I met Bella Swan in the middle of 2008, when the anticipatory Twilight movie poster circulated at my school. I took her home and hung her on my wall, blacks and grays covering the coral paint near my headboard. She gripped the folds of Edward Cullen’s dark denim jacket. They both looked like teens, but anyone who’d read the books knew he was a vampire, ninety years older than her. Edward looked off to the distance, to abstracted danger, to the movie’s simultaneous bomb and success, too busy to think about anything besides how the woman—girl—at his side reinforced his being a man.
But Bella looked right at me.
She was familiar. She could be anything I wanted her to be. Chestnut hair and dark eyes, a soft glow. Blank skin blank face blank canvas, her skin fine-toothed paper. I was envious of her beauty. I wanted to bask in it. She was too sweet, and I was too young to have my own story. I looked to her for answers. She looked cold. I wondered what it would feel like to hold someone, to share their warmth. To be desired. I wanted to be the apple cradled in her hands.
The text on the poster promised that nothing would be the same.
At Hot Topic, past the racks with Jack Skellington’s face stitched onto black book bags, past the clerk who preened her electric blue highlights in the reflection of the body jewelry showcase, I found two rows of shirts. All sizes, all black, with white lettering: Team Edward and Team Jacob.
It was my freshman year in high school, and everyone was divided. People who hadn’t seen Twilight, people who had, people who didn’t want to care found themselves unwittingly subscribing to either side of the binary. I came to school with Edward’s name branded on my chest. I was in the minority. My friends, most of whom would go on to choose healthier relationships later in high school and college, chose Jacob. Over the next ten years, I chose a lot of Edwards. They were tall and short, monied and broke.
Over the next ten years, I chose a lot of Edwards. They were tall and short, monied and broke. They spoke Spanish and Italian and came from Columbus and Ft. Meyers and Perth. After the flowers and fine dining came a bounty of brooding, clipped responses, and slammed car doors. They showed up uninvited to my house. They held phone calls hostage with self-absorbed monologues or punishing silence. My friends and parents despised them. They all had charisma. They knew how to convince me that while it was forbidden to be with them, they were precisely what I needed. They knew how to convince me that I was special but also disposable. They lured me into the forest, called themselves Lion, and named me Lamb. The percarity was intoxicating. They knew I’d chosen Team Edward without ever needing to see my T-shirt.
When I gave in and made them the center of my world, they gave up. When they said they loved me, they would disappear. Their skin did not shimmer.
I chose Team Edward because Bella chose Edward.
In 2009, First Boyfriend Edward dumped me so he could reunite with his ex-fiancée who lived somewhere in Michigan. I was 14, he was 18. Age wasn’t supposed to matter, but suddenly, it did. Of course it did. It wasn’t a 90-year age gap, but it was something.
I locked my bedroom door and sulked like Bella did in New Moon, after Edward abandoned her “for her own good.” Breakup protocol called for me to delete our texting history, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Loss had my stomach bottoming out. I sat at my desk, which overlooked the front yard, and my questions yawned into the night.
What had I done wrong? How had I failed?
I convinced myself that this breakup would mean that I was now free to find my real, true match. I had to let it all go. My laptop screen glowed dim and blue. On iTunes, Paramore’s Hayley Williams mused on “Decode”:
Do you see what we’ve done?
We’re gonna make such fools of ourselves…
Bella had found her Edward, after all, and so would I.
Between the Edwards, there were the Rosalies. They were electric, beautiful, accomplished. They floated in and out of my life, suggestions made in a language to which I did not have the code. Toronto Rosalie liked to ask me to come to MAC with her to try on lipstick. Soccer Rosalie was from Montenegro, well over a head taller than me, with a full tattoo sleeve and Amazonian features. During her English tutoring lessons, I was always the one who got tongue tied. When I ran into Cheerleader Rosalie in a bar after high school, she asked how I had been doing, and I responded by promptly spilling an entire glass of water down my shirt. I wanted to sparkle for each of them.
Toronto Rosalie and I were in Dublin when she let me kiss her on the lips. We were in a club called Dicey’s Garden, drunk on Guinness. She tasted like strawberry chapstick and malted barley. We smiled, sheepish, half-embarrassed that we had done it, that we had enjoyed it. We were friends, so we never spoke of it again.
