I applied to New York Film Academy’s summer screenwriting camp for teens in the time it takes to order a latte. I nearly forgot about it until a few weeks later, when a letter arrived in the mail cordially inviting me to spend the summer in Burbank (after paying a sizable deposit, of course).
It didn’t take long to realize this would be no ordinary summer camp. Instead of tucking into warm cabins at night, we’d be wandering the beige halls of a furnished apartment complex. Our bunkmates would be newly divorced dads, and low-rent bachelors dreaming of someday seeing their names in credits. In lieu of lakes and tennis courts, we had an abandoned yet perpetually humid gym and a bean-shaped pool chlorinated of all life. Summer camps are commonly referred to as microcosms of real life, but here we plunged into the deep end of adulthood at its saddest.
For years I hadn’t thought much about that complex, or my melancholic summer camp experience — that is, until I saw my old apartment perfectly preserved like a ghost bride on Love, the Netflix series about the cringeworthy reality of dating in Los Angeles. It all came flooding back when I watched Gus, the show’s lead millennial anti-hero, accept his fate of bad motel furniture and dingy mauve carpeting following a messy breakup. It was as if for one brief moment, time flattened and two distant storylines, one real and one invented, overlapped. Here I was watching my worst nightmare unfold in the room where I first dreamt it ten years before: A writer still struggling at 31 to be someone and failing spectacularly.
In the series’ pilot, a group of visiting college kids call the Oakwood “a shithole [that’s] basically one step up from a dorm room.” It’s the kind of place you end up without meaning to, a place you assume will be a stuccoed speed bump in your story of otherwise unhindered upward advancement. Gus sees it as somewhere to crash until his girlfriend inevitably takes him back — because admitting he wishes she’d die in a car crash isn’t, like, an obstacle. On his first morning there, he groggily steps onto his balcony and hears one of the college students say, “I’m gonna miss all the drug dealers and child actors and sad, divorced guys.” Gus squints and nods like he’s in on the joke and not a sad, divorced guy in the making.
Of course, it wasn’t just the tepid architecture and divorcée vibes that made the experience depressing. There was the arrogant camp director who rented and flaunted a red Ferrari convertible for the sheer purpose of making us feel small. The sleazy acting coach who talked nonstop about his chronic unemployment. The sweet Italian boy who came over to make me dinner, only to grow despondent at the door while I giggled in the closet with my roommates. The fact that I literally hid from a boy in a closet, and didn’t own up to being gay until I was in my mid-twenties. My eating disorder. Practically every other girl’s eating disorder.
Most depressing were the many opportunities I wasted. Whether we were diagramming narrative arcs or talking about the moments in our lives we might turn into scenes, I mostly hung back and observed the creative progress happening around me. I politely excused myself from conversations, and retreated to my room at every opportunity. I figured I wasn’t really alone if loneliness was something I chose, but the cool distance I struggled to maintain all summer backfired spectacularly when one of my classmates said, “I’m surprised you’re actually really nice. When I first saw you, I thought you’d be one of those mean girls.” While not identical to the laptop-throwing, sermon-disrupting antics of Gus and his addiction-prone girlfriend, Mickey, I similarly blew my chance at intimacy by getting in my own way. I was being careful, not realizing restraint is sometimes its own, quiet brand of self-destruction.
But as much as it felt like it at the time, it wasn’t all a bad teen melodrama. Occasionally someone got through those huffy defenses, and helped make the four weeks approach something worthwhile. There were my three roommates: Jean, a soft-spoken Midwestern girl who claimed her extended family could eat eight ears of corn in one sitting; Tara, an angsty teen witch with plans to buy a Jetta; and a true free spirit named Dylan, after Bob Dylan. A screenwriting teacher who made us feel less guilty about wasting printer paper because we were artists and printer paper was our medium. My friend Joe, whose radical enthusiasm thawed my cold, little heart and reminded me the stakes didn’t always have to be so high.
Sure, camp was the first time I realized you could spend your entire adulthood adrift, having no idea who the fuck you are or what the fuck you’re doing. That unless you become legally bound to someone through marriage or biologically bound to someone through childbirth, you run the risk of becoming entirely unmoored. But I also discovered the profound sense of belonging when laughing in front of a dumb movie with a couchful of friends. I got a sense of what an accomplishment it is to override someone’s first impressions of you and cast off your first impressions of them. It occured to me then, and still occurs to me now, that intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to equate with sensuality.
Love’s logline may be about navigating romantic relationships, but it’s just as much about finding solid ground through friendships. In every scene we see Gus playing guitar or rehashing catastrophic dates with his friends, he’s content in ways he isn’t with his girlfriends. There’s a liveliness even in his sad, dingy apartment, and for a moment we forget his romantic life and career are in shambles. Haven’t we all noticed this at one point or another? That full-hearted feeling you get after trivia night, but not so much after awkward sex with a stranger? The frantic search for romantic love obscures the simpler pleasures of comparing horoscopes, untangling plot lines, assembling Ikea furniture, or doing literally anything with my friends — all of them vastly superior to the slow torture of slogging through small talk with another Tinder date.
You could argue nothing truly changes between the first and last episodes of Love. Mickey is still struggling with addiction; Gus is still in his crappy apartment. But in a surprisingly sweet twist, they relieve themselves of the pressure to be everything the other needs. It’s a subdued ending for a rom com, but hopeful nonetheless. It makes me think finding love would be a little less daunting if we opened up our idea of what it means to achieve it. This much is clear in the very first episode when Gus meets his elderly neighbors, two men who’ve been friends and roommates for 18 years. When Gus asks his best friend, Chris, “We’re not gonna wind up like those two guys are we?” Chris looks taken aback and says, “I hope so. We should be so fucking lucky. 30 years of friendship? We should be so fucking lucky.”