How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays by Mandy Len Catron

How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays

byMandy Len Catron

Hardcover | June 27, 2017

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An insightful, charming, and absolutely fascinating memoir from the author of the popular New York Times essay, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” (one of the top five most popular New York Times pieces of 2015) explores the romantic myths we create and explains how they limit our ability to achieve and sustain intimacy.

What really makes love last? Does love ever work the way we say it does in movies and books and Facebook posts? Or does obsessing over those love stories hurt our real-life relationships? When her parents divorced after a twenty-eight year marriage and her own ten-year relationship ended, those were the questions that Mandy Len Catron wanted to answer.

In a series of candid, vulnerable, and wise essays that takes a closer look at what it means to love someone, be loved, and how we present our love to the world, Catron deconstructs her own personal canon of love stories. She delves all the way back to 1944, when her grandparents first met in a coal mining town in Appalachia, to her own dating life as a professor in Vancouver, drawing insights from her fascinating research into the universal psychology, biology, history, and literature of love. She uses biologists’ research into dopamine triggers to ask whether the need to love is an innate human drive. She uses literary theory to show why we prefer certain kinds of love stories. She urges us to question the unwritten scripts we follow in relationships and looks into where those scripts come from in the first place. And she tells the story of how she decided to test a psychology experiment that she’d read about—where the goal was to create intimacy between strangers using a list of thirty-six questions—and ended up in the surreal situation of having millions of people following her brand-new relationship.

In How to Fall in Love with Anyone Catron flips the script on love and offers a deeply personal, and universal, investigation.

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Title:How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in EssaysFormat:HardcoverDimensions:256 pages, 8.38 × 5.62 × 1.2 inPublished:June 27, 2017Publisher:Simon & SchusterLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1501137441

ISBN - 13:9781501137440

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How to Fall in Love with Anyone the football coach and the cheerleader what makes a good love story? September 1975— He is tall. His blond hair pokes out from under his hat—a hat that sits high on his head, the kind truck drivers wear. It curls a little, his hair, and though he is a little wider at the hips, narrower in the shoulders, he is mostly lean. His face and neck and forearms are tanned from long afternoons on the football field. He wears the same shorts they all do—gray polyester, fitted, cut to mid-thigh, two snaps at the waist—coaches’ shorts. His T-shirts are from wrestling events he refereed in college. (Wrestling: a sport he, and most everyone else, pronounces as “wrasslin’.”) He chews tobacco—Red Man. Spits in an empty Coke bottle. She’s seen him around, looking always like he knows where he’s going but is not in a hurry. He walks down the halls of her high school with wide strides, the same way he moves down the sidelines on Friday nights. But he is slower inside, making eye contact with the people he passes, always smiling, always friendly to the custodian, and the ladies in the cafeteria kitchen. He calls them by name. After only a few weeks he knows more people than she does, and she’s lived her whole life here. When he speaks, his accent is different from hers. He is not from here, she already knows, but several counties away. They both stretch the i in mines and pines and time, letting it flatten in their mouths. But when he says “coal,” he pronounces the l, unlike the people around her who clip it to coe. Coe mines. She can see right away why they all like him—the players and the other coaches and the students in his Advanced PE class. Ease. That’s what he has, she thinks. He’s easy. When they sit down in the empty classroom, every question she asks seems entirely natural, as if it’s not an interview but a conversation between old acquaintances who meet unexpectedly—happily, even—after a few years apart. He has a knack for banter, a way of making her—or anyone, really—feel that they’ve got something significant in common: a shared love of sunny afternoons or blackberry cobbler that’s downright intimate. And he looks her straight in the eyes when she’s speaking. His lack of self-consciousness is expansive. She actually feels charming, like she’s flirting a little, something she doesn’t normally do. She finds herself smiling a lot, a big smile that shows her gums and her slightly gapped teeth. The Taylor smile, she once heard a boy say. It’s the one feature she shares with all five of her sisters. The afternoon light warms the oiled-canvas window shades, and the chalkboards and desks glow a little. It’s sweltering September in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. Where is he from, she asks (though she already knows—Wythe County, a farm boy), and why did he choose to move here, to Lee County, and what does he like most about coaching? His answers are straightforward, not profound but printable, quotable. She likes this. It makes her job easy. He says the people here are just as nice as can be, that the view of the mountains from the door of his trailer is plain gorgeous, that the cafeteria rolls taste a whole lot like his mom’s. “It doesn’t matter if they like you, only that they respect you,” he says about the ballplayers, looking serious but not severe, his boyishness momentarily receding. She listens intently, unconsciously fingering the straight blond hair she wears parted in the center and hanging down to her hips. Eventually she stops looking at the list of questions she’s written out in her notebook and they just talk. She does not chew on the end of her pen or stare down at her cuticles. Unlike in other interviews, she does not even think about what she should say before she says