To Be Loved
Oct 07 ● BY Chloe Vassot
The word love is tattooed on me twice in black ink that bleeds out in the tiniest of tendrils beyond the path through which the tattooist traced his needle. The bleeding makes the words soft; if on paper, they’d look as if someone had run a thumb over them hundreds of times, wearing the letters into the page with careful repetition.
I think I love the word love, I think I love the concept, I think I believe Mary Oliver when she wrote, “Listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied.”
This queer woman who found god in the woods— I’m always trying to believe her.
When I was sixteen I knew a girl named Clara who always told me she loved me.
She said it casually, usually in public, when we were in a group killing time during high school play rehearsals. She said it without need for positive encouragement, and no matter my previous non-reciprocated response. It was always a little performative—as if she was claiming a closeness to me and asking to be closer, still, in the same breath.
Every time she said the words, said I love you, blood rushed to my cheeks with a reliable flash of anger and guilt and annoyance and fear. I never knew what she meant with any accuracy, only that I wanted her to stop. I was supposed to say it back, supposed to be polite, supposed to use it in the casual way teenage girls do, often and indiscriminately. I never could. I wanted to try to keep some words meaningful, untainted.
I’d heard a rumor that Clara was bisexual. A friend disclosed it like it was a secret, one everyone already knew, one rife with menace. With every casual declaration of love, I felt a threat hovering: felt each syllable like a hit to the crack forming in my shell that could shatter and leave me vulnerable, tugged closer to suspicion.
There had been a moment, I can’t remember when, a single moment of wondering that let the world open up in possibility, and I met it with a no like a snake bite. Some refusals are felt so fully they can last for years, unquestioned, keeping what they smother so thoroughly dormant. I will never be that. The word love—it called me back to heart-fluttering danger every time.
I leaned in to quiet; to “nice,” to “innocent,” to relying on the assumptions of stereotypes to explain me into normalcy. I went to prom with a boy, wore a dark purple dress that matched his tie and took pictures as a group in an orchard, in a garden center surrounded by flowers. And yet—it all felt fragile, everything lurking within and around me. Like walking on the blown-up skin of a balloon, waiting for the puncture.
What a precipice. I could be about to declare a mild affinity for wool socks or confess to an affection that I’d upend my life for, risk everything to preserve. Love, on its own, is mostly useless as an effective communicator of an idea. A soft syllable, mellifluous, easily said on the breath of a sigh, it needs its surroundings elucidated, filled with context and qualifiers, for the spaces of meaning to be filled in, made whole.
Every time I hear it I want to ask: what do you mean? What are you trying to say? I think I know—I think I’ve been steeped in this culture long enough to parse it out—but what if I’m wrong? What if I spend my entire life believing that you are referring to a very specific feeling when in actuality you are referring to an entirely different very specific feeling? What if, in our assumed communication, our meanings are missing each other, like two meteorites that look close as they cross, but are actually thousands of light years apart?
How does your heart feel, is what I’m asking. Does it feel the same way as mine, when I talk about love?
The Methodist church I grew up in doubled as a preschool on weekdays, a common occurrence in farm country, Pennsylvania. The classrooms were in the basement, down a light-yellow hallway that had two alcoves tucked into the negative space below the staircases that led to the sanctuary above. They were the perfect size for a scrunched-up child to occupy, and just high enough off the ground to be a tempting climbing prospect. Some days, after running around Fellowship Hall barefoot, and after the dirt and grime from the tile floor turned my soles a dark grey, I’d boost myself into the nook and leave footprints along the shadowed, mustard walls. My feet were so dirty I left the distinct dots of tiny toes. I made patterns, a row of ghostly prints, feeling the thrill of trespassing and the satisfaction of leaving this mark, this trace.
I had the freedom to roam because we were at the church so often. My mother taught Sunday school most weeks, and her twins—my sister and I—made up a significant proportion of the six or seven kids being taught the word of God and all the ways Jesus loved us. She organized and ran summer bible Bible schools for years. My memories are tinged with the scents of biblical-era arts and crafts: frankincense, cloves, lavender—the spices ground with a mortar and pestle and made into tiny sachets out of fabric my mother had pre-cut into squares.
