When Love Is A Matter Of Desperation

AAPI Heritage Month / Autostraddle

Welcome to Autostraddle’s AAPI Heritage Month Series, about taking up space as our queer and Asian/Pacific Islander selves.

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Sometimes it feels like there’s a fissure running straight through my life, dividing it into a before and an after. Before we dated; after we broke up. Before I challenged the assumptions I had been making about myself; after I laid the truth bare. Before, when I didn’t think that love could exist for me; after, when I still don’t believe it — the same on both sides and yet so completely different.

In between is the time we were together. What do I even call it? — more than a few months, less than a year. It feels so distant now, like vague memories of a faraway land I visited once. I had been searching for love my whole life, but now I can’t even find my way back to it.

Instead, I’m watching from the peripheries, again. Watching as the people around me build their lives, deepen their own relationships and still, somehow, manage to leave a little space for me. But it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

There’s a hole inside me — it’s been there from the start — that will never be filled. I know this. And yet the only thing I’ve ever wanted is to close it before that emptiness fully consumes me.

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I was raised with no understanding of love, which is to say, I was raised with a hunger that only grew as each year passed by.

I have one memory — exactly one memory — of my mother kissing me on the cheek. A surprising brush of her lips on my skin before the door opened onto a starlit sky, and she rushed off after my father to a work social event. When she returned some hours later, she asked me about the dull red stain on my face, and then, remembering her sudden, uncharacteristic token of affection, she rubbed at it and remarked, “It’s lipstick.” I must have been eight or nine at the time and didn’t know what to make of the whole thing.

My sister was devastated when I told her. I knew our mother only ever had harshness for her: she had never gotten a caress, in fact the opposite. My sister recounted the time she had kissed our mother on the cheek years earlier, a mere child herself, imitating the loving gestures of her classmates after a school presentation for parents. Our mother jerked her face away and said, sharply, a word in Hindi that holds a multitude of meanings: dirty, contaminated, impure.

She never did it again, my sister. Our mother never did, either. Love was like a shame in my family, and I carried that message for years to come.

When we were much older, my sister observed that I have always been our mother’s favorite child. I hadn’t realized it because the small fragments of anything remotely resembling fondness that our mother doled out came at the steep price of obedience, so the daughter she favored was a child I wasn’t.

But favor is relative, after all, and something, no matter how small, isn’t nothing, and that something was just enough to make me crave more.

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Do you remember — when we were together, you came and wrapped your arms around me from behind?

I didn’t expect it. I had just finished cooking us a meal I had never made before. The sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window in my apartment, I found myself taken back two decades and more. A staple growing up, my mother only cooked kidney beans on the weekends because, even in a pressure cooker, they take so long to soften.

“It makes me really happy when you share things from your childhood,” you said. And I, also, softened.

I revealed it bit by bit, that childhood, as I found myself feeling safer and safer in the intimacy we had. The childhood I had buried deep inside myself, first, in an attempt to assimilate to the white world around me and, later, in an attempt to escape that painful past. The childhood I had stamped down so thoroughly, all I’m left with is the feelings and a smattering of memories that hardly begin to capture the actual experience.

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In middle school, I made myself obsessed with the only boy on the bus who spoke to me without ridicule. Having so little for so long, I had learned to wring the least bit of affection out of the smallest measure of attention. His friends picked on me mercilessly, but he never explicitly took part in their cruelty; he even talked to me on occasion. That had to mean something, and something could mean anything, and anything included the possibility that someone could give me what I never got if I just clung to them a little harder. Desperation gave rise to obsession which I read as attraction, as I buried my actual feelings ever deeper. The possibility never came to fruition, but how many times I repeated that pattern in the years to come.

In college, an older student who I generally liked showed real interest in me, and, in retrospect, I was laughably oblivious. Inviting me to sit close, to share a seat. “Walking me home” across the parking lot of the apartment complex. Video calling me shirtless. My utter indifference to it all was a tell I couldn’t possibly recognize. Because I was a woman, which meant I had to set my hopes on a man. Because at that point I only knew four queer women, and they were all white, and they were much older and oh so certain in their love. And so, I told myself, I was unmoved because he already had a girlfriend and surely he was just playing around.

