Love and Affection
by Endria Richardson
BWR 48.2 Nonfiction Contest Runner-Up
I want a tattoo of Joan Armatrading, an outline of her face as it is on the cover of Joan Armatrading, the self-titled album she released in 1976. Her face is embraced by dark shadow, the illuminated half revealing an expression of total interior reverie. Surrounding her face, my tattoo, I want some flourish that I ask the artist to design: text that proclaims LOVE AND AFFECTION. An incantation. Conjuration. Corroboration. I make myself, I confirm myself, out of the memories of women I’ve loved.
“You think a tattoo of Joan Armatrading is a cool idea?” I text my sister. “No,” she says. I really laugh.
“Love and Affection” is the title of the fourth single Joan released, the first of her songs to be a chart success, reaching #10 on the UK Singles Chart in November of 1976. Joan was a dark-skinned, short-haired, Black British woman. A Black British woman lesbian. She was born in Saint Kitts, where my Pop Pops, the man who raised my father, was born. I am also (in part) a Black woman lesbian. There, the similarities end. Differences gape between, and I am envious. Joan was once asked to change her name, but did not. Her matter of factness in interviews, her surety in herself and her talents and her work ethic, her projected sense of herself. I want these things.
I am not in love, but I’m open to persuasion…
The album came into my life via my mom’s first boyfriend, Saul, after she and my dad had already gotten divorced. Saul was Jewish, and white, and a child psychiatrist, and had a daughter named Sara, who was curly, and blonde, and a little strange, and a year younger than I was. Sara and I were not going to become good friends, but we were going to be friendly enough to keep each other company while our parents kept each other company, mostly because Sara was friendly enough to get past my surliness. Saul and my mom were going to break up, not speak for years, and then become good friends again when they were both in their sixties. When I asked my mom why she and Saul didn’t work out, she said, “We didn’t know what to do with his kind of nice, did we?”
Saul’s kind of nice was to ask me and my sister questions about our hearts, about how we felt about the divorce, and about what we thought of him and mom. My sister’s and my kind of nice was to talk shit about Saul behind his back, rather than to his face. Saul’s kind of nice was also to give my mom the Joan Armatrading album. For many years, after they had already broken up, I listened to the deep and warm and Black sound of Joan’s voice through the CD player that sat on the floor by the front door in my mom’s living room.
I was nine, and brown, and so afraid of feelings that Saul’s touchy questions about me and my sister’s wellbeing made me want to spit in his cups, put toothpaste in his shoes, and break his pencils. I couldn’t stand the blossoming of shame, guilt, fear, and confusion that the thought of me grew in me, and his questions made me have to think too much about me. Joan’s deep and warm and Black voice singing about that most ultimate of feelings, love , made me feel gross, embarrassed, too grown, and too close to revelation. But as terrible as Joan singing about love made me feel, she also made me want to want the kind of love she wanted. I couldn’t be like Saul, and I couldn’t be like Sara, who was so open in a way that I already knew I couldn’t be open. But sometimes I wanted to be like Joan. There was a line between me and openness, friendliness, lovingness, and niceness. Somehow, I felt like Joan was or had been on the same side of that line as me but had figured out how to cross over.
At those times, I would lie on the floor when my mom and Saul weren’t home, and listen to Joan. Her voice made me feel like I could feel both sides of my stomach touching, like my body was a filled space, full of my voice singing to someone else, making me feel raw and deep and warm and sensual. She made me feel like I was going to be in love, and being in love was going to make me love myself.
But with a lover I can really laugh, really laugh…
Joan taught me how to tolerate, even a little bit, being in my own body by promising that being in love was going to make me feel more like the kind of person I wanted to feel like, and less like the person I already was. This is what I was going to feel like, sound like, be like: that terrible empty space inside of me full of love .
Love fucks me up.
I’m thirty-three, a long way from nine, and I am sitting in my car outside of my therapist’s office, blue night, white lamps, ugly crying as I read the latest email from my soon-to-be-latest-ex, Sasha, on my phone.
