When I was seventeen, I met a boy—let’s call him Noah—a few days into February. A mutual friend set us up, claiming she had never met two people more perfect for one another. He sent me candy and a stuffed animal on Valentine’s Day and hid in my neighborhood so he could see my reaction, which my friend told me about later. He took me to dinners and movies and visited me during lunch at school. He taught me the rules of soccer so when I went to his games we could talk about them afterward. He held my hand in the hallways.
By March, Noah and I had stopped holding hands. At lunches I talked and he stayed quiet; he just barely said hello after his soccer games. Our dates stayed in his basement where we watched TV in silence. He didn’t laugh anymore around me.
In April, I asked him if he would still date me if I were 600 pounds. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to date a fat girl.” I asked him, “What about if I gained 60 pounds?” That was the first time he looked at me with hate in his eyes. “Did you not hear what I said? If you get fat, I’m done.”
Over the new few months, the hateful look in his eyes came back more and more often.
“Let’s just stay on the couch, where would we even go together?”
“We both know we’re not going to last, don’t be so upset about things that don’t matter in the long run.”
“Stop wearing so much makeup, it just makes you look trashy.”
“You eat so much.”
“I don’t want to kiss you anymore.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever love you. You’re just not a lovable person to me.”
With each thing he said, I got quieter. I was scared to say anything to him, to touch him, to see him. I thought if I stayed with him long enough he could like me again, maybe. But he broke up with me in August, and then we hugged for the first time in months.
That same month, I met another boy—let’s call him Brandon—a few days before leaving for my freshman year at college. He liked it when I called him Brandy, he said he loved listening to me, and he hated Noah. “You deserve so much better than him,” he always said.
Brandy went to school across the country but we didn’t stop talking. We sent good morning and goodnight texts and talked on the phone on the way to class. I joined an a cappella group and a sorority and made some of my best friends, while every night we FaceTimed and, very quickly, we fell in love from across the country. But at the end of the semester, he left his school unexpectedly.
We spent December wrapped up in one another, smiling.
Brandy started working in the spring, digging trenches in Colorado for six hours a day, while I sat in classes and got lunch with friends and laughed. By the end of February, though, he said, “I just don’t like talking to you when you drink, can you stop?” I didn’t know what he meant—stop drinking or stop talking to him. “I guess both, whatever you choose. I just don’t like you when you drink.” So I stopped drinking, hoping he’d still love me.
As the spring continued, Brandy began to call me every few hours. He cried more often than not, it seemed, and he said he couldn’t live without me. “You’re the reason I get up in the morning,” he said. “I need you to need me like I need you. Don’t you love me? Don’t you need me too?”
And because I loved him, I decided then that I needed him. I talked to him for hours and hours everyday, telling my friends at school that I didn’t feel like going out anymore, that I didn’t want to, that I needed to talk to Brandon. I got quieter.
In May, Brandon and I were reunited again, after four straight months of being apart. He stopped smiling by the second week of the month.
“You want to hang out too much.”
“You’re suffocating me.”
“I love you less.”
I stayed quiet.
By the end of the month, we both agreed we weren’t good together anymore. I lay in bed and cried for a month; I wrote about how lost I felt. I didn’t know who I was without him. I needed him.
Listening to Lady Soul for the first time now, I keep thinking about these two relationships. Aretha sings of getting cheated by the men she loved, and I have always felt cheated too. “You tell me to leave you alone,” she says, in “Chain of Fools,” and I can almost hear both Noah and Brandon saying those things to me. I wish I had listened to Aretha back then, instead of crying for days, even weeks, after those breakups. I wish I had listened to “Good to Me As I Am to You” and really thought about how I let myself be treated. How I gave myself up so I could be loved, and unloved, badly.
But listening to it now, I feel Aretha’s words coursing through my veins. I feel them pump through my heart, straighten my spine, clear my head. They envelop me.
And “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” makes me feel whole, especially knowing the man I’ve been seeing for a year now.
I’m not ashamed of him, so we can use his real name: Ian. A little over a year ago, a mutual friend set us up for a date at Chili’s, which neither of us thought would amount to anything. We lived in different states, I was going abroad in a couple days, and we didn’t go to the same school. It would be too hard to stay in contact after just one date.
But we smiled the entire night. We ate fajitas and talked about how much we love Arizona and started inside jokes we still laugh about now. He asked to see me again, and again, and again, and then we had spent three days straight together with neither of us realizing how much time had gone by. It felt like three years and three minutes all at once.
Then I went abroad for two months, but we talked every day and he said how much he couldn’t wait to see me when I got back. He listened to me when I told him about my adventures abroad, and he really listened. Every night that I got to talk to him made the night feel as bright as daylight. When I came back, he visited me in Williamsburg; it felt like I had never left. He met my friends and I met his; he taught (and is still teaching) me the rules of football and about how he films the games; he held me tight when I told him about my past relationships. I told him I’d have a lot of anxieties in our relationship because of my past ones, and he said he’d do anything to help me. “Anything to make you happy,” he said, and still says.
Early on in our relationship, I asked him if he would still date me if I were 600 pounds. “Of course,” he said, laughing a little, “how you look doesn’t change how I feel about you. But I’d try to help you lose weight because that’s just not healthy.”
I also asked him if he minded that I drank. “Not at all,” he said, “what you do is up to you.”
We said we love each other a few months into the relationship, but we also say we started falling in love at Chili’s. “It was a little love,” we say.
I have never felt love the way I love him, and I have never felt love the way he loves me. And I have never felt love the way I love myself, now.
Ian has driven almost four hours just to hold my hand after a terrible week, and I have done the same for him. He has encouraged me to speak when I get scared and quiet, especially when it’s with something about our relationship. He encourages me to write, to sing, to spend time with friends, to eat whatever my heart desires. He says I’m the most lovable person he’s ever met. And after a year of dating, he still says he can’t wait to see me again, even when we’re falling asleep next to one another.
But I think Aretha Franklin would like, even more, that I have learned to treat myself better. I’ve learned to respect myself. I told Ian explicitly that if he wasn’t okay with the things I’ve been through and how I make my decisions, he could leave. He stayed, and I have stayed, too. I sing love songs to myself when I drive, I wear as much makeup as I want, I tell Ian I can’t talk sometimes because I’m with family or friends, I make time to remind myself of the good things about me.
I know I’m lovable, because I love myself.
I wish I had known about Aretha Franklin and Lady Soul when I was younger, but I am just grateful to know it now. Aretha, if you’re hearing any of my words, know that I have heard yours. Know that we, both, are here to stay ourselves, with the love that we have always deserved.