Taking The Lead

Moodeous Photography

On New Year’s Eve, back when I was twenty-two, I watched The Holiday. You know, that cute little movie starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet. It was long after midnight and I had had maybe three too many glasses of champagne. When the movie ended I went home and cried. I sat on the patio of my house and fully-body ugly sobbed. There is a line in that movie that Eli Wallach (the old guy) says to Kate Winslet that set me off. He tells her, “Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.” I hadn’t realized it before/until that moment, but I often feel like the best friend in my own life.

I had just spent the last year pining over a guy who was engaged to someone else. We had met at a YMCA camp training and flirted dangerously. He liked all the same books I did and was hungry to read more. He recommended TV shows, which I devoured by the season. We talked and texted continuously just a half step beyond friendship. I fell hard. When I say pining what I mean is that I thought I was in love with him. I thought maybe he was in love with me, too. Years later I found out even my mother thought I was in love with him. When he told me he was engaged, maybe a month in to our friendship, I was crushed. I held on to hope that he might leave her right up until the wedding. I went to their wedding and cried in the bathroom. Yep, I’m that girl. The girl who feels like she somehow deserves the guy over the bride. The feminist in me is cringing just thinking about it. I can’t even begin to explain how humiliating it is to be the girl that cries in the bathroom at someone else’s wedding. But wait, it gets better. The dress I bought for that wedding that I loved dearly, that I was sure was the perfect dress, was nearly identical to the bridesmaids’ dresses. Yep, I went to the wedding of the boy I thought I loved dressed like his bride’s maid.

If this were a rom-com, he would have left her at the altar. If this were a rom-com I would have met one of the groomsmen and he would have turned out to be the guy of my dreams. If this were a rom-com, she would have fallen into the cake. Even better, he would have fallen into the cake. (None of this is her fault.) My life, though, is not a movie and I do not feel like the leading lady. I am the best friend. I, ending my twenty-second year, had just gone through one of the most emotionally charged periods of my life and so I sat on my patio and wept. I was Kate Winslet before she meets Jack Black. I was always going to be pre-Jack Black Kate Winslet.

Because my life is not romantic, I didn’t meet the guy of my dreams that next year or in the next five years that followed. Instead, I earned my teaching credential in math, moved eight hundred miles away from my family for a job, lost that job, then ended up three thousand miles away to teach at an all-girls boarding school. If you think it is hard to meet men at your job, try working at a boarding school, even better an all-girls’ one. We have maybe fifteen men on faculty, all of whom are over thirty-five and married.

Now at twenty-seven, I am still decidedly single. The boy I fell for showed me all his flaws and I stood up from the fall and brushed myself off. He became one of my closest friends, his son my honorary nephew, and his wife my dear friend. She loves him for all of the reasons he and I wouldn’t have worked. She is in love with him and I am not. At twenty-seven, I can see all the things that I couldn’t at twenty-two. At twenty-seven, I can see myself. And although I still can’t bring myself to watch The Holiday again, I am working on becoming a leading lady. Because as Kate Winslet replies, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake!”

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  • Amen sister! This is the exact reminder I needed. Sometimes I think we need to put down the DVD’s and live the life we have in front of us.

    Ahem. I am also not Aurelia from Love Actually and do not need to meet a charming man who speaks a different language to encourage me to do so (and off I go to study German grammar).

    • The Aurelia storyline has always been my favorite in Love Actually. And then I met a handsome (foreign) guy, moved to his country and learned the language.

      I always wanted to learn another language, but thought that I couldn’t since I’m “not a language person.” Turns out I just needed a little [giant] push and immersion in a language to figure out how to “be a language person” (which I put in quotes bc I think anyone can learn another language if they have enough time and motivation).

      • I love that part of Love Actually too. I think that the insidious part of the Rom-Com is the belief that if you have an awesome personal dream, you need “the Man” to motivate you.

        I am capable of getting off my own ass without a man thankyouverymuch. Although “the Man” can help alot (but is completely not necessary).

      • Yes I also loved the Aurelia part of the story. So sweet, and like One more Sara I ended up moving to a foreign country for love, learning the language, assimilating.

    • Corrie

      Oh boy do I love Love Actually (though, talk about some unrealistic storylines…). I’ve always loved the Natalie character, mostly because, like her, I also have a sizeable ass and can’t seem to filter my use of the ‘F word,’ but that’s neither here nor there.

      The most realistic character, I think, is Karen – I can totally relate to her opening the present on Christmas Eve, with the expectation of something else, only to find that that her gift nor relationship were what she thought they were. Except for me, it was the expectation of an engagement ring/being engaged (versus my partner cheating – thank goodness it wasn’t that). That scene of her trying to get herself together in the bedroom makes me cry every time because it’s what I’ve done for 2 Christmases in a row. At least Karen speaks up for herself though, which reminded me that I needed to do the same if I wanted a realistic understanding of what was going on in our relationship.

