i loved that sadsack sh*t

For many years, my favorite book was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and my favorite passage from that book ended with the very Ondaatje assertion that “the heart is an organ of fire.” How I loved that! If tattoos had been slightly more acceptable and accessible when I was 17, I would’ve had it across the small of my back (there were no other options, save right above the ankle, for girls to accumulate tattoos in the early 2000s).

I don’t know if I was a romantic as a teen because I read Ondaatje too early or if I gravitated to Ondaajte (even before I saw the movie) because I was a romantic. The same principle applies to my obsession with Sarah McLachlan, and Fiona Apple, and Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise” on repeat, and The Wings of the Dove, and every time Holly Hunter played piano on the beach in The Piano. I loved that sadsack shit; it felt like diving into a cool, luxurious stone pool, where my own emotions always felt in tune.

Clearly this is not unique: I didn’t know anyone in my high school who loved the genre, which isn’t a genre so much as an affect, but I only had to keep Fumbling on Ecstasy playing in my Discman long enough to get to college and find someone who felt the same about The English Patient as I did (she was easy to spot; she had the poster on the damn wall).

I nourished the hunger for this sort of emotion by 1) taking creative classes (so much bad poetry!); 2) writing many letters; 3) discovering Portishead AND Ani DiFranco; 4) engaging in tortured relationships that oscillated between great, bewildering, numbing joy and deep, equally numbing sadness. Some of this involved boys who couldn’t decide whether or not they wanted to be with me, but most of it just involved what college has long (and, I think, still) involves: trying to figure out what a relationship could possibly look like amidst unprecedented freedom, growth in personal confidence, abundance of choice, and relative lack of outside stressors.

Somehow maintaining a relationship in college, when I was privileged enough to only really and truly worry about how I was going to procure a rhythmic gymnast costume to wear to the OLYMPICS-themed excuse to binge drink Busch Light, felt far more arduous than maintaining one now, when I have a three-legged dog to keep alive, a mortgage, a garden, and $100k in student loans hovering above me at all times.

But that arduousness was, of course, part of the drama. I don’t mean drama as in passive-aggressive, blow-out fights; more like, do you like me do you like me do you like me do you like me, carefully wrought emails, heart is an organ of fire that periodically bursts into flames, that sort of drama. When it came to relationships, that tendency, or craving for that tendency, persisted through my 20s, through long distance relationships and break-ups and the live wire of something and someone new. I did a lot of thinking about who I was and what I wanted and I have found myself in a relationship that is nourishing, and hilarious, and just fucking wonderful. It is not a live wire, and I am endlessly grateful for that.

So when I feel nostalgia for that deep, hungry, cool pool immersion, it’s not for those relationships, it’s for what Neko Case calls that teenage feeling, and what it grows into. That 20s feeling? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because two things that returned me to it: Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag.

If you’ve consumed either of these, I don’t need to tell you why. For those who haven’t: Normal People is about a tide of a relationship between two Irish students, starting in high school and extended to the end of college, and basically anything I do to try and describe it will fail to do it justice, other than (much like Fleabag) I had to mete it out because I loved it so much but also recognized exactly what it was doing to me. It felt like something very slowly, very precisely, tearing out my stitching.

On Twitter, Amanda Mull cautioned that “you should watch Fleabag but if you’re a person who has experienced romantic trauma in the past two to infinity years, prepare to be harmed.”

Romantic trauma, like any other trauma, doesn’t leave you, even when you’ve ostensibly healed from it. I am a fuller and richer person because of the experiences that led to and stemmed from that trauma, but that doesn’t mean that allowing my brain to return to those tender, undone places is easy, or simple. (I should also be clear that none of my romantic trauma was the result of abuse, or malice, or deception — all of which leave a different sort of enduring mark).

It’s a bruise that loves to be touched — but to touch it is to reanimate it, and all that precipitated the injury in the first place. I find myself using a lot of mixed bodily metaphors here, which is probably the result of just how embodied visiting those moments, these feelings, are. I don’t remember specific words from any of these times; I remember how my body felt absorbing them.

That’s what it feels like to watch Fleabag, which I’ll likely watch again this week; that’s what it felt like reading Normal People. Reveling in both reacquaints me with the part of myself repressed through my mortgage-holding student-debt-paying checklist-managing existence. It reminds me that the heart is indeed an organ of fire, periodically tamped and reignited.

Which is particularly valuable on a day like today — Memorial Day here in the states, set aside specifically to honor those who died in some capacity protecting the country. In 2004, during the second Iraq War, I lost one of the boys who made feel the most, for the longest time. I wrote about him in 2010, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write about him in quite that way again, but on days like this, the simultaneous fear of and desire to return to depth of how I felt about him always leaves me adrift.

His brother emailed me yesterday and pointed out that we’re slowly nearing the fulcrum points in our lives after his death: soon, we’ll have been alive longer without him than we were with him. The idea baffles me entirely, because there’s never been a life without him, truly: even when I can’t allow myself to touch those memories, they’re there. But watching and reading Fleabag and Normal People has brought them, and him, closer. He’s showed up in my dreams, just lightly, in passing — familiar, not devastating. It’s a true gift. And I’m so grateful.

Things I loved/was compelled by this week:

Please excuse any typos or weird sentences — being okay with small imperfections is what allows me to make mental space to send this thing out every week. As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. If you have comments or feedback or want to tell me your favorite Deadwood episode or just type HOT PRIEST [THIS IS A FLEABAG REFERENCE], just respond to this email.