As a teenager, I indulged and luxuriated in fandom for fandom’s sake. I learned how to make fan websites and graphics for the Lord of the Rings films, and created elaborate desktop wallpaper designs based off of Japanese manga and anime art. My favourite fanfiction (“fic”) were ensemble clips, romps in different mashup or alternate universes with the whole gang together. But as I slipped into the hot bath of puberty, something changed.
Romantic subtexts, either ignored or misremembered in my first pass at a book, a show, or a film, reared into the spotlight. I started “shipping,” or rooting for, particular romantic pairings, and wrote romance-based fic of my own (always pining, always slow burns, always rivals becoming friends becoming more). I was pulled further and further into fandom as a mirror of my own budding desires, my own yearnings. And then, the turn—I began to fall for my own friends, and the seam between my fictional obsessions and my real life ones began to pucker and tear.
For those of us who are prone to crushes, there is a pattern to how they develop: it always starts with a look, or the imagining of a look. Something about their eyes is particularly tender; the way they touch the other people in their world is considerate, even if they’re not being gentle. They have passionate voices and funny laughs, and they are funny themselves. They feel so real and yet unreal. There, just a breath away from you, in the beating of your heartbeat in your head, or just in your heady imagination—even if they’re technically real. Such was the case with my long string of high school crushes.
It’s hard for me to imagine this version of myself, penning long email love letters to just about every boy in her high school friend group, confessing for the sake of it, not because there was actual emotion there. I both was and wasn’t in love with all of these boys. Rather, I was shooting arrows into the sky and wondering if one, if any, would fall and strike something and someone real.
And then it happened: my love found a foothold in someone I hadn’t expected, and we began to climb together. My fictional crushes melted away at the feeling of someone else’s warm skin. I once described it as “the warming shivers of his body when he’d bike over to my house in the frozen silence of a suburban winter and I’d peel off his jackets like cheap wallpaper, both of us revelling in the warmth released with each layer shed.”
My emotional language, already hyperbolic, took a turn toward the ecstatic. I grew up without God, but found something worth worshipping in the heat between two bodies, the way my hand reached for him and my heart hurt for him even when he was there and then, increasingly so, when he wasn’t.
It’s unclear when my side of our love tipped into possessiveness, but we were living on opposite sides of the continent when it happened. I was the one far from home for college, reshaping my image, my body, and my ideas to better fit what I thought other people wanted. Our breakup, initiated by him, was the final nail in the coffin of my self-esteem. Which is to say that I wanted him to want me, but if he wouldn’t, then surely it was my fault—because of my excess of wanting.
So much of the appeal (note appeal, not strength) of our relationship had been its storybook beginnings: he was my friend’s quiet childhood best friend who’d remembered details about me for years before we’d finally started talking on our own. It was the kind of story I had wanted to tell our kids about, the type of myth codified in rom-coms and Modern Love alike, and it wasn’t real. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I was in a hormonal bloodbath and that if I couldn’t have him, then perhaps I could find someone else.
That was an experiment that ended almost as soon as it began: I hooked up with someone during President’s Day weekend and threw up afterward, not from shame, but from disgust. The encounter itself was fine, but the feeling of using, of being used, even consensually, stuck with me. For the next two-and-a-half years, as my peers were engorging themselves on other willing flesh, I threw myself half-heartedly into the action and then, as suddenly as I’d begun, I stopped.
My feelings, directed outward for so long, returned to where they’d begun: in the realm of fiction, imagined and nurtured in my head. Thus began the next arc of my love, one anchored by my fantastic lovers, the spectres that took seed in the fertile soil of my stalled sex drive and my plucky, lonely heart.
In lieu of real-life warmth, I chased proxy passion, specifically by slipping back into the world of fandom and its concurrent romantic and sexual releases. Among the many, many characters whose love lives I explored vicariously during this time, three stand out.
I started watching the TV show Pushing Daisies in high school, with the boy I’d loved. We were both charmed by it, and at the time, I saw ourselves as parallels with Ned and Chuck, the pie maker and the ex-dead woman at the centre of the story. When we broke up, I thought I would never revisit the show again.
That didn’t last for long. The show’s balance of morbidity and sanguinity still strikes a unique chord—and in Ned, I found an archetype that’s since become My Type: tender, sceptical, but strong in his resolve. The many small real people crushes I harboured in my heart were all on men who gave off gentle and warm vibes. In his and Chuck’s relationship, I had an early vision of #goals, of love that was built on the most fragile of premises but became stronger because of it. In hindsight, isn’t the premise also a little bit creepy? Sure, but it’s hard to find a really good love story that isn’t shaded in some darkness.
