This afternoon, my friend Kate and I discussed our love lives over Mapo tofu and bamboo shoots. It’d been a long time since I described my previous relationships in detail, especially to a disinterested party. The last time I talked about my exes, it was with my most recent ex. Today, as I attempted to describe what love meant to me — how I knew I loved and how I knew I was loved — I realized that something had changed in me since the last time I told this story. Perhaps, after having experienced more love, different kinds of love, self-love in these past months, I have learned another dimension of love. Today, when I spoke of people who have long left my life, I realized that I loved each of them in my own way. I realized that the love I had for them never left, never faded. Instead, the person I was when I loved them retained that love and altogether they drifted away like air balloons ascending the sky. Yet the string that ties them to me remains, and if I wish to, I can tug the line and reel the balloon back to me and see our love story encapsulated by inflatable canvas.
Because I wasn’t the girl who cried and watched Netflix and ate ice cream, people thought that breakups didn’t affect me. Because I was always the one who initiated breakups, people thought that I didn’t truly love. Because I stopped talking about my exes, cut them out of my life, people thought that I moved on heartlessly. At a certain point, I believed all of those things about myself. I believed that I was incapable of loving any of my exes as much as they’d loved me. I believed that every “I love you” or “forever and always” I uttered was naïve at best and disingenuous at worst.
Although none of us made it to the end of time, I believe now that my promises were true. I will love all of them forever and always. I believe that there is nothing between now and my deathbed that could change the way I feel about them. As the years pass, they feel more and more distant. Their faces, voices, and touch gradually escape my recollection, but the love I feel for them never grows dull. In the past, whenever I saw elderly people crying as they recounted moments of great loss in their lives, I would be astonished. After so many years and so many retellings, I marveled, how could they still feel so strongly? Now, I’m starting to understand. When I’m old and weary, these are the people who will bring tears to my eyes. Collectively, they taught me what love is. They showed me what unconditional, selfless love looked like when I had rarely glimpsed it before them. They equipped me with the tools to love them back and to love others after them. Together, they gave me the confidence to love myself.
In the past, I also tried to rank the ones I loved — that one I was truly in love with, that one loved me but I didn’t love him back, that one I thought I loved but I didn’t. Now, I know that such an effort is both futile and disrespectful. There is no comparison to be made when it comes to love. After all, it wasn’t the same me that loved each of them. At the time when I said “I love you”, they were the love of my life. There was a time when I considered being with each of them for the rest of my life, if only to bring them happiness. There was a time when their happiness was paramount over mine, and if that isn’t love, then what is it?
Now, as I embark on the dawn of a new relationship, I feel like I’ve finally come to terms with the ones I’ve loved. Instead of comparing my current boyfriend Augustus to my exes, though, I find that I am simply thankful for all my exes gave to me that I am now able to give to Gus. The love I have for the ones in my past doesn’t compete with my capacity to love in the present. I know that when I say “I love you” to Gus, I’ll mean it with my whole heart. I know that when I say “forever and always”, I’ll keep that promise to my grave. I know that I am not only capable of great love, but that I have much, much more love to give.
How have you loved and been loved?