“I love you,” he says. The room is warm and humid, our sweat mixing in the air, windows slightly cracked to let in the sounds of the warm, Southern night. We’re lying in bed. He has his arm around me in a way that has to be uncomfortable for him but oh-so-comfortable for me. The words are dripping over us – this is the first time he’s said it. This is the part where I’m supposed to say it back, but I’m choking. He’s relaxed against me, slowly falling asleep in the haze.
Flashback to five years ago. I was walking down the street with my hands busy in my pockets. He brushed against my shoulder, and I turned to catch a glimpse. He was already looking back, and, when our eyes met, he opened his mouth to reveal the most charming smile. I almost walked into a pole. I was on my way to a second interview with a law firm that I desperately wanted to work for, and my mind was racing with the possibilities. This memory is close; so close I can hear the sounds of the cars passing and smell the concrete and feel my hair pulled too-tight. It’s sweet – like the “first look” at a wedding; like something that should have been photographed and hung on our mantle.
His chest is moving up and down slowly, with little beads of sweat still clinging to the hairs. I brush my hand against them, collecting them on my fingertips like souvenirs. I never said it back, and he’s asleep now. Perhaps he’ll mention it in the morning – whispering it in my ear again and counting the moments until I return the favor. Maybe he won’t mention it at all, letting the fact that I’m still in bed speak for itself.
Flashback to seven years ago. I was fresh out of law school. My boyfriend at the time was giving all of the signals that he was going to propose, and I knew I was going to say, “no.” I had rehearsed our break-up like a high school play with too many lines. I never got the chance to say any of it, though. He died in a car accident with his best friend. I remember being at the funeral, feeling guilty for my presence. I shouldn’t have been there – knowing that I was going to end our relationship, knowing that he wasn’t my “soulmate.” Our relationship had dragged on, far past its expiration date. It was sour. Call it stubbornness or stupidity, but despite knowing things were over between us, neither of us could make the first move. We probably would’ve gotten married and had children just to spite each other.
I call the moment I knew I was going to leave him the “epiphany.” I was drinking with some friends, and we started talking about our futures post-law school. It felt like a million years away, but we were all just shy of a year from graduating. We were tired, ragged, and over-confident in our ability to drink heavily and attend class. When I started picturing my future, I realized that every single milestone, every goal, every frame, didn’t include him. I wanted to scale my mountains alone. Our relationship lasted another year, until after graduation, and we never said, “I love you.”
Flashback to a year ago. I was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and orange juice, preparing for yet another interview. Charlie, the man beside me now, was still asleep. He always slept in – his hours skewed from working at home. Sometimes he would sleep until noon – which was our most prevalent point of contention. I, being a morning person, would slip out of bed around 6 a.m. and move around as loudly as possible, hoping to stir him from his sleep to spend time with me before work. When we were still trying to “woo” each other, he would. He would drag himself out of bed, sit with me as I busied around the house, and go back to sleep when my car was safely out of the driveway. When he stopped trying to impress me, he started to sleep in again. It’s funny, isn’t it - the lengths we go to trying to impress someone we care about? We change our routines, our patterns, our clothes, our phrases – all in the name of making our “forever resume” seem better? We pad it with promises and gestures, and we hope, maybe even pray, that our person will read it and say, “You’re hired. Be mine.”
I know I should say it back. It’s been a few years now. Some people start saying it after a few months, but we never felt the need. It was always an unspoken truth between us that we clutched through arguments and rough patches – never feeling the need to vocalize it. Speaking it into the world felt like sharing a secret. Charlie is a little impulsive, but he’s always been an expert at keeping his feelings, his romantic feelings, in check. We don’t shower our friends with public displays of affection. We don’t post our updates and photographs across social media platforms. We keep it in our house, behind closed doors. Every day we take our separate paths, meandering around our lives until we meet in the evening.
Then, we smother each other. Once I step inside, we don’t stop touching. He holds my hips while I cook dinner, planting kisses down my neck. I prop my feet on his legs while we watch TV or talk about our day. We shower together. When we brush our teeth, our elbows bump, which always makes us laugh. We sleep like koala bears, holding each other and tangling like yarn through the night. Our lives are full of affection, but those three words never escaped our lips.
Flash back to my freshman year of high school. My mother had just gotten the diagnosis – breast cancer, stage four, aggressive, metastatic, inoperable. Those were all words used to describe the tumors they found in her breasts and throughout her body. My mother was a healthy, forty-year-old woman. She drank kale smoothies and exercised regularly. There was no prior history of breast cancer in her family.
