On all fours with a 5-pound toilet cleaner that came 3 weeks late that I somehow assembled with sheer luck, I think I learned what love is. Shakespeare has this iconic poem (oh you brilliant Sonnet 130, you) that I texted to my friend Lydia once, titled “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” She does not have perfectly red lips all the time, her breath doesn’t always smell great, and she certainly doesn’t levitate in air, but rather walks on two feet and has good days and bad days just like the girl next door does. I remember thinking that he really did something there—in those few lines of perfect Shakespearean poetry. Love isn’t always the Friday night movie and cuddling after seven years of serious dating; sometimes it’s the 11 p.m. cleaning the toilet because your roommate has an exam.
There’s been a lot of discourse recently about how love is a choice we make every day to continue being with someone, how love is beautiful, and how love is messy. Although these generally harmless TikTok and Instagram arguments do hold some truth to them, I find this kind of talk to be overly simplistic of what I understand love to be. Judith Butler, in her essentially brilliant Judith Butler way, once said that “one knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.” I at once know precisely what she means and absolutely have no idea what she means (I study English literature).
I think she’s talking about how being in love is a transformative experience; we become different people and know different things after being changed through love. I think the very act of thinking about love and redefining it through being in love in and of itself has destroyed every idea of love I’ve ever had. I’m not exaggerating or being facetious here.
I think all of the little individual graves of the loves that I once thought I knew are what have ultimately come together to make the patchwork theory of love that I work with today. When I was in elementary school, I thought love was going to look like the boy across the window waving papers at me with sloppy words written in sloppy drippy Crayola markers; that I’d go to prom one day after having the glow-up of a lifetime, and he’d finally realise I’m the love of his life (thanks Taylor Swift). Well, prom came and went and although it was a beautiful evening of wearing my mother’s pearls, taking pictures at Sadie’s, forgetting to get my date a boutonniere, and subsequently waiting on the brink of an anxiety attack for my parents to speed to the local florist; I did not have a moment in which I took off my glasses, let down my hair, and kissed my prince charming.
In middle school, I was absolutely convinced that if I wore my new ripped white jeans from Rue 21 and threw on the green lace Abercrombie top I’d spent all of my birthday money on, Harry Styles would lock eyes with me. And so, the “y/n” part of every Wattpad fanfiction that I’d read during theology class in my Catholic high school (sorry, God) would forever be “Trisha.” That didn’t happen either as I was in the nosebleeds with my dad and passed out the second Harry came on stage (from the heat, obviously).
High school left me listening to Lana Del Rey and the Arctic Monkeys and shockingly without a Tumblr account. My friends were dating boys from the neighbouring towns and I championed the stance that I didn’t need a man to be whole. Love became self-love and the absence of a man in my life felt empowering. I loved books focusing on the absolute abandonment of all familial duty and found them phenomenally liberating. I wanted to embody that. I did not realise that to abandon a man, I first needed a man. But nonetheless, I was a strong, single, independent woman who waited until eighteen to get behind the wheel of a car. And that was okay. Because I was single and taking on the world as a single woman.
At NYU, one of my best friends was in a long-term relationship, one was in serial situationships, one tried her luck on the dating apps, one flocked to zombie apocalypse films when COVID struck, and one was the other woman. Guess which one I was. Nope, I don’t like zombies. Reasonable guess though. I was reading about what the greats had to say about love in my English classes, watching it on the big screen with my girls, hearing about it through the grapevines during parties, and honestly, I think that’s when everything I thought I knew about love crumbled.
We hear the cliché that “love is messy” from rom coms as Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock, or Rachel McAdams profess to know what “real love” is. Apparently, is is messy and hard and somehow also always perfectly works out in the end. Loose ends are tied, perfectly curled hairs are perfectly put in place on top of perfectly made-up faces and these are the characters who claim that love is messy. I remember when Amal Clooney got up on stage and said that she wasn’t married by her mid-30s and thought she’d be a spinster. For years, I used that line as proof that we don’t need to be married as women. We have time!! We won’t be spinsters!! Amal did it—she got married in her mid-30s!! That’s Amal Clooney. Who married George Clooney. We are not the same just as Jen Anniston and I are not the same. These people on the screens and these characters in the movies can afford for love to be messy because they know their endings certainly aren’t going to be.
In university, I saw real messy love. The kind that doesn’t figure itself out. The kind that leaves you on the floor of your dorm with a bottle of wine sobbing without a writer, behind-the-scenes crew, or other A-list celebrities you can go out with if this one doesn’t work out. I remember thinking real love isn’t a mess—it’s a damn catastrophe. It wasn’t the glorified disarray that the movies and novels make it out to be. It wasn’t always a supportive group of friends huddling around a heartbroken girl. Sometimes it was just lonesome anguish. It wasn’t always a girlboss vendetta plan to get back at the cheating jerks. Sometimes it was just moving on and taking it day by day. And I wanted nothing to do with it. I lost a bet once (because I couldn’t chug a can of soda in less than five seconds), consequently had a Bumble for a total of maybe four days, and was too chicken to go out with the one guy I matched with. I saw friends cry over boys who didn’t like them and cry over boys who did. I saw relationships ebb and flow and I decided that again, I was okay with being single. I didn’t want the boy across the window to hold up a sign to me or to be the fan who gets to go out with the pop star. I just wanted to live my life walking down Broadway with my books and dignity in hand.
Now in retrospect, I think there was love in the moments during which there wasn’t. What I find overly simplistic about the statements “love is beautiful” and “love can be messy” stems from the fact that I don’t think love has to fall into a strict binary. It doesn’t need to be the most horrible heartbreak you’ve ever experienced but it also doesn’t have to be the most life-changing beautiful passion you’ve ever felt. I also think platonic love can be intimate and I think intimate love can be platonic. I once listened to Ali Fazal read Victor Lodato’s essay “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” on the New York Times podcast Modern Love in which he talks about the most intimate love of his life being a friendship he had with an older lady. He says that friendship is often more complicated, convoluted, and mysterious than romantic love is.
After getting out of the shower and pressing pause on my Spotify podcast episode queue to properly digest the sheer genius of what I’d just heard, I realised that I think the issue with these overarching statements of seeing love as a beautiful mess is that we then start seeing love as inherently grand. We see love as magnificent gestures or devastating heartbreak followed by pleas and redemption but I think sometimes, love is in the everyday. This is, of course, not a new argument and I thus don’t pretend to be making one. What I am saying, however, is that I think there are precious few bits of media out there that document the seemingly mundane as love.
The other day, I gave my flatmate and best friend my only mug and so to make her tea, I warmed up water in a bowl (and nearly burnt my hands doing so). Once, my hands were cold in the streets and she fed me a French cruller so I wouldn’t need to lose the warmth of my coat pockets to eat. These are the moments that the podcasts and the movies can’t really focus on, and understandably so (could you imagine listening to an entire podcast episode about getting fed a French cruller). I do think, however, that these moments have revealed more about love than any bouquet of roses I’ve ever received . These moments have taken me back to memories and other parts of my life, and again, like patchwork, have been rebuilding what love looks like to me in my 20s in London and New York.
Thus, in this column, I’d like to pick apart these tiny moments—just one each week—and focus on how the mundane little things are sometimes the sweetest. I won’t talk about huge proposals or surprise tickets to Paris, but will rather focus on how love exists in its platonic, romantic, and everything-in-between forms in the tiny moments of different types of relationships and bonds that we encounter through living life in the city.
If you’d like to share one of your tiny moments that revealed a big idea about love, feel free to contribute to the “Nothing like the Sun” column by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .
Edited by Noor Hatimy, Sex and Relationships Editor