Q: Have you ever been in love? A: I don’t know

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.”


Salsa, self esteem, and feeling stupid

In 2016, I decided to pursue a life dedicated to being the fanfiction version of myself. Essentially, the most authentic, bravest, self-possessed version of Sydelle Leanne Barreto humanly possible. A large part of this involves doing things that make me want to stress vomit (in a good way). This has included: getting a tattoo, traveling for 10 days in Europe alone, making new friends, wearing things I thought I couldn’t “pull off”, ending toxic friendships, etc. So far, it’s worked out pretty great! 

My latest endeavor was unexpected. My roommate and I were supposed to grab dinner and then check out this art exhibit. It turned out after the exhibit she and another one of my roommates had designs on a salsa night at a bar downtown. 

I wouldn’t classify myself as a bad dancer, but the closest I had gotten to dancing salsa was moving my hips more vigorously than usual when Gasolina came on during a night out. Overall, I would give myself an A+ for enthusiasm and maybe a solid C for skill. 

But that first night of salsa was one of those experiences where you feel like there’s another dimension to being alive that no one told you about. My roommate kindly showed me the basics, but I was too afraid to dance with anyone. So I leaned against the wall, and watched. A live band provided the music, fronted by an elaborately made-up middle aged woman with brassy red hair. The room was packed and hot. The air was a curiously intimate aroma of sweat and jasmine – the smell of your friend looping her arm around you at the end of a night out. The women seemed to spin effortlessly, small tight circles, they stepped out of and back into the beat without missing a step. There were a handful of couples who had obviously arrived together, but for the most part it was strangers clasping hands anew with each song. The energy was palpable, rhythmic like a heart, with a keen edge of sensuality. It was the grown-up, more fluid version of what you felt dancing with your friends at the club. This feeling had steps, moves, turns and dips. It knew what it was doing.

Unlike me, who even now, with several salsa nights and a couple of classes tucked underneath my belt, still have to count in my head and concentrate so I don’t lose the beat. My initial response was to feel frustrated, uncomfortable with my incompetency (I’m a Libra rising so being clueless is really not a cute look for me). And then there is the second feeling, the more important one in my opinion. It’s learning for learning’s sake. Not to further my career or get a good grade or improve my day to day life. It’s to learn something new, move my body in an unfamiliar way. Let myself fail. Laugh at myself. There’s the childlike wonder of doing something new for the first time, of feeling like a stranger in the land of people-who-can-do-this-thing-well. 

The other challenge of salsa is that failing at it doesn’t happen alone. It happens with a partner. And if you’re a woman, it most likely happens with a partner who is leading you. Being the person that I am, it is very, very difficult for me to let a man tell me what to do with my body. Especially since he is leading me through physical cues – he steps forward, I step back – rather than instructions. I can follow instructions from a man. I’ve made several of Bon Appetit’s Andy Baraghani’s recipes. But there’s something about being maneuvered on a dance floor that makes my limbs lock up. There’s definitely 1000 ways to read into this, but I’ll give that distinct pleasure to my therapist. Simply put – it’s a trust exercise I’m not doing so well in. 

Salsa is more than a way out of my comfort zone, it’s a way into trust. Trusting a stranger to guide me, trusting them to know better than me, trusting them not to step on my feet. There’s an art to it – not thinking about their next move or trying to subtly subvert their “lead privilege”, but rather taking your brain out of the equation and letting yourself be led, by the music, by a stranger. At least for the next few songs. 

My salsa class is for absolute beginners and takes place on Monday evenings. My salsa teacher is a diminutive and flamboyant Latinx man who pronounces club like “cloob”. His name is Mario and I love him. Most of the students are still in what they wore to the office today, and there’s an unusual amount of Indian people in the class. Actually, there’s an unusual amount of Indian people even when I go out salsa dancing. Is there some secret community of desis who love salsa I just didn’t know about? 

Anyways, this is not the first dance class I’ve ever taken. In elementary school I tried out ballet, and then after a year, switched to jazz. 

Memories of those dance classes are crystal clear. From the lollipops in the dance clothing store to the feel of the opaque white ballet tights to the series of flamboyant male jazz teachers who never stayed more than a few months before moving to NYC and pursuing their dreams of being a Broadway extra.

The other thing I remember well? How much I hated it.

I remember one day my mom had to rush me to jazz class. I didn’t have time for a snack so she had given me one of those Chewy granola bars, which I sat happily munching on in the changing room before class. One of the other girls came up to me, a scrawny red-head, her thick hair in a perfectly coiffed bun. “Do you even know how many calories are in that?” she asked. Me, being a normal seven year old, did not know what calories even were, let alone how many of them were in my food.

