I Want to Know (What Love Is)

On the first below freezing night in New Haven, I biked to Stop & Shop to do my weekly grocery run. I have always enjoyed the guise of a supermarket on a winter evening, the way the automatic doors hum when you enter, the squeak of your feet across the linoleum floor. It dates back to the trips I used to take to the 24-hour Walmart in Oberlin; always to escape something, always in the dead of night. There was something immensely comforting about a place where you didn’t know a soul, and where no one would ask you any questions.

When I walked into Stop & Shop, I felt like I was looking at the world in slow motion. The supply in the store had changed slightly to reflect the season—overstock Halloween candy was marked down and acorn squash was poised near the entrance—but I found myself paralyzed for a different reason. As I sifted haltingly through the aisles, it occurred to me that the food choices I used to make with such utter regularity now seemed beyond my deepest comprehension.

For the first time since I’d lived in New Haven, I wasn’t thinking about cooking for anyone else. There were no more weekend meals to plan, because there was no longer anyone with whom to cook them. There was no one to walk arm-in-arm with, no one to send news about my day, no one to wrap myself against at night.

For the first time in as many years as I’d been a student here, I was alone. And the hulking reality of it hit me at the checkout aisle – a string of purchases so paltry I could fit them in a tote bag that I kept looped around my neck on the bike ride home, like a missing dog still wearing its collar.


When I caught myself in the mirror half-naked and screaming the lyrics to “I Want to Know What Love Is,” I was suddenly grateful that I didn’t have more destructive coping habits. The way some people drink or gamble or fight to deal with sadness has always eluded me. It’s not to say that I’m not temped by those approaches, but they’ve always felt antithetical to who I am. It would be like watching a gangster movie and then going out to rob a bank. The zealot in me might hedge toward the door, but the practicalist starts writing.

Junot Diaz, one of my biggest writer idols, gave a talk at a New Haven Catholic church yesterday. It was a large crowd, and to Diaz’s chagrin, almost all Yale students. He spent much of the hour criticizing the institution of creative writing, lamenting that “you would think we were going to war with books as combatants the way we’re funding MFA programs.” But he also extolled the innate humanness of writing, that “you can be deliberate and contemplative in writing in a way that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

After a few questions from the audience, he paused and addressed the room. The questions up until that point had hovered around how to quantify good writing and how Diaz was able to succeed professionally as a writer – if it was something he had planned to do all his life. “What I sense from the room is an enormous anxiety,” he said, silencing the crowd. “Here I am at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and all of you are living in fear.”

The truth of his words was undeniable. There are manifestations of it everywhere, from the nervous student on his way to an interview to the girl fiendishly filling out applications in the library. I had never put it together until he said it. The great irony of our society is that the people who should be least worried about where they will land in life are the most afraid of failing.

It dawned on me just how much of my own life I spend being afraid – afraid of what I’ll do when I leave here, afraid of never amounting to anything. And now, recently, an even more virulent fear has taken hold – what if I never find happiness, what if I stay lonely forever, what if I never truly love again? It may sound melodramatic, but it’s just like the Foreigner song: you know deep-down that things will be fine; you just wish someone would show you.