"Modern Love" by Sara Flannery Murphy

ThepossessionsSara Flannery Murphy's The Possessions is a literary debut that incorporates obsession and communing with the dead. If you're confused by that, don't be. Here's the set-up:

A young woman works for the Elysian Society, a private service that allows grieving clients to reconnect with lost loved ones. She's very good at her job, a real professional--but when Patrick Braddock requests that she commune with his recently-drowned wife, she becomes obsessed with the glamorous couple. Even as she communes with his wife, she pursues Patrick.

With Valentine's Day having just passed, we thought that the author--having written so compellingly about crushes, obsession, and love--might have something to contribute to the subject of modern love. The essay she delivered surpassed our expectations. Here it is in full:


Modern Love by Sarah Flannery Murphy

In my family of religious hippies, adolescence was considered tacky. Not a consequence of the normal passage of time, but something you’d avoid if you had enough self-respect. Most homeschoolers favored large, sprawling families, and mine was no different. But I was surrounded by brothers, my only sister seven years younger than me. I suppressed my disloyal curiosity about glitter eyeshadow and Seventeen’s giggly quizzes.

Like Wendy among the Lost Boys, I spent my early adolescence trapped in a world both rowdy and stubbornly innocent. Without any older girls as mentors or confidantes, I didn’t have a vocabulary to talk about crushes. I barely even knew how to acknowledge them to myself. The reality of being a teenage girl hijacked my brain anyway.

There was a boy. He was sixteen. His parents were the type to hire private tutors for dead languages; I was the tutor’s child. The Latin Student came to our house a couple of times a month. He treated me and my siblings with the bemused friendliness of a tourist. There was no chance that he’d be interested in a mousy 13-year-old with a choppy home haircut.

My parents invited the Latin Student to have dinner with us. The meal was an afterthought to the rest of the family. For me, it glowed bright at the center of my week. I knew the crush was a hopeless one, but still I longed to look pretty. Fix my hair in fishtail braids, a trick I’d just learned. But the microcosm of a homeschooling family is especially insular. Any effort I made would stand out, giving me away as glaringly as if I’d written the Latin Student’s name in my notebook margins. If my brothers caught wind of my weakness, I would be done for.

The only option was to pretend that the dinner meant nothing to me. Burning with a grim sense of duty, I selected my plainest outfit. Teal sweatpants, a sweater with babyish embroidered hearts. I was as stoic as a fasting nun, sitting there with my plainness on full display. And I was triumphant. I’d conjured an invisibility shield, protecting the embarrassing spectacle of my heart. 

This was only the beginning of my complicated relationship with crushes. I left home at eighteen. Living in the dorms was a culture shock: years of peer pressure distilled into a single capsule. It didn’t take me long to develop an eating disorder, a coping mechanism that kept me focused on a private, impossible goal. It also left me whittled into a smaller shape—mine was a half-formed state while I decided what or who I wanted to be.

Most of my peers were ditching the “hopeless crush” stage for the “awkward flirting” stage. When I heard a classmate casually confess to liking someone else, I was fascinated. It seemed much too vulnerable to reveal a crush to the whole world, an intimacy that verged on dangerous. It was also the first time I realized that a crush could act as a practical tool: telling someone might potentially lead to a real relationship.  

I wasn’t ready for that. But without the fear of rejection or exposure, crushes became refuges. They offered glimpses into possible futures. An infatuation with an extrovert let me imagine myself as witty and brash, not the girl who always lurked near the punchbowl, swallowing down my best lines. When I went starry-eyed over a philosophy major, I pictured myself making offhand jokes about Foucault without stumbling over his name.

Crushes are concentrated emotions, so much significance packed into each interaction. The smallest positive sign – a smile hello, a laugh at a joke – could buoy the whole week. On the other hand, a lone unanswered email could send me plummeting into a flat despair. I liked filling my emotional landscape with these ghost emotions, mine to decode and interpret.