My mind could not write a happy ending for Team Rosalie, although I could feel her interest each time through the foggy haze of my self-denial. She wanted me, but she didn’t need me. There was no trap door behind her smile. My inability to interpret her openness, coupled with a heteronormative society that lacked the visibility of queer romance, was enough to let her iterations slip away again and again.
First Boyfriend Edward came back after things didn’t pan out with his Michigan ex. It was a ten-year cat-and-mouse, between all the other Edwards. He often brought me to the bar and left me near the tap, making sure I saw him flirt with all the blondes who wanted a piece of his shiny new police badge.
There was Writer Edward, who waxed poetic about Eros but was never interested in my creative writing, who took me into his arms after a steamy Miami evening in his bed, only to say, “I don’t think I could ever love you.”
And of course, there was Abuser Edward. In a spontaneous moment of mania, he insisted on whisking me away to Venice for a weekend filled with a gondola ride and fine dining, only to lash out later, accusing me of being a “financial burden.” I put up with it, knowing that even if he was mad at me, that it meant he wasn’t talking to other women, which was his near-constant compulsion. Sometimes, on the phone he would say: “When I’m inside her, I’m thinking about you. Can you feel it?”
Different faces, same name, same ending.
In my senior year in college, I watched the Twilight movies with my friends. We all piled on the couches in the living room, boxed wine in coffee mugs. Everyone—my roommates, their boyfriends, and a few guys trying to become my roommate’s boyfriends—laughed at her, Bella for staying with a clown like Edward.
This was the same time that I was compulsively checking my phone for a message from Abuser Edward, wondering what I had done this time to get the silent treatment. He lived in Australia, but we had met during my study abroad semester in Dublin. In the same breath Abuser Edward had been swearing he wanted to marry me—he’d even lived with my family for a month the previous summer—he’d claimed he needed to get back with his old girlfriend in Perth to “let her down easy.” I soon realized that this girlfriend hadn’t known that Abuser Edward was gallivanting around Ireland with an American ten years his junior for several months. I had become the Other Woman, growing dizzier by the second as I watched Bella spin through the seasons, alone in her bedroom.
The same friends who were gently urging me to dump my abuser were now laughing with disbelief that Bella had fallen into an unrelenting depression, sitting in her room for months after Edward had disappeared from Forks. Their sensitivity for the situation evaporated as they fell into a harsh, albeit valid criticism, of the movie.
Bella’s so ridiculous, what the hell? I can’t believe this. Who would ever do something so sad? Get over it, girl, move on.
And I probably curled into my part of the sofa, feeling self-conscious, even though everyone’s eyes were trained on the screen. My heart had probably started hurting, a sharp pang had been the trend back then, and I wiped my palms on the legs of my jeans. But she loves him, I thought. She’s waiting for him. What’s so silly about that?
I wondered if the thoughts my friends shared with the screen were the thoughts they shared in private, to each other, when I wasn’t around.
Twelve years after its release, I would watch Twilight again in 2020, this time with a guy named Adam. After an agonizing breakup from Abuser Edward, I didn’t know who I was, only that I wanted to write. I moved from my hometown in Maryland to Miami, Florida to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. Adam had used his miles to fly down from Maryland for a visit.
The movie’s saturated grays and deep blues washed my West Miami apartment with uncharacteristic maudlin. Adam and I were still in the dating phase, marked by a respectful distance between us on the bed. Later I would find out he suggested watching the Twilight Saga because one of my college girlfriends told him it would get him points with me. It did.
We were at the point in New Moon where Edward is telling Bella that she shouldn’t leave her house. She plans to resist him and leave anyway, but doesn’t get far. The thin veil of protectiveness tears to reveal his controlling, obsessive nature. Somehow, he’s managed to deflate the tires of her 1953 Chevy. A snake twisted in my stomach. This scene hit differently from when I was a teen.
I asked Adam which team he would choose. I realize now that this question was a test. Edward is toxic, he said, point blank. Besides, Jacob is better-looking. Just look at that hair. He ran a hand through his own black coils, which had sprung to life in the late summer heat. It was probably the queerest thing he’d ever said, and would ever say again.