My father didn’t come to church because he was not religious and sometimes his English was shaky, his French accent heavy. It was just the three of us: the woman audacious enough to take positions of leadership without a husband present, and the twin girls she’d had at the (suspiciously late, apparently) age of 37.
When the old man pastor retired, a new, younger man replaced him, a man with a red beard and a sick wife and sons with long hair who played ukuleles and guitars while strolling the church halls. They were a departure, aesthetically and theologically, from the traditional conservatism of the old church leadership and the majority of the aging members. Eventually, the congregation decided the pastor was unsuitable; they had him and his family removed, and requested alternative leadership. His sermons preached too much tolerance. In the midst of this quiet purge, the congregation decided to get rid of us, too. The verdict was that the husband was a ruse; they drove past our house, observed, saw a man mowing the lawn but determined there was no way to prove that the man was my mother’s spouse. It was probable—it was likely—that she was a lesbian. No hard evidence necessary, of course. The accusation was efficient, more than enough. Once spoken, the fitting convenience of such a sin lodged itself in the listener’s mind. Stuck like the molasses in their home-baked pies.
I imagine the woman elected to deliver the adjudication saying to my mother, “You see, we cannot have someone like that teaching Sunday school. To be near the children, that isn’t right. It’s a dangerous influence.” I imagine the woman’s quiet pride in being trusted to make this maneuver—to be the one to get the unacceptable woman out.
We learned the limits of fellowship, the limits of a love that called itself unconditional.
After my mother told us the reason we would not be returning to St. Peter’s, I kept imagining my footprints on those yellow alcove walls. I wanted to walk over the whole church and leave dirt and grime on every visible surface, wipe my feet on the velvety carpet of the sanctuary and then start again, covering the building in filth and muck and the visible traces of my searing loathing. My mother didn’t often cry around us, but she must have then, because I’ve blocked the memory of her face. It felt wrong to witness. She was not a lesbian, and she didn’t want to prove it and be allowed to stay if it meant teaching us, her ten-year-old daughters, that such a difference deserved expulsion. But to make that choice—to walk away quietly from a community turned vicious; to never feel vindicated; to take all the care she’d poured into the church and find it meaningless—I wonder if she worried about how we’d remember it all, if she felt powerless watching us piece together a world with fragments she’d rather we didn’t have to hold. I learned to hate by hating the people that did this to her, the ones who cast her out.
The church loved us until they did not. For God so loved the world that He gave his only son—but Jesus did not die for homosexuality, the threat of it or its actuality, the church said. He did not love a world that included such abominations. God’s love was broad, all-encompassing, full of grace, until it wasn’t. Until the magnanimity ran out and love proved itself an empty, barren concept.
Sometimes I wonder if it was me, not just my mother, who sparked the congregation’s mental jump to queerness. I was a tomboy with long strawberry blonde hair that I never combed, lacking affinity for anything called “girly.” I wonder if, as they watched me grow up through the years, those rigid-haired old ladies were adding up all the ways I was wrong.
A few months after we left we heard that one of the unofficial church leaders, David, a corpulent man with salt and pepper hair, shot himself in the hand with a nail gun. The feeling of justice that swept over me was cold and blunt and good.
My college roommate’s boyfriend gave her a necklace of bruises and a fear of orange cars in the corner of her vision. He threatened to hurt himself, to hurt her, with the knives in his dorm room if she left him; he called it love.
A heart can be wrenched, wrung, shattered, trampled, heavy, bleeding, sick, and broken, broken, broken—and still, it’s where we think of love residing. It wells up, love does, sometimes under the smallest provocations—like when the first sips of coffee warm your belly in the morning, or when there’s a spread of perfect red maple leaves on the sidewalk in fall. But sometimes it’s nothing so gentle—the feeling itself, nor what people will claim to do in its name.