We took the diagnosis in stride. She refused to acknowledge the severity of her condition. We didn’t talk about survival rates. We didn’t spend hours going over the prognosis. She started chemotherapy and radiation immediately, never once asking us to wear a pink ribbon or hold her hair as she vomited from the medication. She persevered, and she died within the year. We told each other we loved each other every day.
Once she was gone, I stopped using those words – they were too powerful. I reserved them for her. My father, on the other hand, remarried when I graduated high school – the words hadn’t been tainted for him. He had been seeing a wonderful woman, and we both knew my mother would’ve wanted him to be happy. I suppose he waited until I was out of the house to spare my feelings, but he never had to – that was just his way. He tiptoes around all conflict.
Charlie is sound asleep. He doesn’t snore, but his breathing is so loud that I sometimes sneak in an earplug to muffle it. He and I don’t tiptoe around our conflicts. We splatter our arguments around the house like paint, mixing our colors until each wall has been coated in spit from our raised voices.
No one talks about this part of the relationship. “Don’t go to bed angry,” the elderly couples say, touching their liver-spotted hands and smiling in the way only old people can smile – with their wrinkled cheeks and glossy eyes. It’s endearing, but completely inaccurate. No one tells you how many times you have to touch feet in bed with the person you want to run away from. No one tells you how many times your elbows will bump as you brush your teeth side-by-side, and the feeling of their skin against yours is like sandpaper. No one tells you how many times you will scream, lash out, be impatient, be over-dramatic, hit down to the bone with your words, and feel them breathing on your neck while you sleep afterwards.
No one prepares you for the bad nights – the ones that are so rough the memories feel like shards of glass behind your eyes. The fights that last for days – depriving you of sleep and sanity until a resolution has been made. No one tells you the way an apology tastes – bitter and metallic. There will be moments you question the entire relationship in the span of an hour, only to crawl into bed, fuming and in dire need of physical affection.
Flashback to me, six years old, playing with my soccer ball in the backyard. My parents are inside the house, whisper-yelling at each other about money. They don’t realize I can hear them, but I eavesdrop as they passive-aggressively bat their rebuttals until my father apologizes. They were so good at keeping it together, I almost convinced myself they never argued. These little memories of my father’s furrowed brow and my mother’s scowl that left little lines on her face are some of my favorites.
I still feel the words choking in my throat. I try to whisper them, but they don’t come out. Even mouthing them to myself feels like I’m asking my face to move in a foreign way – like trying to learn a new language each time they come across my lips. If I don’t say it back, he might leave me. People have left for less – I’ve left for less. But saying it, saying the words that my mother and I shared every day for a year, feels like cheating. It feels like there’s a finite amount of storage in my memory bank and telling Charlie that I love him will erase and replace a memory of her. I don’t want that – I can’t live that way, erasing and replacing my mother with Charlie.
But what if Charlie can’t live that way either? What if my refusal to acknowledge my love for him, out loud, as arbitrary as it seems considering we both know the truth, will be our final fight? We’ll go around the house, spraying the walls in a new shade, arguing into the small hours of the morning, feeling the sun rise on our hateful words, until he’s gone – and there’s no one to bump elbows with anymore.
Flashback to our first date. We ran into each other on the street that morning, going opposite directions, and ended up at the same restaurant that night. I was with my law school friends, and he was sitting with family, celebrating a birthday. We exchanged glances throughout our separate dinners, but, when he approached me, it felt like greeting an old friend. Before we knew it, we had left our respective groups and found a quiet corner, chatting away over drinks that watered down before we could finish them. I couldn’t tear myself away. He had me, but he didn’t realize it. He put so much effort into keeping at that table, unaware that I was already planting roots. What if telling Charlie I love him ruins the magic? Like reading the end of the story after finishing only the first three chapters – making everything in the middle useless.
Flashback to yesterday, when Charlie and I were watching TV on the couch. He spends his days on the phone, selling insurance, so his “wind-down” time looks much different from mine. By the time I get home most days, he’s already decompressed. I’m a divorce lawyer. I spend long hours with clients, so blind from rage that I’m surprised they can see to drive. Or, worse, they’re indifferent. Love has left them damaged and hard, and they just want to sign the papers and return to their memories.
