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What Makes A Stranger Feel Like Home?

I recently discovered that I’m a really good date.

And as cocky as that statement sounds, it’s true, and part of me is proud of it.

I know how to recognize an awkward greeting, how not to be phased by a long evaluating stare from head to toe, and meet it with my warmest welcome, my biggest smile, and excitement in my voice.

I fill silences easily, without betraying any awkwardness. As if I naturally wanted to speak. As if I was inspired to share a personal story just at that moment. As if it were my pleasure to entertain.

I know how to draw someone in and make them feel close to me. How to seem, or rather be, accessible. How to make being an open book look easy, as if honesty were just as involuntary and necessary as breathing.

I ask the questions that get people to open up most, that make them feel special. As if they were the only person in the room. As if I wanted nothing but their attention. As if the answers mattered to me personally.

I know how to look down at the lipstick smudge on my glass. How to pause and smile and play with my hair. How to cover my face when I laugh and mimic someone’s gestures. Like a mirror. Reflecting back their positivity as if it were organic, without letting them realize it’s something I’ve purposefully injected into the interaction.

Making people feel good is my magic trick. An illusion I perform skillfully enough to not betray my methods. And although I take pride in this ability to read and connect with people, there’s still a sting of shame that comes with knowing it’s not entirely genuine.

And this is where I struggle with myself most, because I value being genuine over anything in the world, and so much of this is. Part of me is extroverted and naturally friendly and interested in meeting new people. Part of me hates surface-level interactions and longs for meaningful conversations. Part of me is really just an open book.

But part of me knows it’s a learned skill I’ve only recently been able to do with anyone, anywhere. Something I can actively turn “on” and “off.” Something I attribute to working sales and performing on a stage. That the stories I choose to share have been carefully curated to make me seem relatable and funny or smart and charming or any other combination of adjectives that are appealing to other people.

But on the other hand, it’s not as deliberate and conniving as I make it sound. None of it’s fabricated. There’s no persona. It’s all still “me.” When I try to boil it down in order to figure out where the falseness I feel actually lives, it comes down to attention. Whether I genuinely want to give someone mine. Whether I really want theirs in return.

I think of the last time I truly felt that way about someone, and know it’s not the same. It’s that feeling you get when you never want a conversation to end. When you can’t stop waiting for another chance to see someone. When even right after they leave, deep down you wish they’d turn around and come back knocking on your door.

I still have some diluted version of that feeling inside me, or maybe a memory of the feeling that is becoming gradually harder to recall. Maybe it’s only a fading fantasy. And while it’s been so long that I don’t know if I can truly say what “it” is anymore, I cannot seem to escape distinguishing what and where it is not. The knowledge that something is missing rears its ugly head and turns the magic into a trick. Because at my most charismatic, I’m also at my loneliest.

This thing, this elusive thing, maybe I never really knew what it was. Does it matter if I call it attraction or affinity, chemistry or compatibility? Does that bring me any closer to pinpointing what it is that draws us to someone, what makes a stranger feel like home?

I know what it’s like to look at someone I’ve just met and not be able to stop looking. To subconsciously count down the minutes until they inevitably leave and dread never seeing them again, knowing, without understanding why, that it would be a terrible thing. To continue staring in the time that is left, afraid to look away, as if they would disappear if I did.

Something this corny shouldn’t be real, and it makes me groan out loud every time I recognize it in a rom-com, because it is real, because it was real. It was one of the realest things I’ve ever experienced, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like it.

I try to pick it apart and analyze it, reading through things I scribbled on notebook pages long ago, trying to make sense of what seemed like nonsense, as if it was a recipe I could figure out in reverse, like if I knew the ingredients that had created the feelings I could replicate it with someone new—

[—] gives it away in little phrases. I don’t even need to speak it. What an extraordinary thing. To feel something this – god I don’t even have a word for it. Natural, easy, effortless. To know without experiencing something. How it would be. It’s certainty.

When have two people ever looked at each other this way? I’m sure it happens every day, and yet somehow I’ve never experienced this in my life.

Who else understands me this way – has taken the time to understand – who has the capacity to understand?

I wish I could relive it over and over again. Every fucking detail. Your voice, your face. What it feels like to talk to you. When we both said the music at the show was loud at the same time.

I always wanted more from them. Wanted them closer. Wanted them longer. But I could never have them. And for whatever reason — I don’t think that was the cause of the intensity. I think that was a testament to it. How can you feel this much from so little? What would I have felt from just even a little bit more? I’d be scared to know the answer.

Because even though the person is long gone, it’s hard to forget the feeling. And maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe I’m supposed to remember it, even if at times it’s frustrating. Even if there are times I wish I never experienced this feeling to begin with, so I wouldn’t miss it now, because then everything else in my life would seem like more than enough. So I wouldn’t feel discouraged when I meet someone interesting but don’t hang onto their every word in the same way.

So I wouldn’t have to continuously ask myself why then and not now? Why this person and not that one?

It’s not something I can break down into qualities or adjectives. Sometimes the person is more honest, braver, more open with me, but I still feel something missing. I read somewhere once that matches are misleading because they are so weak, but given the right conditions they can burn a house down.

So maybe this person had some imperceptible match-like power, some intangible quality that was impossible for even my observant nature to uncover. Or maybe it was the conditions; maybe my recently failed relationship and the fact that I was starting adult life over at twenty-five made me the equivalent of dry wood doused in gasoline. Maybe this is an all of the above type of question.

Whatever it was, it felt like rest, relief. I had put so much effort into a last attempt to save that relationship, and it had taken even more effort to walk away from it. For whatever reason this person made it feel like I could stop trying so hard for a moment and just let myself “be”. Realizing they cared for me, for the real parts of me, not the charismatic ones, the ones I don’t “turn on” for anyone, made me start to care about myself again, about who I wanted to become at this pivotal moment in my life.

Maybe sometimes the wrong time for something to work out, is exactly the right time for the same thing to not work out. I had a lot of work to do. Work on myself, work for myself. And I would have turned this unbelievable feeling, this effortlessness, into some kind of drug. I would have chosen it over the things that were scary and hard but necessary, and would have depended on it for my happiness instead of listening to the voice inside that was telling me exactly what I needed. That my happiness had to come from me and not someone else.

I see now how necessary the trying is, the struggle, and even though I sometimes resent missing this feeling, I know it’s kept me from settling for something less, from sliding into another relationship instead of learning to depend solely on myself. But I still miss the joy that came with comfort and caring. The naturalness of it. How new it was but how familiar.

I miss the absolute certainty of wanting someone in an all or nothing kind of way. The kind of way where just sex would never be enough, and neither would friendship. I’m reminded of it every time I kiss someone and have to ask myself if I really want to be kissing them. If I have to think about it, the answer is almost always no.

So I feel ashamed for not being all in, for the falseness. And it makes me feel alone. So I go back out there to find new people to turn the charisma on for. And it’s a cycle where I keep finding things that aren’t what I’m looking for, even though I have no clue what it is I’m looking for in the first place.

I guess the closest I can get to describing it is to say it’s like laughing. Really laughing. Not a nervous chuckle because you don’t know how to react in a situation, but the kind of laughter you can’t control or stop, the kind you feel throughout your entire body. The kind that continues even after whatever’s funny has ended. The kind that leaves tears in the corners of your eyes and takes your breath away.

This kind of laughter is rare, and sometimes we forget what it feels like until the moment it happens again, but we never forget how to do it. Without thinking, without hesitating.

In an all or nothing kind of way. TC mark