Not drowning but waving

A personal essay, first published by Headland in issue 16, November 2021.

I edge closer, close enough to read the words in the thought bubble in the larger-than-life comic book painting. “I DON’T CARE! I’D RATHER SINK THAN CALL BRAD FOR HELP!”

A beautiful brunette is pictured alone in a swirl of monochromatic waves, eyes closed, tears falling; only her face, chin-length bob, and one hand remain above water. Her presumably blonde brawny boyfriend is—presumably—somewhere nearby. Perhaps the boat has capsized, or maybe she leapt overboard in a theatrical gesture after a break-up.  

I’m at the MoMA New York exhibition in Melbourne, reunited with my old school-friends, Yvonne and Evelyn. That’s when the 1963 pop-art painting by Roy Lichtenstein called Drowning Girl captured my attention.

The obvious melodrama makes me smile whenever I think of it. I mean, well really, is she going to let herself drown out of some sort of misplaced pride? But the appeal of the painting goes deeper than that. 

Growing up in the 1960s, I was banned by my parents from reading trashy slang-filled comics. But still my girlfriends and I managed—secretly, in our bedrooms—to become engrossed in the emotional roller-coaster realm of romance comics like First Love, Romantic Story and Secret Hearts. 

In the story from Secret Hearts #83 on which the painting is based, the girl is struggling to find love; all her attempts to win a man seem doomed. The illustration shows the boyfriend in the water, holding onto the capsized boat. His name is Mal, not Brad. In the reworking from comic strip to painting, the wording in the thought bubble has changed as well.

I didn’t know it then, but the romance comics followed a common narrative: the heroine falls in love, her hopes are dashed, she suffers agonies of self-doubt and remorse until the situation is resolved and she’s restored to the strong embrace and smoldering kisses of the hero.

My friends and I immersed ourselves in the longings, hopes, and dreams of true love. We were enraptured, enthralled for hours in a world of promise for our futures: winning a man, falling in love, and living happily ever after.

I’m not sure we ever recovered.

Just take a look at Yvonne. She always wears pink, and acts helpless if there’s a suitcase to be lifted onto a bus in Paris or a train in Venice. Yet she’s fit and strong, a tax lawyer with a sharp brain, who knows exactly what she wants. She still flirts with any man who comes her way. She’s always loyal to the man of the moment—but there have been quite a few.   

Evelyn is the one who got something like the romance-comic ending. Forty years later, she’s still married to the tall, dark, handsome boy she met at high school. It looks like a happy marriage, though how can you know for sure. 

As for me, I scrutinize my playlist of all-time favorite songs and see a catalogue of longing, regret, and bitter-sweet melancholy:

Where were you when I needed you?

Do I still figure in your life?

You’ve lost that loving feeling

Bye bye love, bye bye happiness.

I can’t stop loving you

I’m a fool to want you.

Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream

After my husband of many years decided to split—a surprise and relief—that yearning is back. Perhaps it never really went away, though now it’s tempered with a good dose of realism and a generous dollop of ambivalence. I can scarcely imagine living with anyone again after the luxury of living alone. At the start, I found myself going about my days with an underlying hum of “Life is good”. The walk down the hill to work was a pleasure. The cable car back up carrying fresh produce in my designer backpack was an adventure, the massages a treat, the outings with friends a pleasure. Surely the elation, the buoyancy, couldn’t last. After the high comes the fall. After the calm, the storm. Surely I’d be overcome by waves of desolation. But no. Just a few ripples of lonesomeness in an otherwise smooth sea.

Somehow, Lichtenstein’s painting encapsulates it all: the histrionics, the absurdities and the romantic notions. I imagine the drowning girl is still in love with Brad. She needs him. She’s determined not to need him. Even if the consequences are devastating. 

In fact, we know she’s counting on him to come to her rescue. And if he doesn’t, well, she won’t drown either.

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