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How the Internet bought me an unexpected Christmas miracle
You only get one chance to say “I love you” for the first time, and I had to get it right.
You only get one shot to say that first “I love you,” and to be honest, I kind of fucked it up. I’ve been taught from years of re-runs of Gilmore Girls and Julia Roberts movies it’s all about waiting for the right moment: when you’re sitting in a car he custom built for your three-month anniversary, all while a John Lennon song plays in the background. I didn’t even get a Ringo soundtrack—those three nasty, little words slipped out while he was on his way out the door. “Love ya!” I called after him, immediately regretting it. Later I maintained that I was just being facetious. Ha-ha! When “really” I told him I loved him, he would know. It would be a thousand-yellow-daisies kind of occasion.
Of course, I did mean it. I met my boyfriend, Christian, during my first week as a New Yorker, less than 24 hours after purchasing a dog that I hoped was a statement pet: I don’t need a man. I’ve got four legs and a wagging tail. On our first date, we took the dog to the Brooklyn Book Fair; being new to the city and the constant roar of traffic, she lasted all of 15 minutes. When she had a seizure a month later, Christian was the first person I called. When I finally ordered adult furniture for my room, because my plywood-chic grad-student desk wasn’t going to cut it anymore, he was the one who helped me put it together, staying up until three in the morning, hammering away until it was finished. When my grandfather died the week before Thanksgiving, he was there to help me pack for the funeral.
In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the famed Russian author offers us contrasting definitions of what love is. For Stepan and Anna, it’s a tension between their marriage contracts and the whims of passion; for Levin, it’s the burning fixation on a woman he’s watched grow up, a love that borders on gentle obsession. “He could not be mistaken,” Tolstoy writes of Levin. “To him there were no other eyes like those in the world. There was only one creature in the world who could concentrate for him all the brightness and meaning of life. It was she. It was Kitty.” While extreme, there is some truth to Tolstoy’s light and shade: Kitty might not give Levin’s life meaning, but she gives him a force to return to. She is the one he wants to make happy.
Love, of course, is best defined in motion—like every piece of writing advice ever given to an aspiring author, it’s about the showing, not the telling. This is why, every Christmas, people gather Brady Bunch-style around the couch for a Yuletide viewing of Love Actually, a British rom-com that, in technical terms of what we expect out of movies (i.e., narrative coherence, logic, etc.), isn’t very good. Love Actually is romance supercut as seen through the art of the gesture: whether that’s a guy who learns Portuguese to get to talk to the girl he likes or a boy running to the airport to pour out his heart to the girl he never got a chance with. The film’s most famous scene is a man standing in the snow, using cue cards to say what he can’t.
I didn’t need a Portuguese-English dictionary or a permanent marker to say how I felt, just the right moment. And I found it in an unexpected way. Christian and I were walking through the Christkindlmarkt in Union Square, on our way to a midnight showing of Mockingjay, and he told me he couldn’t afford to go home for Christmas. As a first-year graduate student at Hunter College, affording things like Brooklyn rent and ramen noodles came first. When Christian called his mother to tell her, she cried, and I could tell he had a little, too. In Roger Ebert’s review of The Apartment, he wrote that “there is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not.” I pictured him like Jack Lemmon in that movie, quietly going home to an apartment that seemed a little emptier that day.
I had to do something, and luckily, I didn’t have to wait long for a solution to come to me. My friend, Samantha Allen, wrote for the Daily Dot about crowdfunding her genital reassignment surgery, which came with a hefty price tag: $20,000. Allen knew that she could ask her friends to “chip in” to cover the costs of transition, so she waited for a sign. “I watched crowdfunding efforts from afar, eyeing my chances, dreaming of the future,” Allen writes. “Then one day my friend successfully raised $1,000 overnight for his cat’s veterinary bills, and I thought, ‘If he can get $1,000 for his pussy, then I can get $8,000 for mine!’” After “spreading like wildfire across the entire Internet,” she reached her goal in two days.
Christian actually had similar success with a friend from back home, a 70-year-old outsider artist with an intellectual disability whose teeth were in dire need of repair. Getting them fixed—which would require removing her teeth and replacing them with dentures—would cost $1,500, and that didn’t include additional pullings and follow-up visits. Her healthcare provider would only cover “one of her dentures,” and to fund the rest, Christian turned to the Internet. On top of crowdfunding the money to get her the dental work she needed, he worked to put on a retrospective of her artwork. When I finally met her, she drew me a picture of a rainbow in crayon. It now hangs on my fridge.