it. The conversation propels itself without effort in the regular and relaxed way the hands move around the clock. Occasionally she remembers the profile she’s writing for the school newspaper and jots a few things down in her notebook. Occasionally she thinks of her best friend and coeditor Connie, who’d offered her the interview with the new football coach, saying, “I hear he’s a real asshole.” Had she been thinking of someone else? “Oh, gosh,” he says suddenly, drawing out his o’s, looking at the clock. “I’ve got a meeting in the field house,” he tells her, “but thank you,” as if it’s she who’s doing him a favor by conducting the interview. “You’re welcome,” she replies, before realizing she is the one who ought to thank him. He stands, but not quite straight, keeping his left hand on the desk, and extends his right hand toward her. She’s not used to shaking hands with teachers or friends, but he’s not quite either of those things. His palm is big, his grip firm, almost formal. He nods and smiles and shakes in a single, coordinated gesture, like the preacher after Sunday service. When he grins, his bright blue eyes narrow, squeezed by his cheeks. The profile is easy to write. That night she finishes it in a couple of hours, pausing only to think up the words to describe him: Nice? Friendly? With a hint of mischief? Yes, yes, but she can’t quite squeeze it into a single sentence. There’s something about the way he hovers around adulthood but doesn’t touch down, she thinks. It’s his certainty that buoys him, the way he walks around town as if he’s lived his whole life here. The faith he places in the rules of the game. More than his ease, she envies this about him: that the world he inhabits is so ordered. Coach Catron loves football as much as his mom’s Sunday dinners, she writes. He’s one of those rare people who, at twenty-two, is doing exactly what he was born to do. When you first meet him, you’ll know this immediately. •  •  • I realize, according to all generally accepted knowledge of time and memory and biology, that it is not possible that I could remember the day my parents met, but I do. I remember it as if I lived it. I can see the way he grinned at her when she introduced herself, like he could tell they’d be friends. And the way she almost but not quite smiled back. I can see the afternoon light in the classroom, though I don’t actually know where the interview took place. Still, it is as real to me as every other memory in my brain. I’ve always thought of stories as records, as ways of remembering our lives. And I thought it was our duty to tell them, to keep the past alive in the present—to keep ourselves alive. As in: I tell, therefore I am. “My mom is twenty-nine,” I said smugly to the other second-grade girls as we sat around the lunch table and talked about our mothers. She was the youngest mom (though not by much), and I felt proud of this. “My mom met my dad when she was a cheerleader and he was the new football coach at her high school. She can still do a cartwheel.” At seven I was allowed to be solipsistic about the story of my life, to tell and retell the boy-meets-girl that brought me into being. I wish I could say that I eventually outgrew this story, that I got tired of it. But I’ve spent decades recounting it for anyone who would listen. For the first eighteen years of my life, I spent every Friday of every fall beside a football field. I was walking home from work one day when some combination of scents—the damp of rotting fall leaves, a waft of cigarette smoke—called to mind the squat cinder-block bathrooms that stood behind the end zone of a rural Virginia football field. I could see the green-tinged walls and the broken hand driers and the brown paper towels that littered the concrete floors. Just outside the bathroom, high school girls and grandmas sucked on Camel Lights and gossiped between quarters. I remember running around behind the bleachers, palming a couple of clammy dollar bills for a plate of nachos—the plastic kind with a separate compartment for the yellow liquid cheese. Sometimes the ladies at the concession stand gave the coaches’ daughters free hot chocolate in little Styrofoam cups. Sometimes we bought Now and Laters or those gritty sweet-and-sour pastel lollipops that burned your tongue if you ate the whole thing. Dad paced the sidelines in his polyester shorts, his hat brim tilted skyward, his clipboard in hand (a clipboard his daughters decorated with bubble letters in green and gold paint markers). His face was serious but otherwise inexpressive, a coach’s poker face. I barely watched the games, but I knew to turn toward the field when the crowd leaped up, to pay attention when our team neared the goal line. I wanted to win because I liked winning, but also because I liked walking into the field house with Mom and my younger sister, Casey, after the game and smelling the sweaty, foam-rubber scent of victory. Those nights, we stayed up late eating seven-layer dip and Jell-O salad and watching TV while the coaches and their wives drank light beer in someone’s refinished basement. There was always a crowd, even when the away team came from over the mountains, because on Friday nights in southwestern Virginia, football was what people did. I loved the ceremony of it: the opening prayer and the national anthem and the local news crews setting up cameras. The announcer’s rumble as the boys tore through the paper banner. I liked the scent of grass stains and pepperoni, and how the bleachers shook before the first punt as the crowd thundered their feet in accelerating suspense. I liked the drum majors’ spangled uniforms and neat movements, the whirling rifles of the color guard at halftime. That I would be a cheerleader, taking my place in the drama of the game as soon as I was able, was a given from the start. “The greatest thing in the world to me was going to a football game,” my mom said of her teenage years. My mom was never alone as a child. She never had friends over. She never went anywhere other than to school or church, to visit family, to lay silk flowers on the veterans’ graves at the cemetery. (The cemetery was the only place family photos were taken, with the kids lined up tallest to shortest.) Football games meant somewhere to go, something to do, a ride out of town surrounded by