The Way We Are

The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were (1973) | Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

We met in the laundry room. It was freshman year, maybe three weeks after school had started. I was probably wearing the oversized jean cutoffs I bought at Forever 21. I had recently shaved my head. I didn’t really know how to do laundry; I was familiar with the basic mechanics of it, but  didn’t really know what to do with myself, physically or socially, in a shared laundry room situation. I sat in the basement, next to the machine, listening to Sleater-Kinney, drinking a Diet Coke, and pretending to do my honors lecture reading. As I punched in my student ID code to pay for the dryer, I saw Nick standing by the washer—actually two washers, since he was cleaning his whites and his darks separately. He was slight, blonde, and patrician.

“Are you really doing that? Separating your whites and colors?” I jumped onto an out-of-use washer and played with my new nose piercing, trying to look casual, maybe even sexy.

“What do you mean? This is what you’re supposed to do.”

We were eighteen. Feeling empowered by the newfound liberation from my parents, I was under the impression that we didn’t have to follow any traditional laundry rules.  Nick, though, actually seemed to want to take care of his clothes.

We didn’t speak again until the spring of our sophomore year, when we were in the same study abroad program in Rome, and didn’t start dating until we were juniors, a year ago. Time often moves less dramatically in real life than it does in movies.

We decided to watch The Way We Were because we’d been watching Sex and the City together late at night, after homework and dishes were done, on his mom’s HBO GO account. I find it cute that he still can’t tell the difference between Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte.     

In the eighteenth episode of the second season, Carrie finds out that her ex, Mr. Big, is engaged to Natasha, a hot twenty-something. (The hot twenty-something is famously the sworn enemy of the Sex and the City gals, so this news is doubly tragic.) Our heroes sit around a dinner table, validating Carrie’s pain. She explains that Big and Natasha are having their wedding shower at The Plaza, which prompts Miranda to shout: “Hubbell!”

Miranda is, of course, referring to Robert Redford’s character in The Way We Were. She begins to describe the movie’s final scene and the other women jump in. How Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford run into each other, years after the protracted dissipation of their romance, outside The Plaza. How he’s with a new, younger girlfriend, and she’s with her brigade of socialist community organizers. How there are no hard feelings, how they both sense they’re better off without each other. How they share a youthful glow, evoking the younger versions of themselves we saw at the beginning of the movie. How they look free.     

But then Samantha interjects: “I’ve never seen The Way We Were!”

The other girls are shocked, and frankly, I was, too! Nick cleared his throat beside me. “Neither have I,” he said. My jaw dropped and my head snapped toward him.

“You’ve…never? We’ll watch it tomorrow night.”

If you’ve seen The Way We Were, you’re probably cringing right now. Under no circumstances would a sane person, actively engaged in their first adult relationship, choose to watch this movie on a date. Truthfully, I hadn’t seen it since I was seven, on a sick day at home with my mom, and probably high on a combination of Advil Cold & Sinus and Nyquil, so I was unable to fully comprehend the complexity of its emotional landscape. I remembered it abstractly, for its use as a point of cultural reference. But I underestimated how involved it all is.

The movie opens on sweeping shots of a college campus as Barbra sings the title track. It’s easy to call her ballad melodramatic, especially paired with the nostalgia-porny shots of dudes in sweaters playing football on a quad, of girls in long skirts walking under a bell tower, but this was the 70s! People were allowed to be really emotional. I was crying by the third minute of the title sequence.

Katie (Streisand), a young political activist, and Hubbell (Redford), a hot all-American athlete, become familiar with one another in college, and seem to share a tacit understanding. She’s passionately aggressive and socially awkward, he’s straight up the middle and reserved.

“This is so us!” Nick triumphantly exclaimed about 30 minutes into the movie, when Katie and Hubbell reunite in New York City, post-graduation. The problem, the tragedy, is that he was right. Katie’s a writer, or at least an aspiring one, and excited and supportive of all of Hubble’s interests and endeavors. He’s in love with her fervor. I’d been crying since before the dialogue started, and I wheezed, knowing where the movie was headed.

Hubbell and Katie get married, and when they sleep, she holds him up against her chest, like she’s still surprised he’s real, that he’s hers. They move to L.A. so that Hubbell can adapt his novel into a screenplay. She becomes the caretaker, making him dinner and attending movie screenings with her hands on his shoulders. It’s clear that she’s uncomfortable in the role, it chafes against who she is. She goes to protest McCarthyism in Washington D.C., and Hubbell rebukes her, saying that she is jeopardizing his career, that she is inconsiderate. Despite their conflicts, Katie is elated when she becomes pregnant, and says that they should name the baby after her late mother, Rachel. Shortly after the baby is born, though, they resolve to end things, and, despite having a child together, don’t see each other again until their meeting years later at the Plaza.

As a contemporary viewer familiar with the ubiquity of social media, the ending is equal parts disorienting and quaint. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in 2019 in which a couple is able to have a child together, separate, and then just not keep up with one another. Nick commented on this—how it didn’t seem very realistic. But I struggle to imagine any dissolving of such an intense relationship that would make total sense to us.

I tell Nick all the time that we’re meant to be together. I tell him in my kitchen after we’ve made butter chicken. I whisper it late at night when I limp out of the bedroom to refill my water glass. I told him on Christmas Eve as we watched the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions in his mom’s guest bedroom. What I mean, though, is that I know we’re supposed to be together right now. This current iteration of myself fits this current iteration of himself perfectly. We work at the same hippie café, we ride bikes, I let him talk to me about contemporary art and design, and he doesn’t laugh when I try to explain the importance of specific battles in the Peloponnesian War. It’s going great.