I had asked Sasha if we could talk about what whiteness meant to her as a white woman. Sasha, who I met on an app, and who was intriguingly brusque about setting a first date, which was two hours over coffee, during which neither of us even had time, in the midst of immediate inside jokes and witty banter, to bring up the other’s astrological sign. Sasha, who had curly copper hair and green eyes that looked amazing in the slanted summer sunlight at magic hour, as we walked slowly back to the parking lot at Tennessee Valley, talking about the whale on the beach, so decomposed that it couldn’t even be a metaphor so much as what it was, that is, three giant bones. Sasha who boiled Russian coffee for me in the mornings. Sasha, who was bitingly funny and enormously anxious and who was writing her graduate dissertation on whiteness, which, I realize now, in hindsight, did not mean she was prepared to really talk about whiteness.
I had spent hours writing the email that ultimately led to our break up. I thought a lot about how to be nice, friendly, and open. I tried to be the loving version of myself, the version that was supposed to feel more like the kind of person I wanted to feel like, and less like the person I already was. I said acrobatically verbose things like “when you say you feel criticized when I share my feelings and ask for what I need, that our conversations about (my) difficult emotions have felt unsafe, or that I (your POC black queer partner) needs to disrupt the narrative that I feel unheard because it’s too hurtful to you to consider that we have not yet learned how to listen deeply to each other in moments of fear or crisis, I get triggered.” And like, “This isn’t to say that you don’t feel criticized, hurt, and unsafe. You do, and I hear that you do.”
I didn’t say “I’m trying desperately to be a person worthy of being loved and being loving.” Or, “I’m scared that being black, malaysian, and gay in this country has hollowed out the center of me and I’m trying to fill that empty space with you.” Or, “I think a part of me wants your whiteness to heal my blackness.”
I needed Sasha to say something back to me that would make me feel really loved and really loving. I wanted her to take my hand and lead me to some truth she understood about love, loving, and being loved that she had learned by being white, better at love, loving, and being loved than me.
Sasha’s email does not say any of those things I need it to say in order to conclude that I am loved, loving, open, friendly, and nice. It does say a lot of “how could you ever say these things to me” and “your trauma is destroying our relationship” and “you are not worth working through this level of catastrophe for.”
The email fucks me up, touching as it does tender parts of my body, my heart, my stomach, and my lungs that I only ever wanted to feel through the safety of someone else’s love.
Little darling I believe you could help me a lot .
“I am not in love, but I’m open to persuasion,” Joan sings in the opening line of “Love and Affection.” She goes on, “with a friend I can smile, but with a lover I can hold my head back and really laugh, really laugh.”
This was a proclamation and a promise. I’ve listened to “Love and Affection” on repeat so many times. I’ve wanted to find the one woman who could let me hold my head back and really laugh, really laugh. I’ve believed that if I find the woman who desires me completely then I will feel what Joan feels: happy, alive, and actualized in the arms of my beloved. I have never once asked why either Joan or me can’t really laugh unless we are with a lover.
The first time I was dumped was by Scarlett my sophomore year of college. Scarlett who kind of looked like a brunette Jessica Chastain: with the long curly hair, wide white smile, and chin dimple. Scarlett who was intimidatingly smart, who would stay up writing thirty-page English papers while I slept. Scarlett, who would summon me late at night when she was finished studying with the girl she was, in hindsight, definitely cheating on me with. After Scarlett texted me that we would be better as friends, I felt what Joan sings about in the first track of Joan Armatrading , “Down to Zero.” “Oh the feeling, when you’re reeling; you step lightly thinking you’re number one. Down to zero with a word, leaving , for another one.”
I walked with my feet back on the ground. I rushed to the mirror to brush my really thin eyebrows and couldn’t at all bring myself to say, “there’s more beauty in you than anyone.” I mostly felt like what I am, underneath love. I’m really alone and really lonely. I feel the two sides of my stomach touching. I’m gross, embarrassed, too grown, too close to revelation, and there’s nobody but me on that side of the line between openness, niceness, friendliness, and lovingness.
