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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.