What Is Love?

Photo by Christopher Beloch on Unsplash

I’m up writing right now because my ex-wife texted me with a question.

“What was the name of the story that Lary Bloom wrote about you?”

It was called Urban Love, and the story focused on me, but it was actually about us and how we met. I still remember the first line of it: “Don’t all great love stories begin in the elevator of a community college?” The great irony of that piece is that Lary interviewed me for it in August 2010, and my ex told me she wanted a divorce in September. I called Lary to tell him, but it was too late. The story was already off to the printers, to be featured in the September 2010 edition of Connecticut Magazine.

Now, neither of us can find the article anywhere. Connecticut Magazine’s archives only go back to 2013, and Lary’s own website is now defunct (or even better, forbidden). She wanted the essay for one of her students. Try as we might though, the internet has swallowed it up.

You might think I’d be relieved that this monument to incredibly bad timing no longer exists, but I would like to read it again. It captures a real thing that used to exist- the romantic feelings I had for my ex-wife. Those are gone though, and replaced by the love I have for her as my best friend. It’s funny, I actually feel kind of grossed out even trying to think about her in those former terms now. “Have sex with the mother of my son? Why in the world would I want to do that?”

That love has changed, but that’s not the case for many, or even most, of my past relationships. Remember Rose, of Summertime Fine fame? I can’t stop thinking about fucking her again, even two years later. I even sent her one of those Future meme texts when the pandemic started. She worked in nursing homes, so yeah I was genuinely concerned, but also, I was trying to fuck again.

“I hope you haven’t gotten sick, like I get sick every time I think about how I let you go”

We were only together for a couple of months, so I can’t say I loved her, but I absolutely loved fucking her. Sex is alot of work most of the time, especially with someone new. But we just clicked instantly. It hadn’t happened before or since. Our sudden breakup was the hardest crash I’ve ever had in a relationship. Even harder than my divorce, because I at least saw that one coming.

The last time we were together was right after we broke up. She was giving me a tarot reading, and we were discussing the possibility of being friends with benefits. She said, “Do you think we can just have sex without it being weird?” Naturally I said yes, and we ripped our clothes off and went at it. I think about that night all the time. It’s a different kind of love, but it’s just as real and persistent as the love I feel for my ex-wife now.

But aside from having me sending “Hey big head” texts, the pandemic completely broke down everything I thought I knew about myself and my place in the world. I entered March 2020 on the path to being a teacher, and leave March 2021 as an anarchist who dabbles in nihilism. But the most resilient and confounding hierarchy I find myself facing is the hierarchy of love.

I remember talking to a co-worker a few years ago. We were describing our respective divorces, and I started a sentence with, “My ex-wife.” She stopped me and said, “You mean, ‘the ex-wife’. She’s not yours anymore.” I knew from her story that her own phrasing came from the abusive and controlling nature of her ex, but I was still annoyed by the statement. I didn’t get divorced because of abuse or control issues, so why did I need to modify my speech and the way that I related to my former wife?

Her statement has stuck with me though, and I found it resurfacing as I started deconstructing my place amongst all the various hierarchies I thought gave my life meaning. If I reject ownership, control and authority from schools, jobs and everything else, then mustn’t I do the same in romance? What does love look like without any of those things? Is it polyamory? Open relationships? Calling someone your “partner” instead of your girlfriend? I’ve stuck to saying “my ex” because it’s difficult to establish the relationship between myself and former partners in writing without using the word “my.” But conceptually, how would it work?

I suppose I’m trying to figure that out. The one thing I’ve found is that it’s revealed a whole bunch of insecurities within myself. I thought I’d worked out most of those after the conclusion of another relationship which was riddled with lies, mistrust and insecurities. I thought that was just a part of a natural maturation process, and that as I got more relationships under my belt, I’d feel more confident in myself and what I was bringing to the table.

It turns out that isn’t the case though. Letting someone do what they want means that sometimes they’re going to choose to be with you, and sometimes they aren’t. It’s not about conveying freedom to someone to choose- they already have that, it’s the ridiculous frameworks and rules which subvert that. What happens instead is that when I’ve been in my room, by myself, all the old insecurities bubble right back up to the top as explanations for why I’m alone that night.

“It’s because you couldn’t get hard last time.”

“Come on man, you’re boring, what did you expect?”

“If you had your own place and a car you wouldn’t have this problem.”

“You’re not ugly, but you ain’t cute either.”

“What’s wrong with me? Why don’t you choose me?”

Those thoughts have nothing to do with the choices of someone else. It’s the same baggage I’ve been carrying for years, the same doubts that had me moping around high school twenty (!!!) years ago. They’ve played out in every relationship in fundamentally the same way, with a little twist here and there so that I could blame them on my partner and not on myself. I didn’t want control over the other person so much as I wanted control over my own feelings. But I lacked the insight and courage to look inside myself and deal with my insecurities, so it was easier to control my partner to make them not do things that would trigger them. “No, you can’t go there.” “Don’t talk to that guy, he likes you.” “Be my girlfriend, and follow all these rules.” Exercising authority over another person to protect my own ego? What a bonkers concept.

Yet even as I try to undo that urge to control, the feelings remain. Which is why I love my ex-wife, because she gave me the answer the other day: “Don’t take it personally.” Letting people choose means they choose what’s right for them, not what will hurt me. Obviously none of my past relationships have worked out, but it’s not because I think any of my exes were capricious enough to do things simply because it would harm me. Not getting chosen is about them, not me. And that’s okay.

Choose me! To protect my ego! (obligatory Night at the Roxbury reference)

So what is love? It’s a feeling I want to experience and express. It’s not control or limitations. It’s also not the insecurities and fears that lead to control. It’s the physical, spiritual and emotional connection to another person who is with you because they want to be. Well, except for my ex-wife. I’m her baby daddy, so she’s stuck with me no matter what.

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