I have experienced love before, at least I think so. Awkward hand holding in my freshman year of high school, giggles behind lockers and sneaking out of classrooms, sitting next to each other at lunch in between periods.
I’ve been in love before, where love was 18 hour phone calls and whispers of “I miss you” as electricity carried our voices hundreds of miles across to the other side of the country.
I’ve been in love before, where love was the twisting in my chest I felt when he looked at another person or ignored my texts or told me he didn’t want me anymore.
And I am in love now, as I listen to him drone on and on about distributed systems with such excitement that I can’t help but be excited, too.
In high school, I felt like I had found the one. I dreamed of exchanging vows on the rooftops of Greece before moving into a quaint apartment with seven dogs and him. I always seemed to be so fast, to move so quickly to becoming something permanent and fixed.
As I entered college, where the distance and the time and the everything else placed such a strain on us, I threw all those little dreams away and focused on real. On now.
I would not say I was afraid to fall in love again — I think I fell rather quickly. But as junior year continues on and we ask questions like “Where are we going to live?” or “What should we do after college?” I can’t help but get those little panics in my chest, little moments of here-we-go-again that I cannot seem to bare. I have fallen too quickly and we will fizzle out, I think. But then we stay up til three AM talking about our aspirations, or cook dinner together and watch our favorite show, or study together in the lounges of Stud5, and suddenly I feel okay again.
In my freshman year of high school, I was in an on again off again relationship that was difficult and confusing. I remember staring in a mirror and realizing that my physical appearance mattered, that this corporeal form now was being perceived through a lens of desire and not solely its simple existence. It was scary. It was new. I tried desperately to fit different boxes and shapes because he was an athlete and I was not, and he was cool and I was not. My heart fluttered every time we’d exchange glances in class, or the way his chest would puff out as we walked across our high school’s courtyard together, like there was a sense of pride in being with me. Like I was something wanted and sought after. And I remember thinking, “Is this it? Is this the love that everyone had talked about?”
Looking back on it now, that high school relationship felt constantly like a game of ownership. Who owned what? Who looked best with who? I was so constantly aware of my status in school and outward perception that it was exhausting and terrifying. It felt as if my desirability was directly tied to my place in my school, my sad little high school, and prices had been prescribed to us all. As we clawed our way through the competitive jungle that was our campus, I felt like I forever had to prove my worth to him, to myself, to all my classmates. Why would he possibly choose someone like me? How can I prove that I am good enough? I still do not know to this day whether that was love, or if it just cheap imitation, a sophomoric sense of the word.
But I do know that it shaped the way I carried myself from then on, looking at relationships as currency, exchange.
I realized searching in the realm of my school was far too limiting and I ended up in a long distance relationship with someone I met online in my junior year of high school. It felt realer, knowing that he didn’t want me for my physical form, but just for my company. We were loud late nights playing stupid video games, synchronized movie watching dates, endless texts as we managed the three hour time difference.
We were immature, too. Jealousy-panged insults and snooping around, high tension and suspicions and discomfort in the people who were there, who could be there.
But even then, I still talked about silly things like marriage and where we would live, the names of our first dogs and what our apartment would look like. It was always future, future, future — going forward. It finally felt like I did it right. He didn’t want me for the things my first had, he wanted me for other things. He was there for me after all during the messiness of my senior year, an anchor at my darkest moment, and I could not imagine a moment where he was not in my life. But at the same time, he was an anchor, tethering me so tightly to someone so far away, so vastly different than myself, that I began to feel trapped.
As we went off to college, things did not work because how could they when we had become such different people in such a short time? MIT gave me friends, newfound independence, opportunities I couldn’t have even dreamed of. It showed me that I could in fact make friends and belong. I no longer needed a crutch. I was finally fine in just being.
And so things ended in a flurry, a lot of he saids and she saids and misunderstandings and guilt guilt oh god so much guilt. One and a half years thrown away because I realized I could exist on my own. One and a half years in the wind because MIT made me a human being again. Looking back, it was unfair of me to dump so much on him so fast in that year and then suddenly float off, a big “fuck you” to the person who had kept me sane in one of the worst years of my life.
So fast forward to now, as I type in Stud5, staring at the brass rat on my hands that seems to shout Halfway through. Where I look up and I see Raymond tediously studying away on my iPad for his midterm this Tuesday. Where there is a terrible pit of fear that it is not going to work, but I desperately want it to work. I don’t want to start again. I don’t want to redo all the “Hi my name is…” or the “My deepest fears are…”. I want someone to just know me already and get past all of that and exist in a way that’s simple, the way that it is now.
I am terrified for the future. I am terrified for what it means to graduate with a significant other, for what it means to graduate and have all your friends scatter across the country and leave you stranded in a city you do not know in a state that is not yours.
I fear for the day our group chat goes silent, when I don’t feel the urge to constantly update my friends about every painstaking detail of my day, when they are no longer part of my routine that I’ve fallen into so fast.
But then I remember that this is not like the Bad Times, where friends and boyfriends were so quick to go and disappear. That MIT is not like the rest and this time is different. The relationships I foster and hold close now are nothing like the ones in the past. And while the ones from the past have done their time and served their lessons, they are gone now and no longer need to linger, do not need to influence the way I feel and act now.
I hesitate to say my relationship now makes me feel whole — I believe I am a whole person regardless of my relationship status. But I think my relationship now makes me feel like I am able to understand myself better. I no longer have to worry about status, whether or not I’m cool enough for Raymond’s friends because Raymond’s friends are my friends. I no longer worry about physical appearance, no longer dote on the mirror and criticize every pudge or or every curve. I don’t worry about my intelligence, whether or not the questions I ask are stupid or dumb. It is easy and simple. Natural. I am more of myself when I am with Raymond, and for a minute I let myself daydream and think of the futures and possibilities and pray to whoever is listening that our futures are intertwined.
Being at MIT and being surrounded by the people I’ve learned to call home was such a healing experience. I came into MIT skewed and distraught. Romantic love was out of the question. Friendships were seen as temporary and fleeting.
But after two years and then some, I feel as if I’ve finally learned to love in full. I can think of the future again without punishing myself for rushing too far ahead. I can book these flights with Raymond, traveling to Chicago and Seattle and New York and every other tech city there is to see what works for us. I do not feel like I am suffocated or that I am relying on him for my own happiness. We exist in each other’s space and we do so happily and it is a comfort and stability I’ve never really experienced before.
Love is not something insurmountable or treacherous anymore. It is not something jealousy stained or immature. It is something I’ve learned to welcome and work with and understand. In it, I do not feel owned or used or borrowed or disgusted with myself. I feel light. I feel whole. I feel like my own being.
I am finally clean.