this is love stew
All the ways I’ve learned to love, or not love at all, have rested on the belief that my heart is fragile, like those delicate glass orbs, frosted with glitter, that we used to hang on our fake Christmas tree. At some point, I realized that those ornaments were as likely to break if I clutched them too tightly, as they were if I let them slip out of my hands, dispersed by gravity into smithereens.
In middle school, when all the girls went around in a circle saying which boy they had a crush on (boys came and went like fashion trends) and who we needed to make code names for, and who was the best handball player, I kept silent. “Who’s your crush, Natalie?” “No one!” I would retort, quickly and snappily. “You’re lying! Tell us who,” they’d whine back. “I swear, no one! I just don’t like anyone right now,” I’d say, exasperated, arms crossed, defending myself against what seemed like accusations.
During my freshman year in high school, one afternoon in November--after school had let out, I had stuck around for something or another, somewhere on campus, and then around 5 or so, went upstairs to my locker in Dobbins Hall to pack up my bag before leaving campus. I climbed the two flights of stairs, and when I reached the top, was intercepted by a skinny boy with floppy black hair that draped like a silk curtain across his forehead, covering most of the top half of his face. He was walking away from a group of friends--and towards me--but I didn’t know him, and had never met him.
He walked right up to me.
“Hey,” he said. “Will you go to winter ball with me?”
“What?” I said, averting my eyes. His question shocked me. The casual way he asked a question of such gravity--to a thirteen year old, no less--left me breathless and panicked. I didn’t think I heard the question correctly.
“Will you go to winter ball with me?”
I paused, now feeling dizzy, a sense of vertigo displacing me in both time and space.
“What?” I said again--hearing the same question I had heard before.
He repeated it a third time, “Will you go to winter ball with me?”
I was silent, lock-jawed, spooked by this Jack-in-the-Box that had so abruptly appeared in my otherwise safe and normal adolescent existence.
I stared back at him.
“Why?” I spat out, the only word I could utter--and with that one mysterious word, turned around and ran down the stairs as quickly as I could, out of the building, face flushed hot red, heart galloping, me, panicking. Might as well have been fleeing from a burning building.
I’ve always thought that question “why?” was illogical and cruel, sickly irreverent. From the moment after that word left my mouth to this day ten years later, I am embarrassed by that handicapped response, so immature, so inane, so graceless. I never talked to that boy again, though I admired him from afar after the fact--I was interested in why he was interested in me.
Despite its lack of grace, the question “why”--a question I still ask of the feelings in me that feel like afflictions and not births--wholly embodied my reaction to--even the possibility of--romantic affection, which was: how could you be interested in me? How could you love me? And anything that involves you-liking-me-and-maybe-me-liking-you was tremendous and terrifying, like walking out onto the high perch of a diving board, imagining how much belly flopping would hurt and how much water would go up my nose and into my ears, and how doom was so plainly inevitable. I always expected the worst. Anything with a high chance of loss wasn’t worth much of my time--or heart--at all.
At best, this was all one big terrible joke, a ploy to humiliate me. I could make a conspiracy theory of anyone's affection for me.
I’m sure there were many psychoanalytical reasons why I felt this way, but in the landscape of my consciousness, surely the movies I watched played a part. The Nora Ephron movies (You’ve Got Mail; Sleepless in Seattle; When Harry Met Sally) and a whole slew of Julia Roberts chick flicks (Notting Hill, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) were highlights in my dad’s VHS collections, so my sister and I devoured them too, with seriousness, with a weighty sense that these narratives were the way things were supposed to be. They were some of the first romantic narratives we encountered.
This is what they laid out: A man meets not just a woman but singularly, the woman, and the romantic entanglement relentlessly works itself out because it is destined to be so. No matter the obstacle, his love is reserved only for her. That became my belief--that my love was reserved, and should be preserved ruthlessly, sealed off to anyone who inquired about its existence, kept in the cellar, salted and cured, hoarded for winters to come. I would not release my love so easily, lest it be snatched from me. I believed that once I let it go, my love would float away like Moses down the Nile River.
