Reporter’s Notebook: The rom-com habit that makes her heart go pitty-pat
Drew Barrymore once said that to write well, you have to write what you know.
This is what I know....
I’m 25, and it’s highly probable that, by the time you read this, I will have seen “Going the Distance” three times.
A romantic comedy geek to the core, my quixotic formative years were spent watching (multiple times) a prostitute-turned-"Pretty Woman” — the kind you’d like to meet — walkin’ down the street of Rodeo Drive, a world-class figure skater struggling to soften a curmudgeonly has-been hockey player, and a cynical fellow rambling on and on to a feather-haired Meg Ryan about why guys and gals can’t be friends.
There I’ve been, just a girl, standing in front of a screen, asking it what love is.
It told me love is like … magic. That love actually is all around. That wasted hearts will love Keira Knightley even if one day she comes to resemble a mummified creature. That there are no three little words more sugary sweet than “You’ve got mail” when you’re corresponding with someone like “NY152.” And through “Going the Distance,” it told me love can conquer jet lag and a handprint-shaped tan line on Justin Long’s derrière.
It’s that powerful.
And the limitless capacity of its force is something I only came to appreciate with the help of Nora Ephron, Garry Marshall and the like.
But to understand my trajectory into rom-com bliss, we’d have to go back to a moment in 1988. I was jumping on my then-20-year-old aunt’s bed as she twirled her gum with her finger while yapping on the phone (babysitting at its best). Then she pondered into the receiver: “Do people go on dates on Sundays?”
My jumping stopped.
What is a date?
I went to the person who answered all my questions — Why is the sky blue? What is a nickname? Why does Johnny (my older brother) spend hours in the bathroom combing his hair? I climbed onto my father’s lap one morning and asked, “Daddy, what’s a date?”
His answer had me in awe — “A date is when two people who like each other spend time alone together and eventually fall in love.”
It all seemed so strange. There was no such thing in the many Disney movies I worshiped at the time, so how was I supposed to know how to be amiable during these so-called dates?
And so a weekly ritual began in which my dad and I would engage in faux dates. It usually consisted of him bringing home takeout and us sitting at the kitchen table while I practiced the delicate nature of how to be charming without hiding behind my mom’s skirt (I’m very shy).
But dates with Dad would subside and my insight into dating etiquette would shift to the saccharine romantic comedies my mom watched.
Each offered useful tips.
“When Harry Met Sally”: It’s probably best not to simulate a fake orgasm in a public forum. (This realization came much later, after my mom stopped fast-forwarding through questionable content.)
“Sleepless in Seattle”: Don’t build a pyramid of sugar cubes at the dinner table.
“Working Girl”: Try not to lie about who you are unless a young Harrison Ford is your suitor.
Then the old rom-coms gave way to a new generation with even more tips.
From “13 Going on 30": Playing Battleship means something entirely different when one of the players is a grown man.
“He’s Just Not That Into You”: Stalking one guy will lead to finding someone more suitable … like his best friend.
“Win a Date With Tad Hamilton”: Putting your retainer on the table while you eat will make a guy cringe.
Valuable tips all.
But the flicks aren’t solely dating resource guides. They’re my not-so-guilty pleasure. I watch them with unabashed pleasure because, for whatever reason, the predictable impractical story lines bring me a dose of happiness for a couple of hours. None more so than “27 Dresses,” the apex, for me, in the rom-com cluster — I can’t explain it.
And while my favorite things in life are romance and laughing, I’m by no means a rom-com connoisseur — and a certain fellow made sure to inform me, on Valentine’s Eve, no less! Challenging my rom-com knowledge, my close friend sent over a list of Nora Ephron’s favorite romantic movies. I was speechless. “His Girl Friday,” “It Happened One Night,” “The Apartment” — all titles I was familiar with but had never actually watched. Cue my enrollment in Netflix, and I’ve been in black-and-white romantic bliss ever since.
Don’t be mistaken; I’m a practical person despite my affection for the clichés and idealistic love I see on screen. I don’t expect a slightly unethical journalist to sing “Bennie and the Jets” with me atop a bar before taking me in his arms and kissing me. I don’t anticipate my Irish husband to write me a stream of sweet letters — each signed “P.S. I love you” — before his death. And I’m not holding my breath that one night I’ll find John Cusack outside my bedroom window holding a boom box playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” It’s just never going to happen.
The thing is, no matter how practical you may be, there’s no escaping the power of the “fairy tale.”
It will always go the distance.