friends. A winning team meant leaving the mountains, staying in a hotel. Maybe, to an outsider, the world of high school football seems incidental to their love story, little more than a setting. And I understand why it might seem this way. Since I moved to Canada, football has shifted to the far margins of my life; I don’t go to games or watch them on TV, though my dad will often text me a photo of the Virginia Tech stadium on a sunny Saturday afternoon. But when I was young, love—my parents’ love and the love of our family and the daily domestic life we all shared—was tethered to football. To my mind, football made our family. •  •  • When I was a kid, I loved to say to my mom: “Tell me about when you were my age.” But her answer was always the same: There wasn’t that much to tell. She never had the nice things Casey and I did. We were so lucky—did I realize that? I don’t think she meant to be evasive. She just couldn’t see that what seemed mundane to her fascinated me: the roads that wound through mountain hollows, the men who spent their days underground—doing what exactly? Digging? I wanted to know how it felt to have seven siblings and to sleep—all eight of you—in a single bedroom in a four-room cabin perched on the side of a mountain. My dad sometimes joked about my mom’s childhood. He told me the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter was actually about her. He said he bought her her first pair of shoes. Mom said that she was lucky to get a MoonPie and an RC Cola for lunch. She said she was so skinny the other kids told her to turn sideways and stick out her tongue, then they called her Zipper. I was too young to really understand poverty; I still believed that poor people were happier than the rest of us, because a world in which some people were both poor and miserable seemed too cruel to be real. I never considered the possibility that the past might be a place my mom would prefer to avoid. As I got older, I stopped asking about my mom’s life, but I stuck with my project of piecing the story together myself. One day she’d mention the Jeep she drove in college. Or she’d show me how to make Mamaw’s cornbread. She’d glance at my baggy jeans and tell me that when she was in high school, the girls wore pants so tight they had to lie down on the bed just to zip them up. And there were the photos hanging around the house: of her and her sisters on a swing set, her parents—young and leggy—leaning into each other by the ocean, all eight kids dressed up and standing next to a tombstone in order from tallest to shortest. I don’t think anyone ever sat me down and told me the full story about how my parents met and fell in love. That it exists, whole and coherent, is thanks to me. I am the story’s author and keeper; I assembled its pieces, filling in any holes with intuition or inference. And I can no longer be sure what is original and what was added. •  •  • “Connie said he was an asshole and refused to interview him,” Mom told me one day. “So she made me do it.” I must’ve been old enough for her to use the word asshole, so it can’t have been the first time I heard about their meeting. But this is how the story begins for me—an interview with an asshole. I don’t remember a time when it began differently. I always include that word, asshole, when I tell the story. Probably because it’s such a poor descriptor for my father, a man who is so friendly and well liked that I spent my childhood avoiding trips to the grocery store with him, knowing we’d be sidelined for a lengthy conversation when we inevitably ran into someone he knew. Even people he doesn’t know—the cashier, the tour guide, the friends I introduce him to—are charmed by him immediately. Maybe at twenty-two he still had the arrogance of a college athlete, or the seriousness of a young man new to a position of authority. Maybe he could seem like an asshole. “It’s more important to be respected than to be liked,” he told me when I was twenty-two and facing down my first classroom of college freshmen. That Connie was so wrong about my dad, that she was unknowingly referring to the man my mom would marry four years later, is, I think, one of my favorite parts of the story. •  •  • When Casey was in high school she had two boys vying for her attention (something I couldn’t have fathomed at sixteen). When she asked us for advice, Mom looked at her and said simply, “Date them both.” The three of us were folding laundry in my bedroom. “You’re way too young to worry about committing to one person,” Mom said, adding casually: “You know, I was seeing other people right up until your dad and I got engaged.” “What?” I cut in. “But you weren’t really dating other people.” It landed somewhere between a statement and an interrogation. “I was,” she said, without elaboration. It was such a small thing, an aside, and yet it was the first time I ever had occasion to question the version of the story I’d spent years crafting and retelling. I’d always imagined my dad was the only one for my mom, that she’d ditched her high school boyfriend for him and never looked back. Were there really other guys, other hands held in darkened movie theaters? Or, more realistically—since she was in college when they married—frat boys at keg parties? Basketball players? Or did she just like thinking of herself as someone who kept her options open? Maybe, even at nineteen, she really was too practical to put all her affection in a single basket. Or maybe that’s how she wanted her daughters to be. •  •  • Here’s what I know for sure: They met at Pennington High School sometime in the mid-1970s. My mom was sixteen and my dad was twenty-two. It was his first job out of college, coaching football and teaching PE. Mom interviewed him for the school newspaper and they became friends before they were anything more than that. My dad went on one date with my aunt Cindy—the sister who was two years older than my mom. It didn’t go well. Family legend has it that they went to the drive-in diner, where each thought the other was paying for dinner. And when the bill arrived, no one had enough money to pay. Later, Cindy started dating Dan, my dad’s co-coach and best friend. My mom took a boy from Jonesville, the next town over, to her senior prom. And my dad, a chaperone, brought my aunt Belinda—the sister who is four years older