“I ain’t a playa I just crush a lot” —Big Pun (clean version)
“it’s so boring not to have a crush on anyone” —Ayesha Siddiqi
About a decade before she killed herself, Sylvia Plath told her love interest, “I like people too much or not at all. I’ve got to go down deep, to fall into people, to really know them.” Her crush replied, “Nobody knows me.” “So that was it; the end,” Plath wrote in her journal, crushed indeed by this magnetic man’s near militant disinterest in her wild moods, her extremist desire to free-fall.
I’m the same—all or nothing. I’m madly attracted to you or I fucking hate you. I like to wake up at 5:00 a.m. or sleep all day. I’m either fighting for my life or not fighting at all. This unbalanced attachment to extremes makes me not only unpredictable in everyday life but also the most unremitting crush-obsessive.
The contemporary meaning of crush—infatuation—has been sanitized. Crush is rendered cute, brief, and pathologically girlish instead of passionate, enraged, and at the very core of what, in the midst of vulnerability, keeps us going day after day. Part of this cultural purification is a result of the disastrous mistake that adults make by not taking adolescents seriously. The crush dominates contemporary American culture as a teenaged fantasy. We crush on “boys” and “girls,” even if they are grown. In the stories that belong to cities in the metropolitan West or the proliferating globalized cities of elite cosmopolitanism, the crush is featured as a defining breakthrough of emotional and psychic development, anointed a relic of childhood. (In reality, American teens are not categorically wild and free but, like adults, depressed, anxious, and hungry.) The crush, a symbol of becoming, is the last wasteful relationship before a child enters the severe productivity required by adulthood. In teen movies, the climax strikes when the crush ruins everything (the bus crash in Mean Girls, the accusation of theft in Titanic, or the lost friendship in Lady Bird) and the denouement (a resolved fight or a rekindled relationship) settles the unrest, allowing the protagonist to move on, grow up, and find stability, often in a dyadic romantic relationship where equality is assumed but never realized.
Because the language of crushing interrupts what it means to be an adult, teenagehood acts as the container where crushes are dramatized. We witness and consume teen drama, enabling a distance that, as a result, shores up the adult. The playing out of teen spectacle in public externalizes brief and wondrous affairs, relegating it to personal memory, as a way to get over the turmoil that crushing inevitably brings. We are left with a stable anterior feeling, a past that allows us to get over the tumultuous present.
As adults, the crush comes into view as a threat, that which one cannot not want. As adults, we’re not supposed to have puppy love, but the problem is that these silly little flings persist even as we try to name them differently. The teen crush transforms into an adulthood of endless crushes, the possibility of intense attachments to many people at once.
Since crushes tend to be trivialized and written off as distractions, we foreclose them. As singer and musician Moses Sumney tweeted at the end of last year, “Multiple partners? In this economy???” There is no time for fanatical intimacies. No time for obsessions other than capitalist productivity, disciplined subjectivity, and neoliberal self-improvement. On Tinder, everyone is simultaneously their own CEO and the latest Machu Picchu visitor. No time to fall deep and heavy—there are businesses to build, brands to consult, and world-citizenships to obtain. Thus, the advice columns and how-to websites that make up part of the self-help industry are thick with titles like “How to Stop Liking Your Crush: 14 Steps (with Pictures)” or “How to Avoid Falling in Love With Your Crush.” Google search suggestions are almost identical: how to stop thinking about your crush all the time, how to forget a crush and concentrate on studies, how to stop having a crush on someone you see everyday, how to stop having a crush on a friend. Quitting smoking seems easier.
Like your next cigarette, a crush is often unrequited. You want it because you don’t “have” it. If capitalist society operates by way of desire—of that next finer shimmering thing, unfulfilled but seemingly available—acceptance of the impossibility of ownership can feel a bit like giving up. Unlike coupled relationships, you can’t claim a crush, and you certainly can’t own her. A crush, when quiet and faint to everyone besides the one crushing, can exist without the direct consent of the object or objects to which it is directed, as long as you don’t condemn the other person for your feelings. In her 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Ms. Lauryn taught me the word “reciprocity,” a practice of mutual and fair exchange, and 20 years later I have come up with this shitty corollary: unreciprocity. For the wayward writer does not expect a reply to a love letter. The thrill of giving without compensation is deepened when one doesn’t expect a reply. Contingency is built into the structure of unreciprocated longing. Vulnerability, not knowing if you are liked back or how, has its pleasures, too.