All of the girls in my jazz class also did ballet, and they all looked like they did ballet. They were slim and graceful and elegant. I was chubby and clumsy and not really all that well coordinated. They usually paired up with each other, and I was left to buddy up with our resident horse girl or the one boy in the class, the latter of whom everyone feared and loved in equal amounts.

Part of warm ups would involve floor stretches, and I would notice how concave their stomachs got when we laid down. Mine was just flat. I would watch myself in the full length mirrors that are a fixture in any dance studio and hate the way that the body I felt so intensely uncomfortable in moved. I would spend the class fixating on the way I looked compared to my leotard-ed classmates, instead of learning the steps or simply enjoying myself.

And again 10 years later, I’m in a dance studio, worrying about how my body looks, thinking maybe I should skip next week’s class just to avoid feeling big and ungainly and wrong. But unlike when I was 7, I have the vocabulary and wisdom to know where these feelings are coming from and to tell them that they’re wrong. 

Like a lot of things in life, all that matters is that you try your best and have fun. I wish I could tell 8 year old Sydelle that she won’t get that much better at dancing, but whether it’s a grimy college bar or a salsa night or her bedroom on a Tuesday night, she will be having so much fun she forgets to worry about how she looks. 

Or how many calories are in that granola bar. 


Dating Feels like Speaking Spanish

I was pretty good at Spanish at school. I took AP Spanish my senior year of high school and got a 5 on the exam. When I traveled to Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, and Spain I used my skills with a decent amount of success.

But after 4 years of college where the only time I spoke Spanish was with a stranger at a bar in Belgium who mistook me for being Hispanic, my Spanish is….rusty.

I know the knowledge is probably in there somewhere, but it’s tangled up with my knowledge of Italian (roughly 1200 words, according to Duolingo) and Hindi (I know it’s not related, but foreign languages just get lumped together in my brain). There might even be some Dutch and French in there. The Duolingo Owl is probably going to murder me in my sleep one day.

That’s all to say – Spanish feels like a complicated yet familiar stranger. Someone who is difficult to know again, that feels just out of reach, because you’ve forgotten all of the rules. None of your friends speak the language either. And you’re perfectly happy in this ignorance. There are lots of other languages to learn, not to mention non-linguistic pursuits.

The analogy may have gotten away from me a little bit, but you get the gist. Dating is something complicated, confusing, time and money consuming. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older, or more mature, or just have higher standards, but this all used to make sense to me. I was bad at it, for sure, but I understood the technique. Not to sound like a curmudgeonly millennial or *gasp*, a Baby Boomer but everything! is! so! complicated!

I don’t have anything against telling my parents about my (pretty non-existent very uneventful) love life but I don’t how to explain the basic framework of dating as a 20-something in a city in 2019. There’s dating apps and swiping a specific name for all of the emotionally irresponsible things people can do to you! Such as ghosting, breadcrumbing, benching, etc. There are dating coaches now because dating has somehow evolved to be an extreme sport. Seriously, there are people on the internet who will tell you how to act or what to do to attract and keep the type of person you want in your life. Just like success, love is a commodity, and we’re all in a rat race to get there.

I’m not a cynic by any means. I love love but I have realistic expectations about the world and other people. Especially as I am, tragically, a woman that dates men (amirite, ladies?). But I wonder at its cost.

There’s a scene in Sex and City where Charlotte is complaining about singledom. Exasperated, she says, “I’ve been dating since I was fifteen. I’m exhausted. Where is he?.” I have not been dating since I was 15 but I feel you Charlotte. The world we live in today is very different from the world of Sex and the City. While nuclear families are still the standard in many places, monogamy and even coupling up is general is becoming less and less necessary to live a happy and full life. And because I studied economics, a made up pseudo-science, if a romantic relationship isn’t necessary for a full life, what’s the opportunity cost of pursing this unnecessary, “nice to have” thing? Not to mention that the path to finding it is riddled with traumatic experiences, terrible people, possible abuse, broken hearts, etc.

What do we miss out on when we’re looking for love?

I always think of the books I could have read, the extra sleep I could have had, the money saved on pints of Ben and Jerry’s and wine. This is not to shame people in pursuit of that elusive person, but I really can’t help but wonder if personally, some of that energy should have been directed elsewhere.

Maybe my Spanish would have been better.