Recently, I found myself, as I have many times before, playing drinking games in a warm room when no one wanted to venture off to the parties that were on the windy side of campus. There were about 10 of us, all sitting in a circle and getting quietly tipsy as we fell into the rhythm of the adult version of a classic sleepover game: Never Have I Ever. We started off with the usual fare, each person naming substances they hadn’t done and sexual exploits they hadn’t yet taken part in. But then a girl who I had just met that night declared, in a voice wavering between reluctance and triumph, “Never have I ever been in love. Like not just said ‘I love you’ but actually felt it for someone romantically.”
I could see the atmosphere in the room shift as everyone thought quietly about their answer. This was not the scandalous probing about sex lives; it was a question that was simultaneously more simple and more complex. If she posed it differently—like “never have I ever been in a relationship”—it would be easier to answer, the responses more predictable. But instead, the question struck a private vein that turned us all into schoolchildren, asking one clarifying question after another: “Like, what do you mean by in love?” and “Do you have to have been in a relationship with the other person for it to count?” and “What if you’re not sure?”
It occurred to me how none of us felt comfortable answering the question with certainty because so many of us didn’t understand exactly what it was to be in love. We, college kids poised on the edge of our twenties, were trying to grapple with defining an emotion that we each had wildly different levels of exposure to.
I watched the long-term couple in the room look at each other and quietly take sips of their drinks, and I wondered what it was like to be on display like that, in such an unexpected way. And I wondered, though I didn’t doubt their love, if there were others that they had been in love with, different faces that passed for a split-second across their minds before they found each other’s eyes across the room. Then I watched one of my friends absentmindedly push her drink further away from her, as if to declare with even more conviction that she had not. Yet, I had heard her tell stories about waking up in the middle of the night giddy and smiling because of a boy whom she hadn’t known for a long time, but whose name loosened the stress in her posture, whose proximity to her made her glow. She insisted, when I asked her later, that it was impossible for her to be in love with him. “We only just met,” she said, “and besides, I can’t even let myself think about being in love with him because I have no idea how he feels.” And, so I wondered: does love, by nature, have to be complex? And can you only achieve love, like perfection at a musical instrument, by dedicating a certain number of hours to it, making the requisite amount of sacrifices? Perhaps love, like sexuality, is best understood on a spectrum. “Have you ever been in love?” is not a simple yes or no question. It is infinitely more complicated.
When I was younger, I thought that love came with grandeur, mutual affection, and, most importantly, the expectation of forever. And though in college love can still be grand and mutual (though in many cases it isn’t), it almost never comes with the expectation of being together forever. My friend who has been dating her boyfriend since the beginning of freshman year once confessed to me that her biggest fear is time. “Dating in college is like dating with an expiration date,” she said. “First, there’s abroad when we’ll be apart and then who knows what is going to happen after graduation. And that terrifies me.” Though she looked at me as if she were almost embarrassed after she confessed her fear, I remember thinking that I had never realized before that moment how brave she was. To love, with no regards to the odds of staying together, to fight for something real in an environment that is so often hostile, is what made her brave.
We live in a community where it is so much safer to partake in physical intimacy than emotional intimacy. We had no problem answering the “Never Have I Ever” questions about hookups because sex is a territory that is easy to understand—love is not.
As a child, I thought that love looked like Grace Kelly smiling through the black-and-white film of an old photograph with Prince Rainer at her side, like Penelope waiting for Odysseus as he crossed the wine-dark sea. But as we all grow older, we develop the cynicism that we feel we are supposed to develop. We scoff at grand love stories because we believe that real love is nothing like the movies.
But perhaps every grand love story doesn’t exist because there was anything special about the love, but about the character’s courage to fall in love. The spectrum that I understand love to exist as begins in infatuation and stretches on into infinity, the love becoming stronger as the lovers become more brave. And in college, falling in love requires an immense amount of courage.