Right around this time in 2020, I started to read Stephanie Meyer’s newly-released Midnight Sun, which is really just Twilight, but retold from Edward’s point of view. In an ironic, self-referential twist, law-school dropout Glasses Edward had given me Midnight Sun as a gift. Sensing things were getting serious with Adam, Glasses Edward had started dropping poems in my mailbox every day for the past few weeks. He was “just happening to be in the neighborhood” with all of my favorite groceries in hand. He brought me to his apartment, blindfolded, to reveal his studio transformed into a bistro for two, complete with stringy-lights and a three piece tuxedo. Against his deep anxiety over phone calls, he had started ringing me when I stopped responding to his texts.
As it had with any Edward, this one’s gallantry had broken away into the vampiric fear that his emotional supply was leaving him. So I silenced my phone and, with satisfaction on a sunny afternoon, pulled out his gift and started to read.
Too quickly, a shroud of dismay overcame me. I had expected the prose to be lackluster, and it was certainly that. But even still, there was supposed to be something magical going on. Not even my nostalgia could salvage my expectations for this book. The way Edward described first seeing Bella in the school cafeteria was wooden, even less than an object. She was like a granola bar half-chewed and left for birds to pick at the fragments. It was all about Edward’s hunger. Stephanie Meyer was selling the same insidious story. I could only stomach the first three chapters before I put it down for good.
I made myself find Adam. I really did.
In a rebellious fit against Glasses Edward, I thought of the nicest person I knew and dared to believe for a moment that I deserved someone kind. Adam came to mind, with his shy sideways grin and starry brown eyes. We’d met at a mutual friend’s birthday party six months before, but I doubted he even remembered me. We had nothing in common – or so I thought – as he was the founder of a non-profit internet service provider, and I was, well, me. I was close to broke, writing pages and pages of a novel that nobody else had seen. In spite of this, I asked a college girlfriend to set us up. And to my shock, he agreed to meet for a date.
While walking together around the Baltimore neighborhood of Fed Hill – it was the middle of the pandemic and we kept a polite distance – Adam wouldn’t look me in the eye. Or look at me at all. Being so used to Edwards raking their eyes over me, I thought perhaps this was a mistake, that he didn’t even want to be there. It took a moment to realize he was trying to be respectful.
He was kind to me, he asked questions, and actually, actually listened. I let him in. I told him about my Nana who was grieving the recent loss of my Pop Pop, about how my passions for Irish history and queer desire had made their way into my novel-in-progress. After a while I would sputter, wondering why the spotlight was still on me, how it hadn’t yet been yanked away for a self-indulgent monologue. I truly didn’t know how to continue, and attempted to remove myself to the sideline of conversation. But Adam held space for me, encouraging me to keep talking. I was baffled. I had no script for this. We walked and talked for eight hours and shared a pizza on top of Fed Hill. Below, the city twinkled quietly.
It was normal. It was a gift.
As an adult child of alcoholics, my neurological destiny had been written; a narcissistic, ego-driven Edward could sniff out my anxious attachment from miles away. I had been conditioned to look for thrills, to expect them, alongside the uncertainty. The headrush of the love-bombing, the bottoming-out from the emotional withdrawal. Edwards were a project for me to fix; they were damaged goods that I could cure with my unending love. My voice had become small. I covered my brittle confidence in eyeliner and a busty tank top. I saw in myself only what I could give — my energy, my body.
But Adam is not an Edward. He is self-effacing and kind. Motivated and curious. And startlingly, unbelievably silly. He was the chaotic kid in school who had the messy backpack filled with loose papers. He was a running back for his high school football team. He’s a Runescape legend and knows how to build his own computer. He’s an uncle. He has a Greek tortoise named Buddy that likes to get massages with a toothbrush. He’s my best friend. Adam is not a mystery, he is not a trophy, he is not larger than life. He is life.
We understand that Bella is nestled somewhere between the spaces of my ribs. That this is my story, and I am learning how to be the center of my own heart. We know that it’s my task, this work towards self-loving. We affirm to each other that a healthy relationship is the joyous third entity shared between two self-assured people. His hands are ever-warm, like the world under his skin is constant sunshine.
Nearly three years later, Adam and I strike out to Forks for my birthday weekend getaway. We had relocated to Seattle six months prior; it was the only way we could convince his Muslim parents that we should live together, by coincidentally getting jobs in the same city on the other side of the country.
