I remember the first time someone questioned whether I’d ever truly been in love.
We were curled up in fuzzy blankets under red Christmas lights even though it was only September, with our unfamiliar limbs intertwined like superstitious crossed fingers.
I laughed, thinking I must have kissed him too hard and broken the barrier of ex-lover conversations. The question was a tsunami arriving too early, tumbling recklessly from his half-drunk tongue like it’d been hovering there anxiously for weeks.
I found myself spitting out an answer before the last word had even dripped from his lips- because it jumped onto mine, that still tasted faintly of somebody else, and it turned up the corners of my mouth in a sad smile. But just before the silence between us contaminated the sweetness to sour, before jealousy’s gap-toothed grin surfaced was when he asked,
“But how do you know- I mean reeaally know it was real?”
My tongue, so used to being full of pretty words and witty responses, fell numb.
Because the truth is, I suppose at the time, I did not know if it was real.
But this is what I do know.
I know how it feels to have the air vacuumed out from your lungs in a split, heart wrenching, chest stomping instant.
I know how suddenly conscious one becomes of the mechanisms of simply breathing when you realize things are truly over.
I know exactly how dense the air gets, the ferocious velocity with which goodbyes swallow oxygen out from the space around you. I’m well acquainted with the monster of asphyxiation that lurks behind closed doors, with his sky-wide hands grasping for throats in moments of loneliness.
I am aware that falling backwards off the swing set as a child is not fair training, because sand feels like a damn cloud compared to landing in razor shaped words like, “I wish I never met you.”
I’m familiar with how a sledge hammer would feel being driven into my knee caps at full force, the angle at which they’d buckle and the feeling of every earth shattering millimeter until they reach the ground.
I’m pretty sure I know the amount of time that will pass before desperation washes over, and precisely the resilience of pride being swallowed. Even when chased down with 5 shots and the lips of a stranger.
I have felt my pulse throbbing in the palms of my hands and I have tried every vice to soothe the tormenting midnight knocking on my skull.
I’m not sure that I’ve been in real love, but I do know that I have run barefoot in the rain four blocks like a pathetic goddamn Nicholas Sparks novel in attempts to hold onto something I never second guessed to call love.
I know that there are still songs that come on my radio that I once let resonate symphonies in my ears which I cannot bring myself to listen to, even after all this time.
I know that countless days have passed where his name has not consciously floated through my mind yet I still fall willing victim to the helplessness of dreams.
I know that I still search for his face in every crowd, even when I don’t notice it’s happening, and I am aware I’ll never know whether it’s relief or disappointment that slows the flutter in my heart once I realize it’s just another stranger.
I know how much it aches my bones to hang up the phone on his 3 AM I miss you bait, the ones that came 6 months too late.
I know that not knowing him anymore is almost all that I can write about.
So, the truth is I do not know if I have been in real love.
But I know I have let what I assumed was love destroy me.
I know that I have been in real, whole, honest heartbreak.
Maybe love’s not too different from the way we grasp desperately to the last days of summer even though we have been given so many days before, the way the final hours seem to kiss our skin a little sweeter, how they course August warmth through our veins so much more gracefully.
Maybe love is like how we cherish the last few moments in bed each morning before our alarm scratches us from the depths of dreams, how the mattress morphs into a cloud and how we grow allergic to the shattering reality of outside air.
Or maybe love is the words we mutter in the middle of our darkest days, our sickest hours. Maybe it is how we promise never to take our health and happiness for granted should we ever feel it again.
Maybe that is humanity’s fundamental flaw- we have not yet learned to recognize the worth of the things right in front of us, so we associate value with the weight of their absence.
The harsh reality is, all too often we do not know how real love is until it’s gone.
Maybe the truest measure is not how high we climb, but how far we fall.