As a small girl, I study hibernation; a concept that terrifies and titillates me: the clockwork of metabolism grinding to a halt. Small spaces have always been my undoing—the pinion of my father’s arms; my closet hideaway—and yet, the warmth of a burrow always appealed to me: a clean, hollow space that could be mine alone. When I’m older, a friend gifts me with the word estivation, which he calls the opposite of hibernation. It mimics the same states of being, but it occurs in the hot, arid months. Tortoises and their hard-shelled brethren slip away at a time when other life forms teem into being. They do this to avoid being stripped and leathered by the heat. And they do this, by and large, above ground: The body becomes that clean, hollow space.
I go back to these concepts, which Wikipedia has so helpfully bundled under the heading of “animal dormancy,” at the end of an infatuation—an exchange of confidences and cherished songs, stories and photos, fears and ambitions, that was too brief to amount to a capital-R relationship, let alone a breakup. There was nothing to box up and give back. But those months have a depth and resonance that belie their brevity.
My heart hiccups every time his name appears in my inbox. His eyes reveal everything his half-smile tries to hide. It leaves me punch-drunk yet somehow sharper, more alert. He’s the first man to spark my interest, let alone desire, in quite some time. Enough time that I type the number of years out and delete it, ashamed. I have been underground, too far down and too deep into my torpor to be aware of how densely the earth is packed around me. In these few months, my cells yawn open and my core slowly warms.
But the natural process, the gradual emergence, is disrupted: He tells me, as a prelude to a kiss, that he’s not “looking to get attached,” that there’s “nothing emotional” on his end. He’s just looking for some fun and he’s sorry if that wasn’t clear. He sits so close to me on my tiny couch that our knees touch. The heat of his body strikes a spark in mine. I am jarred suddenly, cruelly, into being. I become aware of how tight my burrow is; how it can smother and crush me.
When I am too young to understand what “drunk” really means, my father gives me two of his teeth in a dice-sized box. The cavities are black pits in the centers of teeth already yellowed with liquor and tobacco. My mother chides him for giving me something so bizarre and disgusting, tells me to throw them away. But they are electric, incandescent with taboo. If he’d cared for them properly, they’d still be hidden at the back of his mouth. I keep them in my dresser drawer. I take them out and draw them. I shake them in their clear box, just to hear them rattle.
They are the first gift my father has given me that isn’t an obligation, a birthday book or paint set for Christmas (that my mother buys anyway). Those teeth sustain me when he freezes me out for a C- on a multiplication quiz. He can go so long without speaking to me that I find myself grateful to get hit because his backhand is at least acknowledgement. Touch. But I still have a part of him. An animal, elemental part of him: a part that has kept him fed and caused him pain.
When I tell my therapist about the end of the infatuation, she gently directs me away from fruitless lamentation over lost time and the effort emerging from a shell. She asks me how I define intimacy (for better, for worse). I don’t have words for her. Only my father’s molars. The gift of something porous and difficult made tangible, physical: two black holes I can hold in my hands.
My friends tell me that, even though “Mr. Three Month Chump” didn’t work out long-term, he “served his purpose.” I’m aware now: I don’t have to live in winter. My somnambulant blood churns, my heart blooms. They meet me at my favorite coffee shop and snap photos for my dating profile, setting me at ease with jokes about “the writer in her natural habitat.” They help me craft an “About Me” that strikes the tone between endearingly awkward and flat-out anxious. They say that I’m a catch. I just need to start looking for a partner. They assure me, with the gentle insistence of physical therapists guiding a wounded patient down the parallel bars, that dating can be fun. I need to apply some time, some focus.
I don’t really date in high school or college. I watch other girls and their boyfriends lean against lockers and imagine the heft of a mouth over mine. Couples take over the quad on the first day of spring, spooning on beach blankets. As I weave through them, I wonder what it feels like to be precious to someone.
I’ve always known love as a one-two combo of kiss and fist. When I am a child, a teenager, a grown woman, I dream of being buried under a house. The foundation bears down on me like a stone press exacting a confession from a witch. I bloody my fingers against the floorboards. I thrash in the tangle of muck and root. I wake with the bittersweet blood taste of damp earth in my mouth.
