An illustration of two people looking at the moon

What is love? Caleb Azumah Nelson on one of life’s biggest questions

For the author of Open Water, love is a lesson handed down by family – and then discovered on his own terms.

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Love as the things I’ve always seen: my parents and their late night gatherings and their slow jams, their Marvin and Teddy and Luther, their off-pitch adlibs and slick two-steps, their small world, their private ecstasy. Love as a pull and a tug. Love like meeting for the first time as teenagers and it feeling more like a reunion. Love in the smile as they remember.

Love as the things I didn’t see but have been told: my parents in their teenage years. It would be the weekend and someone would have access to a van, so there would be plots and plans for a trip to Labadi beach. There would be eight, ten, twelve of them, crammed in a van, music pounding from a boombox, heading for that point where sand meets water, where freedom might be found in the shock of the first lap of water on bare feet. Where you might wade in or not. Where you might know that the person whose gaze you keep catching is the man or woman you will love, or not. Where you could stand next to another and gaze out to sea, feeling that the world wasn’t so small after all.

So maybe love as time spent. Or the way we see at each other. Or both. I’m thinking of my Grandma, on my last trip to Ghana, who on Sundays, after church, would take up a position in one of two armchairs in the living room. She spent that time in a contemplative silence, gazing up at the wall every few minutes, where a photo of my Grandfather was mounted. I didn’t know him – he passed just before I was born – but in a way I did, because something of their love stayed on, in the way my Grandma gazed at that photo, in the way my parents see each other, in the way they see me.                

Love as the first time you can feel it, in that strange period of limbo in your early twenties, just out of university, or just starting work. You meet someone at a gathering and get to talking, and it’s easy. Maybe it takes you a drink or two to pluck up the courage to ask them out. Maybe they’ll smile in relief, because they feel what you do. And it’s far too early to call it love but there’s no denying a feeling.

Love as discovering that community can mean two people, building a small world for each other. Lost in a private ecstasy. That’s what it feels like, right? That rush of a text message or phone call, the little jolt you get when you see them approach, that smile you don’t know you’re wearing. How wonderful and gorgeous it is to go towards someone in this way.

Love as the clumsy bump of noses in a first kiss. The second more sure, the third even more so. Love as a distance closed. As a small world growing smaller, and somehow expanding, housing the infinite possibilities between two people.

Love as seeing. Love as the way you see them and the way they see you: seeing it all, everything you want to be, everything you could be, everything you are. Love as the way you see each other. Or maybe as time spent. Or both. Like, when seated at a restaurant, glasses empty but your stomachs full, all attention towards the jazz singer performing with the guitarist, your hand slides over theirs. Your gazes meet and it’s just you two, wonderful and gorgeous, in your small world.

I often think of love as a song. As improvisation. Off-pitch adlibs and slick two-steps, Marvin and Teddy and Luther, maybe some Bill Withers too. As two people who meet as strangers and it’s more like a reunion. As a tug and pull. Love as seeing. Love like some magic which shouldn’t be questioned. Love as whole and beautiful and true, that wonderful feeling of going towards someone, of being vulnerable and doing it anyway. Love as trust. As knowing that even if your hearts were to break away from each other, the small world you created together will always exist. Love as knowing you will always love, will always have loved; that the song is something you might not hear often, but when you do, it might give you a little smile you don’t know you’re wearing.

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Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

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