Unable to imagine anything else for my life, I resigned myself to the heterosexual world I knew I had no real place in.

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Do you remember — when we were together, that time you brought me camping with your friends? I was quiet and shy and tense the whole time, but I found myself growing more and more at ease by the strength of your attraction, the sincerity of your care for me.

In the early morning, listening to the rain pattering overtop the two of us in your tent, the comforting weight of your body overtop mine, I said, “I’ve never felt so at peace in my life.”

“Then, we can’t let you leave,” you replied, your voice full of smiles I didn’t have to look to see.

I didn’t say it, but the more time we spent together, the more I felt that maybe, just maybe, I could have a home in this world after all, one where I truly belonged. Not the pleasant residences of my sisters or my friends, where I would visit and we would laugh and I might rest and — invariably — I would leave. But a place I could stay, brimming with companionship and love.

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As I followed the motions of a heterosexuality I couldn’t make sense of, I fell in love with the wrong people, without even realizing it. Some of my closest friends, and all I understood at the time was that I simply needed to know these women better, I needed to be in their lives and to have them in mine.

What is the line between friendship and love? Was it love that drew me closer and closer to D. over the course of seventh and eighth grade, that led me to call her week after week, even when we went to different high schools? Or the earliest sparks of love — attraction — when A. asked me “my type” during a break in high school gym class, and I told her that I didn’t have a type but sometimes I thought people were pretty, like, for instance, her? Or how about the time in college when M. invited me to stay over her place and I told her that I think everyone’s at least a little bi and she asked me why was I bringing this up now and I told her no reason and never, ever mentioned it again?

It was years after the fact that I realized it was love that led me to constantly seek out the comfort of J.’s companionship, one of my dearest friends who I met shortly after graduating college. I’ll never forget that lazy Saturday afternoon in September — the burning heat of summer past, the coolness of fall not quite set in, lying on my couch, listening to Tchaikovsky’s final tribute to despair, the Pathetique Symphony — when the pieces finally fell into place. Lying, listening, reflecting on a recent visit from J., I was consumed by nostalgia for the closeness we had and the heartbreak from when we had moved apart some years before, a heartbreak I had never acknowledged. “Ah,” I had thought, “I wish we could be together forever.” And I heard myself, really heard myself, for the first time.

“Ah,” I had thought, “I wish we could be together forever.” And I heard myself, really heard myself, for the first time.

What is the line between friendship and love? Truly, I can’t say, but I know there is one. Because one by one, my friends and I, all of us, prioritized other parts of our lives over the friendships we cherished. And every time, I felt a little something crack inside, and every time, I wondered if I was the only one who felt that way, and every time, I thought that perhaps I was too soft, and so every time, I steeled my heart a little more for the end that was inevitable.

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Do you remember — when we were together, that time you lay next to me on my bed, and I said that, in that moment, gender was utterly meaningless?

You felt ambivalent about that statement, and I understood why. I hadn’t expressed myself clearly at all. Much later, I realized what I had wanted to say was that, with you beside me, I finally found myself. My relationship to gender, in terms of sexuality and identity — there was nothing left to hesitate about, no more questions to leave open, no uncertainty I could hide behind.

It’s hard, when you’ve kept your feelings locked away from yourself for so long, to not let moments like those and the relationships attached to them define you. It’s hard, even though you know you can’t, you know you shouldn’t. It’s hard because when those moments pass, when those relationships end, you’re left to find yourself anew among the shattered pieces of your heart.

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I had thought that we were close friends, but she told me, for her it was more, and so, I couldn’t avoid facing myself any longer. And I thought, here at my doorstep is what I’ve been yearning for, for so long. So I took that leap, knowing nothing could ever be the same again.

