Whether a girl wants to admit it or not, the pinnacle of the modern romance movie remains The Notebook–perhaps the last time an audience in the twenty-first century could truly stomach something with such a high level of syrupy maudlinness and not feel completely jaded about it. Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling), that wrong spectrum of the class archetype, finds himself enamored of out-of-his-reach Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams)–the type of girl who gets tutored in the day in French and has her entire future decided for her. Conversely, Noah’s just lucky to be making $0.40 an hour at a steel mill. And yet, it wouldn’t be a movie that conditioned women to believe vehemently in false expectations of monogamy if Noah didn’t pursue Allie nonetheless. Though Allie is averse to his declarations of interest at first, his persistence, culminating in threatening to jump off a Ferris wheel in what is a classic example of a recent study on romantic comedies that normalize stalker-like behavior, makes her ultimately come around.
As their summer romance heats up Sandra Dee and Danny Zuko-style, Allie actually begins to reciprocate Noah’s love as equitably, resulting in one of the most romantic water-based frolics in cinematic history, with Allie asking Noah, “Do you think in another life I could have been a bird?” Noah, asking in that dumb but cute way of his, returns, “What do you mean?” Allie, adopting a silly rabbit tone says, “Like reincarnation.” Noah shrugs, “I don’t know.” Allie presses the matter, insisting, “I think I could.” She then coos like some sort of love pigeon and demands, “Say I’m a bird.” She flaps her wings and rushes toward him. He chides, “No, don’t do it.” She continues, “Say I’m a bird.” He smiles, “Stop it.” Now in his arms, she asserts, “Say it.” He consents, “You’re a bird.” As though consoling him, she adds, “Now say you’re a bird too.” Noah then assures, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.”
And so was immortalized this notion of molding oneself to the person you’re with because you love them so desperately that the concept of living without them is utterly anathema to your existence. Except for the fact that The Notebook doesn’t speak to the double standard of when women do this for men. As was the case with Gabriela Terra, a 23-year-old Mexican from Monterrey who had emigrated to Los Angeles with her parents and two brothers at the age of ten. They lived in East L.A. for a time, until her father, Ricardo, could afford a house for them in Los Feliz (mind you, this was still at a time when such a neighborhood wasn’t a commodity, especially in a post-LaBianca murder era). It is here, when she was still eighteen, that she managed to meet someone as fundamentally Anglican as Oliver Howard, twenty-two and freshly graduated from UCLA at the time they met. Their first encounter, like so many other people’s, was at The Dresden on Vermont Avenue. Oliver liked her right away without so much as hearing a peep from her, though he did generally believe a woman’s voice was paramount to ascertaining true attraction. She was with her middle brother, Francisco, the one who, though only fifteen, had managed to secure both of them fake IDs long ago. It was, accordingly, that Oliver assumed she was at least twenty-one; the revelation that she was not later on in the night would only serve to augment his interest in her.
Paying no mind to Francisco, he sidled up to her seat at the bar and said, “Hi, I’m Oliver. Who are you?”
She laughed. “Who am I?”
“Are you the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland?”
“Only on my most creative days.”
Francisco rolled his eyes and muttered himself, “Another fuckin’ actor.”
But Oliver was not an actor. At least not yet. He had instead majored in film production and was coasting on the high of recently submitting his short, which he finished as his final project before graduation, to Sundance. And he had the sneaking suspicion it was going to be accepted. This was, in part, what contributed to his more pronounced than usual arrogance that evening.
“I’m so many people. How can I really answer your question?” Gabriela encouraged.
“Why don’t you just tell me who you are tonight?”
“Tonight?” She looked toward the stage where a live band was just starting to set up. “I’m with Rafael, the guitarist.”
Oliver glanced over at Rafael, long-haired and most likely stoned. “I don’t think so.” He grabbed her by the arm and led her outside. Gabriela called out to Francisco, “If I get abducted, don’t forget this guy’s name is Oliver Howard!”
