Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall in Love
July 7, 2021 / Divina Ceniceros Dominguez
I looked at him through the warm, orange flames of my 22 birthday candles. I closed my eyes to make a wish, and when I opened them, I feared he knew exactly what I’d wished for.
I don’t really know what love is, but if you ask me, I would say it’s something along the lines of, “feeling strong emotions about someone you care about.” Ugh. But when Patrick Stump wrote, “you could’ve knocked me out with a feather,” it wasn’t because he thought he was in love. You can’t, with a fully loaded gun, ask someone who’s never experienced love to solve life’s biggest riddle.
Like many people, I was never really taught what love is. And so, like many other clueless people, I thought I could perhaps find it in another person. From that I learned that, I might not know what love is, but I do know what it’s not.
Everyone tells you about the fairytale endings, the glitz, and the glam. The picnics at the local park with a persimmon sunset in your eyes and the gentle gust of wind of a lover’s spring.
No one tells you that those warm hands that can hold you so softly can also take and take until there’s nothing more of you to give. A hot knife can strike through butter with a swift vengeance, and like butter, I melted at the touch one too many times.
Before you know it, it’s winter again. But we grow and learn to live another spring.
We first met on a socially distanced day in April. I didn’t love him then, but someone, something, had to have known what was coming.
Within a day, he put a toothbrush for me in his bathroom sink. Now, a year later, I can recall with meticulous detail the time I looked at him and thought, “Holy shit, I love him.”
He could’ve knocked me out with a feather.
Falling in love was a lot more about what happens in the unspoken moments; it’s the ache in your bones right before it rains, or a word at the tip of your tongue that you just can’t remember.
Take me back to that drunken August evening somewhere downtown. You pointed at the billboard that read, “It took a pandemic to meet you.” You don’t believe in coincidences, but you chose to forget about it that time.
I can’t give you an exact definition, but if you were to ask me now what love is, I would say it’s the feeling I get when he wakes me up to coffee with a splash of milk and an apple cut into cubes sprinkled with cinnamon. It’s the hand-holding and the kisses that taste like sunscreen on our daily Pokemon Go walks.
Love is the feeling in my soul that everything is going to be okay. Because underneath Ruby Woo lipstick and expensive acrylics, I’m still a glossy feather plucked away by life’s hunger.
I feel a sense of responsibility to be more than human, but I could never relate to a superhero. For a long time, I found my cape through hoop earrings and a promise to never fall in love. I felt undeserving of nice things and guilty when I had them, because I’m not yet where I want to be. Until I’ve landed in this promised land of American Dreams, I’ll battle with this guilt the way Batman goes off and fights crime, or whatever. Bruce Wayne doesn’t know what poverty is. Bruce Wayne isn’t an immigrant with a string of generational curses to break.
They say we’re born alone and die alone, except I was born alongside a baby boy. Together, we coexisted in a dark nothingness for eight months and then braved life’s first challenge side by side.
I wonder if I loved my brother while in the womb. I didn’t know or need to know who he was, but the unbreakable link that will forever embed our lives is undeniable. This bond was marked by our surname: Ceniceros Dominguez. Ceniceros, holder of ashes, and Dominguez, from domingo, Sunday. My mother, a firm believer in coincidences, ghosts, and superstition, has told me that a child’s name often seals their fate.
When I was born, I weighed only three pounds. My veins tattooed my paper skin, and for the two months I spent in my incubator, I was just one wrong breath away from death.
I wonder if I felt loved in those fragile moments — loved with the passion of a mother’s faith, of a mother who is one Ave Maria away from losing the baby girl she held and cared for all these months. I wonder if she knew I loved her and that I was holding on so I could one day hold her hands and say that I love her, too.
My family didn’t miss a single day of visiting. When my mom couldn’t be there, my grandparents would take turns caring for me. They’d bring their Bible, pray, and when it was time for them to go, they’d leave the open Bible on top of my incubator to pick up where they left off the next day. Simultaneously, as I was fighting for my life, a bacteria entered the neonatal room and took the lives of several babies in the room. Soon after, I lost another half a pound of weight, had a blood transfusion, and my skin was just a sheer illusion of a mother and her healthy baby girl.
Looking back, I wonder how they felt every time they left the hospital. Did they fear coming back to a lifeless vessel and a cursed Bible? Or was this a daily pilgrimage to their conviction, their love, their unyielding refusal to give up on me?
And so, I braved life’s second challenge. My mother named me Divina, meaning of or from God; divine.
I wish I could think of pretty things when I think of love. Instead, I’m paralyzed by the fear of one day having my own pilgrimage to an incubator, except this time, the little hand that grips my finger will slowly, permanently loosen its grip. I can’t shake the feeling of guilt and fear that through my happiness, I’ll lose focus of the pain my family endured to keep me breathing. When I’m really sad, I think of a big ticking clock with hands like lines of rope languidly burning towards all the people to whom I have ever said “I love you,” until one day, there won’t be any more rope to burn. The clock will cease to tick and, one by one, flames will engulf every single person that has ever cared for me.
In those final hours, I hope I have enough time to tell them that I care for them, too.
I used to think that to love is to be another’s passionate elixir; to fall in love is to heal, cherish, and be one’s peace every day til death do us part.
But what if we’re not meant to be someone else’s flame or the spark they need to live another day? Perhaps, like my namesake, I’m destined to hold their ashes close to my chest once they stop burning. Perhaps falling in love is less about action and more about stillness. It’s the lifelong journey of letting go and understanding that everyone you love will eventually leave you.
This secret, this grief, is the heavy price we pay for love. But it’s one worth paying. ■