Jay Gatsby became the man he believed Daisy Buchannan could love. Perhaps otherwise content to live a life of middling aspiration, he hustled – with legendary parties, crooked cash and fancy cars – until he’d built around himself a mythic gravity, sufficient, he hoped, to pull West Egg across the water.
Did he do all that for love or a fantasy?
As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time untangling love and illusion. Dreams of being bigger, better, more desirable are very much a part of the American psyche. Fantasy inspires us toward our best selves and can drive us to destruction as well. Even I had to address the question in my own life.
I had found myself in one of those moments in a relationship when one must decide to stay or go. I was in my early thirties, that period in a woman’s life when she realizes that she can’t have a carefree attitude about relationships if she wants to have a family. I had already invested five years and he hadn’t proposed marriage. We weren’t even living in the same town. I was in New York, he in Florida. A decision would have serious consequences; one of us would have to move, careers and friendships would be at stake. We were passionate but we fought a lot and a friend told me that if we didn’t choose, one of us was going to have a stroke.
I sat down for some serious self-reflection.
Why am I in this relationship? I asked myself. Any therapist knows that the very first, unfiltered thought is the most important. The first thing that came up: he’s hot. Yes, not exactly deep, but what seems superficial often serves as a veneer for deeper yearnings.
His name was Rami and he was a swashbuckling international traveler, retired at age forty, a professional libertine. He was old- school sexy, Clark Gable-meets-Omar Sharif, Most Interesting Man in the World sexy: he was the man with Mediterranean features and intense black eyes, who drinks expensive scotch and smokes cigars, shuttling daily between fashionable cafés and parties.
He was also a womanizer.
I would travel to visit him and random gorgeous women would just appear around him, a constant entourage, smiling and posing in their mini-dresses like he was some guy in a rap video. When I’d inquire I would get some version of, “Oh Darling, don’t bore, she’s just a friend.”
His careless flirtations roused a rabid insecurity in me, but I was wont to believe his minimizations. This guy had a powerful pull on me, the kind that baffles friends and family who can only witness helplessly. Trying to talk sense into me was like trying to argue with a psychotic person who believes the CIA is stalking them via satellite. I was adrift in my fantasia, too besotted to access my sensible self. I felt as if I had stepped through a magic portal onto the old silk trade route. We spent time in resplendent Moroccan riads, Turkish baths in Istanbul, and desert trips in Egypt. Our romance flowered against the heady backdrop of voluptuous pillows and rich fabrics draped over low-lung couches made for lying in repose while eating figs and waiting to be made love to. I danced to tribal music, I studied Arabic. I found the language to be very seductive and emotional, coming from deep in the throat, somehow closer to the soul. The language didn’t allow for restraint, leaving me feeling both bolder and more exposed as I tried to express myself. I became someone else as I spoke Arabic.
I was dazzled by this world and the way it expanded me.
Enter my real life.
I lived in a flat on 30th street between 5th and Madison, with eight people and several mice. I had a $12,000 per year stipend for my psychology internship. I shared a cramped room with another woman and no closet. We couldn’t afford beds and slept on the floor amongst our shoes.
We did have a big window in our little room and we would lie in front of it at night gazing upon our view of the Empire State Building. From our perspective on the floor, we could see the needle, our own green light, shining in hopeful, naïve color against the dark, reaching up beyond the city, transcending the ruck, representing our desire for ascending ourselves, our lot in life.
I grew up in a simple existence and had always dreamed of an extraordinary life; as in Gatsby, it was one economic class gazing longingly toward another. I possessed an implacable devotion to this dream, and through it I lost contact with reality. I never thought I would fall into this trap.
I am the progeny of factory workers and miners. My father was the first to go to college and take a white-collar job. I grew up hearing stories of how difficult a life of labor was. I wanted to avoid the hard life of my ancestors and I never imagined that a man would be my escape. Even though American storytelling loves the tale of the woman being rescued by The Hero, the young man who, at first unprepared, faces challenges, loses battles, learns lessons and eventually achieves victory. I wasn’t planning to wait around.
I wanted to be the hero.