than my mom. They must’ve become more than friends by then, because after the dance Mom told her date that Belinda had probably had too much to drink and that she needed to get her home. Then she and Dad snuck out together. Mom graduated high school and, thanks to Papaw’s military benefits, went to college a couple of hours away. She majored in advertising and kept seeing my dad, and they got married the summer after she turned twenty. It was a double ceremony at the First Baptist Church of Pennington Gap: Mom and Dad and Cindy and Dan. Afterward, there was a short, sober reception in the church basement. When I was a kid telling the story to my friends at school, it always ended triumphantly: “And then they had a double wedding!” People love that ending. Mom finished her degree in summer school and Dad took a coaching job in his hometown, a small farming community just off the interstate. Mom found work selling ads at a nearby newspaper and they rented a house just down the road from his mother. Mom says Granny didn’t really warm to her until I was born, but she was pregnant within the year. Dad kept coaching, moving around the region until we ended up in the town where I grew up. Once a season, my dad’s and my uncle Dan’s high school football teams played each other. These games were my favorite. I always believed there was evidence in my parents’ story about where their lives would take them, about the kind of people we were all going to be. But then, I believed this of every love story. For Cindy and Dan, it has proved to be true. He found work coaching football in a small town down the road and eventually became the high school principal. He’s retired now, but they still go to the Friday night games. Cindy got a job in a clothing store in the Food City strip mall, where she still works, just for fun, a couple of days a week. They moved into a small brick house, where they still live. And once a year, they go on vacation to Hilton Head Island, the place where they spent their honeymoon. They had no children but are devoted to their nieces and nephews. Every year of their marriage has been an echo of the first, altered only slightly by minor health problems or small changes in circumstance. It is, at least from the outside, how I always imagined a marriage should go. •  •  • In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall argues that we all have an internal sense of story: that storytelling is an innate human skill. We just know, even when sitting around the elementary school lunch table, what makes something interesting. And we choose what to include and what to leave out without stopping to consider why we’re making these choices—or even to notice that we’re making choices at all. Gottschall is one of several scholars working in the field of Literary Darwinism, applying the ideas of evolutionary biology to literature. The approach can emphasize generalities at the expense of (relevant) particularities, but it’s produced some interesting ideas about how and why we tell stories. Gottschall points out that stories are only appealing if they contain a predicament. One of those predicaments, of course, is love: how to find it, how to keep it. Kurt Vonnegut famously graphed the various structures that can be used to map almost any story. In the “boy meets girl” structure, someone (it doesn’t have to be a boy) comes across something they want (which doesn’t have to be a girl), loses that thing, then, by the end of the story, finds a way to get it back—forever.1 I like the simplicity of Vonnegut’s structure, but I wanted something more specific. I wondered if I could come up with a list of features present in almost every love story—even those without a happy ending. As it turns out, there are a few basic elements. Here’s what I came up with: 1. Meetings. The best meetings contain hints of larger forces at work. Ennis and Jack pull up at the same empty trailer, each silently eyeing the other while they wait for the job offer that will change their lives.2 Or the cheerleader goes to interview the new coach because her best friend refuses to do it. 2. Awareness of love. Maybe it’s love at first sight or maybe it’s unrequited longing. It’s the moment when Elizabeth Bennet reads the letter from Mr. Darcy. Or when Rachel watches that old home video and realizes that Ross has loved her since they were teenagers.3 I always imagined that, in the tradition of all great love stories, my parents felt some immediate connection from the moment they met. 3. Potential obstacles. The evil queen has given our heroine a poisoned apple. Or the cheerleader is too shy—and too intimidated by social barriers—to pursue the coach, so she sets him up with her older sister instead. As Nicholas Sparks (documented love story enthusiast) says, “If the obstacles confronting the lovers define the story, then what makes a great love story is their willingness to go to almost any lengths to overcome them—whatever the cost.”4 (As a general rule, the more personal the obstacle—shyness, for example, is a more intimate challenge than an envenomed fruit—the more satisfying the eventual resolution.) 4. Union. It turns out, love is too powerful a force to be muted or stopped. Dragons are slain, obstacles are surmounted, and at last the lovers are brought together, their union bringing them more bliss than they thought possible. Typically, we are left to assume that this happiness continues indefinitely. But even if all is not happily ever after, the union still precedes the tragic ending: Jack and Rose steal away to the back of a car as the ocean liner steams toward its destiny.5 The predictability of this pattern does not make it less powerful. Its ubiquity does not take away its pleasurability—twenty-five years of watching Sixteen Candles has not dampened this for me. I am still so pleased to discover that Jake Ryan has shown up to wish Samantha a happy birthday. And I still love announcing that the cheerleader and her sister both married football coaches—on the same afternoon, in the same ceremony, no less. These four elements are so familiar that almost any real-life romance can be finessed to fit. The story of the cheerleader and the football coach, as I have always told it, fits so neatly into this structure that it really seems possible that some greater force is