I wrote the piece below nine months ago. Since then, a lot has happened that I couldn't have expected. I fell in love, I lived on my own, I found the evidence I was searching for. In spite of this, there is some strange comfort into delving into old emotions. It reminds you of how deep you've grown, of how much you have left to learn.
Several nights ago, I went to see a performance by Compagnie Marie Chouinard with my student discount, having vowed to squeeze in as many cultural events as I could in my last semester of college. In the first couple minutes of “Gymnopédies,” the dancers emerged from their cocoons of heaped sheets before walking, hand in hand and bare naked, through the curtain onstage. It was beautiful and simple in the way that the first pulse of violet crocus is in the spring. Throughout the first act, the dancers intimated sex in all its erotic and sensual and silly dimensions. Grunts, stumbles, curling toes, cupped palms, giggles. Watching the moves unfold, I wished I could experience that same passion for many partners. I want to feel in love with everyone. I want to sense my heart jolt at the thought of new connection.
Only I don’t. Navigating crowded parties, I hope for fire and find that the tinder’s damp. Most of my friends can rattle off the names of ten or so people that they would want to get with, have already compiled their sexual to-do lists for the spring of senior year (sleep with a girl, sex on the quad, the Perfect Week, that is, hooking up with seven different guys seven nights in a row). As drawn as I am to different people, I rarely feel a magnetic sexual pull. What does it mean to desire? I’ve known that sensation before, but what I most crave from relationships is compassion and forgiveness and vulnerability. Sharing this experience with someone else has largely been elusive.
Last spring, long before I bought a denim jacket of my own, I’d wear my friend Lily’s faded coat most everyday. It felt like mine because she didn’t sleep in our shared dorm room anymore and I woke up alone, light soft on my skin, feeling the absences left by a fully made bed and stocked closet and book shelf littered with books of poetry I didn’t know by heart. Sifting through the pockets of her jacket once, I found a love letter to Lily. Her boyfriend must’ve put it there, hoping she’d discover it during the day. I knew that it wasn’t mine to read, and I read it anyway. Later, I confessed everything, and she didn’t mind much. I hungered for evidence of the kind of love that wasn’t like any love I had known. The few guys that I’d dated since freshman year hadn’t been affectionate and empathetic. That letter was the part of me that believed in the power of the beautiful and the simple. I imagined what it might feel like to be with someone who would slip a note into the pocket of your coat just because the thought of you smiling made him smile.
Later that night, still tingling from the performance, I went out with Lily to a house party. Lily and I love to dance big, to bring more energy into the space than anyone else. Uncomfortably hot from the cramped dance floor, we took a brief hiatus in the corner of the living room. I watched the exchanges of energy between couples: the tall boy swaying with his arms around the shoulders of a thin guy, freshmen sloppily and sweetly making out in the middle of the crowd, the red-haired girl gently massaging her partner’s arm. These gestures of affection filled me up. I used to wait in bed next to my ex, wishing that Chris might touch me first that morning, might kiss me absentmindedly on top of my head as I’d seen couples do. In the absence of loving actions, I devoted myself to giving back to friends what I wasn’t getting in my romantic relationships, happy to know that in this way, at least, love was circulating. That sort of displacement was, and still is, the sweetest remedy.
As we settled into a couch, Lily pointed to guys that she thought were hot. “He’s cute. Should I go for it?” More and more, these conversations with her leave me lonely. Am I all wrong? Searching the room for someone I thought I’d like to go home with, I turned up empty. I saw friends I wanted to talk to and familiar faces from class and nobody that I’d want to wake up next to.
Maybe this was why watching that dance I’d seen earlier in the night had wrecked me. It was evidence of the kind of love that wasn’t like any love I had known. Halfway through the first act, two dancers peeled off from the stage and tripped up the theater steps, tumbling into the laps of several audience members, heedless and consumed as they were by kissing. I wasn’t immune to the vision that college was a petri dish for passionate, flirty, fun love like this. I knew that the reality in college—in life, really---was very different: that sometimes we’re saturated by lust and other times not, that sometimes we hurt and other times feel happy, that there’s no one way of being or seeing or relating in this world. Most of the time, I’d rise alone in my double bed and feel gratitude that this delicious morning was mine. On rough days, I’d wonder if I was too alone, too far split from my unfounded notion about what college was supposed to be (sex) and I’d wish for someone to share a grilled cheese sandwich with in bed during windy winter afternoons when you wanted only to read some, kiss some. When I felt that wishing—the one that had been gnawing at me the last couple weeks of school—I’d remind myself that sleeping next to someone who doesn’t love me is its own kind of loneliness too. We seldom value familial and platonic relationships as much as we do romantic ones, and that’s the real root of loneliness.
I thought of this as Lily and I made our way back to the dance floor. I put myself in the way of crosscurrents of love and felt buoyed. Being in my own body was enough. Later in the night, I lost track of Lily. The friends I’d come with had dissipated into the crowd, sipping beer from the same cup with a guy I’d heard mentioned before, gathering their coats as a gorgeous someone waited by the door.
I went home alone, and ashamedly scrolled through old texts and Facebook messages from exes, searching for evidence. Mostly it made me feel worse. I remembered why I’d broken up with Brett last fall after we met cute when the Senator he worked for was giving a talk at Wesleyan. I stared down at my naked body in my double bed and wondered if I was wasting my youth because I had no one, save for myself, to appreciate my knee caps, to fall in love with the curve of my hip the way I used to fall in love with Chris’ back as he soundly slept. I remembered, as I often did when I craved a certain kind of touch, walking through Buenos Aires with Noah where he was studying abroad, the crisp air coursing through the spaces in between his heavy coat and mine. He had reached back to hold my hand in a way no one had held my hand since. I cried—tired from the same canon of love stories, nothing new, guilty that this was what consumed me--and woke up feeling better.
I had a lot in me that wanted out. The weekend before, Lily and I channeled the spirit of past exes as we braided each other’s hair. The game made us laugh in the way that too much wine and perennial sleeplessness will do. When it was my turn to braid Lily’s hair, I was smooth and sweet and loving, as her past boyfriends had been. When it was her turn, however, she tugged at my split ends and ruffled my roots and made the sorts of knots that came out whole in the shower afterward. That night, I waited for tears and was frustrated when nothing came.
Crying now was beautiful and simple. Suppressing the inevitable ping of self-pity most of us feel at some point hadn’t been all that good. I was sad and the next morning I wasn’t. I arose knowing that the fundamental things still applied: I was lucky enough to be a part of so many networks of love, to have my own able self, to have my compassionate friends and generous family, to have the assurance of walks outside and dog-eared books and cups of tea to christen the new morning. And these were the things, that, most of the time, had the greatest weight in my life. These were the things that felt like watching an electrifying dance on a Saturday night when I’m 22 and on the cusp of graduation. These were the things that felt like a love letter, yet unfound, tucked into the pocket of my new denim jacket.