I sit on a plush beige couch as Walesca rustles through a bag of hair products. She sits behind me and weaves her fingers through my hair, separating flirty Black curls. Halfway through braiding blue box braids that stretch down my back, my scalp calls out for a break. Walesca starts heating a kettle of water and turns to ask, “Do you mind if a friend drops by to hang out?” I shrug, barely looking up from my endless scrolling and nod. “No problem, not like we’re going anywhere for a while.” A half hour later, Mickey walks through the door, and I can’t stop gawking. I am instantly in love with the way their tattoos kiss their left arm and tell you a secret, the small lisp that makes whatever they say sound endearing, the constellation of freckles that dance down their right cheek. We watch The Circle on Netflix as I steal small glimpses of them in my periphery. I drink in their aura and hold it close, hoping it won’t be the last time I can indulge.
Do you remember the first time you met a great love? In movies and TV shows, there’s always a dramatic meet-cute that sets the scene for the first encounter. Real life isn’t quite so scripted, but the first time I met Mickey, there was an undeniable electricity in the air around us — there was a force greater than us at work, watching us with glee.
The night of our first date, I change my outfit at least three times, only to return to the original option and leave my room looking like the Tazmanian devil made a guest appearance. I swipe on my favorite warm matte coco Fenty lipstick for a boost of confidence and down a shot of Casamigos for some courage. I stare at my reflection, carefully adorned with gold rings and my trusty Dr. Martens. I run my fingers through my blue braids one more time before I jut out the door and squeeze into my Uber. At least Mickey will get to see my braids in full action, rather than the work in progress they initially witnessed, I think to myself as the car wiggles its way down Atlantic Avenue. My fingers are anxious, itchy, searching for something. As a pleasure-seeking Taurus, first dates are a common ritual. But this one feels different.
There’s a certain shade of surrealism that marks the weeks leading up to the arrival of COVID-19 and the beginning of state-mandated quarantine. A nostalgic haze that hangs in my memory, reminding me of what was. Mickey and I reveled in the streets of Brooklyn, making out in crowded bars and cuddling to hide from the chill in February. As the honeymoon days of a budding love extended into weeks, I started to feel scared — scared of what this could turn into, a real love that would require me to show up, vulnerable and open. But the familiar lure of learned toxicity was just too convenient.
I started dating other people who were clearly more interested in lust than love. I ignored some of Mickey’s messages. I tried to poke holes and emphasize the things I didn’t like about Mickey. Years of a previous narcissistic relationship convinced me that being vulnerable left me open to manipulation and deceit. The person I gave my love to abused that gift, neglected it and allowed it to wilt. I mean, let’s face it: the American idea and application of love is faulty, spoiled rotten, twisted in the nightmares of capitalism and patriarchy. This is only amplified when it comes to narratives of queer Black love, for which representations are scarce and tragic. The Black queer community of Brooklyn is a prime place where this dichotomy reared its head — a space that has so much love to offer and simultaneously is limited by attachments to toxic masculinity, femme superiority and sexual domination. I believed that love wasn’t enough. Well, mostly believed.
I nuzzle in closer to the sweet spot between Mickey’s right arm and their chest. They smell of frankincense and shea butter, a scent I would return to as a reminder in the coming months. “I can’t believe you’re leaving,” I whisper in the groggy early morning hours leading up to their flight. They hug me closer, kissing the top of my forehead, “I’ll miss you, yene konjo, but I’ll be back before you know it,” they reassure me. I was not assured. It was the first week of the pandemic, and uncertainty was the name of the game.
And so the FaceTime dates began. We shared old family stories, nerded out on political theory and whispered sweet nothings. We talked and talked for hours on end, only interrupted by the necessity of sleep, yearning to be close to one another again. I couldn’t help but feel scared. Did I take for granted the time we spent together? Did I miss out on the opportunity for something real? It felt like the Universe was testing me to see if I was capable of change. Without the constant buzz of fuckbois, alcohol abuse and FOMO clouding my vision, it became painfully obvious how much genuine care I held for Mickey and the ways that they had been consistent in showing the same. It was time to get my shit together.
