I thought I was in love with a boy I met the summer before starting high school. My teenage self recognized love as insecurity and misunderstanding and fighting the night before final exams because it felt so familiar to what I had grown up with. I was the manic pixie dream girl to his sad boy, and I tried my best to stay true to his idea of me. I talked him down many a ledge, and I resented him for it because I knew he would never be able to do the same. At 16, I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I never learned how to ask for help, and he never bothered to notice. He swore he loved me, but I don’t think he knew what that meant. I don’t say “I love you” as often anymore because too many people don’t know what it means. I’ve grown so sick of love ever since.
The first time, I think, I was truly in love was when I accidentally fell for my best friend. This kind of love wasn’t sickening, though. It was unspoken and honest and kind. When the voices in my head get too loud, she is my peace. She was my freshman-year roommate and the only person who would understand my inner turmoil the following summer. Because misery demands company, we were inseparable in our melancholia. Summer turned to winter, and I fell in love with the saddest version of us. I didn’t realize I was in love until I had extended myself too far. By no fault of anyone but my own, I had given far too much of myself to her, and I was left with nothing for me. That’s what you do when you’re in love with your best friend, I thought. I thought love traversed all boundaries. I learned the hard way that love cannot be boundless if I myself am not whole. I’ll always be in love with her, but I’ve grown afraid of losing myself in love since then.
I didn’t love myself when I poured love into everyone around me. From an early age, I was indoctrinated into convoluted ideas of love by the scars passed down to me from my mother, her mother and her mother. For all I knew, love was meant to hurt. So, I carry the wounds from my first and most persisting heartbreak in the palms of my hands. I force my calloused fingers together in prayer, begging religion to soften my cold and uninviting touch. But the closest thing I’ve come to faith is believing my mother when she told me her love was conditional. Afraid and languished, I desperately attempt to confess my own declarations of love, but I don’t have the best precedent for them.
My four years in college have been the antithesis of love. Every drunk kiss and swipe right was a frantic pursuit to temporarily pacify my emotional and sexual frustration, and I never dealt with it well the morning after. The sun would glare at me in disapproval, and the alarm in my head would ring loud to remind me that the body lying next to me was just another number in a masochistic game of dating app roulette. By noon, the hangover from the night’s capricious behavior would fade, and the sounds of my television would drown out any last bits of remorse. Around midnight, I’d hurl out another match to ease the nauseating waves of desperation and boredom.
I’d finally replaced love with indifference.
My 20s feel tainted with cynicism from my past experiences with love (or lack thereof). I’d play the cool girl because I could no longer afford to get emotionally invested. I resented my buckling knees for not standing up on their own, but I decided I’d never kneel for love. I replaced piety with apathy, sacrificing myself to carnal temptation. But my exclusive fluency in physical touch pleads like a dead language that no one could be bothered to transcribe. My body had so much love to give to all the wrong people, so I stay sickened by and weary of whatever it is I hopelessly continue to pursue.
Months after another failed affair, I steal a kiss with someone behind a grimy bathroom stall, and I fear a familiar cycle of self-destruction. The walls pulse to the bass of a song I catch myself singing along to, and we both stumble out to different sinks, laughing to each other in the mirror. The soft lighting catches her eyes, and I blush in colors of sapphic infatuation.
We hold our heads at coffee the next morning, but the hangover dissipates into flighty eye contact and toeing the line between playfulness and discomfort. I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from pulling her face into mine, worried that she’ll read the karma from my touch. After three short hours of oversharing and trauma bonding, we nod in agreement. Girls should always go to the bathroom together.
A few nights later, I pull up outside her house, and my body starts to panic. The sudden drops of rain tapping on my windshield match my elevated heart rate. My breathing shallows, and I hold my chest unsettled by the terror that washes over me. I close my eyes for a moment and revel in an all-too-familiar sensation interrupting my dogmatic slumber of tortured numbness. The indifference had suffocated me. She opens the passenger door, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding in.
At brunch, I order the same coffee I crave to console my frozen interior. Remember, cool girl. I switch my misery to nonchalance, but she talks and I feel at ease. I memorize our similarities and remind myself not to get lost in them. As the conversation flows, I feel myself thaw. I’m careful not to drip onto her because intimacy can be misunderstood too easily. I brush my bangs to the sides of my face wishing it was her curls at my fingertips.
When I ask her if she wants to come over after, the voice in my head doesn’t plague me with guilt and shame. Instead, I hit snooze on my mental alarm letting it tick softly in the background. Having a girl in your room is nothing like having a boy in your room. My hands melt in hers, and everything feels innocent and intense. I pull her in closer, and my head spins as she breathes new air into my lungs. I used to feel burdened by my longing for sapphic connection, but this felt liberating. Girls are easy to grow fond of. They hold up a mirror to every part of you that you don’t accept and recite ballads in radical acceptance. Girls are soft and gentle and sweet. Almost enough to quell my sorry indignation. But when she asks me what it is we are doing exactly, my inner monologue about feminine affection goes silent. Because what do you say to that when you meet someone three months before graduation and the rest of your life?
I do believe that when people love, they love alone. They love behind rusted armor that is more constricting than self-preserving. My idea of love feels corrupted by missed expectations devoid of understanding. The love I know feeds my hostility, but this entanglement whispers affirmations of something renewed. I’m learning that love can be different. It can diverge from the love my parents gave me. But loving someone means loving myself, and nobody ever taught me what that means. So, I’m hesitant and scared shitless. But I guess that’s better than indifference.
Former MiC Columnist Easheta Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.