I have been fortunate to love and be loved by a good number of people in my life. Some have been family—brothers, parents, cousins, one very special nephew (so far). Most have been friends; a few have been lovers. But I have only fallen in love twice. I know this after the fact, because falling in love hurts. It causes deep emotional distress, which is why it’s called “falling”.
One theme that has come up in this symposium has been that we love in many ways. We all experience a number of things that we call love. Some of these are more demanding, more emphatic than others. I am identifying a particular kind of love: it’s the kind into which we fall, but that’s not necessarily something out of our control.
The first time I fell in love, it was after I had had a few serious relationships, with people for whom I cared deeply, and who cared for me. I had even lived with one man for a brief time, sharing a car and a table as well as a bed. But I knew fairly early on in each relationship that it was impermanent, and each of them understood that as well. Will was different for me. He was an artist, the kind of person I had always imagined I would settle down with. He was handsome, quirky, smiled easily. He was also straight, but he wanted to be my boyfriend. We spent time with each other, kissed a bit, just enough for me to become attached to the idea that we might always be together. Will went back to art school. We exchanged love letters, mix tapes (people mock those now, but they really were wonderful things), and he included me in his art. But for Will, a boyfriend was, by definition, a temporary thing. He could never have a family with another man. He could never experience holidays, or growing old with a man. He was Ennis to my Jack before Annie Proulx wrote Brokeback Mountain. I held out hope for longer than I should have, and he eventually had to make things clear to me. It hurt in a way maybe most of you know, but which was entirely new to me. In that moment I had lost all control, and I knew I would always be alone.
Fast forward a year or so. No serious relationships, focused on finishing my undergrad work and moving on, I was happy. Good friends, interesting projects and research (simulating supernovae!), and student government were plenty to fill my time. I graduated in 1998, but before I left Raleigh I met a young man named Jason who was visiting from Cleveland. We had great conversations, had a lot in common. We were even decently matched in Scrabble. He returned home, and we kept in touch by email. I moved to New Mexico shortly afterward, and as I was getting into the car for the cross-country trip, a swallowtail butterfly wing floated in. I kept that wing above the sun visor of my car as a symbol of my leaving home and starting my own journey.
Jason made it clear fairly early on that he was completely opposed to long-distance relationships. He tried to get rid of me by making me read Atlas Shrugged but it didn’t work; in fact, our discussions of the book served to cement our feelings for each other. (Yes, I just invoked an Ayn Rand novel romantically. Cue flying pigs.) One day, thinking quietly on my own out in the beautiful desert behind the trailer I was renting, I looked at a place in my mind I hadn’t visited in a while. Every emotional part of me reeled at the thought, but every intellectual, reasonable part of me said “He’s the one.”
The most surprising thing that had ever happened to me followed next. The mere act of deciding to fall in love with Jason caused me deep emotional pain. It was so intense and so frightening I thought I had broken something inside me. The pain brought me to tears. I didn’t understand at the time, and I still don’t fully. But I knew that I had changed myself in some fundamental way. I was no longer the person I was used to. That, I think, is the essence of falling in love, and why it hurts so much when you realize it’s happened.
We eventually managed to live in the same place. When we were alone and settled in a few days later, we held a quiet ceremony, exchanging a few vows, and I burned the butterfly wing. And it didn’t hurt one bit.