Just because I’m in a happy, monogamous, long-term relationship, that doesn’t mean I’m not engaged in several other love affairs…
I’m involved in a love affair with my sweet barista, Michael, who tells me about his life and has followed the stories of my work sagas and kid stuff in a way that makes me feel seen and heard every single day. Granted, he is also the exclusive provider of the one thing I love more than my family (my triple iced lattes), but our connection is genuine — and in the rare moments that I take time to “practice gratitude,” his name always floats to the surface.
There is the long-term love affair with my friend Nina. Our weekly phone calls fill me with so much excitement and joy that I feel like I’m vibrating after we hang up. I often drop off Nina’s favorite bakery’s Vegan Tahini Chocolate Chip cookies at her doorstep. She regularly sends me little presents, made of meaning, depth, and occasionally cashmere, because she can afford nice things. Lately, Nina’s been struggling with some mental health issues and I find myself weeping every time I hear her suffer. Truth be told, I weep for her constantly and she will never even know. I try to show up for Nina every day – with phone calls, not texts (even when I know she might not have the energy to pick up). A few times a week, I also text her, “I happen to be right near your apartment…want a quick kiss or a cuppa?!” Usually I’m miles away, but I bought a CitiBike membership to get to her more quickly. I just want my friend, my love, to know – in a real way – that I’m always there.
I’m juggling numerous love affairs with dead people. Friends, who I miss profoundly; beautiful humans who died too young from terminal illnesses, or drugs, or depression. I talk to them; I see them; I ache for them. I mean, my new book, This Might Be Too Personal, was sold to the publisher based on one essay alone, and it was a love letter to a dead high school crush. I didn’t even know him that well. We never so much as kissed. But, to me, it was a love story.
My partner, Sam, isn’t always aware of my affairs.
Sometimes I get caught. The other night, Sam and I were watching TV together after a very stressful week. My friend once told me that when you and your partner are feeling distant, try something as simple as holding hands while you’re watching a show — and it might be just enough to get back on track. It is very good advice.
That night, however, lounging on our couch, I kept pulling my hand away to respond to my buzzing phone. I was Instagram DM’ing with Gretchen Witt — the founder of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer — a woman I’ve always respected but, essentially, a random acquaintance. Somehow we found ourselves chatting about everything from her memories of her gorgeous son, Liam, to our plans to co-host a series of salons someday that will raise enough money to cure cancer!
I couldn’t put my phone down. Sam, not knowing who I was talking to or the weight of our conversation, shot me a look. “What?!” I yelled, but not in a mean way, “I love her!” He turned off the TV, kissed me on the cheek, and left me in the dark with my twinkling phone and flourishing friendship.
I like that most of my love stories are secrets. These are the kinds of relationships that no one can ever understand, so why bother trying? I mean, we all have them. Human gems we cherish for no obvious reason. People we keep in our hearts in the quietest, sweetest way. Who can begin to explain such intimacy? For one, you’ll sound crazy. I’m in love with Gary from Home Depot — we had the most life-affirming conversation! No. We live in a culture where love stories that aren’t of the romantic variety are not valued very much, even though they provide remarkable bursts of joy. The system is kind of rigged in that way. These kinds of connections certainly aren’t chased the way one does a future spouse. I mean, in this world, you love a random person too much and you’re just called… creepy.
Instead, what if we called it lucky? What if having an abundance of sweet and tender, low-stake, high-impact relationships was actually a sign of a rich life?
The absolutely most romantic time in my life was when I was pregnant with my daughter. I was single, and about to become a mom via an anonymous sperm donor. We’re not talking about dating while pregnant. I’m talking about all the people who showed up for me in unexpected ways, creating love story, after love story, after love story. The bags of homemade pastas and sauces from my friend Ro. The crib with all the accouterments from my friend Danyelle. The extra work (read: income) from my generous editors at New York Magazine. These were the little love stories that sustained me then, and I still hardcore crush on today.
Do I love Gary from Home Depot as much as I love my partner, Sam, or anything even close to it? Of course not. But still, honoring these loves has always brought me comfort. It’s taken the pressure off finding, or sustaining, the perfect romantic relationship because I know where to find happiness, here and there, when I need a quick flicker of sunshine. Love is hard, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes it is more delightful, and actually quite enchanting, to get a triple iced latte with a side of momentary connection. Few moments in life are so pure.
We all have magical relationships — dead, alive, invented, extraordinary, innocuous — and they all have the power to make our hearts dance. You only need to be mindful that they’re everywhere and intentional about holding them dear. No one, not even the object of your affection, ever needs to know how you feel. Because there are some things that are, indeed, too personal. Although, what a wonderful reason to tell someone how special they are.
Alyssa Shelasky, editor of New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries, is the author of the essay collection This Might Be Too Personal: And Other Intimate Stories, which just came out on May 17th. She also writes for The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Self, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram, if you’d like.
(Photo of K+M coffee by Mango Street Lab/Stocksy.)