For those first six months, we—meaning I—talked of visiting Forks. By the time we got our car onto the Kingston ferry, the trip was taking on the glow of a pilgrimage. February is the gloomiest month out here in the Pacific Northwest, and this trip was no exception: the forecast called for rain and gusting wind. Rows upon rows of bleak coniferous trees ebbed into mist. It was perfect, because this was the weather that vampires went to school in.
Forks is a small logging town in the northwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Bella wasn’t kidding when she said she “exiled” herself there to live with her Dad. Only in my research en route had I discovered that the Cullen house, and other notable landmarks, had been filmed in Oregon. When we got to Forks, the main street held fuzzy street lamps, under which black lifted trucks and huge vehicles with felled trees rumbled through an insistent rain. The Twilight fandom had breezed through this town and dried up after the series ended, leaving behind old posters in storefronts and a shuttered cafe once called The Twilight Lounge. Adam and I grabbed reheated carry-out pizza from the only open restaurant. We ate on a concrete bench under an awning, watching the mist. He joked, not without edge, that he might be the only brown person on the entire peninsula.
Eventually we found Native to Twilight, the only fan store still open.
Inside the store, beyond kitchy coffee mugs and signed posters and movie props for sale, there was a giant cardboard cutout of Edward and Bella on their wedding day. They stared at one another with a vacant sort of passion, and the fluorescent lights cast a synthetic glow around them. There they were, and there I was with Adam, foils of what had been, what could be.
I wondered how many of us end up marrying our Edwards because we don’t see any other path for ourselves. I had seen firsthand how an Edward can masterfully distort reality to make leaving them feel like theoretical self-annihilation. But it’s all a selfish mirage, constructed from their own fears of abandonment and inadequacy. If we settle for the familiarity of hurt, what do we end up sacrificing in return—our dreams of safety and validation?
I wanted to gently take Bella’s hands, and tell her to look, look at Adam, see how tender he is. There is no danger in his eyes, but a promise of adventure, yes, and of warmth. There is room for you here. It is possible. I wanted to take Bella to Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park, where the spruce and hemlock and cedar trees have shallow roots. It rains so much that they don’t need to dig deep. All they have to do is reach hundreds of feet into the sky, and trust the rain will come.
On the drive home, the sky in front of our windshield is gray, the tendrils of low clouds hover over the evergreens that march up the mountains. No thunder echoes through the valley, but it may as well have, because it does in my mind. I scroll through Spotify and play Supermassive Black Hole for the umpteenth time, reliving the scene where the Cullens play extreme vampire baseball under the cover of a thunderstorm.
Again? Adam’s guessing there’s a Twilight connection. He’s mildly mystified, and charmed that I can’t let these notes go. He knows this is more than a fandom. While I am bobbing my head to the song, his hand is a warm anchor on my thigh.
I really don’t like Forks, he says.
I laugh. I don’t think I do, either.
Then Bella’s Lullaby is the next track to play, and the delicate piano notes drip like rain onto the hood of the car.
I suspect the world will always need Twilight. In the years to come, Twilight will be a model for what not to do when looking for love. It will be a comedy of wooden acting and a poorly written screenplay, a time capsule of de-fanged nostalgia to share with friends. I will continue to learn from and laugh at Twilight, yes, but not at Bella—never at Bella. If I did, then it would mean I would be laughing at myself, at others who have been completely consumed by a toxic relationship.
Edward and Bella, they failed me. They were supposed to meet me here, at the end of the world. They were supposed to grow with me, out of themselves. All there is, of course, is trees. And flat, cardboard characters. Adam’s hand is reassuring on my leg. I turn up the music, and open the window so the rain can tap my skin.
But the trip to Forks wasn’t totally a wash. In front of the cutouts of Edward and Bella was a registration book, where fans could record where they were visiting from, and of course, which Team they were on. My heart sank as I flipped through the pages. Not a single person in hundreds had written they were for Team Bella.
So I picked up the pen, set it to the next blank space, and did what I should have done fifteen years ago.
I chose Team Bella. The sun is going down and the clouds steadily darken. Perhaps, in a way, Edward and Bella had met me here at the end of the world. This music is mine, this romance is mine, I re-write it with every re-visiting. I tell Adam, which is to tell myself, all the ways they got it wrong. The rain doesn’t sting, it’s a blanket of mist over me. In spite of them — and perhaps because of them — I’ve found something deeper, richer, than twilight.