by Emma Eisler
In high school, my flirtations are riddled with small lies: Of course I’m from San Francisco, not the suburbs; fake names and alter egos when my best friend and I sneak onto the college campus at night. A friend reveals to me that an acquaintance in our English class has developed a crush on me. This same acquaintance has apparently also been secretly capturing photographs of me staring off into space, or of my hair falling in my eyes as I bend over a book. Although I am not really interested in this particular person, I become fascinated by the idea of these photographs. Do I look like myself? How do I shift and morph when captured through the lens of this adoration? I tell the friend, Well, I don’t mind. I want to be somebody’s dreamboat. I begin to imagine myself this way as I travel through the small movements of daily life; climbing into the shower, I turn my head to the mirror and observe the arch of my back; aboard the bus, I view myself through the eyes of the other passengers, scuffed boots and head against the window. Though externally I am shy, I desire more than anything to be watched—noticed. Until I am loved, I will be my own audience.
I fall in love with a friend I am too scared to touch. Instead, we talk. I ride the bus the wrong way just to spend a few moments longer with her, spin tales of my future life as a famous and prolific writer, a confident and assured lover. Under her gaze, I become a braver, brighter version of myself; nude and running full tilt into the swell of the sea, dancing with wild joy on her roof. Once, she describes me as someone who changes the essence of the meadow merely by lying amongst its flowers. I clutch her vision of me to my chest. When she starts dating a boy in our class, I stand in the bathroom and watch myself cry. I cannot reconcile my own ugliness with the version of me she claims to love.
I fall in love again while taking a year off between high school and college. He is older and unlike anyone I’ve ever met, a self-imposed vagabond. At a bonfire in a canyon, he runs his fingers through my hair and my breath catches. He reveals to me later that, looking back, he knew from the first moment he touched me that I would love sex. I become obsessed with this detail, with my body’s apparent receptiveness to pleasure. Nights in the desert under the wane of moonlight, I float up and watch him watching me. Silver streaks that travel my skin, my moans that mingle with the distant howl of coyotes. Of all the seasons, to him I am spring, and if I were a weather pattern, I’d be a flashflood. Driving back from Capitol Reef, I tell him; I want to love and be loved by many people, even if that comes with loss. He tells me later: I knew then what I was getting into—you’re a natural born heartbreaker. I formulate my sense of self around this vision; I am feral with desire; the desert pulses under my skin, and I can never be hurt or abandoned.
Freshman year of college, I sleep with boys who are not interested in doing more than touching me. I dissolve under their hands, come apart into seafoam. One tells me, I feel like I’m going to hurt you. I shrink smaller and smaller against the sheets. How can this be the same girl who slept under tapestries of stars, who felt love on her skin in every shade of coral and sienna? I don’t stop sleeping with these boys until they discard me. I don’t know how to say no to someone else’s desire—even if that desire is limited to my body, even if that desire hurts me. At the end of one of these not-quite relationships, a boy says to me, You seem like a resilient person. I am disgusted by the flush of pride I feel at this description. Sometimes I’m not sure whether I want to be loved or just want to be described in vivid and unending detail.
While section hiking the Appalachian Trail with my best friend, I kiss a boy who calls himself Street Jesus. Evening light spreads between the branches of trees; he pulls me to him, and I gasp against his mouth. He whispers, Who denied you this so long? My cheeks flush. I feel half shame and half pleasure. How can he know the longing pressed against my ribs, the loneliness perched in my throat awaiting voice? In bed after a party, a girl tugs down my underwear, whispers, You’re so responsive. I am so quick to give, to bend into the arms of another and empty myself out in sighs and gasps, my mask rendered transparent under darkness.
I wonder what would happen if I gathered in a room every person who’s ever wanted me. What shared qualities did they see? Were my eyes the same to each of them; was I precious to each in the same way? What about the parts of me that weren’t the same—the person I am on the bus and the person I am under the stars; made-up or messy-haired; quiet or overflowing?
And if I were to compile each version of myself who has been loved by another and let them wander a party—what would happen to them? Would they find one another, wink in recognition? What if they disliked each other? Or worst of all, what if they didn’t even recognize one another? Sometimes I don’t feel like the person I am right now is the same as any of the selves I’ve been while in love, and I wonder if being purely, fiercely who I am requires aloneness. I wonder, too, if I will ever be able to look at someone else without also watching them look at me, and if doing this would mean I am loving selflessly. I don’t know if I am ready to let fall the mask and be my full self for someone else, rather than the version of myself they bring to surface, or that I think they want. For now, at least, I try to hold all the pieces of my fragmented self together, accepting even the parts that don’t seem to fit.