I lived with my chronically ill alcoholic father in North Carolina. When I wasn’t cat-fishing musicians on AOL or plotting to lose my virginity to the goth kid across town, I was longing for glamour and excitement. From “Dirty Dancing” sprung a blueprint for the ultimate fantasy: I envisioned meeting the love of my life on vacation.
Fast-forward a decade to my life as a 20-something in Boston. I was a journalist by day, a domestic queen by night, pulling a perfectly golden roast chicken from the oven for my 40-year-old bartender boyfriend, a man who loved three things: sports, beer and “Quantum Leap.” I felt trapped.
So when we flew to Cozumel one summer, I welcomed the change of scenery. Our last day on the island, Paul opted to stay behind while I went on a three-reef tour, which was how I met Eduardo, my snorkel guide.
Eduardo was the sexiest man I’d ever seen. That afternoon, a horde of honeymooners and I spent hours trailing him through Cozumel’s famed coral reefs.
“Can I take you dancing tonight?” Eduardo asked me back on the boat, my resort just coming into view.
“I really want to go dancing with you,” I said, “but I have a boyfriend. He’s at the hotel.” Then — I knew it was my only chance — I said: “But you’re so sexy, and I really do want to go dancing with you.”
Our meeting felt as serendipitous as Baby and Johnny’s. But the reality was: I barely spoke Spanish, I lived a world away in Boston, and I couldn’t easily leave my bad relationship.
Still, I wanted my movie. For seven years, I’d allowed my life to unspool alongside a couch monger — now I had an international adventure within reach. And after a year and one return visit, I uprooted to Cozumel to be with Eduardo.
We were in love. But we hadn’t spent a lot of time together. It turned out that we weren’t compatible. Problems with Eduardo emerged even on my first night. I’d rented an apartment, and Eduardo turned up that evening only to chastise me for my drinking.
“But we’re celebrating?” I’d stammered. I’d broken up with a long-term boyfriend and pulled some serious strings to get there. Damn right, I was drinking.
He was controlling. And while there were plenty of cultural differences between us, his behavior wasn’t one of them. Latin men are often labeled possessive, passionate and explosive — a stereotype that’s reductive and harmful, like most stereotypes are. But I saw Eduardo’s behavior as a manifestation of the patriarchal groundwork that’s been laid all over the world. I’d freed myself from a seven-year relationship that mostly felt like domestic bondage, only to find out that my independence threatened Eduardo. My fun-loving side annoyed him. Conversing with other men rocketed him into jealousy. We loved as hard as we fought.
Eduardo wasn’t my Johnny, and my life was not a movie.
While “Dirty Dancing’s” Baby believed she could change the world, I believed I could transform the wrong men into, yes, Patrick Swayze, who would lift me in the air on the strength of their love and bravery alone.
I’m 34 now and single. Every day — not just Valentine’s Day — I hear platitudes about how love will arrive when I least expect it, about the ability of dating sites to bring true love, about how I should wait for the first round of my social circle’s divorces to roll through.
As an eternal optimist, I struggle to accept that love may not happen for me. But it might not. That’s another cinematic trope. Love isn’t some universal birthright.
Patrick Swayze’s portrayal of Johnny Castle still represents an ideal for me, one that’s hard to shake. This year marks the 30th anniversary of “Dirty Dancing,” and I still watch the movie with the same wide-eyed wonder as I did the first time. Yet as much as I’ve longed to be rescued in an epic dance-off, I’ve committed to a different kind of happy ending for now — having the time of my life, alone.