[Non-Fiction] Micro Love
For most of my life, I’ve felt love in secret. I let my best friend die in a fire before I ever told her how I felt, how striking her cheeks were where they met her ears—that place I wondered the taste of. I came up with euphemisms for the word, replaced it with xoxo or heart symbols in letters passed back and forth to my friends. I find love you easier if it’s not preceded by I. If you want to know how I feel about you, you have to get me drunk.
Which is why I felt so threatened when I read Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s research on what she calls “micro-moments of positivity resonance.” Those moments that spark—when your blood heats your cheeks and you know you’ve found something right. Microscopic neurotransmitters releasing microscopic chemical love. Micro love. I understood different kinds of affection—how my father would caress a tomato hanging from a vine, how the elderly women I volunteered with could break me with one moment forgotten or remembered. My dog, Sparky, with whom I shared popsicles. How he licked one side while I licked the other, and I how I was once sure he’d become a man and marry me when I grew old. How my nephew ties his shoes bunny-eared to walk out past the garden to Sparky’s grave.
What frightened me was the thought of love as chemicals. As anything other than exclusive. As temporary, as multiple, as inevitable, as infidelity. I remembered the night my high school boyfriend struck me and told me I couldn’t hold out anymore. That it was bad enough I was spending all my time with other people and forgetting him, but the smiles I gave to strangers and the compliments I paid their clothes, their eyes, were all evidence that I was a whore.
I started feeling guilty about loving and not loving when I was a child, my momma saying Dad knows I’m coming home to him when I asked her why she jokes about the strange man at the bar, tells the other men he’s her husband. She gave me quarters to put in machines, plastic film from her cigarette cartons to fill with chicklets as she played evening Keno and sipped from a tiny red straw. The time when I followed a strange sound through the trailer and found my father crying, reading cards and letters in my mother’s half-cursive. Moving back and forth between homes, sleeping on my uncle’s floor by the couch, listing to my father snore. The plastic bear full of honey Uncle Jimmy poured onto my oatmeal, how I shared all the toys at his house with the dog until we buried him, too, with all the car-chasing dogs who came before.
Apartments and trailers, boxes packed, pets abandoned and every babysitter I ever had. My favorite, Lori, who made a birthday cake for my stuffed dog and took us to the park to feed old bread to geese when her husband was home. How he lit fires in the house. The time he struck her in the kitchen and the Kool-Aid made the carpet squishy as I tried to pull her up. Every weekday long walks home from the bus stop with the Rumor kids who chewed up worms and spit them at my light-up shoes. I remember the girl who always made me play house in my swimsuit, how she said you’re the wife and you have to love me, or we’re not friends and what that meant I had to do. I remember momma smelling like Bud Light when she woke me up one night, asking who touched me, asking me to tell the truth. I remember how I lied, nobody. Momma rocking me, I love you, sweet baby, swearing her protection with alcohol breath.
I remember Aunt Ida, who remarried too soon and was murdered because she was afraid to be lonely. I remember Forensic Files and Cold Case and beware of sex, money, love. I remember much later, a man on top of me, inside of me, avoiding my lips and I love yous. Another man who climbed up but not down a fire escape and whom I should’ve preferred. The dead man who knew how to say I love you back.
For months after reading the study I obsessed over the psychology of the phenomenon, delving into theology when I became tired of thinking about my body as science. Proteins forming cells no more than molecules, atoms, electrons refusing to touch. I looked at MRIs, read academic papers, looked for some answer that didn’t exist and for which I had no question. I wondered about the people I felt I truly loved and imagined how meaningless and diluted our connections must be if every day seven billion people were loving strangers and coworkers and mistresses and friends. Seven billion people were neurotransmitters and water and positivity resonance, and I felt empty.
So, I ordered a DNA kit and drooled into a vial, and when my results came back I sifted through my raw genetic data, the single-nucleotide polymorphisms separating me from everyone else. I searched SNPedia for the traits and genes I was interested in, reading peer-reviewed research until I found indications of their meanings. I learned about my cancer risks, increased likelihood of addiction corroborated by family history and my own weekly bottle returns, the genetic proof that the things that took members of my family each year would take me too. I wrote down variations associated with increased depression and anxiety, though I’d been diagnosed as a little girl. I mapped myself, jotting lists and locations onto paper and connecting bits of chromosome with arrows in blue ink. Then, I found rs53576, an SNP which influences social behavior, determines personality. I stared at my abnormal nucleotide pair, represented by pixels on the LCD screen. I drew a new map from marker to genetic marker until I understood what it meant.
I will be lonely. I may be autistic. There is something wrong with my oxytocin receptors. I am at increased risk for manic-depressive disorder, for schizophrenia, for antisocial behavior. I feel less empathy. I am less capable of love.
My mother says it’s impossible, that I never should’ve been tested. My best friends laugh and remind me that I cry at every Disney movie, that I volunteer, and that it’s just science, that there’s nature and nurture and they can’t really know for sure.
I thought about the aloe plant next to my kitchen sink. How it’s always thirsty. How I sometimes take a drink of water and pour the rest down the sink. How I leave the soil dry.
