By Zeynep Bayirtepe
Art by Milanne Berg
As a kid, I spent many restless nights anticipating the next day. I used to believe loving someone would seep into my nights with the same anticipation of mornings, leaving me sleepless. I used to believe, but that was way too long ago, and I can’t remember what that feels like anymore.
Our culture has an unending reserve of love stories — historical or fictional, celebrated or cursed, reciprocated or half. From movies to songs or fairytales to anecdotes, our stories are also dominated by love, more specifically, the glorified odyssey to find it. This understanding of love as an end goal and something that requires toil and trouble to be cultivated reinforces the (strange and implicitly heteronormative) story from Plato’s Symposium that defines individuals as halves, looking to be completed. However, many famed love stories are not stories of completion and equality, but stories of chase and worship. These tales that paint women as prey or prize and lovers as devotees evoke the many instances that love-too-easy is deemed love-not-strong-enough. If you are not on your knees begging for it, is it real love?
I used to believe love would make me feel like a child again. I felt more like a mother at the ripe age of eighteen.
I find the narratives around love cruel — they punish those who refuse to shed blood or tears for love by deeming them lonely and storyless. Even when you subscribe to the narrative, and suffer for love, the journey makes Penelopes out of women rather than Odysseuses — celebrated for the wait, for their loyalty, the passive martyrdom rewarded by the gatekeepers of true love. In Turkish Divan Literature, a nightingale is typically symbolized as a masculine lover while a rose represents the object of the lover's desire; another example of this symbolic pairing is the candle and fly. The nightingale and the fly are mobile and actively pursue their desire, whereas the rose and the candle have only their visual allure as their capital and no part in the matter except for being there, waiting. This reminds us of Western fairytales, in which the damsel in distress waits for a man to love her so she can be rescued from her captivity. Arguably, a woman desiring to be owned and objectified is more harmful than her mere presence making her a target of pursuit. Yet, both lead to the idea that women are hunted for love, and celebrated as trophies. Their glorification happens through their relation and service to the men they are associated with. This not only makes women replaceable but also adds to the unequal power dynamics of love. Women’s participation in the affair encompasses her surrender, her agreed submission. For the feminized subject, belonging somewhere turns into belonging to someone and makes her labor for the love that is supposed to determine her worth. She is taught to crave approval. Now, it is her turn to suffer, pledge allegiance, give birth to her lover over and over again, and teach her lover the alphabet of how to love her, forgive, and wait.
I used to believe, I think. Now mosques, churches, synagogues make me weep.
Sufism is rich with stories of love and devotion. Rumi says his death day will be his wedding day, as he will reunite with God — his one true love. Even in the most unconventional ways of looking for love, there is a sense of suffering and letting go of one’s self. Even the phrasings themselves, falling in love or having a crush, is reminiscent of the feeling that sits in the stomach as one waits for the impending crash of a rollercoaster. Can’t love and moderation coexist? Is love a jealous God, demanding all attention and overcoming all worry, giving lovers a false sense of sanctity in putting their lives on the line? Even when love happens in ways that are deviant, it is performed. Even when the beloved is not weakened, they are possessed. Basil dies for Dorian, at the hands of Dorian, but not without cursing Dorian. The fly ceases to chase the flame of the candle but ends up setting itself on fire to prove a point.
I set fire to old pictures, old shrines, and false saints to keep myself warm. I put an end to the lies and my sleepless nights. I dream of golden suns.
One God or one lover — we are taught to look down on threats to the binaries our loyalty and love operate on. We give and take ownership of those who love and those who believe. We reside in the identities they kindly grant us. We conquer our beloveds and capitalize on love. We take pride in operating on the extremes. It does not serve us. It doesn’t leave a self to be loved. We drown in our lovers, get lost, and become unable to appropriately receive the love we are fit for.
From the ashes rises a golden lover who shares their sleep with me. With them, I am less made of flesh. We are two beating hearts, asleep. Love shouldn’t be beyond me. I am not a kid anymore.