The first safeguard: never admit attraction at all. Admission was weakness. Giving away even a piece of myself was to make myself vulnerable; it was to skin myself while still alive. I would never whisper of even a fondness for any boy I knew, and whatever delights welled up in me, I hid away, pounded down into myself. I was determined to contain it all in the stuff sack of my being, this compression bag that was as terrified of what it contained as it was of letting anything out.
This was an existence of silent yearning--and confusion--in which I superimposed the narratives I encountered--in books, movies, music, etc.--onto my own desires, everything a future story that could only be contained in my head at present. I’d not let my heart make a single sound, though its inclinations towards love and being loved never submitted to death for lack of entertainment.
In the first few months of college, I met Shannon, who would become my best friend. Shannon loved ceaselessly, shamelessly, and hung her loves like little charms around her neck, even if they sometimes scraped at her skin or made too many jangling sounds. She had a high school love who tore at her heart for many years after they had broken up. The memory of him conjured easy tears, and his face was embedded in so many songs and even in the faces of strangers she had never met, whose one word or gesture or piece of clothing could transfigure into his. She didn’t know why she couldn’t let him go (we never really do know though, do we?). She was still netted up by the idea of him. It was never as easy as burning the physical mementos of him, which she did occasionally, ceremonially. Those mementos all turned out to be mere effigies, never the real things at all.
I saw all the wispy little loves she breathed in, how she could continually wring her heart out, though it never dried up. She never had any less love to give, even though, by admission or by thought, she could give so much of it away.
During our third year of college, she fell in love with Eric, who worked at a cozy little bread shop on Brattle Street, a bare-boned, cramped space with wooden interiors, always smelling of yeast and sawdust. She visited the bread shop whenever she could--multiple times each week--always ordering the same thing (the densest, most fragrant vanilla bean-flecked loaf and an over-priced slow-drip coffee). She always asked for the heel of the loaf--the end-piece, she called it--which had more crusted surface area than any other piece. He began giving those to her diligently, automatically, whenever she came in, with her mane of tangly blonde hair. She was once mistaken for Ke$ha.
When the price of the loaf rose by 25 cents, Shannon was indignant and said that she might boycott the place entirely--but I knew that this declaration was an impossibility. It was a failed attempt at detachment.
Unlike me, Shannon wore her emotions the way she did her make-up: heavily, brusquely, sometimes recklessly. Out of self-proclaimed necessity. It was easy to see her embarrassment or pain, which always seemed to stun her, crumple her, and those were the times she ran away--when she could not bear to let her pain be known--because she couldn’t stifle them, so she just left, often frantically. She wound her loves so tightly around her heart, and even when the spool rolled and spoiled, unraveling ceaselessly, she never cut the thread, even if she threatened to do so.
Toward the end of that third year, we knew we were leaving campus soon, so Shannon decided to give Eric a note, declaring her love in a charming and off-handed way. The note was ripped around the edges to look like a casual remark, unmeditated. She walked in, ordered her loaf and coffee, and as he reached over the counter to hand her the coffee, she passed him the note saying, “This is for you.”
She cried that night, telling me how embarrassed she was to have flaunted her silly affection the way you might feed ducks at a pond, scattering bread for the pecking flock. That the affection was unrequited did not bother her--it likely deepened the pining in fact. Though she regretted her gesture, I admired her--and still do--for her easy admissions of love and delight, little bubbling geysers sporadically spewing forth; her proclamations of being enchanted by someone’s beauty, which instilled in her a sense of God-inspired awe, the way beautiful things point us back to some divine mystery we cannot fully comprehend. We are strengthened by the ethereal whispers of gestures, faces, words, moments, and rhythms that etch themselves onto our swelling hearts--the ones no one else notices--and those fluttering wings of beauty we meet--if we care to meet them at all--are made more glorious by our attachments, migrating here, there, everywhere.
A year ago, Shannon called me from Dar es Salaam, where she was wandering and sojourning. She called to ask for dinner ideas. A man she loved was coming to dinner, and she wanted to please him, feed him, as we do to those ones we love. “A chickpea stew,” I suggested, “with couscous.” Warm, comforting, drawn out. A stew: love stirred in a pot, tenderly slowly, onions caramelizing, chickpeas soaking up all the liquid, roots and fibers softening, breaking down. She could not say she loved him, but both she and I knew, that she slipped her heart into that stew, knowing words, that night, just wouldn’t do.