I am not a late bloomer. I am a broken bone knitting slowly knitting together in the dark beneath skin.
My first relationships are collections of moments to burnish and put on the shelf, collections of memories to pull down and shatter like the dishware thrown in a fight. There is the ex-Army Ranger who smoothes out the tiniest, tightest knots in my neck with the side of his thumb. There is the co-worker who swoops in for a first kiss after he’s fed me a bite of his waffle with whipped cream, a taste of sweet after a taste of sweet. There is the man who double-dog-dares me to slow dance with him in the Dupont fountain. As we slip and slosh hand-in-hand, I am everything I should have been as a child. Fearless. Exuberant. A flash of star glimpsed from a trench.
These affairs end for all of the everyday reasons. He’s not as divorced as he says he is. He’s better-suited for his best friend, a girl-next-door type who doesn’t flinch from a sudden touch. He doesn’t love booze more than he loves me, he just needs it more. Then there are the men whose last names I never know, a tumble of tongues and knees. I feign down-to-fuck, which one bad date too many turns into I don’t give a fuck. And I don’t give a fuck turns into comfortably numb. I recede into my work, my friendships, Sunday mornings in the dog park.
Animals exert energy to survive. But energy isn’t just the communion of muscles in running from a predator or chasing prey. It is breath in, breath out. It is thought. It is digestion. It is as clear and effortless as a river’s flow, but only when there is rainfall to feed it, a tributary to usher it along. Animals hibernate or estivate when the food they need to generate this energy is lost to the blitz of winter or the merciless sun.
I listen to Lana Del Rey sing about a man who fits her better than a favorite sweater, and I fear that the riverbed is parched. I scan profiles of smiling men with punny screen names meant to obscure their fears, their shy hopefulness. We’re all in our thirties and there is a tender bafflement in our exchanges about what we’re looking for, a sense that some ship has left us. We’re just young enough to believe that the future laid out in so many Facebook feeds—the house, the wedding, the baby with her father’s eyes, the chance to turn family into something more than a punchline, a rueful sigh—can still be ours. But we’re just old enough to know that risk and hope are four-letter words. I answer strangers’ questions about my ideal weekend. I email them back and ask them about the books that have moved them. I eye my inbox and I dream. Anonymous men emerge from a gray shuffle to drop their teeth in my open palms. And I tuck them in my dresser drawer with all the others.
A dear friend tells me that no act of love is ever wasted. Nothing undoes the nights we dance in fountains and the mornings we wake with our faces cradled in our lovers’ hands—not even the knowledge that it all ends. There is no denying a heat that is as vast as a cavern, a cold front like thunder, deep and boundless. Stay above ground. Stand in the sun.
Hibernation is not sleep. It is more like a living death. For three months, summer months that veered into a balmy fall, I emerge into the world. And then the man on the couch tells me that there’s no emotion, no attachment. He doesn’t want to lead me on. He just wants to have fun. Something in my chest cracks open and steams. I think of everything that I’ve let escape in the past three months, the stories he’s asked for: the day my father lost his faith in God and the day I found the nerve to leave his house; the night I showed Mary Gaitskill how to use an iPod but chickened out on telling her how I copied her sentences in my moleskin as if they were incantations. I think of everything I’ve taken in from him: tales of travel, a peripatetic search for home; a quicksilver acuity on current affairs and ancient history. He’s talked of lingering grief and fresh ache with a wry detachment that feels both swaddled and exposed, like a dark tooth ticking in its swollen socket.
I look into eyes I’ve likened to crushed diamonds, and I tell him I want more. I want things that are profound in their banality: to spend my days unconsciously collecting stories to share over dinner; to learn how to touch him when he’s happy or afraid; to sit outside on a spring day, the warmth of his hands softer and stronger than the morning sun.
Our bodies will say hello and goodbye in one night. Then he’ll be gone.
But when he is here, he is fully present, tender and nimble. My body becomes a tuning fork, struck once and left to quiver. I open my eyes once; watch him lick his fingers before he reaches down to touch me. The bluntness of spit on skin seems fitting, a reminder that no matter what I want in the end, I am, in this moment, a collection of nerves. I am an unfathomable blaze dancing on the thinnest wick. And in this moment, without language, without thought, I will not fear that heat.