The Unimportance of Saying “I Love You”
Six months after we started dating, the Question started rolling in. You know, about the word that begins with a capital L and rhymes with dove, glove, and love. Oh shoot, it just slipped out.
“Have you guys said ‘I love you’ yet?”
“Has Tom said ‘I love you’ yet?”
“So. Who said ‘I love you’ first?”
No one. But it’s not going to be me.
It was me.
Weeks before my twenty-eighth birthday, it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise to anyone if either of us had declared it. We had been dating for nine months and there were couples out there who blurted it after just a few weeks, as though they were talking about their favorite pastas (“Oh I just love tortellini.”) Idiots. Didn’t they know words carried weight? Especially certain ones that ought not to be tossed about like spaghetti!
But at that point neither of us had said it. It wasn’t about waiting for him to say it first. It was whether he said that sort of thing at all. I knew Tom well enough by then. I probably could have waited until I turned ninety and he ninety-four and we had our love swarming all around us as an army of kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, and he still wouldn’t have said it.
Which reminds me of another man. Oh right, my dad.
In thirty eight years of marriage my mother has never once heard my father say, “I love you.” Not just because it sounds so much cheesier in Chinese, but because to my father, it is cheesy. It’s verbal kitsch: tacky and unnecessary.
If I had ever asked him, “Do you love mom?” He likely would have replied. “Well I married her, didn’t I?” And if I ever asked him, “Do you love me?” He would have said, “You’re stupid if you don’t know.” Or actually, I think I did ask him once and he redirected the question:
“Do you need more money?”
In his older age, he’s softened a bit and has written “love,” at the bottom of the short notes he attaches to the big checks he sends me.
As in, “Here’s money for your socializing. Love, Bar.”
I call him “Bah,” not because I am a grumpy disgruntled adult daughter (especially not when receiving big checks) but because “Bah” is Chinese for “Pa.” For some reason my dad writes it with an R, as though I say it like someone from Beijing.
Tom. A huge part of why I found him attractive in the first place was because he was very good with words — both via text and in person — and I knew he was capable of being straightforward about his feelings.
Just two weeks after we first met in New York, Tom had to go back to London for four months for work. He sat me down at the lobby bar of the Ace Hotel and said, “So. I really like you.”
I thought, “Great, wow. How refreshing. A guy that just says it.”
I promised I would visit him in London and he left and we started “dating” long distance. Whatsapp, Gmail, FaceTime and snail mail were instrumental in our getting emotionally closer but, as most people who value human interaction know ( especially those who have spent weeks text-flirting with a Bagel only to finally meet and realize he/she is about as interesting as an actual bagel) only so much can be said from a distance. Real chemistry requires real people.
By the time I visited London the second time, we were official. I wondered, like the relationship-nube I was, if the next step was to say the word. I was still wary of writing “Love” at the end of my letters and, if I remember right, signed them inconsistently: earlier ones with neutral wishes like, “Stay warm!” or “See you in XX days!” and the later ones with a heart, which is of course a symbol of love, but, as heart-shaped pasta exists, much easier to toss about.
One evening on the Tube going back to his apartment, we had an interesting exchange. From it, I had an inkling that Tom’s days of being verbally open about his feelings were coming to a close, if they had ever been open at all, and that I ought to reconcile myself with the possibility he might never say it.
I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about — probably feelings, because I love talking about feelings — but I wanted him to say something romantic to me. Not to tell me he loved me — not those exact words — but something to that effect.
He remained silent.
“That’s fine,” I said, shrugging. Perhaps it wasn’t time yet. Perhaps he wasn’t ready, “Don’t say what you don’t feel.”
Without pause Tom replied, “Your logic is flawed.”
“Just because I don’t say it doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.”
I looked at him and thought, “Whoa, my logic is flawed.”
I consider myself a wordsmith, but experience and self-awareness tells me I am one only in writing, and then only after I sit for hours and rewrite many times. Tom likes to say, “You need to edit yourself,” and while he’s mostly referring to my writing, it applies just as well to my talking.
After he moved back from London, we found ourselves adjusting to life as denizens of the same city and all the growing pains that came with it. We argued about many things, big and small, but the thing that repeatedly came up was how we argued. Or more specifically, how I argued.
Tom often accused me of putting words in his mouth. When cranky and irritated and feeling neglected, I was especially prone to passive aggressions and would feel like instigating. If he’d been out at a work happy hour that went long or at dinner with friends that precluded me, I’d respond to his texts with pointed assumptions and cold punctuation (periods only).
Are you sure you want to see me. You must be tired by now.
Who’s tired. I’m not tired.