Now, in my car, after Sasha’s email, I text my sister. She says “you were way more kind and loving than she ever deserved.” I’m always looking for someone else to tell me who and what I am. I grab onto love and its promise of actualization wherever I can find it. I slide out of my body, to be with someone else, somewhere else, to cross over.
Down to zero with a word : leaving.
And then… you are somewhere else. You are not in love, but you are open to persuasion. This is because love can connect you to your deepest self; love is your deepest self. And yet love, as you understand it, remains outside of you: whole, unified, a sphere of light. This makes it perfect, which you are not. It also makes it something that can depart from you. When love departs, so your deepest, truest self departs. So, though it is exhausting, chase love. Exchange whatever is inside you for love. Begin, and end, and continue with love. Love , love , love ,love , love , love , love , love .
Begin with the memory of love. Any memory of love will do, as long as you drag it to the surface with enough detail.
The memory that arises does not feature Sasha, who has already left you. This one is of a Sunday in August. You are still in your twenties.You are sitting at the heavy wooden table. Your knees are wedged against the tabletop, your feet pressed into the seat. And the table is pushed against the wall of kitchen windows that overlook the garden, overflowing. And the sweet, browning angel’s trumpets hang from limbs, and the split lemon tree already spilled all its fruit, and the banana plant fans its leaves wildly. And the air drenched with the perfume of the growing, sexing plant. And the vase on the table cradles its handful of sunflowers, disoriented to their solar star. Remember their dying, downward faces. Their pale yellow slivers of petals in a pile on the table. Petals mold in the stagnant vase.
(Bask in the details of love. Love makes everything beautiful, even the molding petals, because love makes you pay attention.)
“What are we trying to do?” Sayidah asks, tilting her head, squinting her eyes. Sayidah, who you met in Tahoe. Sayidah, who had long dreads that she’ll shave after you break up, who made you rosemary coffee in the mornings in her studio apartment, who had the warmest smile you’d ever seen. Sayidah, who you wooed with direct eye contact, close leans, and silly texts. Sayidah, who is going to leave you, but who has not already left you, is smiling her warm smile at you. Her eyes bunch at the corners. She is wearing your yellow Patagonia “baggies.” She is wearing her cute glasses. She is pressing petals between her fingers, fingers to her lips.
She loved you then, which means, there was (is) something in you to love. Hold yourself like this: beheld by love, recipient of love, made real by love. It will help.
“We’re trying to hold on to something that is gone,” you say, out loud, to yourself. The memory of love disintegrates around you. You are looking out your car window. Clouds slide, thin and noctilucent, above you. Headlights blink through failing trees. Lanterns bead the edge of a long blue lake. Your phone buzzes on the seat beside you (you? who?). Why, why do you always fall out of that space between is going to and has already ? Everything here has already happened. You go up to your therapist’s office.
“I feel like I’ve lost myself,” you explain to your therapist. “I feel like I’ve betrayed the best and most true parts of myself.”
“You haven’t lost yourself,” your therapist tells you.
Your therapist is an Asian gay woman. You are also (in part) an Asian gay woman. There, the similarities end. Differences gape between.
You wonder whether your therapist doesn’t understand what you mean because she’s not black, american, or confused. You wonder whether you can’t have the kind of love Joan sings about because Joan isn’t asian, american, or confused. You really want to ask anyone and everyone what it means to be a “self,” and whether they can explain to you how to be one. Instead, you ask your therapist, “as a black and malaysian and gay woman do you think my sense of ‘self’ is different from your sense of ‘self’?” You really actually don’t know how her understanding of her identities may or may not support the kind of ‘self’ that you believe you and she are supposed to feel like. You don’t ask her what holds her sense of herself together, what contains her. Instead you ask, “but am I really a woman?” And “but am I really black?” And “but am I really malaysian?”