I tried to live in those moments, without worrying what it might mean for the future. But you can’t love with half a heart. The longer we were together, the harder it became not to invest in the idea of “us,” quietly starting to trust that perhaps I, too, could have what had always been just beyond my reach.

But in the end, a love born out of friendship followed the same path as all my loves born out of friendship, as she, also, prioritized other parts of her future and did not see fit to build me in it. We were just travelers in each other’s lives, but I didn’t know until it was too late.

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I used to say that the pursuit of happiness made me miserable. That perhaps I had no claims to happiness in my life, and so I should just stop chasing it, wishing for it, believing in it. But when we were together, I had finally found an emotion within me I could recognize in that word.

When we were together, I no longer felt trapped in the emptiness of my past. I saw a future open up before me, one I actually had a place in, where my deepest desire might finally be fulfilled.

When we were together, hope landed in my heart like a nightingale, freed from its cage made of less and less and less.

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I read a story about a nightingale once.

It died because it gave too much of itself.

It died because the humans around it were selfish and uncaring creatures, as all humans are.

It died because it was a fool who believed in the lie called love.

It died.

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I don’t know what happened to my little nightingale. I wish it a beautiful, dark woodland to fly in freedom, far, far away from the cynical utility of human life.

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Heartbreak is, perhaps, a more universal experience than love itself. But I can’t seem to make my way to hope afterwards. People talk about being strong enough to bear it. But what about when your heart was broken at the very beginning?

When you grow up with so little, you grasp at anything you manage to get your hands on and hold it tight, try to make it last for as long as you can, for a dream of ever after. But that’s no way to love, and that’s no way to live. I know that much, even if I don’t know any other way.

I spent a year trying to make sense of the world again, and then the second year everyone’s lives shrank because it’s just safer to be alone. Each day that goes by, I’m bound tighter and tighter by my fears: break something enough times and you’ll never be able to piece it back together again, will you? So, I gingerly hide the shards I’m left holding, afraid to show them, afraid to share them, all the while desperate for love, starved for touch, staring down a future that looks as devoid of both as the past.

Some days I can’t imagine anything beyond the solitude that has defined so much of my life. Loneliness is an old bedfellow of mine; despair, my oldest friend. If I can come to embrace those parts of myself I’ve always tried to push away — perhaps, that is the only lifelong love I can count on.


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Himani has written 28 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. himani, this is such an expansive and generous piece of writing, and i know i’ll reread it several more times to really appreciate how much you’ve been able to express about your blueprints of intimacy and also about human connection in general and the layers of experience that bring us together and pull us apart – thank you for sharing it with us!

  2. Lee

    Oof. This is heart-wrenching and beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with us <3

  3. I identify with so much of this piece – the lifelong loneliness, the friend who became more and then left, even the timelines of our heartbreaks line up. Thanks for sharing this, Himani. I hope some measure of relief/happiness finds you soon.

  4. Joy Giannakidis

    Beautiful piece Himani! You tapped into something here that I’ve echoed in my own past, but couldn’t really pinpoint until now. The desperation of loneliness I’ve carried with me. Thank you for this.

  5. Himani, I relate to so much of what you describe. The desire for a specific type of connection and intimacy runs so deep, I can only pinpoint fleeting moments of relief. I had thought I became so accustomed to loneliness that I did not have to fear it as a long-term companion. It is actually exhausting. At the very least, reading of your experience made me feel just a bit less lonely. Thank you for your strength in sharing this with us.

  6. Al

    This is very beautiful & relatable in many ways. Thank you.

  7. Nabil

    Ah, sweetness. I see you.

    This reminds me of watching my sleeping cousin as a kid, thinking that for her this love was practice for growing up and marrying a man, while for me it was the center of my life.

    It’s so easy to feel on the outside, peering in at life.

    May you be happy, may you be loved, may you be from suffering.

  8. We were just travelers in each other’s lives

    This is such a beautiful way of expressing this feeling. Thank you.

