They say you’ll live forever if a writer falls in love with you.
Tell this to the right girl and she’s yours. Of course, it might take a while to find her, and it obviously helps if you’re somewhat famous.
But I don’t tell them that I’d only write about them if they’d break my heart. Because that’s how I put the pieces back together. I don’t tell them that I stopped loving a long time ago.
It’s not that I don’t want to, I simply can’t. That bizarre mechanism that allows people to feel as if someone else is a part of who they are, as if they’ve found something they’ve always felt was missing… well, that mechanism’s broken for me.
And, sadly, I don’t know how to fix it, so I go into bookstores and find pretty and quiet girls and show them my books, all nicely lined up on bookshelves. Some of them have read me, some haven’t. Some of them are true fans, and they can’t wait to tell me how much they love my stuff. They tell me jokes, they want to show me how smart they are. They ask questions and expect me to answer. When I ask them questions, they smile and spend a few moments rummaging through their minds for the right answer.
Because these girls want me to turn them into literature. Simple as that.
They feel like they know me, but they don’t.
They want to inspire me, they want to be there, on every page, in every sentence I write. They want eternity as only I can give them. They want to take me to their place and show me paradise.
Let me tell you something about artists that no one else will have the guts to tell you. All artists survive on praise. They feed on cheers and five star reviews. There’s nothing like opening fan mail for breakfast. But you see, if you try to eat the same dish three times a day for a month… you will get sick. Odds are you’ll never eat that dish again. Too much love is just as worse as no love.
In the big world outside stories and movies and songs there really is such a thing as too perfect.
That’s what happens. Fame erodes your soul. Not money, but fame… this stupid concept that turns ordinary people into gods.
Zeus is dead.
He’s nothing but a story now. Art. Nothing but a few sculptures and paintings.
Come think about it, he’s not really dead, but not alive either. Let’s just say he’s been preserved.
That’s what I did to the three women I selfishly loved and lost. I trapped them inside stories. I wrote about them over and over again until I forgot how they look like, how they smell like, how their skin feels like.
I wrote about them until their eyes turned from blue to brown to black and to blue again. I wrote about them, over and over again, until I almost forgot that they had helped me become who I am today.
A famous jackass.
Most people think that being lucky means finding your soul mate. No, you’re really lucky if they’re not someone else’s soul mate.
Believe me, I know one or two things about falling in love with the wrong woman at the wrong time.
I’ve fallen in and out of love countless times, but I only truly loved three women. The first one, let’s call her R, was the first person who ever wanted to read something I had written.
She was three years older and engaged to my cousin. I never told her how I felt about her, mostly because I was stupid and afraid, but also because I was selfish. Yes, I kept her all for myself… this perfect version of love, untainted by all the petty frustrations and stupid arguments that start to happen as love fades away.
I never had her, and so she was perfect.
Much, much later I wrote a novel about her. After I finished writing the damn thing, I realized that I had written someone else into existence. She was nothing like my character.
That’s when I realized I was a poor writer, simply because I couldn’t write about R without writing about someone else. She was more of a work of art than I could ever create.
I suppose that’s why they say life’s stranger than fiction sometimes.
R left my cousin, left the country, and fell in love with a jazz player. We never talked again.
A couple of years later I fell in love with A. She was just as smart and funny and beautiful as that ghost we always feel sleeping beside us in our most lonely of nights. She worked as a waitress at a restaurant me and my friends would go to on weekends.
I tried my best to make her mine, and at one point it seemed like I could even get my happily ever after with her, but then something changed. Maybe I stopped trying, maybe she stopped trying.
Maybe we both stopped trying.
The only thing I can accurately remember about her is that she kissed like no other. Like the world was about to end.
Then I fell in love with D, who worked at the same restaurant. She was engaged and was cheating on her fiancé with one of the managers. I didn’t know that when I fell in love with her.
I told her I was a writer. Well it was more along the lines, “I used to pretend I was a writer back in high school.”
She wanted to read some of my stuff. I brought her a short story; she liked it very much. Then I brought her another one, and another one, and so on, until I ran out of stories.
So I wrote something new.
That’s how it all started, actually. And I never again felt quite as happy. I was writing for one person, and I was confident that someday she’d be mine. We would talk for hours and hours about all the nonsense that most people never bother to even think about.
We talked about love and destiny and places we would like to visit, and strange countries filled with strange people, and I felt that I could only conquer the world as long as she believed in me.
