Two years ago, in a family game of ‘never have I ever’ (I highly suggest you play if you want to find out if your parents have ever tried shrooms) my mother feigned shock when I put a finger down after she said, matter of fact, “never have I ever had a one night stand”. Putting a finger down signals you’d done the thing, and I felt, in that moment, telling a truth I don’t feel shame over and facing disappointment was a better idea than lying.
We were sitting around a plastic table eating hamburgers and drinking tequila. It was kind of grey outside. She didn’t seem surprised, she just acted like a mother.
“Eli Rallo!” She exclaimed and though I would’ve preferred a scarlet letter to a conversation of a sex life I hardly had, I brushed it off. Moments later, my brother lowered a finger at “never have I ever smoked a cigarette” and the attention drifted away from my one-night suitor and to other anecdotes of college Saturdays and the various things that happen past midnight.
What I wanted to tell her was, despite her apparent distaste in one night stands from a generational standpoint, I thought I could make the guy in question fall in love with me. I have been winded and eager, chasing the punch drunk high of love since I first tasted it. The first time I felt it, it was something I felt I’d seen before, like second nature, like deja vu. I was dependent on the way it made me spin inside. I was an addict to its’ above the horizon highs and hungover lows. And not just romantic love. All of it. All of the what-the-fuck and smoke and mirrors and confetti and improv classes and velvet curtains and black lace underwear and uber rides. The whole thrill of it. The whole being of love. But I said nothing then, because at that moment, I was still chasing it—the “it” being love—and it was blinding me, then running in the opposite direction.
I used to be insufferable to some. I probably still am. But what I mean is, feeling a glimmer of romantic love—passed to me through surreptitious eyes, half-funny jokes and notes scribbled in my intro to drama class notebook in late 2016—was my sugary, vodka laden death wish.
You know how they say the love language you crave in your adult life is the thing you’ve always been chasing? It makes sense that mine would be words of affirmation. I was born with a deep desire to be adored. To be loved. I wanted the world to love me. Unfortunately, self-awareness at the age of 18 was a daydream I had yet to dream, it was a bed sheet I hadn’t purchased, a letter I hadn’t sent.
So I treated my heart like a collector’s item. Something from a souvenir shop that is special enough for people to buy and trade around, but not special enough for its broken state to be anything more than a bummer, a couple of shattered pieces in the trash.
When I was 18, I tasted a teaspoon of the romantic love I’d always craved, and it made my desire for external validation deeper. It was the first time I’d ever been in ‘love’, and I felt the skies open and torrential downpour on my hair—I finally understood the fantasy I’d always been after. But he broke up with me in a church parking lot. I knew it was coming, and that made it hurt more. After he broke up with me, it started to snow. I’d forgotten the words he used, but I watched him cross the street and walk away with his hands stuffed in his pockets and I knew enough. With little impulse, I turned around and walked back the way I came. I headed down a street in Ann Arbor with rows of lopsided houses with drooping roofs and porches crowded with items that had frosted over. I listened to the crunch of my boots on the snow. I tried to count to 100. I walked to a Starbucks, ordered a chai tea, sat down and opened my laptop. Then I immediately started to weep.
I filled my journal with pages of streaky melodrama, all conclusive that I’d never love again. That I’d never hurt this much again. That I’d never sleep with anyone again. That my life was over.
It humors me that women, time and time again, become utterly shattered by men who never even gave them a real orgasm.
From there, I embarked on a journey to find someone to fall in love with me the way he wouldn’t have ever let himself. The way others never would either. The way I hadn’t yet fallen in love with myself or even self improved in areas I was lacking. I always “liked” myself, and self loathing took up an average amount of brain space, but nothing I deemed concerning. If I could get someone to fall in love with me, then stormy waters would calm, I told myself. These lies quelled my mind. But in reality, finding someone to love me would only be a bandaid over a gaping wound that would soon require intensive care.
Eventually, I found someone who said he loved me, but didn’t. He became the bandaid, and as everything ached, I never considered the problem could be the world I created for myself, the lack of respect I had for myself. Partnership was validation to me. It meant I could be loved. I could be adored. It meant I deserved those things. Without partnership, I didn’t believe I deserved a thing. I suffered withdrawals when I was alone. I was sick whenever I sat in my own embrace.
And of course, when it all came crashing down, my journal entries of melodrama became lies. This charade was a pain unlike I’d ever felt. What I didn’t realize—love does not exist without its absence. It needs its reciprocal, loss, in order to exist at all. Nobody wants to feel the hard things, but the hard things came, and they were boulders that I couldn’t roll off of what I thought was my shiny, pretty life.
The day we broke up I went to a party and I brought a bottle of white wine. I sat on a piano bench and listened to other people speak and feigned thrill about being single, about being alone. My friend turned to say something to me as I brought the bottle up to my lips and he bumped it, chipping my front tooth. I went into the bathroom, tight-lipped, and looked at myself and pretended I liked who I was enough when I was all alone. Then I left out the backdoor without saying goodbye. My heart plummeted into the sidewalk cracks. I stood in my kitchen and stared at a jar of peanut butter and wished for the burn to be over. For the pain to cease to exist, to pack up its things and go to bed. I couldn’t remember the last time I wasn’t in a revolving door of want and pain. Of the thought of love knocking my door down, and then waking up from a dream to the reality I couldn’t face—it could just be me all along. That I didn’t like who I was.
