I’ve only written one love letter in my entire life. And honestly, it wasn’t as much of a love letter as it was a handwritten apology.
You don’t have to respond. I just wanted you to know.
Don’t feel obligated to talk to me. Just please don’t share this with anyone.
It doesn’t feel right to call it a love letter, because I don’t think I actually “loved” him.
The moment I started noticing him: We were in our eighth grade Life Sciences class. This was the peak of my Hunger Games phase, so I was probably wearing a ‘Katniss-Peeta-Finnick’ shirt from Hot Topic. We were told to make energy-themed collages from a large pile of magazines on the front table. Everyone scrambled to grab a magazine, while I tentatively waited for the crowd to settle before walking up. Only scraps and bundles of torn pages were left behind. I groaned and complained to a nearby friend—“there’s no more left.” My friend just shrugged. But right next to me, a kid I’d only seen in passing offered up his magazine. We locked eyes for a moment. And I said, “Thank you.” He made a joke I don’t remember, but I do remember forcing a laugh.
I think I decided to “like” him because he was pretty easy to “like.” He wasn’t rude or mean. He kept to himself. Quiet. It was so easy, that I just decided to keep on “liking” him.
1. Because I knew nothing was going to happen between us.
And 2. because sometimes he made it seem like something could happen between us—that’s just how nice he was.
The moment I knew I liked him: We held hands once. Only because we were doing some kind of trust activity in our P.E. class. But I remember looking down and thinking, “I like how my hand fits in his.” Of course, this was in middle school, so our hands were probably gross and sweaty. At the time, I wasn’t as opposed to touch as I am now. Like most kids from abusive and emotionally distanced households, physical affection wasn’t common growing up. So at 13, I was much more curious about than repelled by the concept of touch. I don’t remember if we said anything; I was too focused on our hands. Maybe he made another joke, and maybe I forced another laugh.
I don’t think he felt what I was feeling. And I don’t think I wanted him to.
Freshman year of high school, I noticed a girl on the basketball team. Growing up in a small town means you go to school with kids you’ve known since kindergarten. So, it wasn’t like I didn’t know her. I already knew of her.
But because you know of everyone, you sort of stop paying attention to everyone.
I joined the yearbook club, where I learned early that nobody wanted to take photos of girls’ sports. Everyone wanted to go to the boys’ games. The yearbook upperclassman assigned the girls’ games to new members. I was a little disappointed—Eighth Grade Life Sciences Kid was on the boys’ cross-country team. I considered joining cross country, too. But I’ve never been athletic, and running five miles a day felt impossible. I guess I didn’t like Eighth Grade Life Sciences Kid that much. So, like a good freshman, I attended my first girls’ basketball game with a peeling Nikon D3400 and a black zipperless camera bag.
When I think of a “love-at-first-sight” experience, time slows down; everything goes soft and out of focus around the edges, and the world falls silent. Maybe the sound of violins soars in the background, and maybe you feel invincible—like those mothers who miraculously gain super strength when their baby is in danger.
When I actually experienced love-at-first-sight, yes, time slowed down, and yes, the world fell silent. But everything moved fast in the sense that everything doubled. My heart rate, my thoughts, my breathing, my sudden loss of apathetic cynicism and the sweeping rush of school spirit—gO BRONCOS!
You don’t know you’re experiencing love-at-first-sight until after it happens. And yes, I’m counting this as a love-at-first-sight experience because even though it wasn’t the first time I saw her, it was the first time I’ve ever looked at someone and instantly thought, “Yes, I love this person.”
She was a freshman, like me, and already a starting player. We were in a few classes together—Ms. Cline for English class, Mr. What’s-His-Name for trigonometry. Did she sit behind me? I couldn’t remember. As I watched her play, I found myself wondering if she did the homework Ms. Cline assigned over the weekend. Wondering if she stayed after school late for practice. Wondering if she’d want to hang out sometime because I stayed late after school too. Wondering if she liked Pokémon or Digimon more. Wondering if her hair was as soft as it looked through the camera—
I wondered and wondered and wondered all throughout the game.
If anyone asked, I’d just say she was cool. That I respected her—that she was a good athlete and honors student. I remember, when my father would pick me up after games, he’d ask: “How’d it go?” And I’d always reply with some variation of: “Basketball girl was great. She scored a bunch in the first half, but struggled with three-pointers.”
