Whitney Houston in 1991
Friends and heartthrobs of the past, future, and present: where I am now, the temperature has begun its slow climb, and summer is preparing its eviction notice for all the gentle breezes and drives with windows down and the incessant joyful choir of birds. We will soon have to settle for less pleasing aesthetics of romance. Sweat becomes romantic because it will happen whether or not I want it to, and I’ve got to make the best of it. During summer in Ohio, the storms come briefly, but violently, and seemingly out of nowhere. The sun will be out as you make your way to the car, but by the time you arrive at your destination, you’re trapped in a parking lot with torrents of rainwater collapsing on your windshield. I think I would like to call this moment romantic, too, for all the times I’ve sat outside of a grocery store, or a bar, or an ice cream shop, turning up a song that reminded me of someone in hopes that the music and the memory might intersect and silence the downpour.
It is a privilege to have seasons. Sometimes, in Columbus, Ohio, we don’t get much of spring. Winter digs its claws in and then it’s suddenly eighty-five degrees with suffocating humidity. The planet, of course, may not afford me many more years like this one. One where I’ve been blessed with a distinct turning over from one season to the next. I like it this way, being gently shepherded through, as opposed to dropped in the middle of a landscape already in progress. It is hard to create longing without the reminder of what we’re longing for.
Speaking of longing, I am here to once again consider the moment in the pre-chorus of “How Will I Know,” which creeps underneath the song’s ecstatic and bombastic uncertainty. Whether intended in the original message or not, this was the first song that most clearly articulated the anatomy and anxiety and secret pleasures of a crush. While Whitney drags out the words of the song’s central question as only Whitney can, the backup vocals trickle in with “don’t trust your feelings,” which is the moment that feels the most true to the real-life conundrum. A person, shaky, but fantasizing toward confidence while, underneath, their friends try to whisper them back to reality.
It is not true that all people get crushes and it is not true that all people want to be someone’s crush. And it is definitely not true that these things happen in equal measure for everyone. But for the people who do crush and want to be a crush, I think that desire can rise and dissipate with the movement of seasons. I always found that my hopes of having a crush existed most eagerly in the early months of a year, as winter faded away. Those hopes peaked in the middle of summer, when I would strive to be romantically unattached, so that my heart could be tugged in any direction it pleased. I would guess this seasonal relationship might have to do with the structure of my life when I first discovered what crushes were. Which is to say, when I was in school, especially when I was in school but before my friends and I could drive, when even if a person was romantically linked to someone else, they would most likely part ways before the school year ended. Or pretend that they were going to give it a try over the summer if they lived in neighborhoods that were close enough. But, in the end, the seemingly never-ending possibilities of summer won out. In summer, small relationships or imagined relationships banished the larger relationship to the locker bays of the high school. At Warped Tour, a crush would accelerate into a daylong fling, because time was fleeting, and there was none of it to be wasted hand-wringing over maybes. And so, summer, even as an adult, is the time when I allow myself to be most susceptible to crushing on someone. Then, as the fall arrives and the cold begins to circle back around, I want to be indoors, preferably with a person I’ve had a crush on in the previous months. Your timeline may vary, of course.
There are many approaches to having a crush, and significantly fewer approaches to being someone’s crush. For the latter, some may be interested in knowing who has a crush on them and why, and I do see a lot of value in having that information. But for the former, I am too anxious for any interest in reality. Whitney Houston seems to be the questioning type, though none of us can say how long she’d been mulling over the questions before they spilled out. I can hold a crush longer than most of my friends can hold a grudge. I don’t really need or even want to know whether a person shares my affection. I’m content just letting the situation play itself out at its own pace. I get that for most people, this seems agonizing. But, for all of the agony, what you get in return is the imagined person and not the actual person. Or, if you’re lucky, you get to hold off on the actual person for a little bit longer, until you get to be with the actual person. Whitney’s agony seems more urgent, it ticks my heart rate up a notch when I listen to the song. Which, it must be said, is one of the most perfect songs ever crafted. Whitney is saying prayers! She is picking up the phone and dialing some numbers but then hanging up again! It is all too much! Though I’m not one to judge the manifestation of anyone else’s desires—particularly if those desires have been bubbling up to the surface with an unsustainable ferocity!
