Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.
You’re going to have to trust me here: I really do try to be a nice guy. I take girls out to dinner and care about their feelings. I challenge my friends when they use the word “bitch.” But I can’t keep up the act any longer. I am the worst guy of them all.
The guy who says “thanks” when the girl says “I love you.”
It was a pretty typical move for me at the time. I had always been perplexed by people’s obsession with love, especially the endless playground debates about whether she liked him, like-liked him, loved him, or was in love with him. My indifference was heretical. One day I wrote in my journal: “Borges—To fall in love is to create a religion with a fallible God.” Mens rea: I was a smartass.
Actus reus: the victim was a high school sweetheart, the kind of girl who lived off Wheat Thins and cocktails for weeks at a time. She was brilliant and beautiful and took none of my bullshit.
We were down by the harbor one night, feeding each other Skittles and watching the city lights smudge on the darkness of the water. When she told me she loved me, I steeled up, angry—as if she were demanding something that wasn’t mine to give. “Thanks,” I bumbled. I said I didn’t see the point of it all: that exchanging that one sentence could never be an assurance that we felt the same way. “It’s just a word. Can’t us be enough?”
She brooded in the taxi and we broke up a few weeks afterwards (it was agreed we would not be together during our final exams). We both needed to focus on the important things, I suggested: school, activities, responsibilities at home. If I hurt, then I went running or dreamed.
We were not on good terms at all. We didn’t have a real conversation until a year and a half later, when I was out celebrating the letter I never expected: the letter that whisked me away from everything I knew in Australia and took me here.
It’s not like I find it hard to say “I love you.” I say it at least 10 times every weekend, in fact, but generally not when sober—and definitely not in a romantic context. (I’ve insisted on casual terms of dating since I got to college.) And never does it come without one crucial little addition.
I love you, man.
I wouldn’t say I’m much of a manly man. I pretty much quit the gender when my dad moved out and I quit playing sports; it didn’t seem so relevant anymore. Even still, I find myself captive to this catchphrase of blokedom—as if in the language of men on a night out there just aren’t any other ways to demonstrate compassion or affection.
Or maybe that’s exactly the point: maybe love is what you can’t express in any other words.
When I found out I got into Harvard, I had never been to America. It seemed like a dream. I planned to study economics and the Big Ideas of modernity, to learn a language that talks boldly about the best way to fulfill our desires but has no words for the actual constitution of what we want.
While I waited out the summer before college, though, life got complicated. I started to see her again, an inevitability that made sense only to the two of us. Romance with an expiration date: my friends told me I was crazy.
But it was wonderful. I was perennially excited by how romantic, how uncharacteristic the whole thing was. There were even moments I thought I might stay in Australia for it. I was converting to a brand new faith. I was coming to love the cares: fetching Wheat Thins and flowers, talking through issues, and making theatrical declarations of affection. I still resisted the three words, however; I wasn’t sure they were necessary or sufficient.
One night we were on our way back to the suburbs after an evening in town. We detoured through a local park and walked up the steps of the empty grandstand which looked back over to the city. And that’s when I said it. I wasn’t planning on doing so; I just couldn’t think of anything else that explained what I felt.
She told me the same. I don’t believe we felt exactly the same at that moment: I’m far too modern for that. But we knew we were both reaching for that word-beyond-words, and confessing that neither of us had a word that could get any closer.
A working definition of love. (Objection, your honor: conjecture!)
And once I said it, it was with me and with her and lost to the sky.
The end of that summer: I love you I love you I love you I love you.
Every time I said it I fought with it, trying to mould the hackneyed phrase to my emotions. The more I told it to her, the less it seemed to accomplish.
She looked up at me with wide eyes and hair on her face. I’d screwed it up before but I had spent the last few months trying to make her see how perfect she was; bewilderingly, she still wasn’t convinced. Tomorrow I would leave, more or less forever. (Neither of us knew that we’d be getting back together during each of the next two vacations.)
“I don’t know how to say it. I—just—fucking—love—you.” She laughs at my peturbation and draws me in: I kiss her with my mouth open. That will have to do, I think, and I leave.