Love: A Study in Four Parts
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
What is love? In 1993 the electronic pop artist and one-hit wonder Haddaway asked the world this question in his insanely popular song that had everyone singing along. Today, in 2018, I ask myself the question again. What does it mean to love and be loved? Surely there is no singular definition of what love is, and there really are different varieties of love one can feel towards different people. I don’t love my mom in the same way I love Michael Fassbender. I mean, that would just be uncomfortable for everyone. No, there are probably a million different ways to love someone and be loved. So I really wanted to know some takes on love from a few of the women whom I love. I’ve changed their names for their own privacy, but the emotion is still very much real and very much their own. Just some small instances of what love feels like from the female perspective.
I can start with myself, because I do really love myself and have been in a committed relationship with myself for the past 21 years. My sister and I are best friends, but in the big picture of our life we have only been friends for maybe 6 years. When I was in 2nd grade and she was in 5th grade, we hated each other, but we had friends of the same age who were also sisters, so we ended up spending a lot of time together. There was one time we went over to our friends’ house for a sleepover. I had only been to maybe one or two sleepovers prior and hadn’t established a level of comfortability when spending the night at someone else’s house. That night, all four of us watched a movie and went to bed. As soon as the lights went out, I started softly crying to myself. I’m not sure why I had started, but crying for no reason was my brand throughout elementary school, so it seemed fitting. My sister, sleeping maybe ten feet away from me, looked up and said, “Maddie, if it makes you feel better you can come and sleep right next to me.” I wasn’t sure if Hell had frozen over, but I think my sister knew I just needed to be close to someone familiar in that moment. She never would have admitted it then, but I could tell she loved me and was concerned about my being comfortable. I can’t say she did the same for me at our next sleepover, but I was grateful for the love and generosity then.
I started seeing my first boyfriend last summer. And I use the term “boyfriend” very loosely. He really danced around the whole idea of having a label, and he was a little bit older than me, so I pretended I didn’t care. We had gone to high school together. Kind of. I guess that’s not completely true either. Well, when I was in 8th grade he was a senior in high school, but our school was K-12 so we were in the same building at times. Anyway, last summer we caught up with each other at a bar and then started dating pretty casually after that. I fell hard for him really quickly. He was really warm, and he always smelled like sweat and toothpaste. It doesn’t sound good now, but it became a familiar scent very quickly. After three months of dating I decided to tell him I loved him. I was really nervous because I had never had a boyfriend before, let alone told someone I loved him. So we were lying down one night and I just said “Um, so, I want you to know that, like, I love you.” Silence. And then he said “Wow, thank you.” You could’ve stuck a knife through my eye and it would have hurt less. When someone doesn’t love you back, or really feel the same way about you as you do about them, that’s probably the worst feeling. Like a sense of insecurity mixed with hopelessness. Two weeks later I went back to school. Sometimes we text, or I’ll send him a snapchat when I’m drunk. I still love him, and I hate myself for it.
The first time I asked my mom what sex was she responded with, “It feels really good.” She didn’t explain to me how anything worked, or, like, what the motions were. Ew, I’m cringing now thinking about my mom telling me sex feels good. Well, because she wasn’t really telling me what I wanted to hear, I went to my older cousin, Brigid, whom my brother had referred to as a “slut” once, so I thought she was probably the authority on sex. I asked her how it worked and she told me that it would “hurt like an absolute bitch, but you just had to practice a whole lot to get good at it.” I didn’t think Brigid was a slut, but I definitely knew she had had a lot of practice and was probably a sex goddess. What Brigid didn’t tell me was that sex was really intimidating and you honestly don’t know what to do the first time you are confronted with it. It’s not really glamorous. Like, I remember watching that scene in Dirty Dancing when Baby and Patrick Swayze have sex and the music is playing in the background and thought “Wow, Brigid does this every weekend.” But no. That’s really not what goes on nine times out of ten. The first time I had sex, it was in the back of a pickup truck on the beach. Tame Impala was playing in the background. It was really hot, and it didn’t feel good at all. I threw up afterwards. I do that a lot when I’m nervous. The guy asked me if I had the flu, and then he said “Wouldn’t be good if I got the flu right before track season.” I went home and told my mom what had happened. I cried and she brushed my hair after I showered. She told me she loved me and let me sleep in her bed that night.
I spent 365 days heartbroken.
When we first parted ways, all I was able to think about were my flaws. What had I done to push this person away? Where had I been too unforgiving, not compassionate enough? If I had only tried a little harder (tried to do what?!?!?), I wouldn’t be sitting in a pile of unanswered questions, making sense of them by finding faults within myself that didn’t exist. When I first started talking to a therapist, I realized how difficult it was to be honest about my past relationship because I had spent so much time making excuses for him. I spent many of our years together caring for and loving him, to the point that I had forgotten how to do the same for myself. I began to peel away the layers of the heartbreak and understand that the pain had less to do with him and more to do with my self-perception and how I allowed myself to be treated. I wondered what it would be like to try again, but with my close friends and family and myself.
So, my pursuit of the type of love I deserved began. I started focusing on building friendships with those who had invested so much in me. I made intricate meals for myself and took better care of myself by getting back into running and going to the gym more regularly. I spent more time by myself and found out that I’m actually a pretty funny person. When I was around people who made me feel important, I took notice of how I started to fill up the shell of who I once was.
Yeah, those 365 days were filled with tears - of sadness, joy, frustration, anger, and confusion as to how so many tears fit into what appeared to be very small tear ducts. They were filled with encouraging texts from my sister and best friend (two separate people, but their roles are interchangeable). They were filled with hours spent in the silence of my car - the only place that was safe, devoid of any reminders of what used to be and interactions where I had to be my normal self because I couldn’t bear for anyone to see how deeply I was hurting. That year was comprised with the smallest steps forward that eventually led me to a completely different place from where I stood the year prior. But day 366 was a game changer. It took a full year to comprehend the type of love of which I’m capable and the quality of love that I know exists.
I mean this may be the understatement of the century, but love in any form is truly a complicated thing. Haddaway follows his question with “baby don’t hurt me.” And as cliché as it may be, love really does hurt sometimes. One day you're head over heels in love and the next you are completely heartbroken. Your relationship with your family can be absolutely amazing on a Tuesday and a complete pile of garbage on a Friday. What’s important to keep in mind, though, is to constantly surround yourself in love. Accept love from other people, but more importantly accept love from yourself. There truly is no limit on how much love one can give or receive, as love is a universal currency.