Let’s call her Dawn.* We were in seventh grade at the all-girls convent in Sargodha, Pakistan. Run by terse Irish nuns, my cobble-pathed alma mater was a lonely place surrounded by endless roses and mimosifolia in one of the most fertile parts of the motherland.
Every morning, I would make sure I sat right behind Dawn while feigning chic apathy. The idea was to never let her know how vulnerable I felt in my adoration for her. This required calibration; to be close to her physically and yet far enough emotionally so she never got an inkling of my crush. Infatuations teach us, inter alia, defense mechanisms.
Crushing on Dawn also taught me basketball — as much as my distracted focus could retain the sport. Dawn was the captain of the girls’ team, which meant I needed to enroll to be around her. I learned little about defense or offense, and a lot about what kind of balm helped the bruise you got after a Spalding basketball hit you in the face. It was worth it.
Silently fawning over Dawn also meant pretending to be brave. The nuns believed in corporeal punishment and so some days were bluer than others. When the penalties got severe and my hands hurt with the repeated rod strikings, I would pretend I could take the whole world on by holding back my tears as Dawn watched helplessly. When I’d return to my desk, she would ask if I needed water, and that was my anodyne.
The most beautiful memories I have of Dawn are snippets in staccato rhythm. Dawn running past me, her braid mid-air for a fleeting second as she gracefully threw the ball in the hoop. Her drinking cold water from the courtyard fountain shaped like a cherubic, decaying angel on a July noon. Her tapping my shoulder twice and asking for a pencil. Her toothy grin illuminating her face when I’d tell a stupid joke.
My favorite memory of Dawn, however, is of us sitting under a willow tree in autumn. She tore into the belly of a tangerine with her right thumb, split its ripe segments into an open flower for us, and handed me a crescent-shaped slice in silence.
Historians like Jared Diamond in his book Third Chimpanzee aver that our evolutionary history shows we like people based on terribly simple needs; we seek propinquity — familiarity based on shared values and backgrounds — we prefer equanimity in conversation, and of course, there’s sexual attraction. Neuropsychologists have written about the biochemistry underpinning crushes: how norepinephrine gives you the damp palms when you see them, how dopamine gives your mood its extreme crests and troughs, and endogenous opioids soften and sweeten the sharp ache of liking someone so much it hurts.
Chemicals in your brain gather to create a concoction that is simultaneously as debilitating as it is delicious, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher. It’s meaningful chaos in your limbic system, mainly the caudate nucleus area. Your brain instructs your adrenal glands to give you that rush of excitement and when you see them more regularly, your limbic reward system gives you that sweet, sweet dopamine.
And those red flags you choose not to see are all thanks to the decreased activity in the amygdala in the frontal bit of your temporal lobe. This little part of you gently closes the door on skepticism when you’re struck by Cupid. Neuropeptides like oxytocin then foster feelings like attachment and, if the crush blooms into reciprocated love, there’s increased activity in the ventral pallidum, the part of our brain that guides our motivations and intentions.
All of this, we go out of our way to seek. You’ve heard the stories and you’ve read the poems. Songwriters and filmmakers have burned holes in their thin wallets unsuccessfully trying to get the description right, but it’s virtually impossible — and maybe ultimately useless — to give a tangible definition to such a devastating, beautiful abstract.
Philosophically, at their core, crushes are guided by the life force of eros, which writers have long attempted to understand the nature of. In their different cadences and vernacular, thinkers like Plato argued that eros is a desire for the divine, Freud posited it as the fundamental will to live, and Marcuse claimed that eros was the force that liberated civilization from the clutches of regression.
Scholars like Audre Lorde have said eros is what women are taught to distrust and consequently defang, while novelists like Elena Ferrante showed us what eros between women yields: secrets to surviving this world and, if weaponized against each other, strategies to wound. To a seventh grader, however, eros is mainly butterflies in her tummy.
Of course, I never had the chance to tell Dawn about eros, and how thinkers of our time have tried to decode it. And I doubt I ever will; she got married in college and now lives somewhere in Canada.
Years later, I remember Dawn fondly. Liking her helped me understand not only eros but also how to defend crushes, which psychologists dub para-social interactions — meaning they are woefully one-sided. Scientifically, my crush on her helped me understand how the mind works when positively overwhelmed by affection. It’s a good conversation starter, too.
But most importantly, my first crush solidified my understanding of introspection. It gave me an unintended opportunity to admire in someone else what I aspired for myself: courage, generosity, empathy, curiosity, and yes, a knack for shooting hoops. And while I may never be able to tell Dawn this, having a crush on her gave me what we all, adolescents and adults, need to make it through life: the safety and necessity of one’s imagination. The ability to carve out hypotheticals that may help one sharpen their problem-solving skills, battle loneliness, understand their own needs, impulses, fears, joys, and so much more.
It is such an inevitable rousing, notorious for its psychologically challenging and physically taxing nature, that I firmly believe everyone should experience at least once in their lives, so as to jolt themselves awake, even if it aches a little bit. It’s a dawn of sorts.
*name has been changed to protect her privacy
Mehreen Kasana is a news writer at Bustle. Previously the front page editor for The Huffington Post and staff writer for The Nation, Pakistan, she is now based in Los Angeles where she writes about politics and culture. You can follow her here.
Animation by Madeline Montoya.