I grew up surrounded by beautiful, strong women. My mother and her friends always seemed so endlessly resilient and full of wisdom. More than that, the love they shared was inspiring. I would never expect that kind of softness between people who sported such assertive and bold personalities. I fell in love with how devoted they were to each others’ happiness, how unbridled their conversations were, how spontaneously they would explode with laughter. The practice of their love and friendship—what I affectionately called “girl love” at age seven and still do today—taught me so much about womanhood and how much my future relationships would be defined by the women who I would someday share the same bond with.
My older sister Fran was my first best friend and responsible for my induction into a girl love clique. Seeing her pour so much love into her female relationships and being on the receiving end of those same affections taught me how to love the women in my life with more clarity than even my mother had shown before her. Five years my senior, my sister and I adopted more of a surrogate parent dynamic than sisters or friends growing up. This, of course, suited me fine because it meant more attention and support, two things that I, simultaneously an elementary school diva and recluse, required.
Eventually, that support matured and the scolding that I once winced at evolved into tough love speeches that I both needed and wanted to hear. By the time I was in high school, my sister and I were the best of friends; we were inseparable. Of course, except for when we went to school, where I met many of my still close friends and endeavored to supply them with the same love I was benefiting from.
Amidst the endless trash talking, anxiousness and insecurity you can expect from nearly any high school experience, girl love reigned supreme. My heart was teeming with love. I poured the excess into my studies and nurturing my own talents. At no point, despite the love that was overflowing from my chest, did I entertain the idea of giving it to someone who didn’t appreciate its value. The “he teases you because he likes you” saying left a sour taste in my mouth. Bad boys got none of my attention.
It wasn’t that I was so very different from girls my age. If anything, I was begrudgingly common. Basic. I wasn’t above any of the trivial worries that other girls my age were plagued with. Girl love didn’t disappear my problems or my insecurities. Instead, it held them comfortably in its hand. It also made it so that despite everything, I never felt the need to twist behavior designed to be unloving towards me into loving. I was living everyday so fulfilled by the acceptance our love was defined by that I couldn’t imagine allowing cruelty to share space with it.
After high school, the stresses of academia began to weigh heavily on my friendships. The reality of our hectic schedules and distance made our check-ins and bonding time become less frequent. With more time between each visit, our routine for meeting changed, too. We were less concerned with discussing our future plans and making new memories than we were with covering our bases—had every story been told? The girl love we once charitably dosed was now rationed. So much love was exhausted maintaining a sense of normalcy in our day-to-day lives that it didn’t seem like a priority to lend support to each other.
For a time, those survival instincts when it came to loving seemed enough. Funneling whatever support I had once offered my friends into my own passions to weather the year felt natural, necessary. Eventually I convinced myself that maintaining my friendships was just another expense and maintaining them well—by supplying them with girl love—was an added tax I could not afford. I spent a few months secluded in the bubble of my own responsibilities. My own hobbies. My own drama. When I began to miss the social aspect of the community I’d built, I was reserved to reach out to my friends again. What if too much time had passed? A lot could happen in a few months. What if they thought I was being disingenuous, had some ulterior motive? I had missed a number of outings and social calls. In retrospect, I was vulnerable. I was quietly lonely and in need of a friend. Maybe that’s what attracted my now-ex Ace* to me, that I was so obviously unguarded and craving affection, without real concern for what it looked like.
Sure enough, I became tangled in a toxic mess of a relationship. There were so many motivations for staying. First attraction and denial, then guilt, then becoming so changed by the toxicity that I lost myself to it. It took months of back-and-forth to even begin to wriggle free from someone whose hands were clasped so firmly on my heart. The first step, albeit the first of many, was reconnecting with my friends. The visits, while scant and irregular, reminded me in their time of who I’d been before the isolation, before the toxicity that was steadily disappearing me from myself.
Like I said, it didn’t happen overnight. There were so many high and low points. Nights where I could feel myself mustering the strength to leave and mornings where I’d find any excuse to stay. Days when I’d have these grand realizations and commit myself to leaving and then watch them crumble at my partner’s slightest plea. Spending so much time pouring myself into this relationship made me feel like it was worth saving–like it deserved to be saved.
Instead of saving my relationship, girl love saved me. At first with reminders of my kindness that was being taken advantage of, then with the simple thought of how I might react if the roles had been reversed. Would I be inclined to make these excuses? To justify the violence that was wrought upon me if it’d been a reality that one of my sisters faced? Would my love for them allow me to stay silent, complicit in their abuse? If I couldn’t imagine this life for them, why was I so blindly accepting it for myself? I loved these women. They were fiercely intelligent, beyond beautiful, and most importantly, full of kindness. They deserved every bit of love that they were capable of giving (which was, to their credit, a lot). Was I not a reflection of them?
Girl love was about more than solidarity. It was more than inside jokes and words of encouragement. Girl love was about seeing yourself so reflected in another person that you adopt their struggles and celebrate their achievements as your own. Girl love meant that when my girlfriends saw me diminished in an abusive relationship, that it broke their hearts just as easily as it did mine–sometimes even more profoundly. Being so consumed in the mess of my toxic romantic relationship distanced me from the love that never would’ve let me settle for a situation that was so divorced from its meaning.
After a year of chaos, I decided to sit my mother down to confess my heartbreak. I committed to bear myself and all the mistakes I’d made trying to fall in love. When I found her, she was sitting at the small bistro table in our kitchen, laughing while on the phone. As I inched closer, I recognized my aunt’s voice laughing along with her on the other end of the line. It was the kind of laugh that made her whole body soften. And when she looked up at me, her lips splayed into a smile that reminded me of all the love I’d been missing.