dictating their lives. Not only do the protagonists get married, as you know all along they will, but there’s a second marriage when Cindy finds someone who is like my dad but perfect for her. The ending is so resolute that it’s almost impossible to imagine the other, real-life ending: the moment when, twenty-eight years and two grown children later, the cheerleader and the football coach will have respectively become the IT director and the supervisor of secondary education, and they will decide they no longer want to stay married. •  •  • My parents told my sister and me they were divorcing late one night while I was home visiting for the week. I was twenty-six and had been living in Vancouver for a year. The next morning, as we’d planned to all week, the four of us woke up at 5 a.m. and drove to the Magic Mart parking lot for a hot-air-balloon ride. Casey and I watched as our parents stood on either side of the balloon’s widening mouth, holding it steady as fans bloated the envelope, the pink and blue nylon rising upward like a surfacing whale. “Hold her tight now,” barked our pilot, a small woman with a walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. She was confident in her knowledge of this uncommon art and adept at telling us what to do. I remember thinking that my dad, a man of enthusiastic logistical questions, was probably her ideal client. The balloon ride wasn’t the last thing the four of us would ever do together, but that morning I thought it might be. I had no idea how divorce was choreographed. None of us did, but I could see my parents were well practiced at pretending things were okay. The dissolution of their marriage seemed to occupy a distinct space in their brains. I hadn’t slept the previous night—or spoken all morning. In a couple of hours I would be leaving for Vancouver. But first we would take the balloon flight they’d won at a fundraiser months earlier. They insisted. I was too angry to refuse. Once we launched, I was relieved to discover that the noise from the burner fueling the balloon made talking impossible. I could pantomime normalcy. We tapped on shoulders and pointed into the distance. Look at the arts center on the hill, the sprawling warehouses of the county flea market, the limestone quarry with mountains of driveway gravel, the cow ponds, the church steeples. A thick, low-lying fog lingered in the recesses of pastures and tobacco fields. Of course, I remember thinking bitterly, it’s fucking beautiful. It was years before I could really see the humor in the situation: Short of knitting matching sweaters, there could be no more wholesome way to mark the end of a marriage than a hot-air-balloon ride. As we cruised low over nearby subdivisions, folks appeared on their back decks in bathrobes, their heads turning upward toward our propane roar. They waved, genuinely delighted, as if we were celebrities. And because we are people who meet others’ expectations, we waved vigorously back. As if yes, we were delighted to be here. And, oh yes, thank you for ordering up the fog and the church bells and the lazy cows. It was just the Appalachia we’d been hoping for. When I realized the whims of the air currents were carrying us toward our house, I felt a sudden, panicked ambivalence. There was something funereal about seeing it like this, for the last time. We ascended into the full light of day as we sailed toward it, but the trees’ long shadows obscured the roof. The air pushing up against the small ridge sent us higher. I fumbled with my camera as we gained altitude, desperate to get a shot of the home we had loved, the home the divorce was forcing them to sell. But with my eyes on the camera and the zoom maxed out, I didn’t see the house itself, just an overexposed blur on the camera’s screen. Moments later, the basket lurched into the stubble of a cornfield with a thud. The envelope rose again, levitating us once more before landing at an angle and tipping all four of us—and the balloon operator—into a pile on the ground. After a second’s confusion someone laughed, and then we all did, hilariously, uproariously. We were the live studio audience for a mediocre sitcom. We were at the circus watching clowns throw pies. Nothing was funny, really, but we couldn’t stop laughing the manic laughter of people who know it will be a while before they hear themselves laugh again. •  •  • There’s a picture of my parents at Casey’s junior prom sitting on my dresser. My dad was the school principal, so they attended as chaperones. They stand by a baby grand piano, flanked by potted ficuses. Mom wears a black one-shoulder shift she took from my closet—a dress far more appropriate for my mom than for the twenty-year-old I was when I bought it. Dad stands tall behind her, looking every bit the guy in charge in his pressed suit. Somewhere off camera, my seventeen-year-old sister is avoiding her parents. Their smiles are unguarded as they inhabit the pose with full sincerity. Their relationship was, I’d always believed, a deeply moral one, marked by great kindness and generosity and self-sacrifice. Not only did they have a good story, they were also fundamentally good people. They were the kind of people who stayed married, the kind of people whose lives were suffused with happiness—because they deserved it. In the months following my parents’ divorce announcement, as I began to worry that I had really overestimated love as a force in the world, I’d look to the photo as a reminder: They were happy together once—they were happy for a long time. I worried that my assumptions about their marriage had prevented me from deeply investing in my own relationship with Kevin, which, though it had great love, often lacked kindness and generosity. •  •  • Once I started writing their story down, I could see its problems. For one, I always imagined the cheerleader as a slightly shyer, significantly poorer version of the person I was at sixteen. It helped that she even looked like me, down to the long blond hair we both wore parted in the middle. Once, when I brought a friend home from college, he pointed at the photo of my mom sitting on the field in her Bobcats uniform and said, “Is this you?” The only thing that distinguishes her cheerleading photo from mine—taken twenty years later—is the color of the uniform and the style of the