Every generation has a Prince Charming. A fairy tale hero, a knight in shining armor. For many growing up in the 80s, it was Jake Ryan. Was there ever a boyfriend as hunky, as dory, as swoon worthy as Jake Ryan? Every girl (and many a boy, I’m sure) who daily lived the social awkwardness so deftly portrayed in Sixteen Candles, was in love with Jake Ryan. Any tween or teen who cringed and nodded in acknowledgment, who saw something of themselves in that hallway microcosm of freaks and geeks and hopelessly devoted, was a little bit in love with Jake Ryan. Not only was he hot, he was rich. Not only was he hot and rich, he chose the road less traveled by choosing the quirky Samantha, flat chested and red-headed, over the buxom blonde. He made her a birthday cake after her family had forgotten her sweet sixteen. And if all of that wasn’t enough, before leaned over those sixteen candles to kiss her, he returned her blackmailed underpants; her glass slipper. Prince Charming.
Ah, young love. The problem with young love is that it is….young. While perhaps passionate and intense, it is also inexperienced and unchallenged. What happens when Cinderella and Prince Charming get a bit older, have a few kids, get to the middle bit of middle age? What happens when the fairy tale starts to notice a few crow’s-feet and heartburn?
What if the Hughesian fairy tale continued? When we last saw Jake Ryan and Samantha Baker, they were just about to kiss. Suppose for a moment that Sam and Jake kept dating throughout high school. Maybe Samantha went on to college and studied marketing. Marketing was a hot major in the 80s. Maybe Jake started working in his father’s successful business. They’re young and in love, motivated to succeed and go places. They are made for one another. They get married, (yes, mawwied–sheesh!), have two kids. Somewhere north of Chicago they buy a modest suburban dwelling and settle into a comfortable existence. School runs and Little League, check ups and Sunday dinners, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, gymnastics, ballet, T-ball, laundry, food shopping, changing the sheets, comparing insurance quotes.
In other words, life.
Their marriage, like any other, would have its ups, its downs. Perhaps Samantha’s dreams of being a career mom died when the kids came so close together. Maybe it was an unpleasant and difficult death, leaving behind a ghost of resentment. Most of the time the ghost stays buried, under the diapers and the food shopping and bottles of Similac. But sometimes it rises up and clanks its chains, demanding to be heard. Perhaps the pressure of taking over the family business weighs Jake down. Maybe he struggles with the heavy-duty responsibility of providing for a growing family. It’s a far cry from the career he had dreamed of, far from his rich kid past when the economy was booming. The wheeling and the dealing is exhausting, the constant compromise and negotiation just to make a buck. But Sam and Jake ride the ups, they white water raft the downs. They are Samantha and Jake, ships that met in the night on a course bound for happily ever after. They go out to dinner every now and then. They host barbecues with burgers and beer in styrofoam coolers, fruit salad in a hollowed out watermelon. Sometimes they go and see a movie.
Things get easier as the kids get a little older and Sam makes plans to go back to work. Young Michael plays Pop Warner football. Molly is showing promise at the piano. A parent gets ill, their modest house is worth double what they paid for it, a friend is diagnosed with cancer. Just as the pendulum is swinging back toward normalcy, when there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a little bit of breathing room, Sam gets pregnant after a night of happy hour margaritas and a promise of pulling out. Nine months later, Claire is born and they start all over. More sleepless nights, more loads of laundry, more diapers. Another mouth to feed, another parent/teacher conference to attend. Sam puts her idea of going back to work on hold….again. Maybe she blames Jake, because it’s easier to have a pair of feet at which to lay the blame and his feet are bigger than hers. Jake starts playing golf, under the guise of keeping fit, but mostly to get out of the house. Increasingly they struggle to find things to talk about. It’s always the kids or money or the kids again. Sex takes a backseat to sleep, to the kids, to work and food, mortgages and insurance quotes. Life becomes about getting through the day, through the quarter, through the school year.
You see, even Cinderella and Prince Charming have to deal with the everyday, with the minute and the muck, the monotonous and the mundane. Jake and Sam are no different. Neither are you, neither am I.
Time and more time and even more goes by; a new century, a new dawn. The real estate market is about to tank, the economy is in a tail spin and they watch their 40s come in, not with a bang, but a whimper. The kids are older, even baby Claire. Sam is working again, doing something completely unrelated to marketing, but it frees her from the housewife blues, from the mountains of laundry and never-ending chores. She’s put on a few pounds, she has to dye her hair a darker auburn. There are fine lines and wrinkles beginning to sprout; laugh lines and worry marks, the creases of time and motherhood, of love and loss. There have been one or two moments when she felt she was going to spontaneously combust from the heat searing her from the inside out. Jake sports a slight paunch that he can camouflage with a bit of care. The kayak he bought to use on Lake Michigan sits unused on in the garage and he keeps meaning to put it on Craig’s List. Work is afloat but he worries about the second mortgage they are going to have to take out in order to send Michael to college. A few years ago they sold up and for a while, they were moving on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky, or in their case, a colonial in Lake Forest They haven’t seen a movie in years. The barbeques became less frequent when the divorces started. Sam doesn’t like the second wives, they are too young, too pert, too…blank. There aren’t too many second husbands. Their neighbors and friends are navigating their own rapids, resting when they can, paddling like hell when they need to. Sometimes they are all just caught in an eddy of time until they reach the next riptide.
One day Sam sees a picture that a friend has posted on Facebook and notices that Jake is losing his hair. Jake Ryan is going bald. She hadn’t noticed before. In between the food shopping and working and shuttling to and from ballet lessons, between the Saturday golf and the doctor’s appointments and the bake sales and the Girl Scout meetings and college applications. Between the meetings at the office and the golf Saturdays and the piano recitals they don’t really see each other. They see each other, of course; peeking through a pile of folded towels and fitted sheets, at the one or two dinners they have each week as a family. They see each in photographs after the two-week vacation they take every year to the house on the lake. They see each other as they are passing the salt or spitting toothpaste into the sink.
It’s been a long time since she looked at him with the starry eyes of a young girl gazing up at the most popular boy in school. A lot of midnights have come and gone. She’s outgrown glass slippers and bikini briefs and moved on to flats and Spanx. His belt has been loosened a few notches, and he is losing his hair.
But! In all these years, these years of births and deaths, of loving and honoring, of rich and poor, of sickness and health, he has never once forgotten her birthday. There has always been cake, there have always been candles. And that counts for a lot. Even when the number of candles more than you want to acknowledge, even when your own Prince Charming starts to lose his hair.
Even ships that meet in the night, bound for a course of happily ever after get stuck in the doldrums now and again. The real fairy tale is not dashing rescues and narrow escapes and epic journeys. The real heroism of relationships is standing by each other until the wind picks up and you are able to sail onward. Happily Ever After is not a final destination, but the journey itself.
So go and give your Prince Charming a kiss tonight. Hug your Jake Ryan. I bet when you look in his eyes, you’ll see that dreamy guy you gave your heart to.
p.s. Even all these years later, this scene makes me smile.