Not long ago, as I sat sipping a skim decaf latte, contemplating my 39th birthday and brooding over the demise of my most recent relationship, my thoughts turned to... vampires. This particular romance had started out effortlessly, even thrillingly. It ended because serious life responsibilities (mostly his) got in the way. Unlike us mortals, vampires have very few life responsibilities. When they want something, they go after it, get it and enjoy the hell out of it. Jessica, one of the characters on the HBO series True Blood, said it well this season, when she talked about feeling "more alive" as a vampire than she ever did as a human. More alive. That's an apt description of what being in love -- and lust -- feels like.
I was bitten by the vampire bug early. I've always loved supernatural stories. You could say that I like stretching my imagination the way some of my SELF coworkers like stretching their quads. I grew up an only child, and I filled the childhood spaces that siblings might have inhabited with close friendships -- some with people and some with characters from books and on screens big and small. It may seem odd, but my fictional companions were as important to me as my actual ones, and, in some ways, that's still true as an adult. When Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) longed for Angel, her vampire soulmate, I felt her pain. When True Blood's Sookie agonizes over Bill, I'm equally entranced. Recently, watching The Vampire Diaries, my heart broke for Elena's travails with her wayward swain, Stefan, and I empathized just as strongly for Bella when, in the latest of the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, she finally mated with Edward, with thrilling and terrifying results.
Getting swept up in the romances of these lovers and fighters has always felt more seductive and less scary than embarking on romantic adventures of my own. Stories about vampires and demons may seem silly to the uninitiated, but when done well, these otherworldly elements heighten the drama, as in any good tale. Vampires may be unreal, but they serve as apt stand-ins for human beings, experiencing the same highs and lows that come with loving, losing and surviving. Take the example of Buffy having sex for the first time with her boyfriend, Angel. Afterward, he changed, becoming cruel and dismissive. In his case, the alteration was due to a gypsy's curse meant to prevent Angel from experiencing real happiness. But the reason isn't important: How many teenage girls (or grown women, for that matter) have experienced the same scenario and been betrayed after giving themselves over for love? We all relate to the fear of being rejected when we let down our defenses and open ourselves up to someone. Buffy, like many women, dared to stick out her neck -- and she got bitten. That's one of the reasons we love her.
In some cases, it's the vampire and not the human who is taking the greater risk in love, as Jessica's plight in True Blood makes clear. To truly connect with someone rather than experience only a superficial one-night stand, Jessica must reveal her authentic self: She has fangs, she cries blood-red tears, and she possesses superhuman strength -- she's a vampire. Like many of us, she struggles with the fear that if a man sees all of her -- her deepest self -- he'll find her too dark, intimidating, weird or frightening. In other words, if she dares to let her guard down, he'll find her unlovable and reject her. Scary! Yet Jessica keeps putting herself out there. And each time she takes a chance on love, she's braver about it. She's able to be more honest about who she is and what she desires, growing ever more confident that she can find love, vampire-style. Isn't that kind of courage the true definition of female empowerment?
There's a simple no-pain, no-gain lesson here. The only way to experience something amazing is to open up and be real. In my recent relationship, I found myself falling for a guy who, on paper, wasn't my type at all. But for once, I took the time to see who he was, paid attention to how he acted and listened closely to what he had to say. That's pretty rare for me. Fiction lover that I am, I often romanticize people, making them more like characters in the stories I love. Or I get caught up in the idea of someone rather than who he really is. This time, though, I saw the guy clearly, along with his issues, his challenges and all the qualities that made him wonderful. For my part, instead of holding back emotionally and showing him only what I wanted him to see (a prettied-up version of myself, which is my usual approach), I went all in. And it was grand. Being able to talk about vulnerabilities and joys, the small daily ones and the bigger, more meaningful ones, created a faster, deeper, more passionate intimacy than I'd experienced in a while. I felt vulnerable, yes, but I also felt utterly exhilarated.
And then it ended, abruptly, as if a spell had worn off. Except this time, it wasn't a gypsy's curse that foiled a good thing but bad timing and sticky, unavoidable life circumstances. Now that it's over, the safest, most self-protective move I could make would be to mold myself back into the shape of someone who is satisfied reading about love and fantasizing about it, rather than experiencing it full tilt. Instead, I think I'll admit that I'm hurting right now and allow myself to mourn the possibilities of what could have been.
I haven't let myself fall that hard in a long, long time. I wasn't even sure that I could anymore. But I did fall, and I know that's a good thing, despite the fact that it might not feel very good at the moment. If I was able to experience such an intense connection, even if it was ultimately severed, I know I'm capable of connecting to someone like that again. But that can happen only if, like Bella and Jessica and Buffy, I allow myself to take another risk.
Vampires are ruled by their appetites. That's one reason they continue to fascinate me as I near my 40s. They feel intensely and, even more important, trust those feelings enough to act on them. I might not be quite at that point yet, but if I stay open to the rush of attraction, to the sweetness of moonlit first kisses, along with the poignancy of unrealized expectations, then the next romance I swoon over will be one I'm living, not one I'm simply reading about.