I don’t know why I decided to write my advice column for the Boston Globe, Love Letters, five days a week. It was a lot of days, and a lot of letters. Sometimes I’d panic that I’d run out of material, but there were always enough problems in my inbox, and the commenters kept showing up every day.
And as it turned out, the good thing about answering so many letters — more than 450 in the first two years — was that I was able to figure out what I stood for, faster.
Mostly, I learned what I stood against, which were self-help philosophies that involved dating rules, and generalizations about men being from Mars and women being from Venus. I did my best to dispel old-fashioned notions like the idea that straight men and women couldn’t be friends. I also tried to poke holes in the theory that cheaters would always cheat, because I believed that people were capable of change, for better and worse.
As an advice giver, I was getting more confident about my opinions on many subjects, and no longer feared letters that were outside my area of experience. I tried not to use language like “I think” and “maybe” in my drafts. I didn’t think, I knew.
Except for when it came to porn. I was still sometimes confused about porn.
I had no problem with the concept of pornography and believed that porn, in its many forms, could enhance romantic relationships. And I’d always liked porn a lot, myself. But when my readers wrote in about pornography, their questions were nuanced and dealt with complicated issues such as frequency of consumption and gender politics. Some letter writers were upset about how their partner’s preferred porn portrayed women, while others believed their sex lives suffered as porn became easier to access on phones and laptops. I didn’t know how to be the arbiter of who, when, and how much. I understood that a partner’s porn habit shouldn’t replace intimacy in a relationship, but I couldn’t bring myself to make broad rules about objectification and escapism.
Part of the problem was that I had grown up in a household where escapism by way of two-dimensional men was part of the daily agenda. In my childhood home, my sister Brette and I had a list of crushes who earned their place on the walls and counters of our shared bathroom. Next to our sink was a foot-tall cardboard standup of Michael J. Fox that Brette bought at the local video store when Teen Wolf came out on VHS. An image of River Phoenix hung above him, the poster of his young face taped over the yellow floral wallpaper.
We didn’t think of our pinup habit as something we were supposed to grow out of, because my mother also participated. She cut out pictures of the object of her affection, Sting, and hid them where we’d least expect them. There was a magazine cutout of Sting in a bathtub taped inside the cabinet where we kept the dishes.
But the main objects of our affection were vampires. Brette started us on this path, first when she discovered an Anne Rice novel on our family bookshelf, and then with the 1985 movie Fright Night, which we rented from the local video store week after week.
The original Fright Night (it was remade with Colin Farrell in 2011) stars Chris Sarandon as a lonely and evil vampire named Jerry who falls in love with a young woman named Amy. In a pivotal scene, Sarandon wears a very sexy crew-neck shirt and dances with Amy in a nightclub. Amy is drawn in by his gaze and sways from side to side, entranced, as Jerry touches her butt.
Brette and I watched that dance over and over, and I’d get lightheaded as Chris Sarandon watched us — because he was watching us — while slinking across the dance floor. It was like the money shot of a porn, and we knew what to do. Rewind, repeat. Rewind, repeat.
From Fright Night we moved on to 1987’s The Lost Boys, a movie featuring teenage vampires on sexy motorcycles, and when I got older, I found Buffy on my own.
Then one day my mom called from Maryland and told me about something new.
“You have to see Twilight,” she said, almost panting through the phone.
“Eh,” I responded. “I think that’s a kid thing.”
“It’s not just a kid thing,” my mom said. “It’s a big deal.”
“Plus,” she added, her voice low, “it’s piano teacher porn.”
I could hear piano in the background of the phone call, as always. My mom often called me for a quick chat while her students warmed up for lessons in her “teaching studio,” also known as our living room.
“The story,” my mom told me, over the loud piano drills, “is about a sexy young vampire, Edward Cullen, who plays the piano. Because of the books and the movie, all of my students are desperate to play Debussy because Edward Cullen loves Debussy. They all suddenly think Debussy is cool.”
Intrigued, I made a date to see Twilight with friends. We got a little drunk first.
The movie started out okay, with pretty scenery in the Pacific Northwest. But then, all of a sudden, I got very interested in what I saw onscreen.
“Hello,” I whispered as Edward Cullen appeared for the first time, sauntering into his high-school cafeteria, his hair standing up like he’d spent most of the 1980s stocking up on Aqua Net. He wore a crew-neck shirt, just like Jerry in Fright Night. It fit his shoulders just right. I wanted to touch them.
