For Christmas a few years ago, a friend got me a pillowcase screen-printed with Michael Fassbender’s face. Fassbender was my man of the moment: My Facebook wall ornamented with brooding movie stills and meta-commentary on my lust for all things Fassy that was alternately self-effacing and comically defiant. Yes, I was in my (early) 30s, with a writing career and a day job with a decent title—but there was still a picture of Fassbender pinned to the corkboard of my desk.
My friend and I, like most of the other women I’ve come to know, bonded over our fantasy men, the teen dreams who adorned our bedroom walls and the current crushes that many a boyfriend or husband would graciously (jokingly) “allow”— only I had no significant other. I was my own woman, “allowed” whatever I wanted: a hotel room to write away the weekend/sleeping late/eating that caramel swirl ice cream—all of it. I was free to Fassbender it up to my heart’s content.
So, when I opened the box, I let out a loud, brassy laugh to show that I’m a good sport. But I heard the tin rattle inside that brass: My dance card is filled with men who might as well be imaginary—Fassbender and Tom Hardy, Marlon Brando and Idris Elba. The blue screen of laptop or TV blazing late into a darkened room has been my lantern on many nights; it leads me to a place where I’m not overworked and under-slept, where I’m never too loud, too fat, and too sarcastic—where I’m always cherished. To paraphrase the patron saint of ladies who live in romantic fantasy: I have always depended on the kindness of manly dreamboats.
As I put Fassbender back in the box, I wondered if I wasn’t 31 going on 13—my heart held in an amber shell, always arrested at the moment when I should have started on the path that all heterosexual women are expected to tread: coltish fumblings becoming boyfriends, boyfriends becoming fiancés, fiancés becoming husbands, and husbands becoming co-parents. Waking up beside my Fass-pillow every morning would only call attention to the emptiness in the bed below it. Or maybe my crushes are a cane, something steady to lean on, because some breaks will never knit 100 percent whole; there will always be a bit of scar tissue, and I will never walk down that expected path with an even step—assuming that it’s even my path at all.
Romantic fantasy has been more than a hiding place, it’s been a burrow: a snug, dry space where I could dream away peacefully, a place where James Dean or Matt Damon would never let me down. I tell a friend that I’d do better in the Hunger Games than on Match.com, and the joke is barbed with truth. I spent my teen years pining after the smart, artsy boys who liked my drawings, but weren’t quite enlightened enough to fancy me over the thinner girls; and my 20s playing sexual bumper cars with a handful of one-night-stands and guys who, like, “just weren’t into labels.” As a thirtysomething, I’ve built a (relatively) calm, solitary life: I go to a day job, then I come home and I write; I spend my weekends with friends. Every so often, I attempt an online dating profile—which soon becomes like the gym in late February, a dead zone haunted by the ghosts of good intentions.
My life of the mind has always been rich in passion: As a teenager, I papered my lockers with Leo DiCaprio and “Good Will Hunting”-era Matt Damon, Angel from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (before my switch to Team Spike), Jordan Catalano (er, I mean, Jared Leto) and Brad Pitt (but only in “Interview with a Vampire,” “Legends of the Fall” and “Fight Club,” because my fledgling libido was very specific). And, of course, there were the photo shrines to my first crush: Marlon Brando, the beautiful rebel who wanted to make his mark on the world and the cynical bruiser who wanted to take what he could from it.
Under the comforter with my magazines and biographies and certain cinematic moments on a loop in my head—a wink and a nod; the sweet, soft-eyed smile before a kiss that was anything but sweet or soft; a ripped shirt bearing a ripped torso—I was cocooned from the crackle of my father’s rage, the constant awareness of some dark, roiling force waiting to erupt in a thunderclap called maleness, the terror of fist and belt. As a child, I watched my mother build her life to suit his moods. But I was so young, and so curious. I found a neighbor boy who stirred up feelings that were shockingly new to me, and still as ancient as human bodies: I had an urge to chase him, to kiss him. He would run, not too fast and not too far, always tripping and falling (accidentally on purpose) so I could catch him. Our ages were not yet in the double digits, and all we knew of kissing was a puppyish romp, all lips and noses, no tongue.
