My boyfriend of five months, Desert Not-So Solitaire, was snoring softly next to me, his arm curled around my back. It was winter, so instead of sleeping in his car, he had struck up a deal and was living in an unfinished guest house in someone’s backyard. The house didn’t have a heater, so breath rose from my lips in little puffs, but I was warm underneath our blanket. I wanted to be moved by his soft smile and how peacefully he was sleeping.
I felt my stomach clench; a rising nausea overtook me. Desert Not-So Solitaire was the first boy I’d loved, the first person I’d slept with, but right then, everything about him seemed unfamiliar — the beard I loved to feel between my legs, faint freckles from days in the sun, and lumberjack-esque body. Though hours before I’d found myself thinking about how I’d never been so close to anyone, suddenly, sleeping beside him felt no different from lying beside a stranger.
What is it that causes these feelings of distance in our most intimate moments? Maybe I was scared of the intensity of my feelings, or maybe I felt young and inexperienced and like I had committed too much time and effort to someone who wanted more than I would eventually be willing to give. I think partly, I had never shared physical space so constantly, and wanted some kind of a reminder of where my body ended and his began — that I was still fully formed and complete by myself. Luckily, I was able to lay back on the pillow and fall asleep. When I woke up, the feeling was gone as if it had never happened, and we spent another amazing five months together before I moved to Ithaca.
At Cornell, I’ve occasionally felt versions of the same thing. While sitting on my bed after an argument with a good friend I was dating — we’ll call him Lonely Hearts Club Boy — he tried to touch my arm and I recoiled. I instantly felt guilty, but still I couldn’t shake my discomfort. I resented being comforted; I didn’t want LHCB to think he had any ownership over my feelings, even though this is kind of what a relationship is. It was like my heart was the emotional version of a fainting goat (look them up, they’re really cute in animal form!) — when I felt something too intensely, my feelings froze and fell away.
On another occasion, I lay curled against a boy who I actually really liked — let’s call him Rocky Mountain High — but who had made clear he just wanted to hook up, and felt as if I were floating above my body. I felt estranged equally from him and from myself, and unlike at other times, the feeling persisted, so for a while, my skin felt like an ill-fitting pair of clothes. I kept seeing him, though, and the more distant I felt from myself, the more I longed for him, as if only by being close to him — this foreign, icy object — could I return to my own body as well.
What is this distance that comes twinned with intimacy, and how can we know when to trust those feelings, and when to wait for them to subside? I think it depends on how the person makes you feel at other moments. If they make you feel warm and loved, then it makes sense to wait and see if the alienation fades. But if you never quite feel like you can trust them, or like you’re being let in, then maybe you should listen to that feeling. In moments of closeness, my body delineates itself by creating artificial distance, while when I share what should be intimacy with someone who doesn’t care about me, I feel equally far from my own body and emotions to avoid dealing with my hurt.
It seems almost everyone is familiar with these feelings. Even a friend in a long term, happy relationship confessed that, once she woke up next to her boyfriend and his breath smelled off, his arm around her too tight, and she thought, who is this dirty boy in my bed? In a song, Joan Baez sings, “How long since I’ve spent a whole night in a twin bed with a stranger?” This could be the anthem of college, but I wonder if these feelings of estrangement are an unspoken aspect of sex and love at all ages and in all types of relationships, too.
Maybe there are parts of myself, parts of my heart, I don’t yet understand, and this is my body’s way of telling me. Maybe love is the pain of separation between bodies. Or maybe I am the stranger in my twin bed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love myself and my body completely.
Dirty Blonde is a student at Cornell University. Love in the Time of Tinder runs monthly this semester. Sex on Thursday appears every other Thursday.