Deciding to crowdfund his Christmas was pretty easy, if only because it sounded like the exact kind of thing he would do. I would have paid $700 for a round-trip ticket to get him home to Portland for the holidays, but a) there’s no way he would have let me and b) this just seemed more fitting. Setting up an account through Indiegogo was easy; what was slightly more difficult was organizing an entire campaign without him knowing. I told him that my friend, T.J., was taking some time off Facebook and that I was unplugging in solidarity—to help support him, you know. The frequent railer against the evils of social media that I am, this seemed entirely plausible. And it bought me the time I needed to block him and plot in secret.
After I put together a page and hit the “Publish” button around 10pm, I was skeptical—at best—about whether it would work at all, fully prepared to throw down more than my share of it and lie to him about the source of the donations. “The Internet paid for it, sweetie,” I would insist, casually looking down at the ground to avoid eye contact. “I promise!” I made an appeal to my Facebook followers, as well as reaching out to mutual friends and loved ones, anxiously refreshing the page as $5 and $10 dollar increments trickled in. I felt like an expectant father pacing outside the hospital room, waiting for something to come out of there already. I couldn’t do this anymore. I shut the laptop and went to sleep.
I got up at 5am to make the long commute from Crown Heights to Chelsea, where the Daily Dot’s offices are located, and I checked the computer, just to see how far we had left to go. I told Christian I was taking a two-week social media cleanse because that’s how long I expected it to go: two weeks. I never thought we’d reach our fundraising goal in two days, let alone seven hours, but there it was: The campaign was already over, with 13 days left to spare. We did it. I discovered this information on the subway platform, waiting on the 4 train to come. When someone asked me why I was crying, I blamed it on the cold of the MTA. (It wasn’t that cold.)
In my case, getting funded wasn’t an accident, but the gesture of a different kind of love. This April, my best friend, Shawn, unexpectedly died in her sleep, due to an enlarged heart no one knew she had. She was only 36, and soon to be married—she died less than a month before her wedding. Her fiance, Chuck, as if to help make sense of her untimely passing, explains it so: “Her heart was simply too big.” It sounds like a Nicholas Sparks novel, but their love was kind of like that—it gave you something to aspire to. They met in 2007 and became engaged not long after, deciding to wait until they both finished grad school to make it official. To save up for a life together, they shared a phone to cut down on expenses. Instead, he used the money to scatter her ashes in Italy, a spot that was meant for their honeymoon.
Her fiancé sent me a Facebook message the morning the campaign got funded to send me congratulations. He didn’t take credit, but I knew he did it—after all, it’s what she would have wanted. Since Shawn died, I’ve thought of her every day, both when I mean to and when I don’t. She’s the force I return to, whether I’m reading a book she would have loved or telling a joke I remember I heard from her; it was her dream for me to live in New York, the city she loved, and the cobblestone streets are a constant reminder of her. When walking, I often try to remember the last conversation we had—to will myself into piecing it together—as if it could somehow help everything make sense. If you only get one shot at a first pronouncement of love, that goes doubly for your last.
While Christian spends his Christmas in Portland, I’ve been back home in Ohio with Chuck, doing New York Times crosswords and filling in the last eight months of our lives. Her apartment isn’t nearly as empty as I thought it would be, and although it’s strange to think of someone else owning her stuff, it’s comforting to know that someone loved her so much that he was willing to keep her with him, even if that’s just her cat and some of her old furniture. When Chuck goes under a yellow light, he still kisses the ceiling and tells Shawn he loves her, even if she’s not around to hear it. I’m not a religious person, but I like to think that’s he’s covering his bases, just in case she can.
I’ll never be able to remember what I said to her on our last day together, if I told her I loved her, but I feel like I don’t have to anymore. If Christmas is a season of miracles, mine was getting those words back. I never quite got to tell Christian I loved him—in the excitement of the holiday, I never got around to it. I had planned on doing so the day before we both left for our respective Christmases, but when you have a respective 16-hour bus ride and a JFK flight to coordinate, it’s hard to find time for a thousand yellow daisies (and where would you put them?). But if love is understood in motion, I hope this gesture will do just fine.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.