That longing ache means things are about to change.
I didn’t know its name when it first came on during my junior year of high school. I thought maybe I was getting sick. For weeks, as the February snow turned to slush and then rain, my stomach hurt for no reason. The strange thing about the dull pain was that I began to look forward to it.
As the afternoons lengthened and I rode through town with my pack of 16-year-old girlfriends, all newly licensed to drive, shadows deepened. Night looked darker, its brake and traffic lights blinking on and off in a silent chorus. We shed our winter coats for jackets and sweaters. My friends took on an aura, entrancing in their olive-skinned, loud-mouthed beauty. Our teenage rituals and constant banter sent tiny waves of joy through me. A zap of bliss followed by a zap of tension in my gut bearing a message: Something’s coming.
One night in early April, I saw what. We pulled into an unfamiliar grocery store parking lot a few towns over, circled a long brown Pontiac full of boys, and there he was, sitting against the window in the back seat, hair down to his shoulders. The boys spilled out and asked us our names and where we went to school and whether we wanted to go bowling.
His name was Jamie. His jeans were torn at the knees and his skin was caramel. I had never laid eyes on such a boy. At the bowling alley, I tracked his every move from bench to lane to snack bar. I’d had crushes. I’d had a boyfriend. This was bigger, brighter. The mysterious churning that had been gathering in me swirled up and latched onto him.
Jamie was ridiculously unreliable. The only way to see him was to ride to the corner where his crowd hung out and wait for him to stop by. We never went on an actual date, just met on the corner, partied in the woods, and made out in cars. He didn’t even try to take my virginity, though I probably would have let him. Mostly I stared at him, then went home and fell asleep dreaming about him, then woke up and commenced daydreaming about him.
But during the few months in which we all loosely referred to him as my boyfriend, the world shone. Entering school in the morning, the freshly mopped hallway and the metal slam of lockers filled me with gladness. Exiting dance class at the studio many of us attended, the music echoed through my limbs. Flushed and famished, wet strands of hair escaping our ponytails, we’d walk to our favorite pizza place, then to Arby’s for roast beef sandwiches, then to the ice cream parlor.
That summer, we made regular trips to a waterfall that emptied into a swimming hole behind an amusement park. A set of gradually ascending ledges on each side of the pool were named for their shapes or degree of risk. “Chicken” was only about fifteen feet from the water but felt much higher when I stood on its edge. “Chair” was about thirty feet up, and “Couch” another twenty feet above that—the highest I ever went. “Killer” topped out at ninety feet. You had to take a running jump and clear rock overhangs to make it down. That was the only ledge I ever remembered Jamie jumping from.
I knew Jamie didn’t love me. And even at that young age, I knew that what I felt for him wasn’t exactly love. I was infatuated and wanted only to be near him, to look at him move and listen to him speak. If I were older and more sexually confident, my longing might have taken a physical route. As it was, I basked in longing itself, a self-sustaining and satisfying cycle. By the end of the summer, lust—not for sex, perhaps not even for Jamie—had completely pried me open. I was still a virgin, but no longer a child.
Lust would revisit me a handful of times in the coming years, in various flavors and intensities, sometimes leading to love.
During my sophomore year of college, I became friends with a cook at the restaurant where I waitressed. One night at a party, he was sitting at the foot of the steps as I passed, and I stopped to chat.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he answered, then paused meaningfully, as if he’d been waiting for me. “Do you want to go upstairs?”
I’d never considered it, but in that moment, his person re-arranged itself there on the steps, beaming warmth, handsomeness, intelligence, and sex. It took me three seconds to say yes. Sealed this time with intercourse, desire for him lit up my body and mind for the better part of a year, during which I found out that he—coincidentally?—wanted to move to California, just like I did.
Five years later, as the cook and I were in the midst of parting, I developed an unexpected obsession with a divorced man who’d just started dating my friend. I never acted on, or even voiced, these feelings, but they were strong enough to finally push me out on my own.
When I met the man who would become my husband, his repeated advances and my own insistent urge kept drawing me in despite my best efforts to stay away. I was holding out because of his long-distance girlfriend. I’d wake at 2 a.m. restless and buzzing. One night, unable to fall back asleep, I went into my kitchen and cooked a huge pot of risotto as a silent offering to “the goddess of lust,” if she would only make him go away. It didn’t work. I used every ounce of energy saying no until I ran out of willpower.
Fourteen years later, when I hit my forties and my husband refused my latent urge to get pregnant, I found myself reading erotica, buying lingerie, enrolling in pole-dancing lessons and tantra classes. Ultimately, I left my marriage for a man who aroused in me every magical story in lust’s arsenal: that our coupling must be achieved at any cost, that I recognized him from some other dimension associated with karma or fate, that our relationship would lead to my biggest lessons. So precious was the genesis of these narratives that I still work daily to keep them alive.
It’s clear to me that lust’s purview goes well beyond the physical. Understanding its biochemistry—new person, unconscious attraction likely rooted in early childhood, release of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—demystifies the process, but does little to lessen its power. Humans will go to great lengths to get those three neurochemicals flowing. Whether or not they succeed in merging sperm and egg, they provide enormous amounts of energy.
Lust is a change agent. In a life often weighed down by tedium and weariness, it delivers momentum. Judeo-Christianity labels it one of the deadly sins, perhaps fair, given its potential for addiction if indulged too frequently. But I think it’s more accurate to categorize lust as amoral. Like a lightning storm, it may wreak havoc, or simply put on a memorable and thrilling display before dispersing into the night. Guilt and regret may follow in its wake, but people happily uproot their lives every day under its influence. It is one of few experiences—extreme pain comes to mind as another—that provide the physiological stamina required of rebirth.
Without lust, I’m not sure I could have gotten up the courage to leave home, or live alone, or marry or divorce. It has come on like a magnificent illness, metastasizing on its destined day. Though I perceived it as personal while in its throes, I suspect it had little to do with any object of desire, or even with me. While the love it often engendered was precious and specific to one person, the lust itself was as anonymous as cell division. It was raw, regenerative life force.
Originating from some unknown place outside my will, lust has used the promise of ecstasy to achieve its real purpose: Destroy what needs destroying, and create what needs creating.