Little Death: Must Be Love On the Brain


by luther hughes

I.               Loisfoeribari

            The last time I remember crying in public was in DC at the 2017 AWP during Aracelis Girmay’s reading. She was reading her poem, “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card”:

Elephant on an orange line, underneath a yellow circle
meaning sun.
6 green, vertical lines, with color all from the top
meaning flowers.

The first time I peel back the 5 squares of Scotch tape,
unfold the crooked-crease fold of art class paper,
I am in my living room.

It is June.
Inside of the card, there is one long word, & then
Estefani’s name:


Estefani Lora

            Then Girmay interrogates the word, “Loisfoeribari.” She tries saying it out loud and using it in sentences. But nothing, until she begins to break down the word, and slowly the word transforms:

I try the word again.

I try the word in Spanish.

& then, slowly,

Lo is fo e ri bari
Lo is fo eribari

love is for everybody
love is for every every body love
love love everybody love
everybody love love
is love everybody
everybody is love
love love for love
for everybody
for love is everybody
love is forevery
love is forevery body
love love love for body
love body body is love
love is body every body is love
is every love
for every love is love
for love everybody love love
love love for everybody

            The second after Girmay read the first transformation, “love is for everybody,” tears were streaming down my face. I don’t know why I began to cry. But it was surprising how Girmay was able to take something so strange to her and transform it into love, into different incantations of love. As I looked around, others were also in tears. I wasn’t alone. There was something about the iteration that hit everyone at the same time. What was it about the transformation from “loisfoeribari” to “love love is for everybody” that drove a knife into my chest?

            I fell in love with a boy when I was fifteen; I fell head first. There was something so sweet about him: his eyes when I looked into them, his voice when he said my name, and his dimples when he smiled. But, for the most part, he was straight. We’d text every day, all day. We’d play fight. We’d “accidentally” touch each other’s hand. We’d lay in his bed talking and laughing. We’d fall asleep together. Once, when we were play fighting at school, he pinned me up against the wall. “Kiss me,” I whispered. He started to lean in, but he didn’t do it. People were around: his older brother, my best friend. It’s the old story, right? But, the more we talked the more I could see him falling in love with me. And, eventually, he did. And eventually, I had wings. We tried dating secretly. But then his family moved. We broke it off. We grew estranged. We stopped talking. We added each other on Facebook. We commented on each other’s post. He got engaged. He’s married. He has a baby on the way.

            Was he the reason I was crying beneath Girmay’s words? No. Although, I can admit, for years I compared our relationship to the few I had afterwards. None compared. My love for him ran deep—it was in my blood. And nobody was even able to scratch the surface. He haunted me. But, to be honest, I didn’t care. I didn’t care that I compared everyone to him or that I couldn’t find the type of love that gave me wings, because I still felt close to him in some weird way. If nobody compared, nobody could take his place. On an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey tells her daughter, “I already had one great love in my life.”

One great love…. Yeah, that’s exactly what I had.


II.             Handsome Beloved

            When I moved back to Seattle, I treated dating and hooking up as per usual: A few matches on Tinder. A booty call or two from Jack’d. Nothing spectacular, nothing to write home about. It was Seattle. I figured there weren’t any prospects here or, because the Black gay community was so small here, I’d already met everyone who could possibly interest me.

            A couple weeks after moving back, Black Gay Pride happened. It was cute for the most part. There was an all-white party, a dance performance in the hood, and a ball. There were cuties, but I didn’t look twice at most of them. A few hours after the ball had turned into a club, I went outside to get some fresh air. I stood with one of my childhood friends and another man, who I didn’t know. He was handsome: his hair was cut on the sides and curly on top, a little over 5’9, broad shoulders, and muscular as if he played sports growing up; he dressed well—black fitted pants, black-and-white stripped button-up, and sleek black shoes. While the three us stood there, my friend turned to the handsome-well-dressed man, and said, “You’re very handsome. You two,” pointing at me, “should hook up.” We looked at each other. He smiled, and I melted a little. A pause, and my friend said, “Lue-Lue, you are fine. You know what, never mind, he’s mine.” My friend and I laughed. Eventually, Handsome-Well-Dressed walked away. I was a little sad. He was very handsome, and I should’ve talked to him. When I went back inside the club, I casually looked for him.