At first, Charlie didn’t understand the black cloud I brought home with me from work. He didn’t empathize. He would sit there, confused, as I complained until his eyes glossed over, and I knew I had lost him for the moment. It was the most frustrating part of our first chapter together. I craved a safe space, and I needed him to take on that role – which he did. He stretched and accommodated and chased off his sunshine to fit my rain into the forecast.
The clock says 3:35 a.m. I have to be awake in a few hours. Should saying, “I love you,” be this hard? Is this a sign?
Flashback to the night my mother died. I had fallen asleep in the uncomfortable hospital chair that the nurses always refreshed with pillows and blankets. My father had all but moved into the room. They were keeping her “comfortable,” but the grimace on her face as she slept said otherwise. It had been a long year. Watching someone we loved being eaten alive from the outside out was hard. Loving someone we both knew was dying was hard. It was all hard.
When the monitor flatlined, my father and I both woke up in a panic. We pressed every button on the remote tethered to her bed. I ran down the hall, grabbing anyone in scrubs. The minutes it took for someone to come into her room felt like hours. She had signed the “do not resuscitate” paperwork behind our backs. I stood in horror, repeating “I love you,” until the doctor pulled us into the hallway. His words felt loud, larger than life, as he explained that mother had died. It was a conversation he’d clearly had before, made obvious by the way he un-affectionately touched our shoulders. As he walked away, my father and I stepped back into the room, staring at the lifeless body the nurses were unplugging in awe. We both knew this was around the corner – she didn’t have much time left. But it felt brand new – an aching feeling that never went away.
Flash forward to the morning.
Scenario one: I wake up, walk to the kitchen, make my coffee and pour my juice, and Charlie stumbles out of bed, disgruntled. There’s an awkward tension in the air, leftover from the events of the night before. The weight of it is sitting squarely on my shoulders. He asks how I slept, but what he’s really asking is, “Why didn’t you say it back?” I tell him, “I slept great, like a rock,” – even though I laid awake all night remembering all the times I told my mother I loved her before she died. It loosely translates to, “I can’t tell you I love you, but keep loving me away.” Our day goes on in normal routine, but the air is still heavy when I come home from work. He confronts me. Our fight ensues. He leaves and calls me a few days later to explain that he can’t do this anymore. He can’t be with me because I won’t – or can’t – tell him how I feel. It’s the end.
Scenario two: I wake up, walk to the kitchen, pour my coffee and juice, and Charlie stumbles out of bed, disgruntled. He asks me how I slept, and I say, “I love you, too.” The smile breaks across his face, waking him up instantly. The air is light. He stands up, clearly excited, and we start to hug and kiss, swaying in the music of the moment. The kisses get deeper and deeper. I’m late for work because we spend the better part of the morning crawling back into bed, exploring each other with new eyes – eyes that have finally said, “I love you,” and meant it. I come home from work and the passion continues. We say it over and over again until the words sound funny. We bump elbows at the bathroom sink, laughing and basking in what this means for us – savoring the new taste in our mouth that comes with love that’s been spoken.
My alarm beeps, but I shut it off instantly. I didn’t sleep. I look over at Charlie, still breathing heavily, chest moving up and down. The strands of hair falling into my face smell like him.
“I love you, too.”
“What?” he says in his sleepy voice – my favorite.
“I love you, too.”
He opens his eyes and smiles, the corners of his mouth turning up, letting me know exactly how excited he is.
“I know,” he says, squeezing me into his warm, rested body.
He comes into the shower with me, something that feels different now, and washes my body down. The soap lathers all over, and he has a white ring around his lips from kissing me through the bubbles. His hands run up and down and pull me into him. We kiss like teenagers. He cups my breasts in his hands, and I feel his body stiffen.
I trace my arm along his. His kisses have stopped. His smile has been replaced with an expression I haven’t seen before. My hand cups around his, and he drops to let me squeeze. It’s right there – small, but noticeable. I squeeze in harder. It doesn’t move. Harder. It’s circular. Harder. It doesn’t hurt.
He steps back while I continue to examine this newfound lump, squeezing until I’m sure I’ve left a bruise. We aren’t touching anymore. The water is starting to get cold.
I look up to meet his eyes. They haven’t moved from my hand, and his expression hasn’t changed.
“Charlie,” I say, breathless from the steam and the kisses and the pressure of my fingers digging into my skin.
“I love you,” he says.
“I love you, too.”