There is something about a boy with kind eyes scooping up an armful of tumbled books and handing them back to the nerdy girl who dropped them. There is something squeal-worthy in the oblivious, corporate Tom Hanks bringing Meg Ryan flowers when she’s sick in You’ve Got Mail.
Not all romance tropes, however, appeal to me. When Heathcliff broods on the moor, I hear “Toxic” by Brittany Spears in the whine of the wind. I want wild, destructive desire about as much as I want to toil over pot roast in high heels for a man smoking silently over a newspaper prominently featuring a Kennedy, surrounded by a picket fence like a row of bleached teeth.
I don’t want Hallmark either. I don’t want to see a childhood friend through fresh eyes after my cupcake store in The Big City goes under.
I think the media that comes closest to what I want is Modern Love.
“Modern Love” is a column in the New York Times and a lovely series on Amazon Prime. I have not read much of the column, but I binged the show. The series isn’t a tangled, racing plot that would motivate a binge, but I was enchanted by the aging doorman and his platonic guardianship of a young, single mother and the intertwining of mature trust and youthful timidity in the romance of an elderly couple who meet while running.
Each episode is an independent story, set against a warmly lit, mostly affluent, intimate New York City. Perhaps being a delta for the silt of so many cultures, dreams, and stories is what lends New York that particular, fantastical intimacy.
Modern Love is based on true stories, portrayed by an all-star cast. It hosts some diversity of sexual orientation, age, race, and gender, but it does not give the impression that the creators are just punching their “Woke” card to make their way to “one free affirmation of decency.” The episodes are short stories, and, like short stories, they have the boldness to be small, specific, uncomfortable, or shamelessly tender. They are content to be a moment, not a saga. Resolution is allowed to be natural—neither wholly complete nor affecting melancholy to be thought profound. Thoughtful.
Modern Love captures the inherent sensuality and sacredness of another person—both mystery and self-portrait. It’s life in miniature. Months or years of momentary beauty, hope, kindness, and curiosity condensed down to a magical essence. Like a dollhouse.
I was so impressed by the show, I began to wish for a “Modern Love” story. And a few months into isolation in my apartment due to the COVID-19, I heard the voice in the basement.
The voice was not the monstrous gargle or the ghostly rasp you would expect to emanate from the dank, shared laundry room of a 100-year-old apartment building.
At first, I thought it was the pipes. People who do not have cats upon which to blame little residential moans and whispers might consider similarly investing in a thorough ignorance of plumbing.
The voice formed rich, clear notes of a song I did not know.
I stood up and pressed my ear to the door leading down to the laundry room.
And I fell in love. Likely, it wasn’t the kind of love that builds joint lives and matching rocking chairs. Like a lot of loves, I think, it was born of loneliness and the electrical tingle of brushing against something other, magical, transcendent, divine. A tenor voice was singing for the joy of it to a miserable basement. The moment was romance, at least the basics of it. I discovered something intimate about another person, and I cared that they were well and happy. I wanted to know more about them, to share a few of my secrets, to have them revel in the small, sacred details of my uniqueness, too.
So, I scribbled a message on a post-it note. A compliment, not my phone number. I signed it “Upstairs.” It was the romance of a moment, not an epic or a forever, requiring names and addresses.
I waited until I heard a heavy tread on the stairs past my apartment. Flying down the steps before I was seen, I pressed my note onto the laundry room door and darted back upstairs. I checked later that day, and the note was gone.
I checked the next day for a reply.
For almost a week, no response came. Then one day, when I had forgotten about the whole thing, I found a torn scrap of paper, expressing gratitude and affixed to the door with a sticker in the shape of Bob Ross’s head. The note contained gratitude, an apology for not possessing either sticky notes or tape (though I thought the sticker was the best part anyway), and no signature.
And that was that.
Did I love the voice in the basement as a symbol for something else—companionship, or the thrill of meeting someone new? Yes. We live by symbols. Christian marriage is symbolic. Love is just as much a ritual or pageant as it is a ground-breaking discovery. Modern Love feels unique, but it is just as full of tropes and stock characters as a Shakespeare play. We pick our characters, and we play it out. But Modern Love gets two things right that Hallmark and other such stories miss.
First, the beauty of a love story comes from all the places we do not quite fill, the roles we choose, all the places where we don’t fit together with each other quite right, the windows of imperfection and shortfall where the light shines through.
Second, there are innumerable kinds of love, many of them momentary. We could have a thousand romances a day if we worried less about finding someone to love us forever and more about people we could love for a minute.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.