But my romance with Rami seemed as if it had tapped into a myth living deep in my unconscious: the man fights the battles while the woman awaits protected in the castle. The realities of life, the toil, the uncertainty of the economy, the dismal job prospects increasingly cast a bleak shadow on my ambitions, but I hoped this love would rescue me from the vicissitudes of living. I would hop upon the white horse with him and ride off into the sunset. I exhaled, I felt sexual, alive. I had found my panacea and like Gatsby, I wasn’t about to let go.
“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” (The Great Gatsby)
Gatsby never had much contact with the woman he once loved. He knew nothing about the real Daisy Buchanan, about who she had become, or even if she still thought of her lost love. I couldn’t help wondering: for all the time Gatsby spent building up his own legend, was he not, at the same time, letting his imagination fill the space left by absent memory with an equally surreal vision of Daisy? As a therapist, I’m curious about that space and what we project onto it.
One function of fantasy is a search for the self.
In an attempt at self-definition, we seek our reflection in all the shiny objects that surround us: our cars, clothes, degrees. And like the sparkling imagery figuratively portrayed in the movie by Baz Luhrmann, our stylized lives dilute who we really are.
The theme of this movie isn’t love, it’s identity: who is Gatsby? Everyone in town had theories about the true identity of Jay Gatsby, but nobody cared to know the real man. The crisis point of the movie is the crude reveal by Daisy’s husband Tom that Gatsby isn’t part of a superior bloodline, but a mere bootlegger, which means that he is counterfeit. That’s the moment the cool Gatsby raged.
I noticed among my ambitious patients in New York an omnipresent fear of being average or mediocre. Entire lives were constructed around avoiding any connection to their common humanity. So many of us want to live on credit and buy handbags that tell the world we’re wealthier than they are and say we’re the CEO of company, even if we’re the only member of the company. As in Gatsby, extravagance covers the truth.
Like Gatsby, and like me, they were all chasing an ideal self, sometimes to destruction. Jay Gatsby winds up face down in his swimming pool, literally drowned in a manifestation of his fantasy. Daisy goes back to Tom.
Fortunately, my own training spared me a literal death. My relationship with Rami – and the idealized image I sought – still had to shuffle off its metaphorical coil. Following one of our many break-ups, Rami showed up in New York and called from a restaurant in the Lower East Side, casually asking me to join him for a drink. Half a bottle of wine and we were drawn together again through our mutual reverie about the life we had wanted to share. He took my hands in his and said, “Habibi, you don’t have to work. You don’t need to worry about anything. I will take care of your student loans, everything. We will travel at will, you can write or whatever makes you happy.”
I felt that familiar warm euphoria. I never thought I would be free from working or my student loans. I was manic with ideas, practically panting at the ornament of my dream life dangled before me. Yes, we would travel to Jordan and Lebanon. I could smell the Arabian jasmine and apple hookah. But I knew by now how this would play out. There would be a brief period of euphoria, drunk on a cocktail of our own imaginations, only to wake up a few months later, hung over and staring at each other flatly over pasta.
I knew that I had to let go of Rami. In my examination of the relationship I realized that it’s difficult to unknot love and delusion. I did love the man, truly. I also began to realize that the loss of my dreams seemed more daunting than the loss of the man.
I slowly started to grieve the loss of my illusion. I was a young woman searching for myself and, in a way, he had become an object, an object of wish fulfillment, a human vision board.
After much rumination, I had made my grand decision. Despite my wisdom, I resolved to stay with Rami. I thought I was making a bold choice for love. I decided to move back to Florida, leave my practice and sublet my apartment. I said goodbye to my friends in Manhattan.
Then, in a last minute phone conversation, he balked. He didn’t want me to move in with him.
I dropped the phone, fell to the floor of my packed-up studio and wailed.
I was left alone, with reality.
The lesson I had to learn was to make peace with myself for who I was so that I didn’t need to seek shiny relationships to compensate for some fear of mediocrity or hard work. If I wanted an extraordinary life, I had to be extraordinary myself.
I had to be the hero.
In the end, Rami returned to his bachelor life. I traveled the entire Middle East – on my own. Then, I married a man who has shared with me more adventure than my imagination could ever have conjured.
He is from Iowa.