I’m a black-and-white thinker; I want what I understand as love—attention, care, affection, affiliation, adoration, infatuation, tenderness—to be good only. I like the sound of a love called radical, that is vast and all-encompassing, but is that just rhetorical laziness? It strikes me as a blank idea of love, spread thinly over the world with no discretion. Is this where I list the people we are supposed to love in ways that carry absurdly different undertones? Regardless of Freud, I do not love a crush like I love a parent, like I love a years-long friend. But, do I love the relative I’ve never met? If I love “family,” is the distant cousin included? A pet peeve: calling it “love” when you just mean to say that you’re attached, connected, compelled to care. Responsible. Politeness strips meaning; to not offend we give up articulation. What do we mean when we say love? Anything.
A man gives his partner bruises and calls it love; that is not love, that is not love, that is not love.
I want us to be clear, because what did he mean when he used the word? He knew love evokes kindness, sometimes evokes obligation, is a word weighted with importance because it’s what we’re told to live for. Can we not find new words? I mean to say: you can’t call it love while harming the beloved, and it’s one thing to do so accidentally, another thing entirely to do it on purpose.
He did not mean love. He abused the term. He meant, “I need you,” he meant, “I’m not ok,” he meant, “Don’t go,” he meant, “You’re mine.” It was not love, it was not love, it was not love. I’m writing to convince myself, to push any doubt away, to disentangle the significations of a word that is too often used to strangle, to control. Love is gentle; love is grace. It should not bruise. I want a meaning so clear that this not-love could never hide under a syllable so soft, so achingly, graciously malleable in what it can hold.
An adherence to definitional specificity is one mechanism of control. Cling to the bible or the dictionary, and you’re really clinging to clarity. It’s nice to believe that words have an inherent, stable meaning at their core, a rational etymological teleology that adds up to some sort of narrative coherence. It’s nice to believe that if you use the right word, you will be understood.
There are many dictionaries, and many, sometimes contradictory definitions for the same word between all these dictionaries, because a definition is determined by a particular person, or team of persons, made up of lexicographers and experts and algorithms, sifting through instances of a word’s appearance in the world. These samples are compiled, sorted, itemized, arranged by significance, and then, using their best judgement, the dictionary compilers describe what the word means through the sum of its usage. The resulting tomes, contradictory to how most use them, are not meant to tell us the “proper” or “correct” way to use a word, but simply what it has generally been understood to mean.
For rhetorical purposes, the power of a word usually ends up lying with the majority consensus. It follows that how we use a word matters, how we use love, because whenever we do we shape its meaning, contribute to the steady ebb and creep of grammatical evolution that will eventually turn some usages obsolete.
The church that forced us out has a website now, its institutional tag line prominent—“The Big Stone Church with the Big Warm Heart”—and their mission clear: “to practice hospitality and love.” They claim to be an “inclusive community,” but leave ‘sexuality’ off their list of criteria they do not discriminate against. God’s love for us is supposedly the realm of the unconditional, as is our love for Him. Unwavering despite reason, despite evidence. In the church website’s omissions, they delineate their own conditions—draw the limits of love at other loves.
It’s been thirteen years, but reading the words on this website leaves me full-up of the rage that never left. My hands shake and I feel a slow cold crawling over my skin.
They claim love. With their use of it, they disembowel the word.
When I say love, I mean—
My college roommate and I built our apartment with a kindness rooted in the understanding that sometimes there are more important things than the dishes piling up in the sink.
A friend moved to an ocean a continent away and when I saw her again we rocked back and forth with our arms around each other and I realized I needed her close.
I always feel the spark and fore-running of a crush by the effervescence burbling in my chest, champagne without the sting.
I saw a film that turned me into a fountain, tears pooling in my eyes and streaming hot down my cheeks and leaking, unstoppable, as I walked home alone at midnight.
It snowed six inches and it all iced over and I fell six times and my knees were bruised and bleeding, and yet, nothing can change the ardor I have for winter, for water made crystal and geometric and sparkling.
When I hear French, the world shifts a little; every syllable could be a memory of my father’s words, could take me back to bonne nuit, les filles.
When God did not save my father’s life, I gave Him up.
After leaving our church, I had been waiting for religion to become rational, to see if it could redeem itself by performing a miracle or making the world coherent again, or by proving my basic understanding of the Sunday school tenant: do no harm, and no harm shall come to you.
By these promises my father should not have died. If the world was fair and love meant anything, death, for him, so soon, should not have been possible. And yet.