You must not want to talk to me. (Most likely he had not texted all day).
What are you talking about. I’m talking to you now, aren’t I?
You must think I’m a big loser for waiting by the phone all day.
I never said you were a loser. That’s all you.
Then, after I stayed online but mute, Tom would write, Don’t put words in my mouth.
The months leading up to twenty-eight were trying for our relationship. We were working through the aforementioned issues, most revolving around how we communicated. I thought, if he wasn’t the type to say it, then he ought to show it. But I felt he wasn’t showing it or did so inconsistently. Love is a language — according to Gary Chapman’s book it’s five languages (though it should really be five dialects…but that’s just semantics) — and while I knew which ones Tom didn’t speak, I worried if he spoke the rest fluently enough to make me feel I was special to him.
But it’s the trying times that make you wonder what “love” actually means. I knew I loved Tom — I had written it on his birthday card just a month before — but felt we had a ways to go before he could hear it from my lips. After all, I am my father’s daughter. I also do not throw that word around.
Except at my birthday party at the Jane Hotel I got pretty drunk and told him I loved him while he was at the bar buying shots for my friends.
I was drunk but not, as Tom likes to say, “Obliterated,” though blurted it out I most certainly did, and at such a time! (I do however, love when people buy me shots. But that’s neither here nor there). And while I would claim, when I said it again much later, in a much different setting and situation, that I had forgotten about the birthday instance, I had not. I have not.
Because that evening, and (mostly) all along, Tom had been speaking my language. He laughed when he heard it and squeezed my arm, kissed my cheek.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” he said, “I’m certainly having a great time.”
That was it. I did not pout or cry or worry about why he didn’t say it back. I knew why. Under the circumstances, I was happy he left it at that.
A few months later we had another argument. It’s funny now, to write about these moments when we argued because what is said about them usually holds true: you never remember what you argue about, only that you did.
But it’s a reminder too of how petty arguments can escalate by way of poor communication. It was certainly small and began in the usual roundabout way: I was irritated and being passive aggressive. We argued over text while he was at work and because he had an evening work event, I spent the night alone, alternating between bouts of crying and writing and angrily texting Tom. Telling him “Don’t come over,” even though that was all I wanted him to do. Around midnight, Tom, understanding what I meant, came over.
He came huffing up the stairs and sat on the small grey sofa he assembled for me so many months before. We stared at each other angrily, then started to argue. Then we stopped and stared at each other some more.
Perhaps the hour was too late, but I felt myself losing track of what we were arguing about and why I was angry in the first place. His presence did that.
“I’m not angry anymore,” I said.
“Well, great, but I’m not happy right now.”
I closed my eyes. I felt bad. It was almost two in the morning. Tom had to work the next day, I didn’t. And yet he now sat across from me because I had demanded he leave his house at midnight all so he could experience my ire in person. I realized then he had never, in all the times I made him stay up late and fight either via text or phone or in person, left me alone with my angry thoughts. Never hung up or signed off. Never walked out.
“I’m sorry Tom,” I said, and I was. Not for the principle for which I argued, but for the manner in which I dragged it out. I made a mental note not to keep this sort of thing up.
Tom closed his eyes, “You really know how to push my buttons, I’ll give you that.”
A few minutes later we readied for bed and within minutes he fell asleep, though fitfully. He twitched and jerked his shoulders, as though he dreamt about being chased by rabid bitches.
I lay wide awake. I had something more to say, but found it was caught in my throat.
“Tom,” I whispered.
“Hmmhmpm.” he stirred.
Why was it so hard to say it? I wondered if I could just whisper it, but what good was it to say it to someone who wasn’t listening?
“Tom,” I shook him this time.
“I want to tell you something.”
He opened his eyes. It was too dark for me to see if they were filled with dread, but he needn’t have worried.
“I love you.” I said and started to cry, “I love you so much.”
For the second time I said it first, but I didn’t care. He put up with so much — we both did- but he did so in the ways that mattered most to me.
“Aww,” he hugged me to his chest and buried his mouth in my hair, “I love you too.”
“You do? You’re not mad at me? You still like me?”
“You doofus,” he said, “I told you before, I’m very ‘Pro-Betty’”.
I continued to blurt, “I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to say that I love you. It’s so hard to say.”
“You’ve said it before.”
“I did?” I looked surprised, even though I remembered.
“Yeah, at your birthday. You were pretty drunk though.”
I had hoped that Tom wouldn’t remember, but of course he did. It didn’t matter though. The word had weight, just like my head on his chest and his hand on my cheek, and having said it when I meant it, I felt lighter as we drifted off to sleep.