Having a crush takes over the everyday. That’s what makes it euphoric and that’s what makes it tragic: Getting dressed becomes a chore, a trip to the grocery store like prom, a text message capable of pulverizing organs. The kind of work that crushing inspires underscores the way that having and building a life requires the complete gamut of resources—emotional and material—in order to maintain one’s self day after day. Having a crush, and not only a monogamous partner, means you can always have more affiliations. It is not the individual crush that provides its life-confirming force—it is the generality of crushing, its atmospheric quality, its circulation around many. To think of the crush—mini or huge, mutual or unrequited—as a general singularity is to admit that desire, however fleeting, can be attached to one person but is never only one person.
Crushing language is typecast and compartmentalized, often indexing something far away from world-crushing teen dramas. Consider the nerd crush: the ironized name for a supposedly nonsexual relation to an asexualized average-looking geek figure. Or the celebrity crush: the name for a love toward someone you will never know. Or the girl crush: the unnecessarily gendered and supposedly platonic name for a queer desire that one refuses to name. Twitter crush, childhood crush, hate crush, dad crush, man crush . . . the list proliferates.
However stale, these pluralized crush possibilities—one for every occasion!—in fact underscore the promise of crushing’s structure of feeling, its unfinished emergence. Crushing directly opposes a singularized partnering, a stable soul mate. Crushes offer a singular power to make concessions to the scary idea that things change, and that’s what makes the unrequitedness worth the rush. In the end, all I want is the practice of crushing itself.
I agreed to write this essay on crushes when I was at the end of a five-year relationship. I did not know then that it was the end. So I ended up writing most of this newly single, in between three countries, sleeping in other people’s beds, and then again in what was once “our” bed but became “mine” since I was taking it with me to my new apartment. I filed my first draft a week before moving into a new apartment in a new borough. He said he did not want to read it before it was published.
At first, I thought that crushing tends to involve time and energy that sad people don’t have. I’m sad and sad people don’t crush, I thought. I know I am seriously struggling when I don’t feel like I have time for music or crushes: Everything is drudgery. My time is spent making lists of all the hours of the day and what needs to be done to fill it up. 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.: Shower and eat. Check. 9:30 a.m.: Leave the house. Check. Things became better when I stopped making those depressing to-do lists and started texting my friends, omg I’m crushing on X, wow Y is so beautiful, I think I like Z? It meant I was open to potential, to twisting the bounds of the quotidian. It meant I was open to interruptions, to ignoring—excuse me if I sound cute—the draining productivity of late capital. A day is no longer task-driven but dream-driven. The fantasy of being a sovereign woman disintegrates. Suddenly I feel like the little girl, Moonee, in The Florida Project: This world is warped and vivid but it is also an everyday utopia because I played a part in building it as an alternative ordinary world.
I had crushes on others than my live-in lover all throughout our relationship, which itself was sometimes monogamous, sometimes open, sometimes none of those things. I hold an unruly aspiration for deep love with friends, the delicate rushes of a first glance, brief attachments with strangers, and decades-long relationships that break me down and build me up. The condition of living demands this absorptive intensity and persistent survival that might help us work through the rhythms of rapture and loss.
Privileging sexually or emotionally consummated relationships demotes infinite sensations to a grand messianic finale. Crushing, its insistent form toward the unrequited, does not necessarily permit a long-lasting, stable relation. Crushes are transient, unpredictable, often unnamed and unacknowledged, provisional, and random. To say “I have a crush” is to feel forced upon, a reminder of dispossession, yes, but also a small glimpse of possibility, that alchemical feeling of vitality so foolishly powerful that I live for it.
In other words, crushing season refuses to end as I refuse to die. I’ve had an on-off crush for six or so years. She lives in another city. I ask our mutual friends how she’s doing more than I ask her herself. I’ve written garbage poems about her, and I’ve even told her, “I’m very into you.” We’ve made out once or twice. It’s not that it’s unreciprocated; it’s that it feels almost impossible. Almost. I’ve spent some time with her but I hardly know her at all. She is a dream; I hope I never know her. And it is this longing to know her deeply—my untamed dreams and “wasted” energy spent thinking about her—that keeps me here, crushing and being crushed.