How do you go about explaining love to someone who has never felt it? How do you put into words the sweetness of the first kiss or the bitterness of the first goodbye or the hundred pinpricks of emotion you feel each and every time lip parts lip? If I were to try, I wouldn't start with the first embrace or the first touch or the first time your tongue swept the top of your mouth and you breathed my name. I wouldn't start with the first time nail bit into hip or teeth into shoulder or the first time you cried my name and I cried yours. I wouldn't talk about the first time that we held hands under the branches of the willow, limbs interlaced as we fell asleep with Whitman on my breast. I wouldn't even talk about the time you slipped platinum around my finger and I cried on a sunny October afternoon.
Instead, I would talk about the first time you taught me something. I would talk about how we were standing in wintery midnight air and how you put your hand on the small of my back--as if it were a familiar and expected resting place--and how you leaned in close to allow your voice to be as quiet as possible. Your cheek brushed mine and you pointed to the stars. I don't remember what you explained, but I remember the warmth that filled my belly; I remember the sudden sweet pull from within. It wasn't love of body or even love of spirit - it was love of mind. A mind spacious and full and brimming with ideas. A mind that challenged and sharpened and intrigued. So if I was to explain love, I would begin there. I would begin with the intelligence that drew me in, like honeysuckle on a warm summer day. I would begin with the feeling of taking my first breath and realizing it was no longer smog seeping into my lungs, but clear mountain air. Like finding water to quench my thirst when I had been living on empty hope for so very long.
But I would not end there. No. Instead, I would then talk about the first time I saw your unfaltering love for others. I would tell about the first time I took you to meet my grandmother in her worn, British home. I would talk about watching you wheel her into the room and the way she lit up when you smiled. I would reminisce about how she asked you to sing and you blushed, but obliged. How your crooning filled the stale air with such warmth and unselfishness - baritone notes rumbling from your slender chest to dance in front of me. How my grandmother cried when you walked over to kiss her cheek. It was not love of passion or love of humor - it was love of compassion. Compassion and grace so great that it seemed to overflow from your every pore, like fog curling around the ankles of those around you to twist up our limbs and tighten around our chest. So if I were to talk about the growth of love, I would continue there. I would talk about stinging eyes when you brushed your lips over the trembling bird-bone, weathered hands of my grandmother before we left. I would talk about how my heart swelled, my knees trembled, my bones dissolved watching you. Like sugar melting on strawberry curves. Like sinking into bed after muscle-aching work and realizing sleep had finally arrived.
And if I was to continue, if I was to attempt to try to paint this portrait of love, I would have one last story to give. I would pull it from the darkest, most haunted corners of my heart and offer it up as proof - evidence of the light that permeates the shadows. I would talk about the first time you listened to apologies stumbling across my lips. I would talk about sitting on beds in cold, dark rooms and telling you the worst of me. About how I was shaking, knowing this moment could be our last - knowing you could choose to walk away and not blaming you for a second if that was your choice. I would talk about how this was the first moment I truly knew fear, the kind that rattles your very soul - the kind that changes you with how deep it roots. I would tell about your expression when I talked, as every ugly ghost came crawling out of my mouth to become tangible in the light. I would talk about how when I was done, when I was drained, my head hung in shame and my body hollowed out with terror and loss, how you pulled me to my feet. How you arched my body into yours and swept me into a silent dance. I would talk about your lips brushing my forehead, my cheek, my temple - how there were no words, but how every movement of your fingers, every breath that pooled from your tongue spoke of redemption. It was love of forgiveness, of a gracious and giving heart. To this day, I do not know of the bruises I caused or the hurt you swallowed. I just know of the tenderness as you held me and kissed away the fears that caused teeth to clack and hands to clench. I know of the first moment when I felt washed, accepted, forgiven.
This, I would explain, is love. Not the passionate embrace you see on the street or the empty words you hear screamed from empty mouths. It is the wholeness and the scarred beauty of body, mind and spirit molding to one another. It's the moment when embarassing yourself is feasible. When brusing your heart to erase the bruise from anothers seems fair. It's the quiet moments that no one knows about. Not the pictures you see framed above the mantle - those are just the afterglow. It's the time you wake up in the middle of the night just to watch them sleep. It's the first moment you give wholly of yourself with no fear, no regard for safety. It's the second where you unveil yourself - allow every vulnerable, cracked and ugly piece to be put on display for them to see. It's not beautiful and it's not painless. In fact, it can be the ugliest, most painful thing you will ever experience. But it's glorious. It's honest. It's true.
(Because you see, darling, years have passed,
and still, when I try to explain love,
I begin, and end, with you.)