      • KB

        That scene ALWAYS without fail makes me cry. Every. Single. Time. It’s a brilliant piece of acting and storytelling.

    • I still say, “just in cases” because I love that story line so much.

      • oh, thank goodness it’s not just me

    • MDBethann

      I think what I like best about “Love Actually” is that it shows love in all of its stages and facets – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes we find it in unexpected places. It glosses over things sure, but it shows life’s ebbs and flows.

      After all this talk about Love Actually and The Holiday, I think I know what I’ll be doing this weekend…..

  • This. Was. Perfect. I LOVED it. I am over the moon about how awesome this is and exactly what I needed to hear today. You go girl!!

  • Those same lines did the same thing to me when I watched The Holiday. For me, becoming the leading lady meant losing the weight that I’d kept on to say invisible, taking up running, getting my teaching certification so I could get out of my series of jobs and into a career, and finally, when I felt like I had something to really offer, going on Match. Because I know how hard it is to meet guys when you work at a school. I realized that if I didn’t see myself as leading lady material, I projected the idea that I wasn’t worthy of interest or attention. And after YEARS of every guy I liked seeing me as a good buddy, I finally met my husband when I was about to turn 32. He, by the way, was also the perpetual friend. I don’t even know how many girls he’s fixed things for or packed and moved.

  • Jen

    Incredible post. Thanks for this!

  • Heather

    I can’t tell you how well timed this post is. Our stories are not the same but I feel like I can take a lot from this. I haven’t fallen for an unattainable man so much as the image of a life I wish I was having. I feel like I take the ultimate best friend role in my friends’ faster paced lives, something I am wholly ashamed to admit. My relationship is taking the long way round while theirs happened quickly, plowed full speed ahead into the covetable territories of marriage and children. It’s hard to remember when faced with other people’s seemingly perfect lives via social media (those painfully lovely wedding pictures, belly shots, Daddy holding the baby) that your own life is going to work out in its own way, in its own time. I see myself in the back ground of a lot of my friends experiences whether I was physically there or not. I anticipated their engagement news, I exclaimed over the dress, the ring, and eventually the baby names they picked whether I liked them or not (They’re having a baby! Who cares if they’re calling her Graedynne?) I actually can’t believe I’ve let myself indulge in a sort of voyeuristic participation in other people’s lives for this long while my own experience suffered. Quite a reality check, and not a comfortable one at all.

  • Moe

    My rom-com crush came out of the closet when I was 19. (I had no gay-dar) Then I didn’t meet my guy until I was 38. My life would suck as a rom-com script. OR there would be a montage of all the bad relationship choices I made from age 20-38.

    When I see my younger friends struggling,pining away for me who don’t love them or commit to them the way they want I wish that I could somehow intervene. But for some cosmic reason everyone is on very different timelines. It’s very likely that if I had met my husband at 25, 30 or 33 I would have had an appreciation for him. I would not have been ready to give of myself in a serious commitment, I would not have been brave enough to be vulnerable.

    So however it plays out for you, it is perfect for you. I really have to hold on to that belief with serisou conviction. I wish I could tell young girls to slow down, there’s no rush. You’re not a freak if you don’t get married by 30. Waiting for the right guy/relationship is worth it even if it takes until 40 (gasp! *clutches pearls*) like it did for me.

    • Edelweiss

      “It’s very likely that if I had met my husband at 25, 30 or 33 I would have had an appreciation for him. I would not have been ready to give of myself in a serious commitment, I would not have been brave enough to be vulnerable.”

      YUP. I met my fiance in a very RomCom way (blind date to ex-boyfriend’s wedding weekend), but we didn’t get together until 5 years and many random non-RomCom path crossings afterwards. We both had a lot of self-fulfillment to accomplish before we were ready to be vulnerable enough to really love.

  • I love that movie, and that line is one of my favorites! My sister and I watch it every so often, and I always come away from it feeling uplifted. Plus, all the English scenery totally satisfies the anglophile in me. The idea of being the leading lady in your own life applies to so many situations . . . and it’s guided me through a few turbulent times. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Oh man, I feel you so hard. I spent a LOT of my twenties (and even my teens) pining for guys that didn’t love me back or in relationships that were going nowhere. Meanwhile my friends were meeting their husbands, getting married, talking about kids. I was totally the quirky best friend in the movies. There were many nights of heart ache and crying and worrying that I would never find anyone to love me.

    If I could go back in time and tell my 22 year old self (or my 27 year old self, or hell even my 30 year old self) one thing, it would be that it would all work out in the end and that I should relax and enjoy this stage of my life as much as I can, because when it’s over, I will perversely miss it.

    Because the truth is that even though I couldn’t always see it at the time, there were a lot of things about my twenties that were freaking incredible: I was an actor in LA, I had crazy adventures in random downtown lofts, I left everything and moved to London at 28, and because I was single, I was able to devote a ton of time to being a really good friend. I was the best friend in the movies because I really valued friendship and made my friendships my priority.

