One of the most distinct memories that I have from my childhood is when I did poorly on a school assignment in middle school and brought it home to show my parents. When I was scolded, I started crying. My mom then turned to me and told me to stop crying, not in a particularly harsh way, just in a way that prepared me for the world too early and influenced me subconsciously. From that statement, I learned that I am this performative cog in the machine, meant to jump hoop after hoop. The only emotional labeling and learning I had was through my friends at school, and coming from the cushy suburbs of Connecticut, what I learned was very limited and superficial.
If I couldn’t cry, and if I was scolded for failure, then that meant that I would suppress tears and aim for success. My achievements defined me. The way I appeared to others was a hard front, trying to be as infallible and put together as possible. All of high school I didn’t have an intimate relationship with anyone, not even some of my closest friends, because I only let people see who I was when I had to perform. It wasn’t until now, when I started to get into an intimate relationship with you that I realized I am lacking something.
At the beginning of the semester, I went to your room and you showed me your posters. They spanned two walls, each having a link to who you are and the values you were raised on. Compared to me, I only have a small section of a wall in my room with my personal knick-knacks. This small selection of postcards and photos was more curated than yours.
When we laid in bed together, I would have my back to you. I could feel how warm you were, or the way your arm felt under my head. I wanted the upper hand in what was forming between us. You were always open to the idea of getting to know me better. I wanted to see you as just another body count, a one-and-done, and I would dispose of you after and hopefully never run into you on campus again. The thought of anything else happening, such as intimacy, made my skin crawl.
Yet I knew you were different from other people, and vastly different from me; I am a small curated section of a dorm wall above my desk, with a New York City post card from The Strand to show how metropolitan and well-read I could come off as. I have a polaroid so I can have the right ‘aesthetic’. Meanwhile, your large posters were gifts from people who knew you well and personally, such as a close teacher or your dad, representing a part of your identity, plastered all over the walls. Your presence is so special and great. Even if I turned towards a wall that didn’t have a piece of you, you would be right behind me, reflected through the closet mirror.
To me, the idea of being intimate with someone is the same as giving yourself away.
Another person, who originally had no connection to you, knows you have weak points, and sees you when you cry, and knows your needs. They can witness your failures and flaws. This was completely opposite of what I learned when I was growing up. I had this hard wall that I carefully designed and built, not unlike the postcards and photos I put up in my room at the beginning of the semester. This is why I had so much trouble being with you. You wanted to be with me in a way that I wasn’t used to. It was all uncharted territory to me that you knew how to skillfully navigate.
It became apparent after a while, about two months after, what I felt I was lacking and struggling to grasp hold of. It came slowly to me, as we would reveal more of ourselves to each other and watch the other’s reaction. You started by asking me how my day was each time we saw each other. And when I got upset one day over something childish, and you couldn’t figure out why, you asked, “Do I not treat you right?” For my birthday, I woke up and there was a vase of purple tulips on my desk, and I immediately knew it was you. It was then when I figured out what makes you different from me and how you influence me, emotionally. I was never taught this, and I never felt the urge to act with this quality. I can be a nice person. I can be sweet and funny, but this was one trait you mastered that I still struggle with.
I would love to be tender, to be openly compassionate and to make people feel fuzzy and warm inside. But, as you put it, I have this power trip. It’s so I can hold people at a distance from me, outside of my wall where I house my flaws. You read right through me, and it makes me feel less alone. I’m trying to be tender, but I have to undo all the things I have learned in the past.
These past few months have been so different from anything I’ve experienced. Every time I think about us, it feels strange, because we have so many inside jokes, you know how my brother talks, and I know how happy kiwis make you. Thank you for being the person that you are, vulnerable but not afraid, tender to the point where it hurts, vibrant and funny. I am surprised but happy that I’m with you, because it’s not part of my nature to stay with someone for so long and to ‘give myself’ away; intimacy is a concept that is new and scary to me. But I want to be with you; I’ll try my best to be tender.
Photo by Sophia Liu