What does loving someone feel like?
I asked myself this. Again and again. I was younger, not much younger, and I hadn’t yet felt what my heart was capable of. I have learned something since then. It was accidental learning; it was unlessoned learning, it seems like it is a knowledge which landed on me suddenly and from somewhere else.
I’m glad it did. I’m better for it. I never wanted to spend the rest of my life wrapped in the skills I had acquired hiding from pain and abuse. They came in handy as I sat cross-legged in the backyard with my brother listening to police sirens blare by our front door. I became skilled at receding, at ignoring, at crying without caring I was crying, at feeling merciless, a merciless daughter refusing to blame a father, refusing to hate a mother, refusing to feel for fear of feeling the wrong things. I was skilled at saving my pain up until the right moment, so I was never crippled, so I could always succeed, or appear to succeed. I was skilled at surviving. Watching my brother just barely survive. I could turn my love for my father off as if it were tied to a switch because doing so helped me turn off the self-doubt and the self-hatred which he insisted I keep. And I am skilled today, at rerouting my own emotions, as if my neural pathways are railway tracks. It is so simple for me to pull a lever and welcome anger instead of sadness. Apathy instead of heartbreak. I am still skilled at that. There is a process for it. I wonder if the process is unique to me, or how many others can understand it. It is like a wave; it starts in the back of my head, and then moves forward to where my forehead is. This stops the crying. The wave moves down my neck, easing the tightness, and into my chest, easing my lungs. This stops the feeling. The process only takes two to three seconds. And then I talk and my voice is normal and clear; and then I walk and my hands are not shaking; and then I can choose exactly when to reverse the process and pay the price for doing it.
I believe that during the worst of it all I went months at a time washed out like this. I thought it was funny how easy it was to exist in this state, and I congratulated myself on it. I thought my face looked funny in the mirror, a hard line at my lips and even, unblinking eyes.
I had a recurring desire to scream my lungs out. But I could never find the right place. If I screamed in the streets the lights in the houses would turn on and someone would call the police. If I screamed in a field a jogger would try to save me and stop me. If I screamed in my house, in my school, in a restaurant, I would never get away with it. Sometimes I tried- they were silent screams filled with air. My fists would ball and my mouth would widen until my jaw popped and wouldn’t un-pop, and the veins in my neck would bulge over the sound of a whisper. Other times I indulged in half-formed, nervous screams which could be muffled by my pillow. I didn’t want to be found out. I only allowed myself one or two good shrieks, grinded out between my teeth; toes curling. And there was the one time I guess I left my body. The screams left my mouth without my permission, without my command. My aunt was in the car with me. She must have been afraid. But I only felt regret, afterwards, that my consciousness had returned and stopped me from continuing.
But I’ll tell you something. I found victory, years after that. I used my body to carry me across a spit of land onto the point of an island; step after step along the caldera, until I reached a small white church on the top of a hill. And in front of this church was a ledge and I climbed that ledge. And there was no one around; no one around for a mile, and more perfectly there was a strong wind which battered my body and made me fear for my life on the ledge above the water. And I stood there- I stood my ground against that wind while the sun was setting and turning my vision orange, wind, hair covering my eyes, turning my vision black, and I finally did scream my lungs out.
I screamed and whooped and shrieked and was not afraid that someone would hear me. I heard me. And it was a sound I had been wanting to release for almost my whole life. No one could take it away from me. Only the wind; which did, it swept the sound far out over the sea seconds after it passed through my ears. And I thank the wind for letting me hear every decibel, and for being wise enough to know they shouldn’t be allowed to linger. Below me I could see a town called Oia, and I screamed and screamed and wanted them to be afraid, wanted them to believe there was a banshee in their hills by their church far above their houses, wanted someone to turn from their work to listen for a still second, wondering if they had heard something in the air. I wanted the cars winding by the coast on the other side of the point to hear me and know they could do nothing to reach me.
And I’ll tell you something else. I found victory, a year before that, over my heartlessness. I fell in love for the first time. And that love was a physical feeling too, but unlike a wave. Like a dust, a light, a shimmering cloud of spores or particles. It is a different process. It starts somewhere near my ribcage and proceeds to fill my whole chest like a vessel. And then it collects, until it forms its own vortex, as in a wind tunnel, which grips my heart and pulls it towards my lover. And that’s what loving someone feels like, physically feels like, which I regard when I look in the mirror, and see my rounded lips and kind eyes smiling back at me.
My old skills are vestiges of a life before love; and I use them without meaning to in the same way that people check their doorsteps for dead people. And I hate the wave and how easy it is to feel everything being washed away. It is so much easier to live with resentment than disappointment. But now every time I turn my feelings off I am more and more afraid I will get stuck that way, or perhaps, the worst fear of all, that this is my natural state and that love is the learned behavior. But I know which one I pored over and cultivated. I know which one I practiced over and over it again. It makes it harder to get rid of. But now I know what the alternative is- now I’ve finally felt it. Unlearning this will be difficult. But I’m in luck. Unfeeling my love can only ever be impossible. /