One of the biggest challenges in nurturing real love is the portrayal of love that you are spoon-fed from the moment your sensory skills begin to develop. Cartoonists draw giant red hearts in place of eyes and bring baby cupids to life who shoot heart arrows into the backs of their victims. The news, celebrity gossip and your social media feed show you a love that is airbrushed. They show you a love that is staged, propped, photoshopped. The representations of love that you obsess over don’t match the actuality you’re living and you start to look around and think that maybe your love is broken.
“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” James Baldwin
You can smell your lover’s feet from your side of the L-shaped couch. It is a cocktail of sweaty gym socks and rancid cheese. You wrinkle your nose and trudge into the kitchen to fill a bucket with three parts hot water, one part baking soda and one part cool blue Listerine. Your lover lifts both feet into your hands and you place them in the fresh breath scented bucket. You exchange knowing smiles and return to your side of the couch.
There is no exchange of words, but this is what love looks like.
“Relationships are treated like Dixie cups. They are the same. They are disposable. If it does not work, drop it, throw it away, get another. Committed bonds (including marriage) cannot last when this is the prevailing logic. Most of us are unclear about what to do to protect and strengthen caring bonds when our self-centered needs are not being met.” – bell hooks
You and your lover get married and promise each other forever. The blissful promised forever lasts four years until he loses his job and himself in the process. You watch him sit on the L-shaped couch for a year trying to collect the pieces of a broken spirit as depression starts to spread in his brain like fatal cancer. But he never stops looking confident, strong, assured in every attempt to rebuild. You can’t see his pain because you’re too preoccupied with your own unmet needs and unquelled fears. He can’t see you slipping away and is completely unraveled when he finds out you are entertaining the idea of forever with someone else. There are sobbing episodes so severe both your bodies heave. You didn’t know he could break like this, did you love? You didn’t think he would care. You both decide to stay and put in the work to rebuild your relationship.
Hallmark ain’t never made a card for when love looks like this.
“Some say we are responsible for those we love. Others know we are responsible for those who love us.” – Nikki Giovanni
You are wiggling your first loose tooth between your tongue and the flesh of the inside of your mouth with jittery excitement. You are hoping for the new model Barbie, the one that comes with the hot pink Jeep Wrangler. You shred through the 99 cent wrapping paper and open your box only to discover beige slacks with a mint blue top stamped in white polka dots. The clothing is new and useful, but it is not fun or shiny. You should feel grateful. Instead, your upper lip trembles for a moment before you scream bloody murder. You are screaming your disappointments into the heavens. You are crying like someone killed your puppy. The snot is leaking from your nose as freely as the tears are falling from your eyes. You do not realize your parents have worked double shifts and fasted through lunches to keep the lights on, pay the rent, keep food on the table and buy you these clothes for your lengthening limbs.
One day you will understand this is what love looks like.
“There is nothing in nature like it. Not in robins or bison or in the banging tails of your hunting dogs and not in blossoms or suckling foal. Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God.” – Toni Morrison
You are running on the bare minimum of sleep in terms of what a human needs to survive. Every time you try to close your eyes, you are jolted awake by shrieks reminiscent of the screeching, sparking brakes activated by an emergency on a freight train. You roll onto your feet, which has become natural given the rolls of flabby flesh around your waist. You joke that you have become a tub of Pillsbury dough rolls – the kind that you twist and pops open with a loud, unexpected bang. When you unbutton your jeans your flesh rolls pop with a similar bang. You make breakfast, pack lunch and hug your partner and firstborn farewell. In between feeding and rocking your youngest child, you walk around like a sonámbula checking off the daily errands from the never-ending to-do list. The next day, you do it all over again. If you’re lucky, you get some alone time in the bathroom with no interjections about what goes where. If you’re really lucky you may even get a thirty-minute nap that isn’t interrupted by screams.
Your eyes are sunken and heavy when you say, “this is what love looks like.”
“I found God in myself, and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange
You have a pending deadline for a major report at work. Your cell won’t stop vibrating against the kitchen counter:
– Your best friend calling because she’s going through a bad breakup, the third one in two years
– Your mom texting you because she NEEDS to know what you are bringing to Tio’s birthday party next week
– NYC Notification Alerts Flash Flood Warning
– A direct message about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria
– Facebook notifications that someone has commented on a status you liked about an acquaintance from college who got engaged
– Instagram Notifications that so and so has posted for the first time in a while
– Calendar reminder that your credit card bill is due in two days
You can feel the anxiety rising from your belly like the heat and bubbles of a tea kettle before it whistles. With one swipe up and a single tap of your luminescent screen, you set your phone to airplane mode. You make yourself something to eat or order out and settle down to read a book, or maybe write in your journal. You try to quiet your mind.
This too is what love looks like…
“Love is the bridge between you and everything.” – Rumi
You experience so many different types of love in a lifetime. Platonic love. Deep friendship love. Familial love. Religious Love. Community Love. Sentimental Love. Romantic Love. Obsessive Love. Self-love. Someone was responsible for modeling that last one for you, but it is likely they did not, confusing martyrdom for the holy grail of love.
If no one told you, you should know that it all starts with self-love. Self-love will set the standard for what you know you are worthy of receiving. Self-love will help you discriminate between real love and abuse wearing love like a mask fabricated from the remnants of an old lover. Without a healthy practice of self-love, your perspective of love is haunted house of mirrors.
You think that maybe you need to find a new friend or family or lover. That maybe your life would have been better if you had never had children. And then you wallow in even having had that thought because what kind of a mother are you. You decide you need liposuction. You begin to believe that you are not worthy of the love that you seek because of your imperfections.
But real love – the love that Mary J. Blige belts out about from underneath the shadow of her fitted, the love that Mary and Wyclef call 911 about, that love. That love is less glamorous than it is messy. It’s chock full of misunderstandings and mistakes. More often than not there is no makeup, no filters, and no expensive perfumes. Sometimes real love sucker punches you in the gut at the top of a flight of stairs. Sometimes real love disentangles all your organs until you are a pile of silly putty on your bedroom floor. Sometimes.
And sometimes love can feel like a Nicholas Sparks movie complete with slow dances in the rain and long-awaited homecomings. There is beauty and light and laughter in love. Love is much more balanced than the representations you have become familiar with. And it’s not always just one or the other, blissful euphoria or a gloomy trench. Sometimes it is both simultaneously.
Your love is not broken. It is perfectly imperfect. It is uniquely yours. Learn to embrace the complicated nature of love. Treat love like the succulent sitting on your windowsill. Check on it, water it, tend to it, talk to it. And when you are unsure – when you see leaves falling or browning, research how to make it come alive again. Don’t give up on it.
Real love is worth the work.
***This is essay 30 in the #52essays2017 challenge created by Vanessa Mártir.