I was thirteen when he died, ten when we left St. Peter’s, and nothing made sense. Least of all a God who could let love go empty; I remember being struck by His uselessness.
My father died on a Sunday, in a mint green room at a Hospice center. I went to school on Monday, and halfway through the morning I was called to the guidance counselor’s office. She said she was there if I needed to talk; I said ok and never went back. It seems difficult, realistically, to be in denial about death, but it’s easy, like how a summer rainstorm pounds the tin roof over your head and blots out the world; everything past the sound of rain disappears. If you hold that, nothing ever has to change. It’s oddly plausible—I wasn’t there when he died, he was simply gone from me and stayed gone, and he had travelled for work, had always been gone most of the week. I was used to the absence. A box of ashes looks nothing like a body.
When we were little, I was the twin who threw temper tantrums. My mom sewed a heavy, dense pillow that was blue on one side, red with a lightning bolt on the other. We called it the angry pillow, and I’d hit it and kick it while screaming myself hoarse. However slight the trigger, my little kid comprehension of the world was breaking—the emotions needed out, and I was not quiet. I wasn’t good at ignoring feelings. They were as undeniable as sunshine, a stronger force than logic or reason when they made themselves known, when they were stinging my eyes.
From thirteen on, the list of things I did not want to feel grew, and to cope, I got better at not feeling. I didn’t want to follow the trajectory—feeling to thinking to naming to comprehending—that would turn what I wanted to ignore coherent or real. Some things feel too boundless; as if, when confronted, you couldn’t ever fathom how deep and cutting and world-altering the ramifications would be for your frail human form; as if, when faced, you know you will not be the same person as before.
Where does love go when the subject that held it dies? Where does love go when it’s in me, and some call it sick and deranged, and to even suggest its existence is to be excluded, banished, from a place that was once a home? What does love mean, what use can it hold if it leads to this?
A friend broke my heart more than anyone I’ve ever cared about. Elizabeth and I grew close cautiously, in fits and starts, and I poured dependency into the friendship the same way a tide knocks over a sandcastle: in one wild rush, obliterating any vestiges of what was there before.
I went with her from New York to Oregon, to California, to Washington. From the desert to the ocean and across a country. Somewhere in our travels, maybe as we drove down the Pacific Coast highway, we began to fracture. A slow split, punctuated with lies on her end, and inflexibility on mine. I couldn’t make myself louder when faced with criticism for my quiet, or more of whoever she’d hoped I would turn into when outside the pressures of our Ohio college. We shifted away from each other to protect our own selves. In the end, we broke apart with volatile finality.
Friendships are supposed to be the loves that last longest—chosen continually for years and years. They’re supposed to be dependable in a world that is fundamentally not. They’re supposed to be the loves that don’t leave.
I had never loved Elizabeth in that full, generous way that I wanted to—I just liked the idea of perfect friendship so much that I fixed the ideal to her, ignoring the ways it didn’t fit. In the sad, quiet way of such heartbreaks, I mourned a fantasy, a lost concept, more than the person. Such illusions are potent—they can feel stable, and fill in the holes where self-worth, confidence, self-assuredness should be. I hadn’t realized until it was gone and there was only me, heartbroken and crumbling.
And yet—with jadedness pounded out, with my soul feeling exposed and vulnerable and searching, every tiny piece of good I encountered overwhelmed me with its existence. I’d walk at night and encounter the moon, the soft budding leaves of trees, the dark pink color of a night sky filled with snow, and it was as if I’d never appreciated or loved anything so completely before. And maybe I hadn’t; maybe I’d always been waiting to break.
To say, “I love you”—it feels ungainly in my mouth. I’ve never been in love, not the salient-in-the-larger-culture idea of “in love.” I’ve been in-crush, in-infatuation, smitten, stuck on someone for what felt like much too long, but calling it “in love?” No. What would stepping into that phrase mean? Is it only a negligible semantic distinction, the line between loving and being in love? Is saying you’re “in love” just a code to mean you’re serious about it, that you’ve devoted yourself to this depth of feeling?
Maybe I’m keeping the phrase out of reach to hold it for what I imagine it could be: something sweeping, something different. And, if I was never in love, I never lost that love, never let love happen to me and not called it what it was, never let it leave without fighting to make it stay.
