All Or Nothing (Essay)

Words by Rachel Hislop.

I lay in the nook of your arm. Inhale the scent of your day, of my sheets, of our skin. I slowly draw small circles on your arm, or I pay intent attention to the details of your pores and how the hair coils out of them. You smell like poise and grit; like the comfort of nature spritzed with man-made fragrance. You smell like you make me feel. I know I don’t belong here. I know this nook of your body isn’t my home. I’ll be reminded of that when I strip my bed to rid your scent. Around here, we can’t afford the emotional luxury of getting attached to anything but the smell of clean laundry.

Sitting in the common solitude of my studio apt, an Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind, Just in Time” plays in the background. The sound waves fill the air enclosed by the tight square footage. The thought of my thoughts are enough to induce anxiety. I know it’s millennial-hip to preach the magic of stillness and settling the mind, but cycling through my late 20s have been quite the mind-fuck, so I’d rather not explore.

“I am a recovering undercover over-lover,” she rasps through the speaker. I grab my phone. Fire off a tweet quoting Badu’s lyric, and return to whatever mindless task is at hand. But I can’t help but think of how that line as an accurate description of myself. The tweet quoting someone else’s words feels too personal. There is too much of me out in the world.

“An undercover over-lover,” I whisper back to myself.

The termination of an almost decade-long relationship has left me navigating through the abyss of dating in an age of finger flicks across a screen, and I’m armed with little-to-no finesse. I frequently question my limbic system, employing it to send me a signal on how to act, what to feel, or what to know about my ability to interact with the opposite sex. The feedback is consistent. I know how to do only two things: how to love deep, and the recently acquired post-breakup skill: how to detach completely. Spending nearly a third of your life loving someone, building someone up, all while morphing into the complex form of your adult self, can do that. It can frighten the actuality of any “middle ground” clear out of your operating ideals.

I guess we all have our battle scars.

When cackling in group texts or group settings with my girls, the topic about my ability to fall hard, love hard, and then revert to a titanium shell, frequently comes up. Boyfriend? Full love. Crush? Full love. Occasional sexual interest? Well, in the moment, but…full love too. How I love is akin to Oprah, when she excitedly gives cars away to her audience members. I know no boundaries between full commitment and full detachment, but you’ll never hear me proclaim it louder than this sentence, buried in a paragraph of an essay about all the wrong ways I let my pride trump the desire to surrender to love. I’ll let you get close enough to know I’m real, but never near enough to know if I bleed blue or red, emit water or fire, or if you’ll ever be able to love me.

It’s lonely here, but solitude is safe.

I’ve learned to ridiculously applaud myself on being “upfront” with those who I deem worthy about my inability to remain engaged. I’ve leaned over and whispered, “I’ll probably ghost on you and then reappear, it’s just what I do.” But I’m never sure if I’m ever warning them or if I’m warning myself. It’s a web of defense mechanisms that I convince myself I am navigating through seamlessly, while pulling the remnants of netting from my clumsy limbs.

I’m not as in control as I think I am.

The cure to being an undercover over-lover? I haven’t found one–so, I ghost. And, I mean that in the most boogeyman sense of the word. I scare myself clear out of like, and I disappear as soon as I hear the pulse of a human who has feelings that have the potential to make me feel mine. I’ll convince myself minuscule imperfections are operating as signs.

Then I’m a memory. 

Maybe I’ve slipped out of your bed into a waiting Uber before the sky is tinted blue, or maybe I’ve excused myself to the bathroom and from your existence entirely, or maybe my pride hopped out of my purse in the middle of our courtship and reminded me that I will never let anyone have more control over my feelings than me.

Maybe I’m refusing to surrender to vulnerability. Maybe I’m masking it.

But much like André 3000 pulled Badu into his rhythms, and into (or maybe out of) her realm of being an undercover over-lover, there’s always a moment in my refusal to surrender, just as I retreat to titanium when I briefly wonder…

What if he…what if he, what if he, what if he’s the one?

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