Contemporary movies have this tendency to ignore time as an obstacle to relationships—romantic, familial, platonic, etc. In romantic comedies, time is stopped, disregarded, in favor of zany obstacles to love and sex: families that don’t like each other, a looming baking competition, or the lady protagonist being too damn klutzy. What’s unique about The Way We Were is that, though the movie takes place over some twenty years, we hardly see the characters change physically—there is no dramatic makeup, and all period-appropriate costuming is classy and unobtrusive. Rather than being confronted with the obvious signifiers of a timeline, we, the audience, seem to move laterally through the narrative, witnessing the events—both challenges and successes—as vignettes. It is not clear between scenes whether days or months have passed. We are never told how long Hubble and Katie have been together. We are left, for the most part, to assume the movements of time around the two central characters.

Time is the condition from which their relationship eventually suffers and dies. Sure, they have different values and goals, but they are aware of this from their first in-depth conversation. Still in college, Katie sees Hubbell off-campus drinking beer on a café patio. Earlier that day, we know, the professor praised Hubbell’s work as the best in their creative writing class; Hubble looked around, awkward, like he hadn’t expected to receive any special attention, and Katie ran out of the room, crying, as she tore up her own piece. Katie approaches Hubbell to compliment his piece, and he invites her to drink with him, but she refuses. She doesn’t drink, she has too much to do. He makes fun of her for not being able to relax.

The energy they share is flirtatious and excited—their differences are sexy, which incites attraction. But time wears them down, exposing their inconsistencies. As they grow, they realize that they’re just not for each other anymore. It’s not sudden, it doesn’t come in the immediate aftermath of Hubbell cheating on Katie, or Katie defying Hubbell’s wishes that she not put their family in danger by participating in anti-McCarthyism protests. The moment that they decide to end it, they don’t even really have to say it. They know it, and we, the audience, do too. We just don’t see this in movies a lot because, frankly, witnessing two people grow out of a relationship is not nearly as exciting as dramatic, visual conflict.

Late one night last August, Nick and I got a text from our boss at the café asking us to meet her at the cash bar on the corner of my block. We had just gotten in bed, but resolved to get up and go, because we didn’t have a good excuse not to. We sat down, and about twenty minutes later it became apparent that our boss wasn’t going to show, that her text to us had been composed of her last threads of energy from a night of running around and partying in the neighborhood. She had fallen asleep. We were tired, so we sat quietly for awhile.

“What, really, do you think you’ll do after you graduate?” It was the first time Nick had asked me this point blank. It’s a topic I had consciously avoided.

“I really, really don’t know,” I said truthfully. I didn’t and I don’t. “I want to move abroad, I think. Grad school eventually, when I can.” I paused, heavy from the well gin. “I’m freaked the fuck out. What about you?”

He was confident. “I want to stay here. To work for the foreseeable future.” I nodded casually and looked away. I felt like I was going to cry, but instead I just sighed.

“This sucks.”

“What does?”

“The future.”

I feel, preemptively, the toll that time will take on our relationship. More bluntly, I guess I anticipate a breakup. How could I not? He is my first love, we are in college. This is not to say that I want to break up—I don’t. I’m just taking into consideration all of the factors at play: we’re both twenty-one, in college, and have not clearly discerned our long-term professional desires. My mom and my therapist would say that I am being overly analytical, not living in the now, perhaps cynical, but I still can’t shake my impulse to plan things out, to be realistic, maybe even to protect myself.

When the movie ended, I was crying, but I wasn’t trying to hide it. I think I was, at least subconsciously, trying to prompt the conversation I had been having with myself the whole time. Why did we watch this movie together, when we’re clearly living in the first half, the bliss, before it gets sad? Is this going to happen to us? When is this going to happen to us? I realized, then, that my logic was flawed, that I was waiting for time to act on us as we remained passive. That I was viewing myself, Nick, and our love, not as an independent project for us to work on and through, but as a potential victim of time, without agency.

So I didn’t say any of those things, and he didn’t either. Instead Nick reached down with one finger to wipe a tear off my nose and I laughed. How do two people recognize that at some future point, imperceptible to their current selves, they may break up, and resolve to continue loving each other without boundary or trepidation? I guess this is a question that people in relationships at any point must ask themselves every day, that it only feels new to me because I am in love for the first time. I have only just now come to understand the stakes.

Obviously, there’s no answer. But it is Barbra’s title track, and more specifically the spectacle of the Sex and the City ladies belting it out in the middle of a packed New York City restaurant, that offers me peace of mind.

Carrie begins to sing first: Memories light the corners of my mind…

Charlotte joins her, then Miranda: Misty water colored memories of the way we were…

I love Nick now, and I love myself now. Who I have become has been shaped partially by the relationship we have built.

Empowered by her cathartic singing with her friends, Carrie walks to the The Plaza where, of course, Big and Natasha are exiting their wedding shower. She attempts to reenact the iconic closing scene with him, and he gets confused. His confusion comforts her, and Carrie walks away smiling. It is nice, I suppose, that they have really known one another, that they have shared an intimacy, lost it, and lived to sing about it. I wonder if I will do the same, but I try not to dwell on it too much.