I remember watching, as I was little, a movie in which men were inspired in their art by a mysterious, blonde, Venus-like woman. I remember adoring the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. I remember thinking to myself: this is who I want to be. I want to be the muse. Not the creator, but the created. Not the artist, but the one men desperately need, the one who inspires the artistic act and then watches from the distance as they blossom. I’d surely feel happy. Fulfilled.
We were just kids when we met, my first real love and I. Being 20 doesn’t quite make you into an adult, even though, at that point, we sometimes thought it did, while we strutted around town with our young ideas and dreams. Our love was probably not much different than that of other people who grow up together. It was natural and comfortable and easy. Like an old pair of jeans that fit you perfectly, no matter how long you had them for.
“I love the thought of having a writer girlfriend”, he told me, stroking my hair, a couple of months into our relationship.
And truth is, I too loved the idea of having a photographer boyfriend. We had a bunch of friends who also took up photography, but I could see something different in him already. He was very talented and, most importantly, I had put all my faith in him. I was always there for him, listening, encouraging, giving advice. Being his safety net. He didn’t, however, do quite the same for me. In truth, he knew nothing of literature and would often look at me with empty eyes as I excitedly told him about my own writing. I crafted him handwritten letters, poems and declarations of love which only gathered dust on his desktop, as he carefully read photography and retouching tutorials. It saddened me, but I thought, then, that this probably means I’m just not good enough. That my work isn’t as important as his. But I did see the chance to be a muse for him.
While I was still surrounding myself with books, working at a publishing house, I put all that second. For I had found another way of expressing myself. First, through his portraits of me. I created little stories, personas for each photograph he took of me. I had absolutely no problem having him take photographs of me, because I had faith in his talent. But I couldn’t let myself write – because, you see, it was myself I didn’t truly have faith in. Then, I shyly took up art direction – and I enjoyed it. I knew that whatever fairytale I had in mind, however I imagined a certain photograph should come out – he would create it exactly as I pictured it in my mind. In time, we gathered a wonderful team. Young people who knew us and made our projects possible. And I took care of him, telling myself that it’s great he’s growing up professionally. That his success is our success. We learned a great deal together, as we worked, went on trips and dreamed of spending our lives together.
That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The artistic couple, the happy couple. And yes, I did feel happy. Fulfilled. For a while. Until I didn’t anymore. And that’s the very definition of codependency.
You wouldn’t necessarily think this is bad: making sacrifices for the one you love, because, well, you’re just a good person. A good listener. Because you want to make other people happy – parents, friends, lovers –, even if that means not getting much in return. But that’s what friendship and love are all about, right? Until you notice your efforts aren’t ever truly appreciated. Until you become profoundly unhappy. I enjoy helping other people, talented friends, in their pursuits. I like being there for them, no matter what, offering them my time, my advice, my support. But I found that, while I liked photography, I missed writing – badly. I found myself in a one-sided relationship – I expected to give love and to receive love in return. And I soon realized my happiness is, to some degree, dependent on approval from my loved ones, on them showing me the same support in return.
The relationship turned sour. For quite a long time, I kept trying to fix it, trying to be more indulgent, asking less and less of him, while trying to be a better person myself. But the more I needed love, the less I received. And in the end, I was the one to take responsibility for our breakup. I was the one to stop and say: I can’t go on anymore. There’s too much pain and too little love. I can live without poetry – for a while – but love, love I need like air. It may not seem that way, but taking responsibility, being the one who breaks up with the other – that is far more painful than being on the other side. After all, it was a good thing we had. I kept telling myself it could have been saved, if only he had been more mature. If only I had worked harder. Ah, see? Codependency does that to you. It makes you think you’re the one to blame. But it’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.
Like me, he was too tired. He accepted it. We talked for three days straight. And I did not cry once. He just collected his things and left our apartment.
His last photograph of me: my hair in a bun, my naked back turned to him, shoulders down. I only realized this weeks after, but took it as a sign that this was indeed the end for our love. And I felt relieved.
Cristina Ștefan is a book editor trying to write her own. You can find her wondering the streets of Bucharest or the virtual highways of Facebook.