One day, my dad said: “You sure like that ‘basketball girl,’ huh?” He said it in a callous tone, weaving between cars in the school parking lot. I just looked away and muttered, “It’s not like anyone else’s gonna take us to states.” Eventually, I stopped talking about her after games.
Halfway through our sophomore year, she started dating a boy on the boys’ basketball team. Fifteen-year-old Danielle didn’t want to think about how that made her feel. It cemented everything, made my emotions real. Not wanting to deal with my sexuality, I just went back to liking Eighth Grade Life Sciences Kid. It just seemed easier. And it wasn’t like I was lying. I did like Eighth Grade Life Sciences Kid. And I continued to like him until high school graduation.
I wrote him the love letter the summer of our junior year. I don’t remember it being sappy. It was handwritten—in pencil, because the permanent nature of pens stressed me out—on white, lined paper, and folded into a tiny square.
The plan was to slip it into his locker during lunch. But I didn’t want to think about what came after. What if he doesn’t say anything? What if he does say something and it’s a rejection? Or even worse, what if he does say something, and it’s that he reciprocates?
I carried that letter in my backpack for two months, before ripping it up and throwing it away. By then, the pencil writing was smeared and unintelligible; the paper wasn’t as white anymore, and distastefully crumpled in the corners.
In the end, I decided I was okay with never telling him.
Freshman year of college was awful. I didn’t know how to speak to people. I didn’t know how to make friends. I sat by myself in the corner a lot. I think my nervous energy threw people off, so they were less likely to talk to me—which made me feel even worse, because how does one turn off their nervous energy? Answer: you can’t. And in this weird accumulation of, “I-want-to-cry-but-I-don’t-want-this-person-to-know-I-want-to-cry-because-I-want-them–to-be-my-friend,” and “If-anyone-talks-to-me-I’m-going-to-scream-because-my-body-is-in-fight-or-flight-mode,” I realized I didn’t have as much control over my emotions as I thought I did. So, unlike middle and high school, I developed crushes left and right as a sort of one-sided speed dating coping mechanism.
An upperclassman at the Swearer Center who smiled at me and always started the conversation first, so I felt welcomed and never like a burden.
A literary arts concentrator who sat next to me in two classes and always said something during discussions, so I didn’t have to say anything if I didn’t want to.
A head co-photo editor who made dad jokes at the beginning of every BDH team meeting, no matter how many times we rolled our eyes. Admittedly, I eventually found them quite funny.
A person in my year, who did lighting design and stayed late in the Production Workshop Black box—I helped her put up lights after I finished drawing circles on the wall and called it set design.
I never took any of these crushes seriously. No matter how involved I got, or how prominent the person became in my life. If they liked me back, then I instantly stopped liking them like that, my emotions becoming a piece of paper I could crumple and toss. And if I’m truly honest, I don’t think I’ll ever be close to someone like that. I’m not too sad about it, but sometimes I find myself simply wondering what if—what if I let myself be honest, what if I told this person I really like them too, what if I said yes, what if I’m missing out on something monumental like in those shoujo-romance animes I watch? But even after wondering, I came back to a simple conclusion: I need to learn to love myself first.
Maybe I’m like this because of my childhood: because of my father’s abuse and turbulent emotions. These are things I need to work out myself. The two crushes I had growing up were never completely felt. I didn’t talk about them with anyone. I didn’t try to process anything. And at a certain point, my crush just became a convenient placeholder. Where I could stifle and direct my feelings of self-loathing, confusion, and fear.
I wrote that first—and only—love letter as an apology for how I felt. A handwritten invalidation of my emotions. It’s a strange realization, that I’ve never felt safe enough to express myself—to allow myself to be cared for, and to care fearlessly for others. I’ve liked quite a few people in my life, and I currently care about quite a few people. But I’m still working on welcoming and managing my feelings, on telling people they’re important to me, and on being comfortable with vulnerability. I don’t want to perpetuate my father’s cycle of his father’s cycle of his father’s father’s cycle of emotional trauma. I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel secure enough to own my emotions as my emotions.
While reflecting on that letter, I realized I’m so much closer to learning to love myself than I thought. I won’t crumple and toss my feelings to the side anymore, especially as I’m currently the most cared for that I’ve ever been. Those people deserve to be cared for in return.