But what or where is the “in” of the phrase, “in love?” I’ve never been in love but I have been in love, undoubtedly—suffused with it, steeped in it. I’ve been overwhelmed with the deep kindness of a teacher, enamored with the way trees open up their whole selves to the sky: arms wide and graceful. The atmosphere I breathed has felt tinged with it, the generous kind of love that moves the center of your world away from yourself, widens how you care.
Maybe I just need practice, familiarity with the words on my tongue, experimentation with all they could hold. What if I tried saying it to the moon, to the willow, to the squirrel who clung to the stone lip of the pond, draping himself down to drink from the water in the crack in the ice near my feet?
Sometimes, I go to grocery stores tipsy and let myself be overwhelmed by the produce section: the purple sweet potatoes, the rainbow carrots, the careful arrangement of green apples and bunches of kale. Their abundance staggers. The colors seem to saturate the very air. The tomato section in summer always gets me; the cloned red orbs and the deep yellow heirlooms heavy with a life suspended in your hand. I want no other flesh but this, these beings who do not bleed, who begin as flowers. This is a love that feels like thanks, in that unbounded simplicity that says how glorious it is to be a witness to life.
If to be “in love” is to be enmeshed in a state of being, a movable place, I will change my mind: yes, I’ve been in love. Some moments, some lucky days, it has seemed to define my life.
I want the meaning of love, the word, to be consistent—reliable, steady to a degree—not the mutable behemoth it is now, with its multitudes of interpretation roiling through language. I want to delineate how my heart beats with such specificity that when I say love, there will be no equivocation in my meaning.
What if love was rhetorically constructed like a box of Crayola crayons, the 120-count with the sharpener built in the back? One word for each facet of love, perfectly transmissible. Wisteria-love, for the quiet connection to a grandparent you barely know. Teal-love, the quick fast feeling for a friend you’ve just met, who you instantly know will be important for years and years. Red-orange-love, for the way a body wants another. Maroon-love, for an I love you that you know, with all certainty, will be returned.
I keep trying to say I’m over her, a girl I met working at a summer camp in the months after graduating college—keep trying to say, just give me a year, a bit more time. But when she mentions being depressed, I send her a poem. The idea of her hurting makes me ache. But why am I trying to get past feeling? Why is this the aim: when something ends? Why are we so quick to banish the ways we’ve cared?
There was a stretched-out time that felt like a single moment: in the days after star-gazing; after talking till three in the morning on a stone stoop, neither one of us wanting to say goodnight; after watching her get tattooed with blue stars of a constellation; after she kissed me under a persimmon tree under a cloudy grey night sky. I was driving down rural Virginia roads at sunset, following the twist of the bends, pushing my speed until just before I’d lose control if another car came around the corner. There were round bales of hay dotting the heat-dry green fields, my windows down to turn the hot humidity bearable. Thinking of her, of love, of love, of love.
There was a later moment—when she said, not now, not here, and I wondered if she was trying to find a kind way to say, not you. Still, I try to let that early warmth sit, let it rest while I wait and think and wait and find that no, time hasn’t changed my feelings, hasn’t dimmed any of my memories of her brightness. And then to say, all right—stay, love; break my heart and mend its tears, or rather, don’t break it at all: just hold that love, that person, in a chamber or a little attic or a small trunk in the attic in whatever maze of compartments in my heart that holds the ones I have loved. Let this new love rest among the others, among loves that do not change or evolve but remain in all their wholeness simply because they existed. And isn’t that close to holy? No falling out of love, no getting over it, no falling deeper, no trajectory but stillness. I love, because I loved.
Time can move on, but why do hearts need to change or grow forgetful as it does? What if I encase all my loves in amber, give them sizes and shapes and make them into touchstones, build an internal vault of shining things too brilliant to be denied. What if I stay there, surrounded by the honey-hued glow of all the miracles that I keep safe?
But who knows—maybe I can only write this because I’m sitting here, in a space and time just past pining—counting loves, feeling content. In the privileged place past heartbreak, past disappointment, where a world to be loved is blooming before me.