Because she did. She thought I was a great writer. She said she cried when she read some of my best stuff. Later on, when I signed my first book contract, I remembered this and smiled.
If done right, tears turn into gold.
I think that I was too much of an imbecile back then to understand how love really works. I waited for her to make the first step. I waited for something to happen, something that would change my life for the better.
Instead, she decided that it would be better if she spent her afternoons fucking the manager.
A few months later she broke up with her fiancé, the manager got a divorce, and they bought their happily ever after in the form of a small, two bedroom flat.
Last time we talked at the restaurant I told her, “You know, they say you’ll live forever if a writer falls in love with you.”
I like to believe she saw. She didn’t say anything, so I went on, “But some people aren’t really worth writing about, don’t you think?”
That’s when she looked at me. She almost felt sorry, so I said, “Maybe we all write about those who least deserve it.”
I never saw her again. I jumped off a cliff that night. The free fall lasted for almost two years. I spent my nights writing and smoking and drinking heavily while the entire city slept its pathetic slumber. I wrote and wrote and wrote because I wanted to prove something to the entire world. I was tired of waiting for something to happen. I wanted to make things happen, to create the life I thought I deserved.
It didn’t really work out.
I went back to the restaurant, as if I knew that was the place where I would find what I was looking for, even though I wasn’t sure what I expected to find. D had quit her job, because she didn’t really need the money anymore.
But A was still there. Married. Happy. Spending her holidays in countries I only read about on the Internet.
We started talking again, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do. I’d tell her about this or that story, and she would listen, but neither one of us believed anymore.
You see, art is all about faith. You’ve got to believe in what you are doing, you’ve got to think that you can only acquire true freedom by typing some words on a computer.
It sounds like madness. Maybe it is.
One day A said, “The only way you’re ever going to find a great story is to live it first.”
And I thought I was becoming less than human. I was becoming a shadow. Everything around me was turning into a shadow. Void of colors, of substance. I was so desperate to find the great story that I knew I could write that living life was no longer important.
I did what I had to do to survive and nothing more, and I was certain that pain would someday give birth to art. I was more than willing to pay the price.
Through a strange string of events I got to meet a painter. He was really good, or at least that’s what I thought. I feel in love with one of his paintings and decided to write a story about it.
He told me the painting had been commissioned by a pair. He was a saxophone player, she was beautiful. This painting showed me for the first time how real life becomes art.
It was fascinating to imagine how the painting would last longer than the people it depicted, how the painting would still be hanging on some wall somewhere long after bones had turned to dust.
And I immediately thought about R.
She had been engaged to a jazz player. She was beautiful. Everything else had to be written into existence.
I told A about this idea I had for a story. I showed her a picture of the painting, I showed her pictures of R. Told her all about R, about our almost love story.
She loved the idea. She said to give it a try.
So I did.
The first night I wrote five thousand words or so, while listening to old, old jazz tunes. For the first time I had fun writing. The next day I brought A the first chapter, and I could see it in her eyes that I had written a real story. I had managed to turn real life into art.
A week after I finished the novel, A quit her job at the restaurant. On the day of her last shift, she told me she believed in me.
I almost asked her for more, but I thought it would be better to spare myself another heartbreak.
I was alone now. Utterly and inconsolably so. When I signed my first book contract, there was no one around to shout my happiness to. When I got my first letter from a fan, there was no one to read the letter to.
All I had were my beautiful ghosts. A was a brilliant singer in one of my novels, D was a goddess of love in a novella. R was a princess. I wrote about them, over and over again, until I had nothing left, until accidentally meeting one of them would bring me just as much pleasure as meeting an old acquaintance.
I wrote about them until I turned them into strangers, until I made my characters exactly how I’d always imagined the perfect woman to be. It’s been so long that I don’t know what’s real and what’s not, what happened and what I only imagined.
They say nothing is as beautiful as you can imagine it, and yet at the same time you feel nothing you write could ever capture the essence of beauty you experience.
The truth is, we are born lost, and we spend our lives trying to find our true selves. Or invent it. Or paint it. Sing it to an audience. Or write it into existence.
One day I told a friend about my habit of going into bookstores and picking up girls by telling them they’re supposed to live forever if a writer falls in love with them.
“What are you searching for?” he asked me.
“Someone to ask, ‘Who’s they?’” I said.
Beautiful ghosts is one of the short stories included in Strangers, a compilation of short stories I published with fellow Romanian writer Anca Dunavete.
If you’re interested in reading more, click here.