Francisco shook his head, accustomed to the way in which men responded to Gabriela’s looks, especially white ones with an ethnic fetish.
Outside, Oliver lit a cigarette. It’s still 1999, after all, and smoking hasn’t totally lost its glamor. But to Gabriela, it’s disgusting and she immediately recoils from him as he exhales the first plume from his mouth. He seems jarred by her reaction. “Does this bother you?”
She nods slowly. He puts it out. “Say no more. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you close.”
Gabriela had heard lines like this all her life. She lost her virginity when she was thirteen to a camp counselor who claimed guys in her future would appreciate it if she knew what she was doing, and had a little bit of practice. There was a time when she was susceptible to lines. But she could see Oliver’s for what it was: a line.
“I have to wake up early tomorrow.”
“Oh? For what? It’s Saturday night, the feeling’s right.”
“I have to be at work.” Gabriela had worked at the same boutique on Melrose for the past two years, and had somehow transcended into a “managerial” position. Or as managerial as a person could be at a boutique on Melrose.
“It’s still early. I wanna take you somewhere.”
Gabriela sighed. “Just don’t make it the Griffith Observatory.”
“Give me some credit.”
He drives her to Marina Del Rey, toward some “street” called Bora Bora Way. She gets uneasy when people take her to bodies of water. It always makes her feel like she’s going to get tossed in with a cement block attached to her feet. “What is this?”
“It’s the dock. Where my boat is.”
“You have a boat?”
“It was a birthday present when I turned twenty-one last year.”
“Oh.” Gabriela is made uneasy by rich people. They never seem to have an appropriate grasp of reality.
“We can go anywhere you want. Right now.”
Gabriela tittered nervously. “I really don’t think I have time, Oliver. Like I said. Work.”
“That’s tomorrow. This is tonight. Come on.”
She could feel his insistence penetrating through her. It was emotional rape, and she consented. That’s how she set the precedent of following Oliver in whatever he desired. That night, they ended up on Catalina. He booked them a hotel, cheesily enough, near Lovers Cove. She didn’t go to work the next day. The spell was cast now, and Oliver could cajole her into just about anything. And this he did over the next four and half years as she was led by him throughout the globe on his various film shoots and rich boy relaxations. She gave up any plans she had before. Plans to go to school, plans to save more money to live on her own, plans to finally learn how to play an instrument. They were plans down the drain that was Oliver. Because she loved him and he was now simply “it.”
But, about a month before her twenty-third birthday in 2004, while they are in Hong Kong for him to take a first assistant director job, she finally has to acknowledge to herself that Oliver doesn’t appear to be all that interested in her of late. They rarely speak on these trips, her left to her own devices in the hotel or to explore the current city they’re in by herself. When she confronts him about it that night, his lack of reaction infuriates her and she starts throwing whatever she can grab, hurling everything in her path at him. He finally admits that he’s got to focus on his career right now. He can’t give her what she’s looking for–the thing that sparked her interest in the beginning, which was his then unwavering ardor. She leaves Hong Kong the next morning, expecting somehow to hear from Oliver when she gets back, or at least on her birthday. But she never does.
When The Notebook is released, she is now twenty-three, as mentioned before, and right back where she started in L.A. On a warm day in late June, about a week after it comes out, she goes to see it with two of her friends, as, at this time, it’s not as much of a stigma to run in a hen-like pack to see a rom-com. She watches the movie with a heavy sadness hanging above her. As Noah delivers his line, she suddenly laughs uproariously to the point of being asked to leave the theater. She never finds out how The Notebook ends, because she already knows how it ended for her. She stands near the bus stop and blubbers to herself, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird. Except you didn’t want me to be.” She would have turned into anything for Oliver, but, in the end, that’s what made her so abhorrent to him. And as the Big Blue Bus pulls up to collect her and some other homeless people she seems to fit in with now, she inwardly enjoins: Is there any greater truth than only wanting someone more the less they want you? Or is this merely the mark of a person who doesn’t value herself enough to move on?