Monday, July 18, 2005

The "You're Alive!" Syndrome

Last night something I've been waiting for for nearly five years finally happened. On my show, Queer As Folk, the tortured hero Brian - a man whose family life was positively stereotypical in it's horribleness - finally said "I love you" to Justin. He's loved this man for five years but has never been able to actually admit it, to himself much less to Justin.

But after Justin is nearly killed in an explosion, Brian realizes that not saying it doesn't make it not true. And time isn't endless and he has to stop fooling himself and grab the best thing that has ever happened to him before he loses it forever.

I've rewatched that scene probably 20 times, and I come to tears each time. Because this moment has been so hard earned and is so poignant, it epitomizes everything I love best in romances. Even better, Gale Harold, the actor who plays Brian, said it so perfectly he deserves an Oscar or Emmy or whatever acting award they give out for this kind of show. He didn't belt his "I love you" out for the world to hear or follow it up with a long monologue about how deeply he feels or that he couldn't go on if something had happened to Justin. Rather, he chokes out those three critical words as if it is almost painful to get them past his throat. Saying them is probably the hardest thing he has ever done - harder, even, that defeating his own cancer - and Gale shows exactly how much it means that he's saying it. Honestly, it is an amazing moment.

Which leads me to discuss my favorite all time plot device, the Near Death Experience. This is followed closely (and usually in conjunction with) by the Bedside Vigil With or Without Confession of Love.

Any reader of romance is intimately familiar with these siblings. The hero or heroine is nearly killed, either in an accident or by some evil guy or by a near-miss fatal illness. The possible death of this character finally awakens in his or her love interest the knowledge that he or she has become Very Important, so important in fact, that his or her death would devastate the partner left to wander the earth alone. If the hero or heroine had any lingering doubts about his or her true feelings, nearly losing his/her one true love clears them up in a hurry.

I love this situation. I think maybe it harkens back to my childhood when I knew by heart the words to worm eating song and sang it frequently. You know the one - the "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I'll go eat worms" song that predicts how everyone will be sorry that they picked on the poor worm eater once he/she's gone? Isn't it every kid's thought at one time or another when they are feeling particularly unloved that if only his or her parents were to lose him, they'd be oh-so-sorry they were so unreasonably cruel? I think this idea passes on into adulthood, although it doesn't take too long to learn that eating worms isn't necessarily the best or easiest way to bring about one's death.

The grown-up version, too, doesn't carry as much of the self-destructive tendencies. In romance the Near Death is never self-inflicted as a way to gain attention. If it is, then we are looking at an entirely different level of psychosis that is beyond the scope of a normal romance. The Death in the Near Death is always a result of something external, from the innocuous natural disaster to the purely inventive Evil Overlord out to get either the hero or heroine or both. Regardless of the method, the Near Death is clearly unexpected to the degree that it can shock the non-injured party into admissions of deep, dark feelings.

When the Near Death results in some serious injury requiring The Bedside Vigil, things get even better because the angst can be prolonged. Not only does the survivor have to come to grips that they almost lost the love of their life, they have to suffer through endless hours/days/months of not knowing for sure if they did or didn't. They have the time to realize how how foolish they were not to admit their love and take advantage of their time together. They have time to imagine how empty their life might soon become.

Really, as cliched as these situations are, I love them nearly every time I come across them. They work especially well with hardened heroes who have resisted the heroine at every turn. Nothing seems to melt an alpha male's heart faster than watching the heroine walk into a building that then explodes in a massive fire ball.

The only problem with declarations of love made after a Near Death Experience is the fade factor. I've never experienced a Near Death, so I can only imagine how long its effects last. But I would guess that as time passes, the appreciation the survivor and his or her loved ones have for having escaped death fades. When things have quieted down and life returns to normal, how soon does the hero and/or heroine come to take time for granted again? How quickly do they forget that they can't hide feelings from each other in case these moments are the last ones they will ever get?

I have a very strong idea of what Brian is going to do now that he's confessed his love for Justin. And while I fully support it and am nearly swooning over the prospect of it happening, I have to wonder what happens in a year, when his feelings aren't so new and raw. Does it take an annual Near Death Experience to remind him of how he feels about Justin, or will he always now carry his love much closer to the surface?

I guess this question and its possibly negative answer has to be filed away with the reality that life after the Happily Ever After ending is full of things like dirty clothes on the floor and toilet seats left up and nagging about taking out the garbage. Since - hopefully - most of us will never experience the Near Death, we can keep believing that the emotions such an event evokes are everlasting.

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