I once held my high- school record for the number of times anyone had seen "Gigi." In college, I worked my way up the charts for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" before I ran out of movie money.
I confess this only to let you know that I am a sucker for a love story, even "Love Story." To this day, I am a demographic natural for a three-doily, hearts- and-flowers orgy of romantic movies. So, this Valentine's week, while anyone with an ounce of sense was watching the Filipino saga of Cory and Ferdinand, I was glued to the romantic duos brought into my bedroom by cable TV.
Now, to my dismay, I seem to have developed a love-story hangover. It turns out that I can't wallow in junk romance the way I once could. I may dive as eagerly as ever into the bag of cinematic Fritos, devour them just as happily. But then I walk around with an aftertaste, thinking about the ingredients.
Something has happened since Holly Golightly left my life. Today I keep writing postscripts to Hollywood's happy endings. It's a perfectly ridiculous pastime, but there it is.
In the car this morning, I added an entirely new reel to one of the two-star movies in my marathon, "Falling in Love." The film itself had ended with love conquering all. Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep, free of previous marriages, had reunited on a commuter train, and ridden off into the happily ever after.
But in my reel, Meryl moved to Bob's Houston and missed her Manhattan. The two children from Bob's first marriage came to visit from time to time. He indulged them; she judged his indulgence. She wanted to have children of her own, but Bob wasn't sure. Money was tight, the refrigerator needed cleaning . . . and you get the moving picture.
It is not that I replaced the happy ending of the screenwriter with an unhappy ending of my own. In my scenario they still loved each other. But they were no longer "falling in love." They had landed.
The other postscripts were equally pedestrian. The screenwriters sealed the loose ends of their Grade-B films with a kiss, but I unravelled them again to see where they would lead. Could a perfume manufacturer like Barbra Streisand make a go of it with a boxer like Ryan O'Neal in "The Main Event"? What would happen when the pretty American horticulturist and the handsome French banker in "Until September" tried to live together in January? What had happened to my sense of romance?
Surrounded by the absurdity of my postscripts, I wondered whether we just lose our taste for romance as we get older, the way we lose our taste for Sugar Smacks. It's possible, but I think what happens is that most of us acquire a new taste. A taste for the long run, for the epic tale.
There's a point in life, early life anyway, when attraction is the central mystery, even the obsession. In our teens, we imagine that the romantic tale of our lives comes to a climax at the moment of mutual promise. Our own experience is so short that our imagination stretches no further into the future than the credit lines of the movie.
But as people get older they have almost inevitably lived in one happily-ever- after or another. They know what's coming after The End. They can see the huge centrifugal forces, the clashes of will and personalities, and the troubles of everyday life: kids, work, money, what Zorba the Greek once called "the whole catastrophe."
By mid-life, most of us carry that knowledge around in our brains like that old invention from Sesame Street, The What-Happens-Next Machine. It is a postscript that we bring into any next stage of life or love. The more past we have, the more we may, even reluctantly, project it onto the future screen.
In time, maybe many of us become less interested in how people get together, and more interested in how they will stay together. The "getting" is so much shorter than the "staying." "Falling" in love seems so much less complex than "being" in love.
I suppose that's why romance movies are about beginnings; they're easier. But like incurable romantics, they miss a lot. They miss the kind of love that's been around long enough to include friendship and trust and a whole lot of gratitude. As a love-story buff, I know this is not what people write scripts about. It's not on Valentines. But it's the surprise in the chocolate box, the happy non-ending, the stuff on which you build a life.