His older brother knew of darker, more adult touches, touches that mimicked the most intimate gestures of love, which only made them more brutal and confusing. Every day, after school, my mother would baby-sit my crush and the older brother (a boy nearly in his teens). The older brother would wait until my mother went upstairs to watch TV, and he would breathe hotly into my ear as his fingers slid me open, slid inside. My body, still breast-less and baby-fatted, years away from its first period, would dampen and flush in ways I couldn’t understand; it became a car with cut brake-lines careening down a hill. This went on for two years. After the wreck, I could not stand to be touched, at least not in that way. All I had known of men’s hands was violence, whether it was blunt and brute or came cloaked in some pretend tenderness. Those hands many not have smothered my desire, but they did leave bruises around its throat.
I found my new loves in the movies. Cinema was life writ large in my living room; it evoked a tidal swell of feelings—so powerful and large, but only for a moment. The film ends. The wave breaks. On-screen, the men I was draw to could be valiant and mean, nimble and brutish, tender and broken (sometimes in the same scene)—but they could never hurt me. They were paper dolls I could cut and color into a shape and shade of masculinity that suited me. Whenever I closed my eyes, my crushes were waiting for me: our imaginary courtships could be as gentle or intense as I needed them to be. I could be Stella from Streetcar, carried up the stairs, or I could be Judy from “Rebel Without a Cause,” my new love’s head in my lap. Every night on the town—tripping with laughter; making out against walls; hands up skirts or on belt buckles; hands in hair, fingertips sweeping or pulling hard—was blocked and choreographed.
In this way, I was no different from the other girls my age whose fathers didn’t put their fists into walls. Crushes were the great equalizer: Though I was the odd girl out through most of high school, my lab partner could look at the photo of Matt Damon slipped under the plastic sleeve of my binder and confess that she liked him better than Ben Affleck because he seemed like he’d be a better boyfriend (recent events suggest that we were, in fact, correct). I bonded with other girls over conversations about our leading men, who they were off-screen, what it would be like to love (and be loved by) them.
At some point, though, my friends started talking about the boys in their classes, boys who started noticing them back, boys who became boyfriends, first kisses and first times, first fights and first delicious make-ups. They got their passports stamped to leave the Island of Daydreaming Girls, loading their steamer trunks with everything they’d learned from fantasy: all the costumes and accoutrement of so many dress rehearsals—tastes and preferences, maybe even burgeoning kinks; images to insert in the sad, stale moments they’d share with their flesh-and-blood beloveds. I waved to them from the shore with my ever-expanding harem of movie boyfriends.
There is an idea (perhaps given to us by the movies) that a real love, with its promise of a family, can sweep away the shards of a sad and lonely past like the white cells that swallow up the bits of a shattered bone. So my friends’ faces fall ever so slightly when my answer to “What’s new?” is just “the usual. Writing. Working. Seeing some movies. Watching TV.” My friends have sat across from me in diners as I cried over the handsome alcoholic whose easy charm was matched equally by a pull toward chaos; bemoaned the tedium of one-and-done dates who spoke in single-word answers or performed breathless self-centered soliloquies; and cursed out the long-distance Casanova who wrote me gorgeous, passionate emails but wouldn’t hold my hand in public once we were in the same ZIP code. And yet, somehow, in their minds, being “out there” and “exploring my options” with guys like these is healthier than spending my nights with Netflix.
I know that their disappointment is really a muffled fear that I’m just smiling through my solitude, that someday, if not already, I will feel the profundity of what I’ve lost—or, not even what I’ve lost, what I haven’t even tried for. The word crush may evoke images of collapsing something in on itself, destroying it by making it smaller, but my Hollywood crushes have expanded my world—despite the scripting and the make-up, the digital trickery and the boost of a perfectly-timed power ballad, these men stoke an urge toward connection that could’ve gone ashen and cold. As I’d gotten older, my fantasies changed: There were still scenes of sheet-drenching passions, but my scripts had become more invested in quiet, powerful moments of intimacy: It’s easier to sit on a sofa with Michael Fassbender and tell him about my father and the neighbor boys, about the hands that folded me in on myself.
