How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the words. I recited them for you, written down because I could not just buy a book of poetry. I wanted it to mean something, to be mine and then yours and then you would understand that love was effort and I put in all the effort for you.
Lovelorn little me, who longed to be loved. Lovelorn little girl who longed to be lusted after, who longed to lose her heart and her head in blue eyes and blond hair and soft hands.
All that effort to make our relationship easier to enjoy without entirely endearing myself to you or you to me. It was effort to fall in love and find that spark. It was an ember and I blew and blew and blew, cradling the little lights in my hand, hoping it would ignite.
It did. For a while.
The problem with a small town is its smallness and small minds within it. The cleverness of creatures who called me a curious thing, how strange I was with dark hair and dark eyes and brown skin. All else was pale and plain and content that way. But I wasn’t so strange as I was interesting or intriguing in my uniqueness. I was dark, dark, dark and the world was bright and light.
Of course you noticed me. How did I know? Let me count the ways.
First, you were not the first.
No one looked like me in a school of a couple hundred children. Their skin burned red in the sunlight, my skin browned like bread in the oven. No one looked like me with near-black eyes and true black hair. No one had the hint of my accent or the scent of my food. No one had my family’s history. No one was like me.
You were not the first to notice or the first fascinated. But you were one of the few to come forward, though I took the first steps.
Second, you were silent. You made your observations with unsaid words and timid smiles. I thought it was sweet how silent and attentive you were. Silence meant listening, silence meant safety and security. Silence meant you would stay and I would not be afraid to speak my mind.
Silent as I offered you a notebook with my scrawls, these poems transcribed to help you understand. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I only remember the cramp of my hand and the collision of heart against rib cage and the way I looked and waited. I don’t remember what you said, only the silence. The soft kiss, the smile, the embrace in between. Is that what happened?
You were always silent. I thought that meant you saw and listened and understood.
Third, you tried. Trying is telling your thoughts, a tell of what’s true or false, but mostly what I wanted to be true.
You tried in a trillion ways, from holding my hand and onto me. To watching me cry. To always agreeing. To answering my questions.
You tried by taking me places, bringing me home, taking me out. You tried by staying with me, by signing your name on cards, by bringing me flowers on the days that mattered. You tried in a teasing sort of way that told me and taught me that trying truly mattered but it wasn’t enough. You noticed trying is what I was.
I tried you all the time. You tried a little less and walked when you didn’t want what I willingly gave. It told me tons.
Pablo Neruda wrote: I love you as one loves certain obscure things, secretly, between the shadow and the soul. Those were some of the words I wrote for you. Words failed me then, my own writing out of reach. These poems, these words were all I could offer.
Secretly, because that’s how it felt with you even when I wrote it everywhere and told anyone who listened. Secretly, because there were things I wanted to share but never could. Between the shadow and the soul because there were dark things inside I wished you loved more.
I think you did, in a way that made me obscure and confusing and not quite complete. You were the first to show me that I could count the ways I loved you like love could be counted in measurable moments.
The counting ended when I started hearing the ways you noticed me.
First, I was small. You had to bend to be with me.
Second, I was shy. So were you. Two shy was too much. It couldn’t be us both.
Third, I teased too much. Sometimes without realising. And what I once offered, I took away immediately after.
Fourth, I was my skin, my hair, my eyes, my family’s origin. I was not from here. I was not like you. You noticed. Different—like that’s all I was and would ever be. Different is how you first described me to family and friends. Different was not the word you used, but that was what I heard.
Asian. Little eyes and little build, dark hair and eyes.
Asian, like an important detail of who I was to you.
Asian. My own identity, not one for you to describe me.
You were first to highlight who I am by that single word.
You were the first to teach me that I can count love. And some things matter more to others than I imagined, increasing my value and commodity. You were the first to show me that sometimes it’s not me who matters, but what I can be called.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
There is nothing anymore. I learned to love me, more than I ever did before, when it stopped feeling like it was me you loved.