on various loves
He’s a friend, and nothing more. We cohabitate a shabby dorm room. We eat greasy Chinese takeout and watch television until 3 or 4 a.m., when we get ready for bed while goading each other for not having done any homework. In the morning, we insult each other from across the room until one of us gets up the energy to haul themself out into the world. Our love is the love of siblings, low-stakes and low-maintenance.
It’s 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and we’re sitting on the couch listening to a Dan Harmon podcast. He laughs at a funny part, and I shove his shoulder, and he punches my thigh, and we squabble for a bit, and then rewind the podcast to hear the part we missed.
Dan Harmon is interviewing a 20-something woman who is unhappy with the way her life has gone. Here’s an exercise for you, he says. I want you to close your eyes and picture your 10-year-old self in your childhood bedroom. I want you to visualize yourself, as an adult, walking into that room. What would you say to your 10-year-old self?
The podcast ends shortly thereafter, and we close the computer and get ready for bed. We say a crass goodnight and turn off the lights. In the darkness, Dan Harmon’s words come back to me. My 10-year-old self, sitting on her bed. What would I say to her?
The thing about my 10-year-old self is that she’s convinced that nobody will ever love her. She’s never had a friend in the world.
I feel myself beginning to cry. I attempt to muffle the sniffles at first, but it’s clearly a lost cause.
You okay? asks his voice, emanating hesitantly from the darkness.
I hear him roll out of bed, feel a sudden warmth as he sits lightly next to me. What’s wrong? he whispers, running a hand across my back.
Our relationship isn’t one where I tell him things like how lonely my 10-year-old self was. Instead, I wrap my arms around him and hold him, suddenly aware of how much I need him in this moment, how strongly I want never to let him go.
Maybe I’m not so different from my ten-year-old self, I realize. Maybe she’s here, crying, in this dorm room tonight.
My first time is with a man whose name I don’t remember.
My friend is taking an impromptu trip to Boston to see his high school sweetheart, who he still has sex with on a regular basis. You could come with me, and I could try to find someone for you to hook up with, he ventures. I think about it, and realize that I really, really want him to.
He sends some texts. He gets me laid in 25 minutes.
Two hours later, I’m naked on the floor of a closet in the basement of a fraternity, and a slender body is pressed against mine. Oh God, an unfamiliar voice is shouting. Oh yes. Oh, fuck, yes.
This is very hot and very loud, think.
He eventually cums, which I know from the sudden cessation of the yelling, and a heavy sigh of contentment indicating that the world is going according to plan.
We say a brief goodbye, and he deposits me on the sidewalk. It’s 1:30 a.m., and I have no idea where I am. I silently scour my body for an emotion to feel, and find nothing. I pick a direction and walk.
I meet my roommate later, at the residence of the woman he’s just fucked. As I wait in the doorway for him to gather his things, she glares at me like I’ve just interrupted her wedding. He kisses her goodbye, and her face lights up the air around them, and I feel the first emotion I’ve felt all night—a deep, desperate sadness from the center of the universe.
Why did you break up with her? I ask him on the train ride home.
He shrugs. She needed me. She needed all the love I had and more. I couldn’t give her that.
The man from the basement texts me the next morning. I don’t text him back.
I fall in love my freshman year. He is tall and handsome, blessed with a youthful sort of hubris that is very good at sweeping 18-year-old women off their feet. Our relationship is every kind of dysfunctional. I will ask him who he’s texting, and he’ll tell me it’s none of my business. We will yell and scream, I will cry and beg him not to leave, tell him I need him, he will go. The next day it will begin again, and again, and again.
It’s 2:30 a.m., and I’m sitting in my room with the lights off, staring at the wall. We had another fight a few hours earlier. I don’t remember now what it was about. It could have been a number of things—we had more fights than I care to remember.
I bristle as I hear my door open and close, and inhale sharply as he stands over my bed, looking down at me with that soft glow that only a face like his can have. I’m sorry, he whispers. It hangs in the air.
I know we will fight again, and I know I will cry and the tears will rampage like a rapid through every vein in my body and empty me of all emotions but longing for him. I’m sorry too.
A few minutes later we are lying in bed, and I can feel every breath he takes. His chest slides gently in and out of the cavities of mine. With each breath I can feel his wrinkled feet, and his skin that smells like a warm beach in California, and his mouth that tastes vaguely of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and I love him. I love every molecule of him. I love him the way I love sunsets in the summer, and guitar songs punctuated by laughter when we’ve stopped caring about the chords, and poems that make my heart flutter and my skin prickle with every metaphor. I love him the way I love crinkled bedsheets and warm pillows and soft silence.
His leg brushes against mine, and his eyelashes flutter and tickle the tip of my chin, and we both laugh softly. I run my index finger along his spine, absentmindedly, like a traveler meandering their way through a countryside in the spring. That tickles, he whispers, and I draw back.
I know that he will leave. I know this because everyone leaves, because all I have been taught in the years that have formed me is that people will leave, and it will hurt, and I will claw at my chest to try to pull out the memory of him and it will never, ever work. I know that when he leaves I will feel empty, like the most fundamental part of me has died. My ten-year-old self flashes through my mind—empty, lost, alone. I was nothing before he loved me, I know beyond a doubt. I will be nothing again when he stops.