Unlike the flesh-and-blood guys who’d watched me flush and stutter through my story, Michael Fassbender wouldn’t pat me on the head and say, “shit, that sucks”; Michael Fassbender wouldn’t look at me like I was a family heirloom that had fallen off the shelf and shattered, something he had no real attachment to but felt obliged to repair; Michael Fassbender wouldn’t get sick of me and fuck my intern. He would know what to say and how to hold me because he was, ultimately, an extension of me—with none of the messiness, the humanness, of a real man who has problems of his own. I could never touch him, but he could never hurt me. Like all of my crushes, he gave me a daily jolt of male beauty and emotional succor. My burrow is not a tomb. It’s an incubator, slowly but steadily growing the notion that someday I could want to be wanted.
I’m hardly alone in living vicariously through my celluloid sweethearts. Even the most casual scroll-through on BuzzFeed is sure to yield quizzes about which Disney prince or male stripper from "Magic Mike XXL" is your soul mate, or listicles of “Twenty-six Celebrity Men Who Want to Spend the Day in Bed with You.” The Fassbender pillowcase was gifted to me in this spirit—after all, crushes are fun. Many of our current pop cultural juggernauts—especially the ones crafted by, and for, women—feature a tug-of-war between Team Hot-Brooding-Guy-Who-Really-Loves-You-But-Can’t-Show-It and Team Hot-Totally-Emotionally-Available-Guy.
The conventional narrative: Women settled into the comfortable plush of married life seek the sharpness of a Christian Grey or Edward Cullen; their daughters live vicariously through Katniss’ choice between Gale’s white-hot fire and Peeta’s gentle warmth. In choosing Jake over Fitz, McSteamy over McDreamy, or (if you’re a geekier sort) young Professor X over young Magneto, you’re not just slaking a thirst, you’re defining yourself through what you desire: Crave stability over spontaneity (or vice versa)? A brainy charmer with a diamond-sharp wit, or a silent type who can cut you to the core with one look? Do you want to be adored or undone? Or do you want everything, all at once? Of course you do.
Whenever I’m describing the guys I like—the Brandos and Fassbenders, and, my latest crush du jour, Tom Hardy—the woman I’m talking to will smile wryly and remark that I “certainly have a type.” Coupling the neurotic, intellectual woman with the blue-collar bruiser is a time-worn trope: from the garishly-painted covers of drugstore paperbacks to Rocky Balboa calling for his Adrian, and of course, the moment that turned my adolescent heart into a bird wing, beating until it filled my blood, my being, with heat and air: Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, breaking down the door to Edie Doyle’s apartment—a moment of violence, yes, a terror that feels old and familiar to me, and yet there is something new at the end of that terror: the promise of pleasure (and on the woman’s terms). Edie has been a nebbish, a nerd, only really alive when fighting for her murdered brother, but now, in Terry’s powerfully-muscled arms, under Terry’s strong, purposeful hands, she is lit from within, resplendent and blazing with fulfilled desire.
Real life, of course, is rarely so safe let alone perfect. Perhaps I was hard-wired for a fantasy of taming the brute heart that could bite my pretty red heart in two—my whip and my chair the dagger and the shield against the gnashing teeth of male violence. Crushing gives me a sense of power, a way to feel in control—everything I didn’t have as a little girl who tried to hide in the closet but never quite made it in time, everything I don’t have now as a grown woman who isn’t sure how to drink coffee across from a lover, fingertips touching as we pass the sugar. Clinging to the Brandos and the Deans, the Fassbenders and the Hardys might not lead me to the altar, but they do lead me to continually explore my feelings for and about men—a series of small steps, in increments of millimeters, but at least a movement forward.