I’m pacing around my bedroom at a manic clip, one night in January, ranting to my new beau over the phone – because I’m falling in love and I don’t know what to do.
“I want to say it, but I don’t know if we’re ready to say it,” I explain, my heartbeat skittering as fast as my words. “How do you even know if you’re really in love? Do I even want to fall in love in a long-distance relationship? How do you know if it’s too soon? How can you be sure you really mean it?”
I’ve been in love three times before and this is the first time there’s been an open dialogue about it. We’ve read the Wikipedia page for “love” together over the phone. We’ve said “I like you so much” and “I adore you” and “I treasure you” and alluded to the painful inadequacy of those phrases. We’ve lapsed into tense silences where one of us would ask, “What? What are you thinking?” and, both of us knowing the answer, the other would sullenly respond, “I can’t tell you.” “I don’t wanna say.”
Normally when I get to this juncture in a relationship, it’s a private stewing, an internal tug-of-war, an embarrassing call to action that I might or might not rise to meet. It’s never been out on the table like this before. And even now that it is, we still can’t say the thing itself. Or rather, we won’t. Not yet.
“I would rather say it to him in person,” I read to him aloud from my scribbly journal entry on the topic, “because it’s so weighty and I just think that would be the appropriate and right way to do it.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely better to do it in person,” he agrees, “because when you say that for the first time, you wanna touch each other. Real bad.”
A silence passes wherein we both imagine what that will feel like. How we will say it, and where, and then how we will touch each other, and where. I don’t have to ask him if he’s picturing it too. I know he is. And that makes me want to say it all the more.
The first time I fell in love, I was nineteen, and I knew because I simply wanted to say it. It felt natural. The same way I might tell a close friend I loved them, so too did I want to say it to my then-boyfriend. It wasn’t a sweeping passion or a roiling lust; it was a slow warmth that had gathered and grown over the two-plus months of our nascent sweet springtime romance. At first I wasn’t sure, and then at some point, I was. When I said it, in the dark in my twin-sized bed, he hugged me tight and said, “I love you too, and you’ve made me a very happy man.”
The second time was an unrequited accident. This man didn’t want me and I knew it; I knew it for an entire year or more, just like I knew I loved him. It took months and months for me to call it “love,” even to my best friend or in the confines of my journal, because love is embarrassing, messy; there is a permanency to it that makes it so much more of an emergency alarm than just calling it a crush.
But I reached a point where I felt chemically dependent on this man, mired in depression whenever he would leave and espresso-peppy when he was within reach, and that’s when I reluctantly began calling it “love.” Never to his face, never where he could hear it, but that’s what it was to me.
The third time, it built up like water in a dammed fountain. My introverted, reserved boyfriend played me hot-and-cold so thoroughly that I wasn’t sure I was allowed to feel love, wasn’t sure he’d accept my love even though he’d accepted me as his girlfriend officially. Hanging out at his apartment after lunch at his favorite ramen restaurant, I kissed him tenderly in bed, wanting intimacy, but he just wanted to play video games. I got so frustrated by him ignoring me that I announced I was leaving and did so, forgetting my ramen leftovers in his fridge.
The next day, I came back “for the food,” wounded and contrite, and cried into his chest as I mumbled, “I wanna tell you something that’s gonna make me cry even more: I love you.” He held me tighter and said, “I love you too. I’ve known that for a while. I just didn’t know if you were ready to hear it.” It was exactly the kind of backhanded, confusing comment I had come to view as normal in that relationship. Knowing me, I probably made some kind of “ramen-tic” pun.
When my current beau first told me he might be falling in love – by invoking late-night Google searches and Wikipedia trawls – I wasn’t sure how I felt on that front. “I feel like I should have more to say about this,” I wrote after relaying the episode to my journal. “Do I want to fall in love again so soon after getting my heart broken? Do I even feel like it could happen with this boy? (…Yes.) Do I feel safe getting to that point with a long-distance person who already has other partners? (…Maybe.)”
But for all my hemming and hawing about being unsure, certainty whammed me over the head in the coming week. I’m a linguistically-minded person: I organize my thoughts and feelings by articulating them in words, as you may have noticed. So although I’d agonized about how to know love when you see it, ultimately I recognized it by what I wanted to say, and how often I wanted to say it. The words “I love you” stagnated in my throat when we talked on the phone, and buzzed in my fingers when I texted him. Maybe it’s simplistic to suggest, “I think I love you, therefore I do,” but I don’t know of a better barometer. There is no scientific test for love (well… romantic psychology researchers like Helen Fisher might disagree, actually) so for now, I know it’s true when it feels true and I want to say it. That’s good enough for me.
We finally say it on our third date. That sounds ridiculous, unless you know how many hours we spent on the phone between each in-person rendezvous. Long phone calls stretched four or six or eight hours into the night, entire emotional journeys of their own, with laughs and tears and phone sex and warm cuddly mumbles. We fast-tracked our relationship on those phone calls. We rushed toward love, exhilarating and good.
Our third date is a mottled mess of feelings: a tender kiss in the lobby of the Wythe Hotel, a collaring and sweet sex in our second-floor room, Italian food and philosophical discussions at Leuca, and hours of dancing to my favorite band at Brooklyn Steel. We cuddle in the Lyft back to our hotel late at night, and as we pull up, he says, “Can I show you the roof?” I nod, he takes my hand, and we get in the elevator to The Ides.
The bar is dim and ornate, like so many places he’s taken me, with a stunning view of the big beautiful city where I met this boy I think I love. We cuddle up in a corner booth, and he orders me a drink like he always does, and it feels so comfortable and cozy, like we do this every day. But we don’t, and that uncommonness feels cozy too.
At some point he goes silent and presses a kiss against my shoulder. “I wanna tell you something, but I’m scared,” he says. I didn’t see it coming, and also I did. I smile and hold him tighter because I want him to feel supported in this brave thing he is doing. I want him to land safely on cushions when he makes this leap. “Kate…” he says, slowly. I listen harder. “Kate, I love you.”
I say, “I know,” because I do; I can feel it radiating off him, have felt it over the phone and via text and just generally in my periphery, the sensation of being loved, the sensation of loving. I press even more of my body tight against his in that little booth and tell him, “I love you too.” We kiss and we touch and we laugh about how long this took us and how perfect it turned out to be.
The candle on our table casts a glow on his face that is as golden, precious, and ephemeral as this love I hope will last a long, long time.