What Pacey Witter taught me about love
I’ve always been someone who falls in love too fast. One minute he’s the stranger at the party wearing the polka dotted tie; the next, in my mind, he’s the father of my children, the hand I reach for when the plane hits turbulence, the withering man in the creaky rocker next to mine.
A child of the ‘90s, I was a teenager convinced that love like this, love this impulsive, was the real thing. For this, I blame television. The teen dramas I obsessed over offered endlessly moving stories about this passion-first forever kind of love – Felicity and Ben, Rory and Jess, any woman who ever laid eyes on Ryan from The O.C. All of these stories spoke to me but there was one in particular that made my world stand still. Dawson’s Creek hit the scene in January of 1998. I was deep in the awkwardness of middle school and had just recently discovered lip-gloss and the gravity of first kisses. Pacey and Joey’s romance was everything I knew I wanted love to be: filled with infatuation, grand gestures, and a boyfriend with an endless rotation of Hawaiian t-shirts. We grew up together; the Capeside gang on TV and me on my New York City couch worshipping their affairs like gospel.
The show told the story of four creekside friends, including Joey Potter, a gawky secret beauty who stole the hearts of her melodramatic childhood friend Dawson and his rough-around-the-edges best friend Pacey. Pacey was sarcastic, and damaged (in a WB kind of way), with bad grades, and a sass mouth, and an elicit affair with the high school English teacher. When he fell in love with Joey he stopped at nothing to win her over. His was a breathless ‘I need you no matter what’ attitude. I was hooked.
When it came to real-life boys I was equally enamored. By high school I was deeply in love with half my grade and would rotate my affections between a few boys who all didn’t care in equal quantities. I would hang out by their lockers between classes, get beer-drunk at house parties and let my tank top strap slip down my shoulders, laugh too loud at their jokes even when they made no sense. Then I would cry my way home on the subway when none of them confessed their love for me, like Pacey did for Joey. Or ask me to sail to the Caribbean with them, like Pacey did for Joey. Or watch me sleep by firelight in my Grandma’s hunting cabin, like Pacey did for Joey.
When I finally found the boy who would be my Pacey, he had no idea what standards I was holding him to. My Pacey and I first kissed under a street lamp outside a party and he told me he liked my smile and the way I wore my hair. He was older with an ex-girlfriend in college, and a knack for drinking games that left me dizzy on wine coolers and bold enough to say what I felt. He was a grown up; he played basketball and had no curfew and was the only person I knew who didn’t call me by my pet name. Holding his hand on the subway, buying beer with fake IDs, kissing on street corners, I was sure this was happiness. I had never felt so grown up, or more like a network television love story.
Just like Pacey and Joey, our hormone-infused break ups always happened right before a hiatus. It’d be the night before Christmas vacation and we’d get in a fight on a stranger’s stoop, the music from the high school party we just left serving as the perfect soundtrack. He’d say something I hated, and I’d fire back with words that cut more than they needed to, just like I’d seen TV couples do. In the morning I’d wake up exhausted and at home and faced with the cruelty of the two-week sentence of not seeing him at school every day – no chance for a dramatic locker slam when he came over to apologize, no excuse for sloppy late night text messages. Unlike TV-Pacey, my Pacey wouldn’t drive for miles and miles in the middle of the night to say ‘I love you,’ and there was no follow-up scene I could watch to gauge how much he missed me or if he even missed me at all.
As the years went by we broke up and made up until the break up stuck. I fell for different boys with different charms, getting more and more love-cautious in the process. There were years of make outs and break ups and calls that came too late or never at all. There was the boy who went to war, the boy who joined a band, the boy who kissed my eyelids and told me I needed more romance in my life, the boy who quoted Ayn Rand after an hour and said ‘I love you’ after eight days. But there was never a Pacey. Eventually I stopped waiting for the bad boy with the authority problem and the big heart to storm into my grandmother’s wedding, or my ex-stepsister’s funeral, or my dramatically moonlit kitchen and swear his love for me up and down at 8:59 pm – right before the credits.
Even now, in theory wiser for the wear, there is a part of me that misses that excitement, that heart, that naïve bravery. The boldness that gradually disappears once you realize that not every boy will last the season. The dizzy excitement of a crush when you still don’t know if this will be real, or just a name drop over drinks. Before you know how he takes his coffee, or if he even likes coffee. When you can wear your hair like you did in high school and get giggly drunk on wine coolers because he’s cute and you want to tell him but you don’t know how.
Even now when I watch Dawson’s Creek, I find the love a part of me still wishes for. The un-self conscious, protect no hearts, can’t-live-without-you kind of love where a supernaturally perfect boy shows up on your porch at just the right moment to tell you that you are everything – and the scene changes before anyone gets hurt. It is me at 16 on a New York City night shamelessly pouring out my affection to the cute older boy with his hands on my hips and his basketball shoes in his backpack; not knowing how messy I’d feel in the morning, and only understanding love as something as neat and packaged as primetime, with perfect story arcs and boys who were born to banter. It’s wanting to kiss the soft-hearted bad boy and feel unabashedly giddy when he tucks your hair behind your ear just like Pacey would; to not worry if he will call, or what will come of it, because this must be love and he must be the one.
But even on Dawson’s Creek the gang grew up. They went to college, started adult lives and proved that nothing is ever as raw as when you’re 16 and fearless.