    Now I’m in my thirties, and am a boring married person with a baby on the way. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my life and my husband, but whereas my idea of a good time used to be going to karaoke in bars, now I like to catch up on my policy blogs. w00t! And while my friends used to be my number one priority in my life, now my husband and soon my baby take priority and I just don’t have as much time to sit around with my friends and just shoot the shit.

    So I really wish I could tell that confused twenty-something that it all works out in the end, that she’ll get all the things she’s dreaming of, and that one day, she’ll appreciate all that emotional, difficult, foundational work she went through. Because the truth is, I needed those ten years to flounder, to take risks, to try out different careers, to date all the wrong boys, and to build those friendships that are now so rock solid that they no longer NEED to be my topmost priority. And I know that even then, I DID appreciate my life, and I did enjoy it, and I was happy in the moment. But there was always this nagging fear about the nebulous future. So I just wish, I could tell that young, lovely 20-something, it’s okay, that someway somehow, your life will work itself out, and until then, get back on the dance floor.

  • Marcela

    When I was reading you, I thought that you were Julia Roberts at “My best friend’s wedding”. Sometimes not getting what one wants is a blessing, or as my husband says : there are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. Good luck!

    • thanks and I was except less crazy.

  • Jashshea

    Sadly, the movie most like my life in my mid-20s would have been Up In the Air (had it, ahem, been out in my 20s). I managed to avoid shacking up with any married folk and my home apartments were not quite so bleak, but the consistent travel and general sense of rudderlessness were familiar.

    I spent a good bit of my late teens and early 20s watching RomComs and reading chicklit*, but I don’t know that it had the effect of making me wish my life was “like that.” Sure, I wanted a cool home and an awesome guy and a great wardrobe. And the body to fit that wardrobe. But I always found the leading ladies so deeply flawed as to almost be unlovable (same with the leading men – so 1-D). Quirky friends were always the winners in my book and almost always ended up with the cooler guys.

    *For the record, my tastes run the gamut from fully low-brow to fully high-brow, but I’ve never been one to read weighty tomes on short-haul flights (or carry them in my purse, briefcase, or laptop bag).

  • Oh falling for the boy that just won’t see you as something other than his best friend. So. been. there.
    It is hard. It took lots of pain and tears and time to realize it was never gonna happen. I could have waited forever and it could not have happened. And I also see now how we were not as perfect for each other as I thought.
    I remember one night, after crying my eyes out, praying, deciding to let him go… and shortly after I met future husband and everything just clicked.

  • Copper

    So I was thinking about this post last night and I think it’s a great one even though it didn’t generate the comments that some do around here. The line from The Holiday really resonated with me as well, but I wonder if the thing of it is, movies are only a few hours long, and our lives last for years. So there are times when we’re the leading lady, and times when we’re the best friend, and it’s all about recognizing when our moment to step up and take the lead is? Those people who expect to be the leading lady at all times, they can be horrible, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. Even the leading lady’s got a montage of bad jobs, or bad dates, or nights on the couch with a pint of ben & jerry’s, before whatever her motivating event is causes her to decide it’s time to do something and make her life happen the way she wants it to.

  • AnonymousMouse

    I love this post so much – I’ve been thinking about it all day. I’m recovering from a wannabe-romcom situation – years after breaking up with an ex for various reasons we hook up in a super romantic nostalgic situation. He comes to visit me, I go to visit him, we’re talking all the time – I’m imagining the big gestures, the babies we’ll have, the fact that it’s taken so long to come to this moment of togetherness and how much more special it will now be because we’ve come back together through hardship and can now really appreciate the people we’ve become. He’s just thinking about sex. So no romcom ending. When I cry about it I think about all those films where love conquers all, where they get together in the end against all odds, where both people realise that the other person is worth fighting for. It’s hard not to get bitter and wonder why other people seem to be getting the happy endings and I’m not.

    So not living a romcom does indeed suck, but I suppose I realise that when it’s right it’s often just right with no second guessing. When I think back on my story now (and the many other stories I could tell you from my 20s) I see them almost from a birds-eye viewpoint – thinking “of course it wasn’t right, of course he wasn’t right”. As Kate says in the Holiday, eventually: “you’ll meet people who make you feel worthwhile again. And little pieces of your soul will finally come back. And all that fuzzy stuff, those years of your life that you wasted, that will eventually begin to fade.” I hope you come to feel the same.

    P.S. So happy to see a post on here that is realistic about the single life but holding hope for future joys. I read this site because it reminds me that love is out there, however APW folk celebrate it. I know this hasn’t got many comments – but it really struck a chord with me. I hope that for those of you who are married/getting there this post will remind you all of what it was like to be single and finding things tough – maybe pick up the phone to a single friend who you know is spending the weekend alone and see how they’re doing. I know, however much I love talking to my married/soon to be married friend about their plans I always love when they return the favour and ask how I’m doing (minus boyfriend, minus children etc)