“Who is that?” I asked silently, to no one.
“That’s Edward Cullen,” the character played by Anna Kendrick said onscreen, as if she were talking to me. “He’s totally gorgeous, obviously. But apparently, nobody here’s good enough for him. Like I care.”
“I care,” I thought to myself. Then I ate all of my Junior Mints.
“You were right,” I told my mom later. “And it isn’t just piano-teacher porn, by the way. Twilight is everybody porn.”
* * *
Twilight was already on DVD when my mom got her cancer diagnosis. That meant we could watch it whenever we needed to calm our anxious brains, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily. Later, after scans, when we received the horrible news that the cancer had already traveled to her lungs, making her a Stage 4 patient, we focused on the release of The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
The plan, so far, was that my mom would get a few months of chemotherapy to shrink the lung metastases enough to remove them. Then the doctors could remove the tumor in her colon. We hoped.
She planned to teach piano lessons through June but told her students she would retire at the start of summer. They didn’t know she was sick, and she wanted to keep it a secret so they wouldn’t worry. During those first few months of chemo, my mom called a lot — more than her usual twice a day — asking me to assure her that she would get better. All I could say was, “Of course you will,” even though I wasn’t sure at all.
I changed the subject to New Moon a lot. We’d talk about traveling to Italy to find vampires as soon as she felt better. Later, when that sequel was released on DVD, we’d watch our favorite scenes over and over. Rewind, repeat. Rewind, repeat. I’m embarrassed to think about how many times we watched the Twilight movies during the first few years of her illness. Sometimes, when I was alone, I’d keep the first film running while I did laundry and wrote Love Letters. It was my way of self-soothing; the familiar lines and happy endings calmed me before bed, and I’d sleep holding my pillow, pretending it was an undead 17-year-old centenarian protecting me throughout the night, giving my family eternal life.
I’d always believed (and told letter writers) that porn was a problem if it made someone less interested in the real world, but I was starting to think that sometimes, extreme escapism was okay. My version of porn wasn’t just helping me deal with my mom; it was also magically erasing the lingering pain of a breakup. One night, for instance, my phone showed a missed call from my ex, Patrick. It was the first time he’d reached out since the breakup.
Seeing his name made me break out into a light sweat. What did he want? Was it a butt dial or did he need to tell me something?
Without my undead distractions, I would have stared at my phone with deep confusion about what to do next. Would I call him back? Text?
Instead, I ignored him.
“Nope,” I said to the phone. If Patrick wanted to talk to me, he could leave a message.
But I would soon admit that my advice to readers was right — that my escapism had gone too far.
The turning point was when I went on a blind date with a friend of a friend. I didn’t feel dateable with everything going on with my mom, but going out with a single man my own age seemed like a healthy thing to do.
When I showed up to the dinner, I decided within minutes that it wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t attracted to him, and he seemed to be waiting for me to speak, which made me feel like I had to be on.
I wondered how I could sabotage the date as quickly as possible. But before I could come up with a plan, the man asked about my hobbies, and I told him — without thinking — that I was watching a lot of Twilight. As if that were an actual hobby.
“I’ve heard of that,” he said, taking a sip of beer. (I’d ordered a Diet Coke and a beet salad, a meal I thought would send a message that no one would be getting laid.)
“Those books are, like, really popular, right?” the man asked.
“Yes,” I said, annoyed.
“I don’t really know much about them,” he responded. I gave him all of the plot points up through the third book.
After dinner, I called my mom on the way home.
“Did you like him?” my mom asked, as I sped home, eager to get back to my television.
“No,” I said.
“What was he like?”
“Um,” I said, thinking. The truth was that I had no idea what the guy was like. Maybe his name started with a P. I knew for sure that he was too rooted in reality for my liking. He seemed nervous — not sexy nervous, but real- life human nervous — and humans weren’t appealing to me anymore. There was no scene from the date I wanted to watch again and again.
It was a revelation that inspired me to reread old letters and to heed my own advice. If I couldn’t connect to other humans, I had taken my habits too far. The movies, books, and immortal characters had become the only thing that could turn me on or make me feel calm.
I had to force myself to watch and read less. Just a little bit less.
I tried to see more friends, listen to music, and go to the gym instead of running to the vampires. I even allowed myself to think about why Patrick might have called, because at least he was real.
Edited excerpt from CAN’T HELP MYSELF: Lessons and Confessions From a Modern Advice Columnist by Meredith Goldstein. Copyright © 2018 by Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.