How I unlearned the rules of intimacy
by Ana Freeman
Alisa sighed my name softly as I kissed her neck, gripped my arm so hard her nails dug into my skin, told me she loved me as she guided my hands up her stomach. This wasn’t the lead-up to anything. It just was.
She fucked skinny redheaded boys and plaid-wearing heroin users. I fucked self-proclaimed critical theorists who made self-deprecating dick jokes and girls who cried after sex every time because they didn’t want to be gay.
Back when Alisa and I hardly knew each other, we found ourselves stranded alone together in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, both drunk and desperately needing to pee. We swallowed our shame and knocked on a stranger’s door and used his bathroom. After that we were inseparable. I loved Alisa instantly and fully—as a friend.
We’re taught that the people we kiss and touch and the people we are “just” friends with should fall into two strictly separate categories. Even “friends with benefits” eventually fall in love in every movie.
I’ve been trying to understand that lesson for years. In kindergarten, my best friend Laura and I shared a bathroom stall and walked the halls with our arms around each other. We took baths together. I have a picture of us cuddling on the couch, our legs entangled. To me today, it looks grossly sexual, but at the time we just loved each other. That was it. There was a first grader who always called us lesbians. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t a compliment.
Sometime between then and the day I left for college, I learned how to operate appropriately in the world. I learned not to hug my teachers, not to hang upside-down on the monkey bars when I was wearing a dress. Sleepovers turned from an occasion for back rubs to a forum for discussing boys. By high school, my female friends and I only hugged.
There was one exception: When I was 17, my friend Tara and I made out on her bed. She put a bolster pillow between us so our bodies wouldn’t touch while our lips did. She dubbed it “the no homo bolster pillow.” I will never understand the logic behind this, but by 17, I understood the sentiment behind it. I understood the fear.
My relationship with Alisa lacked these kinds of convolutions. It was as uncomplicated as my kindergarten love for Laura. It came as easily and thickly as memory.
There was no storm in my gut when I looked at Alisa, no hunger in my legs. Only love, a love so pure and so big that its bright mass made my whole body feel calm and warm. A kind of love I’d never felt for any of my boyfriends or any of my girlfriends or any of my reject-the-gender-binary-friends. At times, Alisa and I even half-ironically discussed Platonic love in its original, spiritual sense. Maybe that was what we had. Maybe it was the highest form of love after all.
Romantic love is supposed to be giddy, crazy, wild, passionate. It is supposed to make us “fall.” My love for Alisa was never the roller coaster ride that pop songs talk about. It was more like the drive home after a long day—the road rocking the car like a cradle.
Alisa and I slowly became used to each other, the way a 16-year-old and a new car do. We walked out of class to join an Occupy meeting. I taught her about feminism and she taught me about poetry. We pooled our meal plan money. We argued about Marxism and transcendentalism. We took the train into Manhattan and slept on each other’s shoulders as the city rattled closer and closer. We planned to open our own coffee shop someday. She’d make the coffee and food and I’d book the performers and select the art for the walls and we’d both have a place to write. We’d live above the shop in a one-bedroom apartment and our friends and lovers could visit as they pleased.
In the meantime, we did move in together. And political discussions and future plans began to take a backseat to her playing with my hair when I couldn’t sleep, to our bodies moving in synch on yet another dark dance floor, to our hands clasped together. Sometimes, I found her in the bathroom, shaking uncontrollably, and held her wordlessly until the earthquake subsided. Sometimes, I sat still and watched her fingers busy on the espresso machine as she made me my fifth latte of the day.
We began to respond to each other instinctively. When I stepped hard on the gas, she accelerated into action. When she braked, I halted. My ears became accustomed to the sounds of her lingering footsteps, her slow breathing. Our eating and sleeping relaxed into the same patterns. Being alone started to feel like walking around naked: chilly and awkward and mostly just strange.
When I try to articulate what my relationship with Alisa was, and how important it felt, people often say that I must have been secretly in love with her. But it’s no secret that I was in love with her. It just wasn’t the kind of love that’s often sung about, or written about. It wasn’t the kind of love that activists fight for. For lack of confused boundaries (they were micro-thin, but always clear), for lack of even little half-crushes, our love was rendered irrelevant.
I saved my confusion for a kid with green hair and facial piercings who preferred the pronouns they/them/their. Alisa slept over at the plaid-shirted boy’s place more and more often. And everyone thought that the wannabe junkie and the inconsistent genderqueer should have meant the most to us. But Alisa and her boyfriend were all pacing and fraught sex and thinking of my green-haired beauty made my organs twist nauseously and my balance falter. Those people were never the ones to stroke our arms and whisper to us in the dark. It was always each other. I was never sure whether the physical closeness or emotional closeness happened first, but they became the same thing.
A hug could never express all of our affection. By the time I met Alisa, I knew what a lesbian was, and I was no longer afraid of being seen as one. As for her, I don’t think she ever really cared. So we broke those rules—the rules we’d spent a lifetime learning, the rules that tell us any man and woman walking together are dating, and any two women intertwined just one hair too closely are gay.
Disregarding what was normal within our kind of relationship allowed us to find unexpected intimacy. It allowed us to learn that being friends can become something serious, something that would be laughable to qualify with a “just.”
Alisa and I were symbiotic and simple. Our lovers were never our loves. We were each other’s homes.
But we all have to grow up and leave home someday. I left in pursuit of sunshine and the tall surfer I’d met the summer before who did incite a storm in my gut and hunger in my legs.
Alisa gave me a journal to take with me, and she snuck a letter into its back pages. In the letter, she wrote “…the most important thing that I’ve learned is that love is the most important thing, and this is a thing I’ve learned here, and mostly from you.”
I’ve always had a strong sense of love’s importance, but I learned love’s mechanics mostly from her. Like driving, love is now an action I can’t forget how to do.
All names have been changed.