Your therapist says, “you are all of those things and you are in between.”
You don’t know why you get so angry. But being angry keeps you from slipping into the spaces between black and malaysian and woman and american . Into the space between you and your therapist . Between you and Joan . Between you and the women who have loved and left you .
Being angry feels almost as good as feeling loving, which means that both of these feel like being not-you. So in between remembering how much you loved the women you’ve loved, you remind yourself of how angry you are at the women you’ve loved for leaving you.
“Maybe if I loved her more, she would understand where I’m coming from,” you tell your therapist, angrily.
Your therapist tells you that you can’t make anyone understand you.
Your therapist doesn’t understand you.
In order to help everyone who doesn’t understand you understand you, in order to fill those gaps between you and blackness, asianness, gayness, americanness, lovingness, openness, niceness, and friendliness, you write for hours everyday. You fill pages with words; write every feeling you can; try to explain the story of yourself to everyone else. You write words like “love,” and “is going to” and “has already.” You have tried to come up with so many ways to avoid the empty spaces. At the end of the year in which you are going to write yourself whole, before you even look back on what you wrote, you already know there are still so many gaps.
You go on long walks. You try to limit your time on the phone. One morning at 6:07 AM, after barely sleeping, you turn onto your side and open your eyes. Your eyes find your phone. You tap out a message to your tattoo artist downtown, who has written “oh no, I’m sorry, did you already come by the shop yesterday? I forgot to write down our appointment!” You see that they texted you at 3:41 AM, while you were lying in bed, staring at your ceiling, wondering whether you should look at your phone. In any case, you had not gone by the shop yesterday; you were going to come today. You ask if they’ll be there? And would that work?
After Sasha, there are more breakups. You and your sister, the woman you have always turned to after women leave you, stop speaking to each other. It is confusing, terrible, relieving and funny in ways that you can only talk, think, laugh, and cry about sideways and in pieces. You turn to Joan, again. In “Save Me,” she sings, “Sinking, caught up in a world of motion. Such a strange sensation. The current’s uncertain. Like sails of a mill, I spin. Like wheels I move in a circle, while you stand on the bank. Immune or evasive…Throw me a lifeline, save me…”
You find yourself, at the beginning of the first pandemic you’ve ever experienced, really alone, and really lonely. You wait for love to save you. Love doesn’t save you. You run out of anger.
There are so many gaps.
Intimacy and affection , frozen . In this game of chance , I forfeit . Full hand of love with no counters . Like a moth with no flame to persuade me .
You wonder, for the first time, what it would be like if you weren’t open to persuasion. You ask, for the first time, why you and Joan can’t really laugh without a lover. You ask what it is you don’t want to feel in the spaces in between. You don’t come up with any answers. You do feel like the questions matter. The first time you ask yourself these questions is the first time you feel like you come close to touching those spaces in between without needing to be loving or needing to be angry.
And that kind of helps.
I wish I could say that I’ve stopped trying to hold on to what is gone.
I haven’t. I get the tattoo. I adorn myself in love. And that kind of helps, too.
I still mostly try to fill in the gaps with something. Sometimes I fill it with Joan, or the idea of being a black, malaysian, american, gay, woman, or the idea of being a self who loves myself enough to love somebody else, or the idea of being healed. Sometimes this is as close as I get after you have already left me, before we are going to find out what happens, to loving anybody without using them to fill up the sad, sad, sad space inside where I am supposed to be. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I ask myself what’s in between.
And right now right here, in the dark, near the lake, by the trees, there is loss, and loneliness, and aloneness, and grief, and that’s the revelation: there’s no one that will save me, there’s no one to make me really laugh but me. I make myself, I confirm myself, this black malaysian gay confused american woman.
Endria Isa Richardson is a confused black, malaysian, and gay american writer from Worcester, Massachusetts. Endria’s essays about race, nature, and the outdoors have appeared in Alpinist, Backpacker, and Bay Nature magazines. Her fiction and essays have been included in the notables lists of Best American Essays and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.