pom-poms (hers are long and stringy; mine are rounder and fluffier). The pose, the setting, the bony arms, and the big grin were all the same. In my version of her story she is quiet and well behaved and secretly thrilled by the attention of someone who was so outgoing and charming. Without noticing it, I’d made her like every other demure, passive princess, a girl who found her prince simply by being the right person in the right place at the right time. But my mom never talked about herself that way. I’d never asked my dad to tell me his version of the story, probably because I believed love stories were fundamentally about kind, modest young women—about the things that happened to them and the ways those things improved their lives. But one part of the story did come from my dad: the part about asking Papaw for permission to marry Mom. The football coach drove up to the cheerleader’s house one day—the small bungalow where Mamaw still lives—and said to his future father-in-law, “Let’s go for a drive.” This detail stuck with me because, though he died when I was four, I remembered Papaw as an intimidating man. My dad’s story was a lesson on decorum and the kind of man who would make a good husband. These conventions seem outdated (and problematically sexist) to me now. But as a kid, the story seemed romantic, an illustration of my father’s sincere intentions. And it would be my job, I knew, to choose someone with a sincere love for me, someone brave enough to face the football coach at his most stern. I couldn’t see all the fairy-tale clichés my parents’ story contained: the strict, serious father whose approval the suitor must earn; the lovers sneaking around to be together, taking risks for love’s sake; the poor girl who finds good fortune—not a prince, necessarily, but someone to transport her out of poverty. Instead, I saw the familiarity of their story as a testament to its authenticity. It fit the template of a great love story, so therefore, theirs must be a great love—not only true but also long-lasting. As Alain de Botton says in Essays in Love, “The stories we tell are always too simple.”6 They fail to make space for the mundane, domestic, trivial, annoying parts of life. I’d been telling a story about who I wanted my parents to be: a story devoid of banalities, where love was big enough to break taboos, important enough to keep secret, powerful enough to transport a young woman to a better life in a new world. •  •  • When I was young, my parents were affectionate and playful and always vocal about their love for us. But we never talked about anything uncomfortable—not faith or sex or politics or death. (For many years, my parents didn’t even tell each other who they voted for.) We played Wiffle ball in the yard before dinner. We went to sporting events on Friday nights and mulched the flower beds on Saturday mornings. Our intimacy was enacted through touch, play, and a collective imperative to be good people. I felt completely loved, but I also understood that my interior world was mine and theirs was theirs. My parents knew for years that their story was at the center of my investigation of love and love stories, but they never asked to read what I was writing. And I never offered to share it. I was also a little bit embarrassed that while they had both moved on to new lives and new loves, there I was, still hung up on that old story. •  •  • I was home for Christmas a couple of years ago when my dad handed me a box to take over to my mom’s place. I lifted the lid and saw, among other things, her high school yearbooks. I pulled them out as soon as I got to her apartment. As Mom and I paged through the books that night, she pointed out friends and told stories. She let me read the ridiculous things her classmates had scribbled inside the cover. On one page her finger rested on the photo of a pretty girl with dark hair. “That’s Tammy,” she said casually. “Your dad also dated her.” Confused, I wondered when that would’ve been, but she didn’t elaborate. When we flipped to the photo of the cheerleading team, she named each girl and added, “There’s Tammy again.” “Wait a second.” I put my hand on the page as she tried to turn it. “Dad dated another cheerleader?” “He even took her home to meet your granny.” She laughed. “I guess I was his second choice.” “What? Really?” Mom nodded and kept flipping pages. But I couldn’t get past it. It had never occurred to me that my mom wasn’t the first to go for Sunday dinner at Granny’s. And wasn’t it Love (capital L) or some kind of romantic preordination that made it okay for the football coach to date a cheerleader in the first place? He obviously hadn’t been destined for this Tammy person. I couldn’t decide how to feel about the fact that my dad, a man who has always possessed more moral certainty than anyone I know, dated two students at the high school where he worked. Even if he was barely an adult himself, and he really didn’t think it through; even if it was a very common kind of relationship in that place and time (which it was, I know), it was still weird: the discrepancy in power and social standing, the difference in the life experiences of someone who is twenty-two and someone who is sixteen. •  •  • I finally decided to call my mom to ask her about the cheerleader and the football coach because I wanted to know more than I could piece together on my own. “I have some questions,” I said. And we talked for a long time. I asked her what she remembered about first meeting Dad. “My best friend and I went to interview him for the school newspaper.” Already I had the story wrong. She hadn’t been alone. But she remembered the details of that meeting—it had mattered to her: “He had on those ugly yellow coaching pants and a white coach’s shirt. And his hair was real blond. You could tell he’d been out in the sun all summer.” They started chatting after ball games but it was never serious. (“Your dad was talking to a bunch of girls.”) And she was dating someone else at the time. But they were dating each other by January. She said Dad continued seeing other people because he couldn’t bring her to parties or school events. “We couldn’t go out in public. And he was out—him and Danny—being a little on the wild side.” I laughed. “So where did you hang out with him? At his house?” “Yeah, you know. Or just