I realize that’s a strange answer. Love is black and white, you are either in it or you are not. But love, at least of the romantic kind, has never been given to me wholly, without reservation. Each time, there was a footnote, a caveat, an unfortunate use of “however.”
The first time – I felt devoured. Overcome and overwhelmed and sure down to my bones. But there was so many lies and I was so young. It took me a year to wade through the detritus of that “I love you” drunkenly bestowed from a thousand miles away. I never said it back but I felt it in my blood. It was the wrong time. It was over. I would never see him again. I hoped until I realized he didn’t.
The second time – I fought against it. I set boundaries and limits and rules, all the while being tugged irrevocably towards the ocean floor. Like a bird going south for the winter, I waited until the air had a bite. It was a false lure, the perfect bait for a wounded disbeliever, a cynical romantic who always wanted to be proven wrong. I surrendered and realized you had already won, gone home, and celebrated not victory but everything else. I was alone on the battlefield, maybe I always had been. I let myself say it back and it was a hot, bright moment, the kind that is later hazed by pain and not letting yourself part of remembering. I let myself say it back and you folded your words back into your mouth. I let mine stay, daggers thrown into a wall, red paint on a white bed, an exposed wound.
If this is love – then love is never being loved back fully. Never in a way that satisfies you, that will mean anything in 10 years. Never in a way you can tell your mother about and not feel like you’re lying. If this is love then love is always being hungry. It is talking about it in circles – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not trailing daisy petals into your dreams. It is shame at your trust. Bitterness at how much you gave them. Not looking back fondly. It is needing to go to therapy afterwards because you fell so far into yourself you need a hand to pull you out. You weep every night for a week just to feel desire again.
You never tell your friends completely how you feel. You never tell anyone, but you write about it for months afterwards until it feels less like a litany and more like a lesson. This is not a sad story. This is not the story of a girl wronged or a heart broken or a woman scorned or yet another disappointment.
Even if she ends up alone, this story will be a happy one. Not because she loves herself (she does) or because she is loved in a different way (she is), but because she will always know the truth. That love does not need to be returned to be true, that she will always deserve more but may not get it, that it is not the crux of her life, the rising action of her story, that she is more than what they didn’t give, that people are more than how they hurt you. That love is knowing and surrender, that she is whole enough to get there, and brave enough to try.
“Have you ever been in love?”
“I always am.”