But in the darkest hours of the morning, I am counting his heartbeats, and we are the only ones in the world. And I want to stay here with him. I want to stay here because he plays the piano the same way he talks, deliberately, beautifully, weaving complex patterns with every syllable, because he laughs at the same parts of movies that I do and nobody else does and because at this moment in the grand expanse of everything, I can hold him forever. I can hold him as the sun explodes and the universe collapses in on itself and I can roll closer to his side of the pillow as Ragnarok rages around us and he is the only thing I can see. In my last few seconds of consciousness I try as hard as I can to freeze this moment in my mind, a moment when I love another, so deeply, and I know I am loved in return.
My first kiss hurts.
I’m cutting a bagel with a dull kitchen knife when I feel scraggly, bare arms press gently against mine. Cold, clammy palms grasp both of my wrists. I stop cutting the bagel and freeze.
I become acutely aware of the radio outside the kitchen, which is playing, of all things, an Elton John classic. Can you feel the love tonight? I can hear it floating through the walls. The peace the evening brings?
His shadow is cold. Want to go somewhere? he whispers gutturally, as if going somewhere were his deepest and most primordial desire.
My body is frozen, while my emotions quiver like a tiny child in a corner. No, I stammer. He leans in and kisses me anyway. I focus hard on the taste of his mouth—Mentos gum, with an undertone of cigarettes. I feel the nicotine spread through my mouth like a blooming flower and I feel sick, soiled, dirty in every way.
We will kiss again, several days later, a real kiss with tongue and touching and a park bench in the rain and everything that’s supposed to accompany a teenage romance. One day he will leave, after a screaming match that leaves my voice in shreds.
For a long time, my love was an addiction. I reached as far as I could, as long as I could, for anything that could possibly be reaching back. A lost and lonely ten-year-old hid inside me, crying for a love.
I don’t think I love the way I used to anymore. My love is no longer raw. It doesn’t consume everything I do—it is no longer a hunger, a need. It is polite, and it knocks before entering. Somewhere, somehow, that ten-year-old grew up.
My current love is a new kind of love. He’s a four-hour drive away, and I don’t have a car, but we make it work. Like me he’s still learning how to love; like me, he is still figuring out what it means to feel deeply for another. At the intersection of two roads full of bumps and twists and turns, we are learning together. This love is a growing and healing love.
Sometimes, if I haven’t seen him for a week or two, I try to remember his face. I know he has oval glasses and tousled curly hair. I remember his deep, lilting voice, and his nose that slants slightly to the left. But sometimes, someone asks me if he has freckles, are his eyes green or brown, and as I struggle to remember I can feel the miles between us pressing on me from all sides.
I end up scanning his Facebook pictures to solidify his face in my mind, he plays a game of chess, he gives a speech from a podium, I Skype him to let myself soak in his voice. Let me soak you in, I tell him, let me listen to you breathe. Let me keep watching for the green dot next to your name so maybe one day I can watch your hair grow. For now, here is everything I have.
My loves are collages of blurry photographs with jagged edges and coffee cup stains; they breathe in coughs and rasps. I still do not know what it means to love the way they do in movies, with smiles and laughs—my loves have been wildfires, they have burned forests down, they have hurt. But from each hurt, I have learned. And there is so much I have learned in eleven years that I wish I could tell my ten-year-old self. But all I can do is look back, at her, at myself, and know what I would say.
My ten-year-old self has so much ahead of her. She has a lot of love, and a lot of heartbreak. When I was ten, love was a fantasy, a rainbow that shone across the horizon, that I could reach for, but never touch. My ten-year-old self longs for that.
My ten-year-old self has no idea that she must grow into love. She thinks love arrives on doorsteps like a pot of gold, like a gift to open, hold, and treasure. Standing in her doorway, I know that her love will be a journey, and she will grow into it the same way she grew into walking—she will stumble, fall, pick herself up, and keep going, until her strides are long and powerful, until she can move with the rest. Your love will come, I want to say. But it won’t be easy.
I would tell her that neither of us will ever know why things are the way they are, any more than physicists know why the planets and stars are in their places. I would tell her that she will never quite understand why people stop loving, no matter how many therapists she will pay to explain it to her. She will never stop losing them, the people she loves with every atom of her being. But she will find people who love her moles and zits and nooks and crannies and everything she holds within.
I would hold her for hours, until every ounce of salt water was flushed from her body, and I know there would be a lot. I would hold her until the sun came up and the world looked a thousand times brighter. Before I left, I would make her a promise. I would promise to keep loving her until the day she dies. I would make this promise in dozens, hundreds, thousands of ways, however many it would take for her to believe me.
I would tell her she will love the last person she loves harder and faster and stronger than anyone has ever been loved before, but listen to me closely, I would say, you will never love him as much as I love you. You will learn, I would say, that not a single person can give you the love that you need. Only you can give that. Only you can give yourself the love you deserve.
I would tell her that I love her more than I’ve ever loved and will ever love anyone else in the world. I would tell her she is beautiful in the way she believes in love, the way she holds it like an heirloom and wears it like a locket. I want you to take my voice and record it on your phone and never stop listening to it, never stop living it, even as you cross the stage in a high school cap and gown, even as you move into and out of the university of your dreams, even as every step of the way the ones you try to love drum into your head that you will never, ever be good enough, never stop loving me back.