What is love and how do you know it is real?
He was in my dream but I have already forgotten the dream.
He was there, I know it was him. I woke up and he was there, nestled in my mind. I didn’t want to get up from the bed and leave him. It’s been so long since I touched him, so long since I smelled him, that I reach for even ephemeral traces of the physical in my mind. I lay in bed and think about the corporeal.
One day, a few weeks before he died, his back was hurting.
It might have been one of the weekends he had gone hiking or maybe it was just a regular weekend, I can’t remember. He was having trouble sleeping and waking up stiff and sore, as you do when you are starting to approach middle age. My aunt likes to joke that the one of the cruelest parts of aging is that you feel worse after a night’s sleep, not better.
I remember this moment now; we were seven months in, still wondering where we were going, not sure about everything at all, but feeling so deeply content. He’d ask me to walk on his back, and I’d put him on the floor between the couch and the ottoman, and I’d grab the couch to steady myself as I dug my heels into the flesh between his shoulder blades, and walk gently along his spine. I listened to the satisfied moans coming from the floor and laugh, and put extra pressure on the right side and then the left, and walk my feet down to his little butt, and push there, too.
“Baby!” he said in his Southern drawl. “Ahm dyin’ of back cancer!”
I laughed and sat down on his back and gave him a neck massage. I stretched my tiny body on his, and hugged him, and then I dramatically sniffed his neck and his enormous head, huffing fervently around his ears as if I was a mouse or a rabbit, which made him laugh. He’d accuse me trying to take his smells. “Stop stealing them! They’re mine! I made ‘em!”
Whatever difficulties we were having, whatever differences were there in our lifestyles or where we were from, a gulf that sometimes seemed too big, and that sometimes seemed irrelevant, that distance evaporated in moments like these.
When you are single for as long as I have been, 20 years and counting, a relationship becomes a fictional idea. You don’t even know what it means to be in a relationship, even though you spend all your time wishing you were in one. You spend all this time going on dates, swiping right and left, trying to figure out what kind of person you would like to wake up next to, what kind of person you’d like to give a massage to, but you really have no fucking idea. You aren’t even thinking about whether or not if this is a person you would like enough to walk on their back to make them feel better, whether or not you’d like to lie on top of them—your chest on their back, you arms draped around theirs in a reverse spoon, little spoon cuddling big spoon.
When you are single, you are doing some ridiculous relationship math, adding up their height, or their school, or their shoes, or their job, or their looks, and dividing and subtracting to see if they add up or are equal with you and your fictionalized idea of a relationship and partner.
And none of that mattered in the end. In the end, you were in love.
In the beginning, I didn’t know how I felt—if I was in love or if I was just in the throes of sexual attraction. I didn’t understand what love really was in a romantic sense, because I’d never been in love. As poor as our media and art is at telling the story of grief and grieving, it is as pathetic at explaining love, wrapped in platitudes and dramatic flourishes, when love is really something that happens inch by inch, moment by moment, in tiny, nearly imperceptible increments, until you have accumulated so many that your heart swells and overflows.
When he died, the damn broke and I drowned in my love for him. It had nowhere to go anymore. I have a vision of myself on my bed, having just woken from a dream where I am trying to reach him and can’t and realizing in my first moments of waking what my reality was, that it was the same as the dream, which was now a nightmare. I am sitting in my bed crying, my bed a raft in an ocean of tears. I feel stranded, as if I am really in a vast sea with no one or nothing near me to grasp on to. My only life force is my grief and my love.
In the moments after I found out he died, I typed on Facebook. “Tell everyone you love them when you can. I love you.” And people wrote me back, people I hadn’t expected or hadn’t heard from in a long time. They didn’t yet know why I wrote that. “I love you too,” they wrote and told me why. I had the presence of mind to write something in return. I don’t remember how.
That was my biggest regret. In the days and weeks right after he died, my biggest regret was that I didn’t tell him I loved him enough. I had only said it once or twice. He had told me early on, but the fears we have in the beginning, when we’re still doing the calculations and physics to see if we fit, when we are still in the discovery process prevent us from the very thing we have been looking for for so long.
I loved him and I didn’t tell him enough, and now he is gone. Tell everyone you love them when you can.