I lay on my back staring at the chipping paint flecks on my ceiling. I reach for my phone, and it blinks open to my bright home screen that reads 1:24 PM. A long sigh escapes my throat and I groan internally — there’s still so much time left in the day. I turn to my stomach and reach for my unopened copy of The Ethical Slut tucked in the bottom drawer of my nightstand. A few hours in and the book balances steady between my hands as I devour one chapter after the next. My right palm is smudged by the inked annotations scrawled along the margins. A zeal overtakes me as my brain begins to fire off ways I can incorporate healthy boundaries and agreements in my young relationship with Mickey. As if they heard me, my phone pings with an incoming text from them, flashing 4:44 PM on the screen. I chuckle to myself and eagerly begin texting them my reactions to the book. They meet my curiosity with encouragement and fodder that keeps us debating the ethics of non-monogamy till dusk. I feel nourished by this information, by the meaty frameworks that allow me to imagine a relationship born outside of the patriarchal holds of monogamy and its repercussions. A relationship co-created in Black queer liberation where love is a practice of self-care and community-care, where love is abundant and freely given without expectation.
They say that everywhere you go, there you are — no truer words have been spoken throughout the course of the pandemic. Long stretches of uninterrupted time facilitated room to hear my own thoughts, parse through them and differentiate what is coming from me and what is coming from my pesky ego. Even the ever-bustling streets of New York City quieted themselves and left an expanse of silence in the absence of movement. This silence was healing, urgent, necessary. It offered me the clarity to address what hides behind my fear of intimacy. It provided room to admit that my beliefs of unworthiness stem from a complex history of emotional trauma. It gave me the space to offer compassion to my inner child, to forgive myself for not offering love to myself when I needed it most. And ultimately, it gave me permission to give that love to myself now and it gave me courage to allow others to love me as well. Falling in love with Mickey during the pandemic taught me that love is always going to be uncertain, because life is. Achieving certainty is not the point (it’s actually a losing bet). Establishing a loving trust with yourself is what will carry you through change.
I tie a pink scarf around my hair and apply my nighttime face cream. Mickey takes off their shirt, and I poke at the small dimples on their lower back. They squirm, giggling under my fingers before diving into bed. A year later and that sound still makes my heart sing. I crawl in and lean in close to kiss them goodnight. My lips hovering for a moment, we look at each other with a deep knowing that is familiar, sacred, ancient. I start crying, realizing that somewhere along the way, I let go of my fear to love. I chose — and continue to choose — to show up for love and all its uncertainty. We stare at each other, teary, unflinching, wide open.
Today, I understand that if someone lies to me or deceives me, it is not a reflection of my actions. More often than not, all it really means is that they have some real shit to work through. The only way I can receive honest and nourishing love is to offer it in return. In hindsight, my nerves before my first date with Mickey were telling me to slow down and trust my gut, to not only trust the love drunk stupor of our meet-cute, but to trust a person who consistently shows up, who can communicate with honesty and whose words match their actions.
So it turns out that love isn’t enough — not on its own. It calls on us to be brave, to look within the crevices of our hearts that whisper, “You are worthy of a healthy love.” Our ideals and values of love are learned from the ways we were loved or not loved and from the images and messages we receive about love from our environment and culture. To give a love that is healthy asks us to love ourselves first, to pour from a place of abundance. To live out a love that is healthy, queer and non-monogamous has been a source of deep personal transformation. What it has given me is timeless.
I dash into the bodega to pick up some tampons and run into Walesca standing in line. We greet each other and exchange small talk when she lovingly comments on an Instagram photo of Mickey and me. She jokingly adds that she wants to be invited to the wedding. I blush and nod with a huge grin, “Don’t worry, we are saving a special seat for you!”