  9. MiN

    ☆That had to mean something, and something could mean anything, and anything included the possibility that someone could give me what I never got if I just clung to them a little harder. Desperation gave rise to obsession which I read as attraction, as I buried my actual feelings ever deeper. The possibility never came to fruition, but how many times I repeated that pattern in the years to come.☆

    I am a codependent. I see this feelings. But I don’t know what is my actual feelings.
    Thank you for your true stories.

  10. Lex

    What an incredible piece, that I’m sure to revisit in the future as I’m certain I haven’t fully appreciated all its wisdom in my first reading.

  11. Allison S

    This is beautiful, and I totally related to a lot of what was said here. Thanks so much for sharing this with us

  12. This was so incredible, Himani. Thank you for sharing.

    You’ve set a high bar for the AAPI Heritage Month Series; I can’t wait to see what’s next.

  13. everything is very, well, alot right now so i have to read things in small bits. but i got to the line where you say, “But favor is relative, after all, and something, no matter how small, isn’t nothing…” and i needed to tell you that i am so sorry for your pain but this thought will help me for a long time to come. i don’t imagine that helps you exactly, but maybe it’s at least nice to know you are appreciated. thank you, himani.

  14. B

    This makes me admire you so much as a writer and ache for what you’ve gone through at the same time. Sending much love your way — even if it is the semi-anonymous internet sort.

  15. Himani,that was beautiful.

    loneliness is a recurring theme for me too. On the experience of not receiving the kind of love and affection parents normally give you as a child, i hear you.

    What lots of the people subsequently do is putting lots of expectations and demands for love on a love relationship later even when one is not conscious about it,and you said, no,i wasnt,believe its always there under the surface,the need and hunger for love.

    those holes need to be filled and a loving partner is just one person never enough to fill these deep holes. These site give good advise

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201401/unloved-daughters-7-strategies-dealing-the-wounds?amp

    Or https://www.verywellmind.com/emotional-needs-not-filled-marriage-partner-2303305

    You could benefit from counseling,didnt have to be a time consuming analyst, even sone benefit from more time to build trust,there are two other known ways of talking treatment that only requires an appointmentonce a week. It really helps, also with other stuff.
    Some trauma is treated with emdr which some people find more effective than the pure talking., but you need to build at least some trust with the psychologist first.

    An aquaintance of mine from india who knows that i did go to a psychologist said, a lot of people from india still see this as a ” White ” Thing to do.
    My question/ guess has this prob had more to do with the fact that her parents were lower middle class, this attitude night be different in the upperclass? I dunno.

    If you cannot afford a psychologist, causw you live in a country that has to pay for all of health stuff yourself, i give you the tip of looking for selfhelpgroups. Or some social-mental help centers or neighbourhood centers with psychologists or at least social workers who offer time limited support.

    All the best and luck to you and even if you dont believe it know , it wont be the only love RL you will encounter in your life even if it now feels so.

  16. Mads

    Thank you so very much for writing this. I was mindlessly staring at Instagram at 1am, swallowing my depression and loneliness. I happened to find your piece and now suddenly I’m feeling less alone and maybe even hopeful.
    I hope that maybe the magic that brought me to this article will also bring us South Asian queers to what we are looking for someday.

  17. SpeckOfDust

    Hi Himani – Thank you for your bravery in sharing this with us. I can relate to a similar-ish but different relationship with my mother as a child, and you’ve clearly done the work to understand the impact on you and what is has led to in terms of your friendships and relationships. I know it sounds like a cliche, but please don’t forget that you ARE worthy of love, and human kindness, and physical touch if that is what you are looking for…I and I’m sure so many others can relate to that feeling of emptiness, a deep void which feels as if it cannot be filled. It’s a slow process, when we have been conditioned as very young children to believe that we are unloveable by the adults in our lives. I am sending you so much capital-E Energy and good vibes through the Interweb – that through you sharing this incredible piece with us, you yourself can feel the beams back from all of us who have been there too, in the dark and sleepless nights feeling completely alone…I hope to send one flashlight signal back to you that finds you when and where you need it. You have a light that shines, that is unique to you -and you will take up that space within yourself. Big big virtual hugs.

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