This month we’re featuring a series of love letters. Our final letter is by Abby Mallett, who will never forget the first woman who captured her heart.
This is a love letter to you, yes, but also to myself.
I was 31 and lost. Every aspect of my life seemed like a failure. My retail job put me in a state of constant stress. My home life was quietly unhealthy — my mom and I were a bonded pair. At the time, I didn’t understand codependency but I was deep in it. Since I was her emotional support, my mother was my main relationship. And romantic life? What was that? My first kiss came at 24, and when I told my mother she burst into tears and said, “I thought you were saving yourself for marriage!” That was the beginning and end of my having a sort-of boyfriend. Every direction I turned, I felt like walls stopped me. I hoped to eventually meet my husband, my knight in shining armor, who would take me away from everything.
That is until I met you.
Being raised in the non-denominational Christian church, you’re given two instructions: wait and trust God. Wait for the man God has for you, and trust that God will come through for you. Meanwhile, don’t talk about any deeper feelings you have. Don’t question your faith. Definitely don’t question your sexuality. I can only describe the time before I met you as being asleep. Meeting you was like opening my eyes and waking up for the first time. You, a Black woman. Me, a Black woman. I didn’t think it was possible to realize I was queer at 31 – don’t people figure this out earlier? Given my upbringing, though, it made sense. I had been taught to be quiet and obedient. To honor my father and mother. I had suppressed my feelings for far too long.
I worked at a store in the suburbs, and you were the manager of the store’s city location. I filled in at your store one day in June. Everything changed when we met. You appeared — no, materialized — in a dress that made you look like you were floating beneath the sun streaming in through the windows. Your long braids shifted with every step. You looked like you didn’t have a care in the world. This was before I understood your confidence, the easy way you connected with people, the intensity of your gaze. You were beautiful. You are beautiful.
That day, I asked to speak with you privately, thinking maybe you could help me find a sense of direction in my career. As we talked, you looked at me like I existed and that my existence was important and profound. I described a previous interview that had gone badly. You asked, “What happened?” I tripped over my words to find the fault in myself. “No, no,” you said, “What happened to make you feel like you didn’t deserve a space at that table?” Instantly I burst into tears. Until then, I had lived a small life, trying to tiptoe through the world without drawing attention to a body that took up too much space and a personality that seemed like too much. You looked me in my eyes and called me beautiful. No one had ever called me beautiful. No one had held my gaze and asked me deep questions. I was so used to being invisible that traveling through walls had become a hobby. You called my name and it turned me solid.
During that hourlong talk, my soul was lit aflame. I was almost afraid to touch surfaces in case that fire consumed them. There wasn’t enough I could learn about you; I wanted to close the space between us with my body. Later that day, on a break, someone set out a pan of brownies. As you walked by, I said they were what love tasted like, and you stopped to sit right in front of me, exhaling through your mouth, looking me straight in the eyes. “Well, I guess I need to taste them then.” I’m surprised the fire department didn’t arrive.
Before, if you’d asked if love at first sight was real, I would have laughed condescendingly and told you to control your emotions. After meeting you, love felt like the only option. Falling for you was the leap I’d been waiting to take my entire life, even if pain might exist on the other side.
Still, I cannot describe what we had as a relationship. We never dated, never even kissed. Over the next year we talked on the phone now and again. We saw each other when I visited your store or you visited mine. I savored those moments, and you affirmed that our connection wasn’t just in my head — brushing against me while we spoke, complimenting my glasses, telling me that you wanted a relationship beyond work. In reality, you were offering me promises to a relationship you couldn’t uphold, and I had become overinvested. In the throes of figuring out a million newfound feelings surrounding being queer, I had placed all my eggs in your basket.
When I realized we weren’t going to end up together, I fell apart. Love, or what I had thought was love, shattered me, but that was part of the process. Because it allowed me to piece myself back together correctly at 31. I would thank you for seeing me, but really you helped me see myself. Helped me ask myself questions until I finally understood the truth: I am a queer woman who does not need to apologize for the space she occupies. If there is a God who doesn’t make mistakes, then I am not one.
Though it’s been years, I still want to know you’re doing well. While the space in my heart grows to accommodate more love, there is always a room reserved for you, door open, so you can move freely as you please.
Abby Mallett is a freelance writer and editor at Joy The Baker. You can find her tucked in her Chicago home, surrounded by plants and crystals. Follow her on Instagram, if you’d like.
P.S. Nine movies and shows with gay characters we love, and how I travel as a fat queer Black woman.
(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)