            Looking back at that moment, I’m reminded of the first few couplets of Rumi’s “Where did the handsome beloved go?”:

             Where did the handsome beloved go?
            I wonder, where did that tall, shapely cypress tree go?
He spread his light among us like a candle.
Where did he go? So strange, where did he go without me?

All day long my heart trembles like a leaf.
All alone at midnight, where did that beloved go?

When I couldn’t find him, I figured he left. “Oh well,” I thought to myself. I bought another whiskey-and-Coke and danced the night away.


III.           The Floating Poem

            A couple days later at the same club, I’m sitting with Handsome-Well-Dressed. He buys me a drink. We talk and laugh. We exchange numbers.

            A few days ago, I tell my friends that I’m in love with Handsome-Well-Dressed. They ask me what it feels like. Jokingly, I say, “It’s like being a black swan drifting down a pond beneath a sliver of moonlight while, on the other side, in the wooded shade, a small fox sleeps.” Fifteen and in love didn’t feel this way. Quite frankly, it fails in comparison. It isn’t that I am still comparing my love at fifteen to anyone. After years of not finding love, I figured the wings were gone. Love like that wouldn’t return. I figured I’d just settle for close enough.


            When Meredith tells her daughter about her “one great love,” her daughter says, “Mom, I don’t think love is like candy. I don’t think you can be too greedy for it. And I don’t think you could fill up on it.”


            I didn’t expect this to happen. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t consider now the best time to be in love given that I’m depressed, broke, and “finding my way.” I always thought (or maybe wanted) love to come when I felt most secure. But it didn’t. And now everywhere I go, Handsome-Well-Dressed is in my thoughts. Whenever I laugh, Handsome-Well-Dressed’s gap-toothed smile is there. When I watch a movie, and someone falls in love, I think of him. He is now haunting me.

            I don’t remember the exact moment I fell in love. I just was. It just happened.


            In a live performance, Rihanna sings, “Love on the Brain.” There’s so much feeling in her voice that I can almost pluck the word “love” from her bottom lip.


            After I jokingly describe what it’s like to be in love with Handsome-Well-Dressed, I say to my friends, “But no seriously, it feels like I’m floating and, at the same time, very low to the ground.”

            In Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems,” a poem, “unnumbered,” is floating. Here is the first sentence:

                        Whatever happens with us, your body
                        will haunt mine—tender, delicate
                        your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
                        of the fiddlehead fern in forests
                        just washed by sun.

            When I read this sentence, I think of what I told my friends and LOL. Love turns everything into figurative language, doesn’t it?— “like the half-curled frond / of fiddlehead ferns in forests / just washed by sun.” Is it that love is so intense, so bodily, that it’s impossible to be literal? Then again, why do we have to transform what appears strange into something familiar? Even now, I’m describing love as a “haunting.” I can’t put my finger on what love is or isn’t. I thought I had my “one great love,” yet here I am, talking about finding love once more—a greater love than before. I keep saying “great love,” as if there are different registers of it. I have felt and then I didn’t.

            But now, Handsome-Well-Dressed is asleep in bed, slightly snoring, back facing me. I can’t stop smiling because I drank all the wine, and I know tomorrow morning he’s going to say, “You drank all that wine from last night.” We’ll laugh. Then he’ll kiss my forehead, and say, “I love you babe.” And maybe that’s it. Maybe, I’m not supposed to try to define love. Maybe, I’m meant to transform what was given to me. Loisfoebari becomes a black swan and flies into a sun-washed forest, landing like a kiss on the forehead.  

Luther Hughes