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A Conversation With a Stranger About Love

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A young woman, back to the camera, walks alone at night, illuminated by a lamp along a park path
What does love’s fullness look and feel like? And how will I know that what I’m experiencing is the real thing? (iStock)

This week, as we near the end of 2022, the writers and editors of KQED Arts & Culture are reflecting on One Beautiful Thing from the year. Here, recalling a late-night chat with a stranger on the internet, intern Kristie Song reflects on love’s possibility, and the forms its arrival may take.

In April, I asked a stranger what it felt like to be in love.

As we sat in our dimly lit rooms miles away from each other, threaded together by a weak internet connection, Erik told me about the first time they had ever truly and profoundly felt in love.

“It’s just a feeling of fullness. A feeling of sunshine, of comfort, of warmth and safety that has never really left me since that relationship.”

I had asked because I’d never experienced this kind of love myself. Like a child trying to make sense of outer space, or insects, I leaned in and prodded. Why? How? And then what? What does this fullness look and feel like? And how do I know that what I’m experiencing is the real thing?

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I’ve had hundreds of crushes over the years, but those brief minglings with affection and projected fantasies of love never lasted.

In my first year of college, I hopped from dorm to dorm, avoiding my own as much as possible. One evening, I was resting on my friend’s bed when one of her roommates walked in, huffed and plopped herself beside me. “I had a shit day,” she said. “Can we cuddle?”

I’d never held someone or been held in this way, but nodded and turned to my side. She wrapped an arm around my torso tightly, pressing herself into me. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but my new and normally rambunctious friend was silent the whole time, her pulse steady in the small of my back, her breath even in the crook of my neck. That moment, in the quiet of that room, where our tired bodies met — did that constitute fullness?

In the past, I projected love onto people who’d affirmed me in some way, who made me feel that my body and mind were of value. I yearned for a love that treasured what I loathed about myself, a voice to blanket the one inside my head that berated my every move, feature and action. (This is, perhaps, an impossible goal.)

Then, in late March, I went to the theater to watch Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World. In the film, a woman not much older than I stumbles into relationship and relationship, seeking a kind of romantic salve to quiet her turbulent mind. Afterward, I walked the winding road home and thought of the ways I, too, had tried to convince people to love and “fix” me. How I yielded to kisses shared on unfamiliar beds and offered myself up emotionally, opening my heart wider and wider to others, telling myself that this is how I can properly give and receive romantic intimacy. When these people would inevitably leave, I searched for others to fill the fissures left behind, repeating the cycle.

Still, this urgency envelops my brain. I need to experience it now or I never will! I want to know what love feels like, but how do I know I’ve stumbled upon something right when all I’ve come across are its caricatures? It’s like peering at a silhouette: you can gaze at its shape, its apparition, but all you can do is trace its outlines over and over, hoping in vain that the image will make itself clear someday.

I told Erik about this, as we neared the end of our conversation.

“You’ll know when it happens. It’s a feeling, it’s not a thought,” they replied. “It’s not like, ‘Okay, this checks all my boxes.’ It’s an emotional, visceral feeling of safety and trust, basically.”

So, I’ve laid my search for love to rest. I’m looking for something else. A feeling: the warm bubbling of easy laughter, the comfort of being able to speak openly and stumble over my words without the pressure to be witty or inquisitive in moments where I just want to be silent. I’m looking for contentment, something slow and sure and which doesn’t need convincing. I’m seeking intimacy that doesn’t harbor ulterior motives.

I’m seeking a love that doesn’t need to be earned, because after this year, I’m finally understanding that it never really needed to be.

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