Love, says Helen Fisher, is a neural system that activates the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, medial insula, and the caudate nucleus – a mere mammalian instinct that serves to motivate and energize us. During childbirth, the hypothalamus gland releases a hormone called oxytocin, which connects the bond from the child to the mother.
Fuck all that.
I learned love at a young age, around the alchemy in my mother’s kitchen, under the covers as she cracked the spines of storybooks. It wasn’t until I felt the smack of my heart against its ribcage, the crack-slap of a hand against my cheek that I really knew how to love. It must be true; it must be for my own good. They said this over and over and I would agree with a mouth dripping saltwater, believing none of it. Transgression became a nightly routine: eyes fixed on the wall, on the light, going through the five steps (slap, scream, silence, shame — i’m sorry). The apology was my cue to retreat at night, dipping my skin into warm water, running salt along the tub, watching anger suck itself down the drain. On the other side of the wall the shouting would echo, the grown-ups having their grown-up fight, young eyes not allowed behind this door. I often wondered when it would be my turn. Hopefully never, my mom said once when I asked her. Or maybe she said when you get a husband. I can’t remember which one it was. Does it matter? They mean the same thing.
Love is the thing growing in me now, a hard knot wormed into my soul, contempt and scorn and fire balled into one. The rot of affection. Old teeth that no longer bite. I asked her one night if she believed it hurt, the backlit glow from the stinky tofu place casting gasoline colours across the sheets. Love, she said, was just another four-letter word. I could think of a lot of other four letter words. Fist. Fuck. Fire. All of them grated, like the seesaw that was my family. Shove and shove back. Constant motion, each swing chipping off a little bit of my ten year old hair that I put in my mouth when I watched their first grown-up fight. It was all movement and no words. When the first tear dropped, my mom turned around immediately, her eyes going from cold and hard to narrow little slits, the dark look I learned to interpret as this is all your fault, though whether she meant me or my dad, I didn’t know. I was carried from my hiding spot back to room, where I sat in the bathtub for an hour and breathed lavender oil and didn’t resurface. I lived on that shit. After years of trying to put myself to sleep I developed an immunity, hid the bottle under my sink instead. One slap for saying I lost it. Another two if I didn’t find it.
Love, says everyone, is not meant to kill you. But it did. It did kill me. It killed me when I dove to the bottom of my bathtub, my spine scraping pink-ringed porcelain. It killed me when I hugged my knees to my breasts and watched water slide down the drain. I used to turn the tap just a millimetre and count the drops of water that leaked from the shower head. It killed me when I gripped the edge of the tub, wrapped a towel around my knees, thought about leaving. Going to my parents with a voice older than me, a voice that had never cried a day in its life, saying, this is wrong. I know what you’re trying to do and it’s making me hate you. Going downstairs at some ungodly hour and finding the kitchen scissors. What about a knife — no. Knives are too dangerous. Going to the storage closet in the basement to see what they would do if they found me missing. I thought about going. Mostly I was dead. Stripped of love, full of it. The tub was full of water when I dove in, a fish. When I climbed back out I had drank it all.
Love, my mother said once, is something I will always have. I will always love you. Damn you for thinking otherwise. How could you even think anything else? It’s my fault. I didn’t raise you right. Don’t worry. I’ll never leave your father. I know we fight a lot but I love him too damn much. I can’t divorce him. What would I be teaching you about being faithful if I did that? Don’t say I never taught you anything. Don’t say I never loved you.
I love you, mom.