The Romantic Ideal

I only got to visit Doug once in Alaska. At the end of my trip, before I flew the 4,000 miles back to Northern Virginia, he reluctantly showed me the barracks he had called home for the past four years. I wasn’t familiar with military life when I met Doug four months earlier, and he did what he could to keep it that way. But on April 23, 2011, after a week of successfully keeping me off-base, he finally caved. I don’t remember much about his small room in Fairbanks besides the cold tile floor, the messy closet filled with army green, and the contents on his bookshelf.

I scanned the titles and shot Doug a questioning glance when I stopped at “The Art of Seduction” by Robert Greene. He tried to joke that the book was required reading for one of his trainings. Apparently, he also tried to convince me, seduction was a key element of interrogations. But by now, I had learned to catch on when Doug was screwing with me. To be fair, the book with the hot pink cover and purple sidebars throughout was accompanied by less-questionable works — Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City,” Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” and John Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” were among them. I didn’t, however, ask to borrow any of those for my plane ride home. Instead, Doug gave me the book on how to “get what you want by manipulating everyone’s greatest weakness.”

Though I made it only a few pages in before the entire concept repulsed me, I returned to it last week for the first time in almost two years. Not because I was interested in the material, but because I was hoping to learn something new about Doug. A quick scan through “The Art of Seduction,” didn’t reveal a thing about him. No highlighted passages. No annotations. No markings. Then I found a single dog-eared page. It marked the start of a section labeled, “The Romantic Ideal” and upon reading this section, I was reminded of all the reasons I so easily fell in love with Doug.

The romantic ideal, it says, has the ability to live up to the lofty, or fantasy-like, expectations we often have when it comes to love. All of my expectations, for better or worse, came from watching romantic comedies. Thankfully, Doug was also an avid fan of the genre and perfect at playing the role of the male lead. It wasn’t a persona he had to work to embody, it was just who he had always been — funny, charming, strong and sensitive. But our relationship didn’t unfold like a romantic comedy. There was no struggle to come to the realization that we were perfect for each other. That was something we knew from the beginning. “I’m madly in like with you,” he told me four days after we met, the day he had to return to Alaska, too soon before it was acceptable to say, “I’m madly in love with you.”

His confession preceded the gift of his pale-yellow Spiderman t-shirt sprayed with his Polo Black cologne. It was that moment, in true dramatic fashion, that Doug swept me off my feet. As our relationship progressed, everything he did lived up to this notion of the romantic ideal. Not a day went by without him saying, “You’re beautiful, you know?” or “I’m so lucky to have ya, kiddo.” He would send emails with Frank Sinatra’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Summer Wind” and “The Way You Look Tonight” with a personalized note: “Reminding me of you today.” Ridiculous bouquets of flowers, thoughtful jewelry and a surprise stay at a cabin in the Shenandoah Mountains were all given, he said, “just because.” And three months into his deployment, when I broke down on Skype one morning over how much I hated my job, Doug followed up with an email that was waiting for me when I arrived at work. “I love you and don’t forget it,” it read. “Everything is going to be fine, kiddo. It’s going to be a good life for us soon, I promise.”

While Doug’s romantic gestures and good-natured humor hooked me in the beginning, what sustained me were the moments when he would let all of that go. For hours we would talk about life and death, his fears of dying in Afghanistan, or of making it home and living as a civilian. “I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none,” he would say when he would consider his passion for films, his interest in politics and his familiarity with guns. As much as I was there to listen in those moments, he always tried to turn the focus back to me. I was lucky enough to have someone to teach me what it means to be loved, who was always there for me in the ways that I needed him and who always, always, always made me feel full.

Finding someone like Doug often seems like a once-in-a-lifetime gift, and moving forward, he will be a tough act to follow. As the “Art of Seduction” points out, “The Ideal Lover is rare in the modern world, for the role takes effort. You will have to focus intensely on the other person, fathom what she is missing, what he is disappointed by…By seeming to be what they lack, you will fit their ideal.” For Doug, there was only one underlying motivation. All he wanted in return was to be loved.

BY ALICIA SWANSTROM

4 Comments

  1. Linda E.

    On Feb 14, 2013

    Alicia, simply beautiful ~ your loving caring words for Doug that you will carry in your heart for an eternity.

  2. Bridget Zill

    On May 27, 2013

    I couldn’t imagine losing my partner. I’m very sorry for your loss, Alicia. He sounds like an amazing man…. So kind. So loving. Such a sweet soul. Thank you for sharing that story… It lets us “Hopeless Romantics” believe in finding our own “Soul Mate. That chivalry is still alive and well, and affirms that even after we, girls grow up, we “can” find our Prince Charming. True love never dies…. But, I think you already know that…. Thanks again for sharing your story…..Take care, Bridget M. Zill

  3. Liz Nichols

    On Oct 3, 2013

    I read this again today. Thank you, Alicia for sharing the intimacy that you shared with Doug. It’s inspiring even to old women like me. It also give us a glimpse of the Doug we knew was there all along. Thank you again. Liz

  4. Kate

    On Nov 13, 2013

    Alicia,
    I stumbled upon this site after hearing about Doug’s dog tags being found and returned to his family on a local radio (NoVa). I read your post above and your feelings and emotions came through so beautifully in your words. I can relate to losing a loved one way to early – in 2005, I lost my first love, James (he was in the military as well). He was truly romantic and I was sure I had found “the one”. His charisma and love left this world way too early. But he made made me who I am today and helped me become the person that my husband now fell in love with. I am so very thankful for that. I feel so lucky to have met “the one” twice :) And know that James has everything to do with me being happy and in love today. I wish you all the best.

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