When I tell my parents that I wish I’d been less serious about my college relationships, they simultaneously snort into their spaghetti. Who, you? Our daughter who has publicly admitted to making out with half the lesbian, queer, bisexual, bicurious and questioning women at Harvard? Less serious?
They’ve read my sex writing.
But sex writing can be misleading. When I’ve fallen in love, I’ve fallen like a plane crash in slow motion. A long, drawn-out descent with an abrupt and blazing finish. The autumn I was 19, I was planning my work-life balance as a politician’s wife — only to break up with this future leader while arguing with him over bell hooks in a Chinese restaurant. The spring I was 20, I was Googling real estate prices in San Diego, then ducking out of parties to fight with this long-distance girlfriend over the phone.
Two years later, the whole family is gathered around the dinner table on a muggy July night in suburban New Jersey, debating my and my sisters’ love lives.
I’ve just graduated from college and am in the middle of a romance that is both blossoming and necessarily ending as I prepare to spend a year abroad. My sister is also grappling with long-distance love.
“No, really,” I tell them. “Just because you don’t want to be with somebody monogamously forever doesn’t mean they’re not great for you — or that you don’t love them.
“I think different people can be right for you at different times in your life.”
“Well, I don’t believe that,” my father says emphatically. “When you find someone you work with, that’s a very precious thing. That’s not something to be taken lightly.”
He would know: He and my mother have been together for 38 years, since they were 15 and 16.
“I don’t know, honey,” my mother says. “It can be hard to know when you’re so young. It can be good to see other people.”
My mother is onto something. It’s not that I think monogamy is bad: For lots of people — like my parents — it’s great. But I’m not so sure I’m one of those people.
Those slow-plane-crash college relationships — that made my heart feel like a Jell-O shot of Patron — also had an undercurrent of panic. Panic that, if I were really in love, if things really were as wonderful as they felt, I would have to limit my affection for the sake of commitment. I’d have to stifle the part of me that wanted to make out with all the cuties in San Diego, or dance too close and electric with a friend at the inaugural ball.
I am a naturally effusive person. I crave people, noise, touch, company. I believe in family, and I believe that family goes beyond the nuclear. I want my loves, like myself, to be big, robust and with untidy edges. I think human affection naturally overflows its boundaries.
I’m not so convinced that, for me, the real test of love is exclusivity.
In a culture that tells us that love is about the one-and-only, this philosophy doesn’t always fly. Selfish, those college partners called me. Reckless.
For talking too loud or wanting to kiss someone at a party. For, yes, being bone-headed sometimes. But also, for being myself.
In some instances, this was fair: Kissing your partner’s best friend when you promised not to kiss anybody is a jerk move.
But some of these instances were fair’s antithesis: The fights because I smiled at someone the wrong way or hugged someone I once slept with or because I was too close to someone I’d once had a crush on.
For lots of people — for my parents — monogamy is about mutual love and support. But sometimes, monogamy can be used to exert control.
This is precisely the seriousness I want to stem: Not the giddy feeling of free-fall that accompanies the plane crash, but the feeling that love is life or death. The feeling that, if the person you want does not want you, only you, forever, you will perish.
This is the fear that can turn love into the desire for control.
Maybe, as time goes on, I will think differently, and that’s okay. But whatever form they take, I want my relationships to have space for all my selfishness and recklessness. And if somebody loves me, I don’t want to feel like their love for someone else can end my world.
Because when I think about love, I think about the kind of joyful welcome my parents taught me: big and generous, complex and kind. Not of loves in small boxes, straight, uncooked and orderly, but of the spaghetti trailing off our forks on this sticky summer evening, tangled and nourishing.