The first fictional character I ever had a crush on was Peter Pan, from Peter Pan And The Pirates. The show ran from 1990 to 1991; reruns were broadcast on Fox until 1992. It was known on airwaves as Fox’s Peter Pan And The Pirates so as to differentiate it from its brightly coloured Disney counterpart; this Peter Pan had blue eyes, and brown hair in a ponytail. Less elf, more rogue. He wore dark brown leggings and a brown tunic, a black belt, brown boots. He was tough, impish, incorrigible. Bad.
Wendy had a black bob and wore flowers in her hair. She took care of the Lost Boys. Sometimes she flew with Peter on his adventures, sometimes not. Her dress was white and pink.
I don’t remember much else about the show, except that at eight years old I thought Peter Pan’s voice was sexy. I didn’t know enough to call it sexy—I just liked him. I thought he was cute. My cousins wore NKOTB t-shirts and fluorescent yellow socks—I tucked my t-shirts into my jeans and watched Peter Pan. I had terrible hair.
Around the same time, one of my friends had a crush on Michelangelo—the Ninja Turtle, not the artist. That California drawl, that surfer’s aplomb. We’d giggle about him at recess. I giggled even though I secretly liked Donatello. Sort of. Purple was more my colour. And anyway, crushing on a giant turtle was weird, wasn’t it? Who had a crush on something that wasn’t even their species?
The crush on Donatello went away. I still think Peter Pan is kind of cute, even these years later. Which puts me at thirty years old and crushing on a (fictional) twelve-year-old boy.
This is a whole essay unto itself, I suppose, but I digress.
I have yet to read Jane Austen. My sole exposure to Mr. Darcy lies in watching Colin Firth stumble through a lake in a sodden white shirt. (This is, arguably, not a bad introduction.) But I like to think I can imagine the literary Darcy pretty well—his moods, his irascible temper. He reminds me of Mr. Rochester, who in turn reminds me of Timothy Dalton, because that’s also the only exposure I’ve had to Mr. Rochester unless you count James Stacy Barbour in Paul Gordon’s gloomily gorgeous production of Jane Eyre. I went to the world premiere of that musical with my music class when I was sixteen. It was playing in Toronto. Toronto felt huge to me then—huge, glamorous, dirty. I stood in line with my friends and watched a cute British usher tear tickets on the opposite side of the door. Even the ushers in Toronto were more attractive. Coming to the big city filled the imagination in all manner of ways.
A year or so later we came back to the city and saw The Phantom Of The Opera. I sat in my nosebleed section seat and spent the entire musical imagining myself as Christine. Except I was sure I’d toss the achingly perfect Raoul back to the chorus girls and lose myself in the crypts beneath that sprawling theatre. I’d love the man behind the mask, I thought. I was tough. I could do it.
But even then, I knew the Phantom didn’t want a tough woman. He wanted the wispy Christine, who belonged to Raoul. Christine who would never love him the way he needed to be loved. For the Phantom, there was exquisite torture in the not-having. Perhaps some relief, too? There’s a rhythm to what you can do and think when you watch the loved one from far away, when you’re the Mr. Rochester forbidden by marriage or the Mr. Darcy forbidden by your own stiff expectation. When you giggle at them from a line of teenage girls, when you watch that cartoon safely boxed behind the screen. Imagination takes you everywhere, and nowhere. It leaves you wanting in the safest kind of way.
My elementary school crush reminded me of the TV Peter Pan. Different hair, no fairy dust, still incorrigible. He was going to be an artist. And he was bad in the often-in-detention, smoke-pot-behind-the-school kind of way, but never mean. He said maybe ten words to me in the entire eight years we were at school together.
This was okay. Would I have lasted as the (fifth grade) girlfriend of a bad boy? No. Just like the Phantom, mooning so desperately over Christine, part of me wanted the torture. It was true then, and it held true through all the years that came after, all the impossible crushes. Men who were older. Men who were married. Men who were older and married. Women who were “interested”, but just not enough. Actors. Rock stars. People I saw for three seconds on the street. People so far out of my league it was a wonder I managed to speak to them at all.
In 1998 I fell madly in love with my high school English teacher. The crush went nowhere for twelve years, long after we’d stopped being teacher and student and had settled instead on being friends. It was a friendship that surprised me with its clarity: no-nonsense, supportive, thriving even in spite of my many moves—across the province, across the country, overseas. He made me laugh. He knew my bullshit in and out. I never told him how I felt, even though he must have known. Everyone knew. One of my strongest memories from high school is weeping silently in the halls because he was perfect and we’d never be together.
It sounds ridiculous now. Sometimes I’d like to shake that sixteen-year-old self, smack some sense into her story-addled brain. I doubt, however, that she’d listen.
I also spent a large part of the 90s crushing on Fox Mulder, from The X-Files. This lasted from 1994 until, well, now. What person can’t help but be charmed, at least a little, by Mulder’s quirk, his devotion to the cause? When Mulder and Scully lost nine minutes during their drive along that spooky country road, way back in the pilot episode, I almost yelled at the TV. They lost nine minutes! He’s right! He’s JUST SO SMART!
(Eventually the series went downhill. I remember reading an interview with the series creator, Chris Carter, where he said that Mulder’s sister would be found when the series ended. This did not happen, and I never forgave him for it.)
Still—Fox Mulder, of all people? He’s a loner. He’s obsessed. He has no time for relationships. He’s also just plain weird. There is no room in this life for a happy Mulder marriage. The torture of it all.
There was Gregory House after The X-Files went off-air, and then, of course, McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy. Right now I’m crushing hard on the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. Do we see the theme? Misanthrope. Married. Antisocial. Fictional. Unattainable in so many ways.
In 500 Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lovestruck Boy to Zooey Deschanel’s impishly beautiful, quasi-indifferent Dream Girl. They date for a large part of the film but every single minute, it seems to me, is about the not-having. His face says too good to be true all the time. He frets. He fritters his fancy job away. He neglects his friends in favour of sitting at home and hoping that she’ll call.
It’s an exquisite kind of limbo, this unrequited love. The kind of love that doesn’t die, doesn’t age; the kind of love that fits perfectly in a land where imagination brings you everything you could want. The older men, the married men, the McDreamys and Sherlocks. The Mulders. The English teachers from years ago. Anything can happen here.
Except that nothing does. The Phantom perishes somewhere beneath the stage. Gregory House ends up alone. Gordon-Levitt’s Tom watches Summer walk away. And Peter Pan, in most of the stories, remains a boy forever. I love these narratives and these characters precisely because they’re exciting and sad all at once—because they promise great things and yet never deliver, which itself is the greatest thing of all. There are no surprises here in Neverland, and yet everyone keeps on wishing. Isn’t that its own kind of magic, in a way? Doesn’t it say something about how hopeful we are, how silly, how willing to believe in the impossible?
It will never happen. That’s what unrequited means.
And yet—the lovestruck mantra—it just might happen.
And so we watch, and we just keep on waiting.