In therapy I pleaded with Heather, my therapist, to explain to me why I couldn’t feel okay when I was the one who walked away. When it had been my choice to end the relationship. Maybe it was because he didn’t fight when I said goodbye. Each weekend I’d stand in crowded bars shoulder to shoulder with people who were smiling and kissing and splashing vodka soda around and I’d drown in the simple beats of the music, I’d hide my broken pieces behind a tiny shirt and the arm of someone I hardly knew.
In the spring I always promise myself my life will be wildly romantic. I have visions of ecstasy, of all the ways in which my days could fall together in a cacophony of desire. I’d be affirmed. Someone would truly adore me. Maybe I’d even adore myself. I’d graduate from my childhood, have myself broken by those who didn’t care either way, revise my resume like it was a peace treaty—but my life would be wildly romantic, I told myself, over and over.
What I hadn’t realized—romance doesn’t equal a series of dates with strangers stumbled upon on dating apps. Romance doesn’t equal romantic infatuation, or partnership. Romance is what happens when your own heart falls in time with the steps of your feet, with the waves of your brain, with the intentions you set forth, and then attain.
But I dated anyway: a guy from Staten Island who was lying to his parents to sneak into New York and kiss me on the Brooklyn bridge, a 29-year-old Brown University graduate who had weird taste in music and got frostbite on our first date, a fraternity guy who’s name I can’t remember, a Swiss guy who loved the New York City ballet—and they did what I wanted them to do: fill a void I couldn’t face, to fix a wound I wouldn’t touch, that I could only fix myself.
I spent 22 years wanting the world to love me. A desperate chase and a deep disappointment when it didn’t go my way. I interchanged ‘relationship type’ with my desperate need to be validated, another bandaid over another wound. I told myself eventually the world would fall into place, and if I stopped searching for the world to love me, for someone to love me, then nobody ever would. I had to go running into traffic so eventually, something would hit me and it would be my person and my job and my world. Because I thought I deserved it. But here’s the thing about the world. The world doesn’t give a fuck what you do with your time. You have dazzling autonomy. You can do what you please. You can ignore something until it eats you alive. Or you can face it. Only you can sit all alone by yourself and look inside yourself like you’re an amusement park hall of mirrors. Only you can choose that. Of course you get a deck of cards, and they say it's’ all about how you play those cards, but you also get a dice, and you can choose to roll it. To change the wrong.
I don’t believe in the ‘love yourself before you love someone else’ concept because it suggests you cannot be a work in progress whilst simultaneously giving love, good love, to someone else. I believe in giving yourself the love you think you deserve—because other people will take your cue. If they see you treating yourself with love and respect, they will proceed in mime.
Me, myself, and I, then, somehow finally decided to unravel like a spool of thread. It was a to-do list of dread I’m still working through. Deleting Hinge. Telling that guy in Chicago I’d had enough. Understanding what it means to know who I am by myself. Terrifying. Ever since I’d had a coquettish impulse at the age of 14, I’ve been searching for romantic love, platonic love and deep validation. Those things cannot be handed over by anyone else if you cannot find them deep within yourself.
I peeled back newspaper articles and hasty text messages, therapists I didn’t like and phone calls that broke my college heart in two. I uncovered the dredges of alcoholic drinks and the wrong people and some of the right ones too. I retraced my steps and sat in the hate, the fervor, the deep loneliness, and I asked myself why I’d gone there, and how I began to find my way home. The things I said, the things I wish I had the courage to say, the boys and girls in my sorority and acting majors I needed to validate me. The dorm room bathroom I tried to throw up lemon cake in once because I hated that I’d eaten it. The driver’s seat I sat in, where I was cruel to you. The parking lot where we stood eating cheetos, drunkenly and mistakenly passing I love you’s like 2nd grade candy hearts. I thought about our own little New York. Our own crumbling college city. The IUD I got because I wanted you to feel good. The fantasies of my life where I’m searing hot and in love. The ones where I’m alone eating toast. The ones where I’m proud of myself.
The questions that arose within the ashes, within the cup of cold coffee, at 2 in the morning: Am I just another woman who wants to fit into smaller pants? How do I rebuild a relationship with myself? Where do I begin? Was it all worth it? How can you make a dash to the finish line, yet not move an inch? Where is the LinkedIn post that says “I’m proud to admit I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing or who the fuck I want to be?”
For a while I felt like a flat water bottle in a backpack. But you work through it like you work through anything. You put your head down and you swear to yourself that the explosion is a beginning. That your fingers will always shake when you’re nervous. That you will always chase love—you will always imagine your life wildly romantic—but you’ll do it in a way that addresses the wounds head on. It would make no sense and it would make all the sense. It would be a spectacular shit show and you wouldn’t let a second go unlived or unloved, but you’d be doing it in the pursuit of one person: you.
College would disappear, so would 21, and I’d assume a new role, I’d get a new winter coat. Walking into the west side restaurant at 8 PM, a little late and out of character, that would be the first thing he said to me.
“I was wondering if you’d be wearing that coat.”
When you start the work, goodness begins to fall into your lap like a plane ticket that falls out of a notebook you find in the attic. You get an aha moment when you say I need to work on myself, and even when I’ve worked on myself enough, I have to keep going. Brutally, we have to admit to narcissism, to nascent happiness, to occasional dread. To the understatement of the lifetime: things get better and then worse and then better and then worse, forever.
In a hotel room, with the moon pouring light in from a window, I think my softness in the mirror is beautiful, but in the morning its back to the drawing board. I don’t want to float on a boat, I say, sometimes out loud, to nobody but me, I want to drown in a sea of what it means to be alive.