How To Tell If You Love A Fantasy Instead Of A Real Person

by Zara Barrie
Alexey Kuzma

About five years ago, I tasted the sour bitterness of the cement pavement after I fell hard. For a girl. A girl I didn't even know.

I realize now that I was never in love with this girl. I did something I vowed never to do because it's been done to me far too many times, and it burns like hell: I fell in love with the idea of the girl, not the actual girl.

I did what I do best: projected a sparkling, glittery, unreal fantasy onto her.

See, I've been projecting fantasies onto things since I was a little kid. For example, all the times I've packed up my shit and moved. I could have an honorary master's degree from Harvard in moving. And I'm not just talking about moving from an uptown studio apartment to a downtown studio apartment. I'm talking about moving from big city to small town, from East Coast to West Coast, from America to Europe, from Europe to the UK and back to America.

Every single time I've strutted off the plane in my inappropriately high heels and waltzed into a brand new city or a sleepy small town, I've thought to myself, "This is the place."

This is the place where I'm going to find my dream job, a job that fulfills me and bleeds life back into these lifeless veins. This is the place where I'm going to finally meet people whom I connect with on a level far beyond drunken confessions, 2 am mascara tears and party drugs. This is the place where I'm going to get a grasp on my haphazard mental health, finally get off the antidepressants and find healthier ways to deal with my issues, like running outdoors and eating right.

This is the place where all these scattered pieces will fall into place. You know that Jon Kabat Zinn quote, "Wherever you go, there you are"? I'm in no mood for a fucking proverb, either, but that quote is so painfully true.

Everywhere I went, I was still left with myself, no matter how much I had fully believed I would be different in the different town. But rose-colored filters always fade, and I'd be left with the blazingly ugly reality that I'd changed the scenery, but my life was still the same. Because I was still the same.

I've done it with careers. I've done it with schools. I've done it with haircuts (I'm going to be the woman I've always dreamed of being, I just need waist-length extensions first!).

But I'd never done it with a person. Until I did.

Rose-colored filters always fade.

And BAM. CRASH. BOOM. I met Bria* at a bar one night. She was stunningly beautiful, in an alternative way. Her angular face held court to a piercing hazel gaze. She did that sexy thing with her eyebrows where one is forever sort of slightly raised. She had a default puzzled facial expression. You couldn't tell if she was irritated, intrigued or just raising that perfectly arched brow because she was trying to seduce you. I couldn't figure her out, and it kills me deep inside to not be able to figure a person out.

I'm not good at sports or math or paying my bills, but I'm killer at figuring people out. Completely out of character, I went up to Bria and boldly introduced myself. We were two girls in a straight bar alone, and my insatiable curiosity trumped my usual shyness.

She was sweet and receptive to me. She bought me a drink and asked me what my story was. Again, entirely untrue to my native closed-off character, I spilled my heart out to her. I told her about how I ran away to Miami when I was 12 years old and almost gave my dad a heart attack right before the biggest business meeting of his life.

I told her about how I'm worried I'll never be totally free of  eating disorder. I told her that, even though I've had a decade-long career in theatre/film, I'm still convinced that I suck at it, how I knew that was cliché and how that bothered me even more. I told her I feared I was superficial.

She hung on to every word released from my over-glossed lips, until we were wasted enough to not care about the sea of straight eyes staring at us as we sloppily made out across the bar.

She waited until after we kissed to tell me she didn't even live in Los Angeles, but in New York. She was leaving the next day. Like, getting on a plane and going back to her life, leaving. She was just here a few days for a wedding.

And I should've just thrown up my hands and said, "Cool, Zara. Nice to know you're capable of being attracted to someone again" and left it there. But it's no joke that I'm wildly self-destructive and reckless with my heart sometimes. So, I didn't.

As I watched her get on the plane to New York, I decided I loved her. I glorified her face in my mind's eye. Each text she sent me while I was stuck at my morning job was exaggerated in my mind, and I deemed them to be brilliant. We were so ~connected~ that it was palpable through ~text~.

It's cringingly embarrassing to even admit it, but I imagined our lives together. I imagined great, hair-pulling sex, even though we'd never even had sex.

I saw all the broken parts become whole.

This went on for six whole months. I fell asleep drooling into the phone. We spent the rest of our work days furiously texting. I felt like I was high on drugs every time my phone went "DING" from an incoming text message. We discussed moving for each other.

Did I mention we had only met once?

I didn't realize how insane any of this was until I went to visit her in New York. The moment I stepped off the plane, I felt something drop in the pit of my stomach. She didn't look stylish and lithe like I had remembered. She looked awkward and unsure in ill-fitted jeans. Her raised brow didn't look mysterious or sexy, it looked nervous and startled. And within the 33-minute taxi ride from La Guardia Airport to her lower Manhattan apartment, I knew I had made a big, big mistake.

We had zero things in common. And over the next three days, it became even more jarringly apparent that I had made this whole relationship up in my head. She loathed everything I loved: Drag queens. Eccentrics. Fiction. She wasn't a music lover. She didn't even look how I'd remembered.

I went back to Los Angeles confused as hell. I took a long, hard, look in the mirror and stared into my wide-eyed reflection. How the hell had I been so wrong about a person? Was I on drugs? Was I high? What the hell was wrong with me?

And I realized I was slipping back into my old habits. I had projected a fantasy, except it wasn't on place or a job. It was onto a girl.

It could have been anyone sitting in her spot at the bar. I was just lost and looking for something to make me feel whole. I was hungry for something to fill the empty spaces inside of me, and she was at the right place at the right time. She was like a filler. And because of her distance, I was able to project whatever I wanted onto her. It's hard to project ideas onto a fully realized person.

I had projected a fantasy, except it wasn't on a place or a job. It was onto a girl.

Look, I get it: It can feel so real in your head. I know. But before you think you've fallen in love, ask yourself, "How well do we even know this person?"

Because when you meet someone new, the immediate fireworks of lust can become so addictive. You even can feel sad when you leave them because you're body withdraws from the intoxicating energy and oxytocin your brain releases when you're in lust.

You can confuse all of that with love. Toss in feeling sad, feeling lost, being freshly heartbroken or searching for something to fill the voids, and you're extra vulnerable to falling in love with an idea, rather than a whole person.

But you know what the best way I've found to avoid projecting a fantasy onto a person is? Getting down and dirty with yourself first. Learning to love your independence, learning how to sleep alone, learning how fulfill all the shit you think is missing on your own. Because when you're whole, you don't have all these gaping holes you're looking to fill. And then, you're free to find something real.

What's real is sustainable. A fantasy wears off the moment you step off the plane and are gazing into that bitter, florescent airport light.

*Name has been changed.