But where Whitney and I meet is this: the idea of falling in love over and over again within an endless loop of uncertainty. Sometimes, it isn’t even the person you’re falling in love with, just the uncertainty itself. I have been known to take everything as a sign, even if I am lying to myself. That’s part of the fun. It’s the idea of certainty that drains me. Sure, someone saying they don’t dig you like you dig them doesn’t stop a crush dead in its tracks, but it does make the emotional journey more finite. I don’t know much about love, and I don’t wish to know any more than I already do. Like Hayden at the end of the poem “Those Winter Sundays” where the reader can almost hear him, frantic and throwing up his hands:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I give in to that question. There’s no satisfactory answer. And maybe there isn’t an answer to Whitney’s questions, either. I have cursed myself for misreading all my crush’s signals, but I have still felt thankful for the time those signals were there for me to read in the first place. To have a crush can be joyous labor, and can also be anguish, and can also be something that will vanish in a day or an hour and never be revived again. While out with my friends now, we’ll see an old acquaintance from afar and we might exclaim, “I can’t believe I ever had a crush on that person!” and we’ll laugh at the foolish desires of our past selves. And I like that part, too. Even if it is played up for effect. To crush now may mean to stay up well past your comfortable waking hours, gently scrolling through rows of old Instagram photos and attempting to not accidentally like one of them, despite your fingers quaking with excitement. There’s this old Kevin Durant tweet I love from 2010. It reads: “#uever wake up n the middle of da night and think about a girl u like or startin to like and sit at da edge of the bed n say damn i want her.”
And yes, surely that is one of the inescapable parts of a crush, too. The things that keep you awake, or send you to the edge of a bed, speaking out loud to no one but yourself and the world you’ve built with a person who—if you are one of the lucky ones—might be at the edge of their own bed, thinking of you.
Whitney’s tune doesn’t end with resolution. It ends with desire piling on top of more desire. She was always better at that than she got credit for. Whitney’s voice and the singular stamp she made on ballads is memorable, of course. But so is the way that she set a blueprint in pop music for how to unfold desire without resolving it. I hear it now in Carly Rae Jepsen, in Robyn, in so many others. “How Will I Know” ends with an accumulation of the words how will I know sung repeatedly. Nothing promised except another rotation of the question. On the end of the third and sixth rotation, the background singers chime back in. First with I say a prayer. And then, I fall in love. It is hard to hear, because it comes as the song fades away, but it’s there.
Falling in love can be an isolating act, even if another person is present while it is happening. It’s all so interior, based on many moving parts and internalized messiness. It isn’t always like this, of course. But when it has been like that for me, I’ve come out of it happily exhausted, wondering why anyone would want to do this more than once in a lifetime. But, of course, when whatever love I’ve claimed fades, I find myself renewed, in search of the feeling once again. I have found ways to renew it even while still in love. Last fall, there was a point where I had a crush on the leaves, for all their twirling and kaleidoscopic showing off. I have a crush on the first few days of daylight saving time in either direction, when the sun does a real generosity and tricks me into staying out longer and later. Or, when it abruptly exits early, reminding me to bow to my true self. I have a crush on the way the familiar buildings of Columbus, Ohio, poke their faces through a puffy wall of clouds when I descend into the city after being away for too long, and it is always too long. I have a crush on too many sentences in too many books by too many people to name. Since I have already decided that sweat is romantic, friends, let me say that I also have a crush on the feeling of night air cooling the sweat off skin when a body pours out of a hot and packed space. I am beginning to have a crush on crystals, I think. Definitely obsidian, but perhaps a few of the others that look like miniature caves. And, yes, I have a crush on memories that were surely not as beautiful as I have made them out to be. Because that’s the whole trick. I’ve had crushes on all my friends, and if they don’t have one back on me that’s fine because I’m still going to text them at unfortunate and odd hours of the day with some useless miracle that I couldn’t possibly keep to myself. So few of my crushes speak back. I am cultivating my comfort with unanswered desires, and it is going well. I have room for so much more. I say a prayer. I fall in love.
Hanif Abdurraqib’s monthly column, Notes on Pop, muses on the relationship between songs and memory. Read more here.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.
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