I recently found a note on my phone that I wrote while reading Luster by Raven Leilani. It’s dated 30 December 2020 and contains more than fifteen quotes that made my heart absolutely ache at the time. Reading them back, the ache is still very much there, so of course my instinct is to write about it and get disgustingly personal on the internet.
The novel follows Edie, a Black woman in her early twenties who gets involved with a married white man and, later, his wife. Leilani is unflinching in her examination of race and class and the realities of this intersection for an American woman today. The general chaos of Edie’s life, however, is universally relatable; her future is unknown, her choices are messy and, ultimately, she is flawed.
I don’t remember seeing out the hellfire that was 2020 by reading this book but, given the date, I must have. Looking back at that period of my life, which was only three and a bit months ago but could be a year in itself, I was dealing with shit similar to Edie’s and find it comforting that I was reading something to which I so deeply connected during that time. My gratitude towards young women who write contemporary fiction and are able to clearly articulate what it feels like to be us—gritty, misguided, lonely, ambitious, hopeful—is endless.
In December I was all of these things (still am, for the most part). I was desperately homesick for New South Wales, I was eager to start school so I would feel like I was doing something with my life and I was pretending (badly) not to have feelings for a boy I definitely liked. I can already hear my friends reading that last sentence and yelling: ‘This is all of the time!! Not just December, you fucking broken record!!!’ and they would be correct. But that particular mix—and that particular boy—made me feel like the smallest, most inconsequential version of myself.
It should be illegal to let people have that much power over how you see yourself, although I’m glad it’s not or I’d be writing this garbage on a cellblock wall right now. That boy doesn’t read this blog (I don’t think? Do you? Hello) nor does he know the extent to which he made me feel like I was too much of some things and not enough of others. Leilani puts her finger on this perfectly when Edie starts noticing the inequality in her relationship with Eric: ‘Suddenly it feels painful to be this ordinary, to be this open to him, as he looks at me and pretends I am not just a cheaper version of a fast Italian car.’
And when describing Edie’s insecurities on their first date: ‘“I’m an open book,” I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible. I made mistakes with these men. I dove for their legs as they tried to leave my house. I chased them down the hall with a bottle of Listerine saying, I can be a beach read, I can get rid of all these clauses, please, I’ll revise.’
What I wouldn’t give to be the beach read version of a human being. I have never chased after a man with eraser in hand, screaming that I’ll scrub myself out and start again, but I have felt the desire to do so plenty of times, despite showing these men very little of myself. I’m aware that the only thing inherently wrong with me is that I believe absolutely everything is wrong with me but there is a lot to blame for this (because obviously it can’t be my fault). Society, for one, which I also blame for my constant need to be reassured that ‘You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing’ – another unbelievable line from Leilani.
And, for another, I find myself still working through the consequences of a destructive breakup, years later. He is not a bad person, in fact he is still my friend, but the bad things he did have made dating quite the complex task. Again, Leilani puts it better than I ever could: ‘I believed, like a catholic or a tortured artist, that the merit of a commitment correlates directly to the pain you endure in its pursuit.’ Now, like Edie (and millions of other people who are not fictional characters), I am risk-averse when it comes to dating. I tend to manufacture situations in which I am incredibly unlikely to get hurt, although clearly that doesn’t always work out or this blog post would be half its length, and when I come across someone who is kind to me and seems to care and who I could definitely care about too, I bolt.
Instead, I have become very good at seeking out people who are not only unperturbed by the gigantic walls I have built around myself but are grateful that they are there, because it is obvious I do not expect anyone to try to scale them. I date men in their thirties because, if they’re actively seeing twenty-four-year-olds, their fear of commitment usually matches my own. This was a subconscious pattern of mine until recently but it has always been blatantly obvious—and very funny—to my friends. I describe to them a new boy I’m seeing and these assumptions are always made: barely any common interests, barely any interest in me, emotionally unavailable and a bit fucked up from their past trauma. Choosing people this way leaves absolutely no room for rejection or heartbreak; if I date people in whom I cannot invest then I will not be hurt by their lack of investment in me.
The big, bad secret here is this: I do not like being this way. I want nothing more than to let myself date people who would have a go at scaling the walls, who would think the effort is worth the payoff. So, when I read Edie’s story while coping with this silly thing with this silly boy, I felt immense relief that someone had put it all in a book-shaped Petri dish and handed me a microscope so I could inspect my hangups for what they are. Leilani so deftly describes what an uncomfortable mindfuck it is to not only date but to do so with baggage the size of a small aircraft tied around your neck, to open yourself up to other people when old wounds are still healing and to do so with the knowledge that you are so accustomed to being alone not because you have chosen it but because you are both terrified of the alternative and believe it is simply not for you. Only masters of their craft can achieve this cultivated accuracy and Leilani, I have no doubt, is one of them.