in the car somewhere.” “Sounds scandalous!” I said, and she only laughed. I asked about Tammy, the other cheerleader: Were she and Dad serious? “I don’t think so. But I think maybe she could’ve been his first choice.” She paused. “Maybe. I don’t know. But I think she just ended up not liking him or something. I found all this out later.” Then she added, “Your dad always imagined being with some petite, dark-haired girl. And that’s who Tammy was. But I don’t think he knew much about her. She was a little on the slutty side.” She laughed drily. “Or maybe he did know about her.” (For my part, I am guessing she was just a typical teenage girl.) And when were she and Dad finally serious? I asked. “On graduation day we left together. And we passed the principal and the teachers and I was in his car. Once I graduated, it didn’t matter—at least that’s what I thought, anyway. That probably tells you what a bad school system it was—he would’ve gotten in so much trouble somewhere else.” I thought of the photos I’d seen of her graduation, of how she glowed in her gold cap and gown. “But once you told me you were dating other people right up until you got engaged,” I said. “Well, it was both of us, not just me. He said I was young and I hadn’t gotten to experience college. So we agreed to date other people, which was the right thing to do. I dated a couple of guys, but nothing serious at all.” I asked about the engagement: “It was an ongoing discussion. Then Christmas, I guess my sophomore year of college, he had bought a ring. We had looked at rings, so I knew he was going to ask me. I told him he had to ask Dad, so they went out when I was home at Christmas. And after that he just couldn’t wait. And he was like, ‘Let’s go for a ride,’ so we went to the road near the airport up on the hill. He just pulled over at a gravel turnoff and proposed.” She said she was not surprised, but she was happy. “We were going to a party that night and he wanted me to wear the ring.” •  •  • To my mom, facts have always been more powerful than story, which made interviewing her easier than I’d expected. She has no impulse for embellishment. She does not crave the forces of fate. I called my dad the next day. “I want to ask you a few questions about how you and Mom met and got together,” I explained, feeling nervous. “Is that okay?” He laughed. “What did Mom say?” “I talked to her yesterday. I just want to see how my version of your love story is different from how you remember it. Do you remember the first time you met?” “You know, I really don’t know, to be honest with you. It had to be through Cindy. You probably heard of the one infamous time that we went to the Patio Drive-In and I had no money and she had no money.” He turned reflective. “Times were hard, to be honest with you. There was not much money to be spent.” I reminded him about the interview with Mom and her friend. A light went on: “Yeah, I guess that’s true.” “Do you remember when you guys became more than friends?” I asked. He laughed loudly but didn’t answer. “What did Mom say?” “You have to answer first!” “It was raining one day—just pouring down the rain one afternoon. I lived out in the west end of town and after school somebody came and knocked on my door. She was with somebody in the car—I can’t remember who. But she came in and that was the first time I kissed her. I just remember it was pouring rain.” I noticed the pleasure in his voice before he returned to the question at hand: “So from that point on I think it became more than just social friends.” “That’s sweet,” I said. “When was that?” I began to see that if I paused, he would fill the silence with story. “It was right after school and I wasn’t at football practice, so it had to have been winter. During the football playoffs we all rode one bus. The coaches sit in the front; then you have the cheerleaders; then you have the players in the back. I think I was maybe in the second seat back one night and your mom was in the third seat. I don’t know if that was just coincidence. But we talked a lot on the bus coming back from Norton that night.” I asked him about seeing other people while he was dating Mom. “Well, you know, I really didn’t see anyone consistently. Because Danny and I were having a good time—let’s put it that way.” He laughed nostalgically. “We really had a nice time. He’s really just a great guy. I’ve missed him these past few years.” He meant since the divorce. He seemed wistful. “So you were seeing other people?” I tried to clarify. “Well, me and Danny always had an invitation somewhere, it seemed like. We’d go to parties and hang out with people, and we played summer softball and volleyball.” “But Mom says there was another cheerleader named Tammy that you took to meet Granny before you took Mom.” “Yeah, well, we were friends, sort of seeing each other. But it wasn’t serious. It really just fell apart. She was kind of a mean spirit.” “Mom says she always thought she—Mom—was your second choice.” “No. Not at all,” he said quickly. “Mom had such a kinder, gentler spirit about her.” “How did you feel about the fact that you were an employee of the school dating a student?” “You know, at that time, Mandy, you weren’t supposed to, but it wasn’t really talked about. It wasn’t discussed. Now that I look back on it—to say that it was wrong? Yeah, it was wrong. But at the time—it’s been almost forty years—I don’t mean it was a pervasive thing that went on, but it was not an uncommon thing in Lee County. Over in the coal mining area, it was just not a big deal.” “Do you think that has anything to do with how few people live there?” I asked. “I mean, with fewer people, did people have to be more open-minded about their relationships?” “I do think so.” He paused. “Mom was very smart—though she didn’t even think she was. She was cute, smart, blond, all the things you look for. Cute smile. She was very reserved, kind of bashful and timid. Not your typical cheerleader.” I smiled as he spoke. I liked hearing the absence of regret in his voice. “And she had aspirations to be more than what Lee County had to offer her. And I think I brought an outside influence that she gravitated to. I would talk to her about things that were beyond Lee County. And I just liked talking to her about it. And she liked listening.” “It’s funny that you say you were