When I did date, the relationships tended to be short-lived. More often, I’d keep us both suspended in a perpetual limbo stage. Never sure whether we were friends, or more than friends, or nothing at all. The term “ghosting” wasn’t around back then, but it fit my behavior. I was the posterchild for passivity. Beneath the dreamy surface, though, there was a stubbornness. I liked the control. Self-inflicted unrequited “love” was a safe place to linger. No sudden drop-offs, no sharp edges. Just all that untested possibility, stretching out ahead of me.


Within an hour of meeting him, I could see that Ryan and I were similar. We’d both come from religious backgrounds. I was ex-Catholic; he’d grown up in Mormon Utah, not taking a single sip of coffee until his twenties. We met at a party where the theme was “dress formally,” an exotic command for grad students. We’d later learn that each of us assumed the other person was older, intimidated by the necktie and heels. In truth, our birthdays are only nine weeks apart.

By this time, I was twenty-three. I’d managed to settle into my own skin. I’d moved to a city eight hours away from my family. I was in an MFA program. I’d started a rocky recovery from my eating disorder. Every day, I approached my new self with the shyness of trying on a new dress that was slightly too flashy.

Ryan and I bumped into each other frequently over the next few months. He stopped to chat when he saw me on the footpath that wound between the campus and our shared neighborhood. It became clear that he liked me. There was an attentiveness in the way he interacted with me, a special weight he gave to my responses.

I didn’t know what to do with this knowledge. While my crushes let me enter a fantasy world, a dazzling and barely recognizable version of my life, Ryan didn’t offer escapism. With him, I’d be the same person. When I tried to imagine dating him, I didn’t take on a different, exaggerated version of my personality. I remained myself. I refused to see this as a plus. It terrified me.

Still, I agreed to a few coffee dates. Then a few more. We saw movies together, went to pubs afterwards. Because I wasn’t tripping over myself trying to impress Ryan, I was more relaxed around him, even as I stubbornly framed our dynamic as a friendship.

I mentioned him to my brothers, and to my sister. “There’s this guy,” I’d say, “but I just don’t think he’s my type.” Unlike my crushes, mushrooms growing in dark corners, Ryan was out in the daylight. My observations about him didn’t stay stuck in my head, endlessly recycled. It was refreshing to discuss him with other people and see him from different perspectives. If only I had a crush on him, I thought ruefully, then the situation would be perfect.

The awareness that I returned his feelings developed slowly, over several months rife with signs that I missed or ignored. The fleeting moments when I turned flustered and tongue-tied around him. The way I felt after he drove away.

I’d longed for a relationship that would forever shield me from vulnerability, lift me up above my insecurities. Ryan was vulnerable in the same ways I was. He was earnest and awkward, shy yet blunt. Within this familiarity, I found something that I hadn’t imagined during all my elaborate fantasies: we connected. Ryan understood my sense of humor perfectly – I never had to explain a punchline. And I enjoyed arguing with him. Even when we vehemently disagreed, there was a sense of being heard and understood. I often walked away feeling more satisfied than if we’d agreed.

Falling in love didn’t lead to the restructuring of my identity I had expected. It was both simpler and infinitely more complicated. It was a slower process, not a lightning bolt; a series of small surprises. My world did not crack open, but it did grow, slowly and surely, a brightening and expanding.

When I admitted my feelings to my family, their reaction was a unanimous lack of surprise. “We knew,” my second youngest brother said. “You were always talking about him.” They were happy for me, gently encouraging. Looking back now, four years into marriage, I see that the source of my teenage guardedness had shifted: it no longer stemmed from my family. It was all mine, a pride that prevented me from being vulnerable in front of the people I cared about.

If I’d had it my way, my relationship with Ryan would have moved on to the next stage without having to take any risks. The idea of confessing my feelings returned me to my awkward adolescence: vulnerable, terrified that I’d be caught in the act of wanting, and found lacking. But the time for Ryan to make the first move had passed.

So I picked up the phone one evening and called him, listening to the ringing on the other end, and prepared myself to tell him how I felt.

-- Sara Flannery Murphy



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