Speaking of darkness—I’d first watched, and then read, the manga series Fullmetal Alchemist as a teen, and had shipped two characters hard: Roy and Riza. It was a slow burn ship, one that thrived on fan imagination because of the barriers the characters had between each other: one was the other’s commanding officer, one had given the other the gift of flame alchemy via a cursed back tattoo. While my fandom had centred on Roy alone during my teen years, in revisiting the story, I couldn’t now invest in one and not the other. Roy and Riza’s love was an unspoken but ironclad bond, forged with the kind of fury and loyalty that is only born through trial and time.
The “will they/won’t they” dance is pervasive in popular culture, but the stakes oftentimes don’t feel that high, because the consuming audience doesn’t want them to be. X is dating someone besides Y to make them jealous is the sort of thing that is cute and just frustrating enough in a story, but it is hell if it’s happening to you.
Compared to the shattered and smoldering love lives of my peers, Roy and Riza’s bond was much easier for me to understand. In real life, people danced around their relationship definitions, oftentimes under the influence of substances, oftentimes to their emotional ruin, running on projected apathy and an abundance of possible partners. In their story, Roy and Riza never “defined their relationship,” but that didn’t make their love any less clear to readers, who latched on to the pair.
To be openly and yet secretly in love, to have your love be something that only you can understand about yourselves, and for that secret love to be what sustains you and drives you—how uncomplicated a motivation. In a dating scene that demanded the most of you, I was drawn to a depiction of love as unspoken but pure.
I reached my peak fandom regression when my friend and I binge-watched three seasons of Digimon together. The watching stemmed from a purely nostalgic desire, but along the way, it became a comfort. The show’s main characters always arrive as a set of archetypes, and I self-identified with both Matt and Sora, from the show’s first generation. One was emo and dramatic and easily wounded, the other functioned as the mother of the group, but a mother who struggled from her own private doubts. In the story’s canon, they ended up together; they were an easy ship, like leading along like.
But I started revising my opinion of the show’s characterizations. Part of it came from the release of Digimon Adventure tri, a new show that follows Matt and Sora’s generation as high school kids. There’s a two-fold punch built into the story: you recognize these characters because they were kids when you were a kid, and now they’ve grown up and are facing their versions of your own challenges. It seems obvious now that Matt, in particular, needed someone to challenge him. And what better compliment than his childhood rival turned friend, Tai?
Opposites attract, and in Matt and Tai’s case, they build each other up even when they butt heads. It isn’t always enough to find support in those who think and act like you: perhaps the real alchemy is in finding someone who shares the same goals as you, but who can inform your opinions and experiences in new ways. This reconfiguration is built into the show, as the core dynamic centres almost solely around Matt and Tai. I found myself drawn to this pairing as a matter of course, rooting for them to realize that their best supports are each other.
In the midst of telling these parts of my story, I skipped over another: I fell in love with someone, and am with him still.
I didn’t mean for it to happen: my best friends coaxed me into joining OkCupid, and I’d reluctantly signed up and began chatting with people. I finally met up with one of them and we have been together for almost three years. My current partner is someone whom I love fiercely, but also fluidly. As strange as it sounds, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to maintain and grow this relationship if it weren’t built on the backs of all of my fictional lovers, the ones who guided me through their own stories and my projections upon their stories.
He is not the living embodiment of a Frankenstein-ian crush creation: he has lived and been his own person in the world. But the things I learned about what I desired in another person, as well as of myself, only germinated during my period of intentional withdrawal from interpersonal chaos. While others learned from real examples, I sought fictional guides, my own lovelorn Virgils shaping and solidifying my personhood before I imposed it upon someone else’s.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t want to have sex, or be in a relationship, or explore other people’s bodies and worlds. I wanted love, but didn’t want to suffer at, or be subjected to, the hands of other people, to see what love could mean to and for myself. And when love finally unfolded in my heart for another person, it led to a revelation akin to the one that stopped me from dating in the first place: I can choose what I want for myself, even if—especially if—the choice is nothing. The agency I gleaned is still something I’m exploring in my work and in my other relationships, but at least in this way, I like to think I’ve learned.
This doesn’t mean that I had to rescind my fandom affections. If anything, they’ve gotten stronger. Only now, I don’t wonder about the things I could want in a partner. He is beside me, warm and wonderful and whole, the keeper of a love I first nurtured within. My greatest ship now? That of, and for, myself.
Art by Lilian Min