Four beers in on a weeknight, I stumbled upon evidence that a person can fall in love with someone, or at least feel intensely bonded, after asking a set of 36 questions. Arthur Aron was the first to initiate this study in 1997. Pairs of people, two women or a woman and a man, asked three sets of questions to each other. Dear stranger, what objects might you rescue from your burning house? I think of the shoeboxes boxes of letters I’ve kept, organized by date, by who has died and who has moved away. Question 11 asks participants to tell their life stories in four minutes, question 28 asks each to tell their partner very honestly what they like about them. No filters. After the questions, partakers are asked to gaze into each other’s eyes. Two of the participants in Aron’s study, strangers before the encounter, later married. I imagine them laughing, imagine molecules spanning synapses, dopamine binding to receptors on dendrites behind their eyes. I can’t tell if this reassures me or if it makes me want to quit.
This last part of the experiment has been recreated with people of different races, adults paired with children, immigrants paired with conservatives. It’s gazing that’s important, not staring. Neither person is establishing dominance or trying to intimidate, each is vulnerable. You can see it in their faces, the micro-love. Eyes bright, chins turned up, a concentration warranted only by this. The understanding, the compassion mixed up with fear and something else we forget we know until we experience it again. The barriers falling, walls tumbling down. In a recent iteration, each pair gets the opportunity to kiss.
I am full of walls, but when I’m not careful I make connections too quickly. I remember how I gazed over a cubicle at Nick, passed notes full of euphemisms and exchanged kisses flavored hoppy from IPAs. I held his hand on long walks at midnight and told him I felt safe with him, felt I could leave my knife at home. Nick had his own personal euphemism for love, derived from the film Scott Pilgrim vs the World. It was us versus the world, pressed close at a Halloween dance not two months before his death. I’d dressed him as an old woman, put blue eyeshadow on his thick lids and flour in his hair. I was a Disney princess in the morning, hair tangled into bedhead and mascara smeared, and he zipped my dress. I told him I hoped he looked that way when he was old. He’d said I can’t wait to see what you look like when we get old. Now, surrounded by intoxicated Vikings and cats and nurses, he dropped the euphemism and told me what he wanted, how he felt. We made so much heat in the crowd that we had to run across the road to Lake Superior. He stripped to his boxers and I ran into the water in my princess gown. I tried to dunk him and he picked me up and threw me, laughing as my body broke reflections of constellations in the dark.
Less than a month later I told him I was broken, that it wasn’t fair to ask him to fill my cracks. That a person can’t love someone else if she can’t even love herself. He climbed a fire escape two days after his 24th birthday, noon on a Thursday, and the detective called me a contributing factor.
Sometimes I feel safer as a metaphor.
It’s the dopamine that causes the high between people, a rewards circuit from prefrontal cortex to nucleus accumbens that helps us forget the danger in it, breaks the connection from accumbens to amygdala. All these areas of our brain are primitive, all of them old. Add physical contact and oxytocin builds an attachment, increases the addiction. If we’re lucky, vasopressin keeps the feeling going. But even that is dangerous, because the longer we’re addicted, the harder we crash. The sensation of physical illness brought on by separation, by death.
Mixing up memories with genomes in my thoughts, I wondered if micro love could be the solution to the problem. Taste love. Chew, don’t swallow.
I started leaving compliments and notes on receipts above the tip line, scraps of paper in mailboxes, coat pockets, under things that wouldn’t be lifted for months. I started looking strangers in the eye, felt the gaze returned and lengthened. A woman’s red lipstick, the way her eyelashes clump. When I traveled alone to Pennsylvania I spent a weekend with a man who showed me the city and we traded secrets, traded bodies, traded first names. He says It could be so easy to fall in love with you, and that’s my cue to go. Train back to Michigan, another one-syllable name in my phone and calls gone unanswered. My contacts list proof that I’m damaged goods, a record of people who accelerated contractions in striated muscle below my sternum.
Research suggests you can only love in the presence of someone, that your mind mirrors that of the person with whom you connect. They’ve seen proof, neurologists say, in the lit-up images from MRI machines. It’s purely physical—the bonds you can feel when separate aren’t what make up love. It’s the micro-moments. I convince myself this is untrue, that what I’m experiencing isn’t just withdraw. That without another body my own isn’t loveless.
I had promised Nick, the summer before his death, I’d read him my favorite play, King Lear. He asked me time and time again, and I never had the time to give. Let’s just be friends, please. I don’t want to make this any harder. We sat across the cubicle, our chairs at the highest point to see each other’s eyes. We sat in our vehicles after work, blood pressures rising as we figured out how to say goodbye. We waited on his porch after a night walk, or at the park down the road, and smoked the rest of the pack just to spend another moment blowing nicotine clouds. I told him what the play was about, an aging mad king trying to determine which of his three daughters loves him more. Nick said it seemed like all Shakespeare wrote about was love. I think back over more than a dozen plays I’ve read and agree. We decide it’s what most things are about.
Hayli M. Cox is a recent MA graduate in writing and literature from Northern Michigan University on the shores of Lake Superior. Her work has most recently been published in The Gateway Review (3rd Place Summer Writing Contest), Moonsick Magazine, HOOT, Open Palm Print, Hippocampus Magazine, Paper Darts, and DIAGRAM. In her free time Hayli paints, builds with Lego, walks her cat, and indulges in Lake Superior night swims. She currently serves as an editor for Heavy Feather Review.