybe you don’t have to. Your beloved is no stranger to this game. Maybe they like the same sorts of monsters and men. Maybe they have more to show you.
They teach you about space programs and about horror films. They’re a writer too. They wax poetic about Stephen King. And they show you Twin Peaks.
Smarter people than you have had smarter things to say about the show for years, and you’re so new to it. The coronavirus has been making headlines for months by the time you get around to a show that was airing before Desert Storm. But you are struck by one thing above all others—the way that the unreal can be made real by force in this show.
If everyone believes in the same thing, isn’t that thing real? Maybe the show is a metaphor for abuse, for family secrets, for the way that girls will cry out for help in a thousand ways and never be heard. Maybe the world is simply cruel, and girls will be used, and the harder they try to name their own terms, the harder they will be trampled. Women in Twin Peaks suffer endlessly. Madonna and whore, sinner and saint, they suffer.
Maybe that’s the way of the world, the real world.
But maybe this show is also a warning and an invitation. We can create our own reality—at our own risk.
You are loved by a person who encourages you. They are excited to hear about how your day went. They let you cry about the trivial and the terrible and hold you tight. This isn’t all there is, you want to tell yourself as a girl. There is more than a life being flirted with as a joke and a death wrapped in plastic. There is love, and it is real.
You were imagining someone, all this time. If you are a certain kind of person. You were imagining a character that you loved in a way that felt like staring at the sun. And you still love them, even if it’s been years, decades, even. You may have a mortgage and a cubicle and a spouse and a Labradoodle and children and a Honda and a membership to a gym you never go to, but you also have him, living inside you like a dormant gene. You may never show symptoms again of your girlhood obsession, but he will be there, caught like popcorn in your teeth.
Will you let him live inside you peacefully, or will you evict him by force?
Open your eyes.
Open your eyes, and maybe, just for a second, he will be standing in front of you.
Eva Niessner is a graduate of the Towson University’s Professional Writing program and specializes in creative nonfiction. Her work has previously appeared in Grub Street, and she has also been published in Baltimore Magazine. She lives in the Baltimore area with her partner and cats. She enjoys ghost tours and caring for plants.