an outside influence, because you were only from a couple of hours away,” I told him. “It was all the same part of Virginia.” “But the culture that she came from and the culture that I came from were entirely different. The coal mining mentality was so different from my life on the farm. Pennington was up in the hollers and it was just a dirty coal mining, mountainous town. Even going to the Patio, you sat in the car and they came out and waited on you and you threw your trash out on the ground. And I’d come from this clean little town.” I thought how accurate that was: In Appalachia, the regional distinctions can be significant. The town of ten thousand where I was born and raised always felt like a mecca of arts and culture compared to the communities my parents came from. “I remember plain as day when I went to interview,” Dad said, “and the principal told me he always made sure there was cornbread and a pot of soup beans in the cafeteria. Because some kids couldn’t afford lunch and he didn’t want anyone to go hungry. Of course, I took that job because they canceled my student loans for teaching in a poverty school district. We were poor when I was growing up, but food was never an issue. We always had plenty to eat, a good variety, and meat. It was probably the best thing in life that happened to me, to get out and see more of the world.” When I asked about the decision to get married, he remembered it easily. “Mom was away at school, and one Sunday afternoon I drove her back to campus. We went to a park and we just talked about getting married at some point in time. And I found out later that she had ordered crystal—this wedding china. Somebody had come through school selling it, and she bought some.” “The monogrammed glasses we had growing up?” I asked. “Yeah. That china we kept in the dining room. She bought it before we were even engaged. So I guess she took that conversation very seriously.” He laughed. “Did you pick out the ring?” “Danny and I went shopping together and I picked it out.” I pictured the modest diamond ring my mom used to wear—it must’ve been such a big purchase for him. “You know, when I lived in Pennington, I made sixty-five hundred dollars a year,” he said. “I made that salary teaching full-time and coaching three sports. And honestly, I thought if I could ever make ten thousand dollars a year, I would be in the high cotton. I mean, honestly, what I have now versus what I thought I would have; it’s just entirely different.” When you are a twenty-six-year-old man and you have little money and little opportunity, but you have a cute, smart, kindhearted young girlfriend and a 0.3-carat diamond ring and a set of wedding china, I imagine it is easy to see future happiness stretching out in front of you indefinitely. Today my dad and my mom live separately and alone with their dogs. They both seem pretty happy with the lives they’ve made. But I’m sure it isn’t the life they imagined when they bought the ring and the china. I loved my parents’ story because it allowed me to believe that a girl who was smart and modest could be chosen by someone who was good and charming and well liked. But the very things that make a love story compelling—the sense of order, of belonging, of cause and effect—are also the things that separate story from real life. •  •  • There is another way to read the story of the cheerleader and the football coach: as a narrative of decent people who had very little but whose lives improved thanks to love and goodness and hard work. Kurt Vonnegut diagrammed this basic creation myth, in which some kind of deity provides people with the things they need to survive: sunlight and water, weapons and tools and companions. This myth, he says, “is essentially a staircase, a tale of accumulation”7: Maybe, in telling my parents’ story so often, I hoped to create a trajectory of good fortune that would extend directly into my own existence. After my parents separated, I began dreaming about earthquakes. I’d be walking to dinner with friends and suddenly the ground would buckle and sway before splitting into wide, grinning chasms and I’d wake up in a sweat. Even in sleep, I felt untethered from the world of the safe and privileged. I wear my mother’s wedding ring every day. It reminds me of how lucky I am to have come from such love, such optimism. When they fell in love, my parents had very little, but their marriage set them climbing on an upward staircase to a life that would give their daughters more. The best stories offer us an ordered world: a place for everyone, a sense that things happen for a reason, the promise that suffering is never arbitrary. After all, if God or fate brought together the cheerleader and the football coach, then my life, too, was drawn in the cloth of the universe before it was cut. But the rules that govern our stories are not the forces that shape our lives. In real life, the beginning of a story rarely predicts its ending—no matter how many times you tell it. Maybe we each need our own creation myth, some way to say to everyone else: Here is how I came to be in the world, which is really a way of saying, I belong.

Editorial Reviews

PRAISE FOR HOW TO FALL IN LOVE WITH ANYONE   A beautifully written and well-researched cultural criticism as well as an honest memoir. —Los Angeles Review of Books  "Personal musings and reminiscences paired with solid research provide an interesting stroll through an abstract topic." —Kirkus Reviews "Honest and well-researched, the book will teach readers plenty about love, science, and themselves. Perfect fodder for the romantic and the cynic in all of us." —Booklist Catron melds science and emotion beautifully into a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on the most universal topic. —Bookpage “It’s hard to imagine a more timely endeavour. Clear-eyed and full of heart, How to Fall in Love With Anyone is mandatory reading for anyone coping with—or curious about—the challenges of contemporary courtship.” —Toronto Star “In our age of total romantic confusion, Mandy Len Catron is a voice of good sense, warm humor and consoling wisdom. Through the lens of her own relationships, she teaches us—with a deft, convincing intelligence—some of the vital moves in the art of love.” —Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Course of Love