It’s Christmas and we’re six years old, and I cannot say “I love you.” The evening has stretched into night and the air has grown warm with wine and conversation. My parents glance over and find me, head tucked into the crook of your knee as I struggle to fight the steady in-out of your breathing that’s lulling me to sleep. As they smile and tease of a future wedding, I close my eyes in feigned indifference because I don’t know how else to express the mixture of embarrassment and excitement that’s thrumming in my chest. I fall asleep thinking of your rainbow braces, and the sticky warmth of the hand that I’m reluctant to let go of.
We’re thirteen and we’re older now, and I cannot say “I love you.” Summer has come and gone and the boys in my class are unrelenting with their crude commentary about my body’s sudden development. Their eyes are at once unfamiliar as they watch me with a strange and predatory hunger. I’m struck silent by an awkward terror which they take for tacit consent, moving to place their grubby hands where they don’t belong—but there you are. As if summoned by prayer you fly over to me and push away the boy with his hand on my arm. Your breathing is heavy, anticipating punishment from the teacher who will say that ‘boys will be boys’, but you ask if I’m okay and at that moment I could cry from the weight of how much of you I must now carry in my chest. What was a childhood crush has now crystalized into something more real, more frightening, and far more painful.
We’re eighteen and more adult than child, but I cannot say “I love you.” You stumble back into my dorm room, smelling like vodka and a sickly sweet perfume I pretend not to recognize. You fall into my bed and groan as I attempt to push you off me. Instead, you cling tighter and I quickly grow still, struggling to calm my mind and suffocate the butterflies that are being born inside me. I should have learned by now that nothing will come of these emotions; you have a girlfriend, and to you I might as well be a sister. And yet, perhaps in confusion, perhaps not, you reach over to find my body and everything explodes. In a moment our lips are mashed together, frantic and desperate. Despite the perfume that lingers on your neck, despite the too-small twin bed and the imperfect, muggy, sweaty heat, in this moment you are mine.
And then you aren’t. The cold air is harsh and unforgiving as you roll over and mumble something into your pillow, falling into a deep sleep while I stare up at the ceiling and try not to cry. The next morning you catch my eye and quickly look away, and we never speak of this moment again.
We’re twenty-seven and we’re at your wedding, but I cannot say “I love you,” even when the priest pauses to give me the chance. Instead, I bury my words and offer up a toast at the reception, blessing the union between you and your new wife: my college roommate. You smile at me from across the room and I down the champagne in my glass, forcing it down my throat as I wait for the warmth of the alcohol to dissolve the icy lump that has formed in my throat. I drink and I drink until it feels like I’m floating past all of the ugly emotions clawing at my feet. Perhaps if I drink enough I’ll be able to forget what it feels like to drown.
We’re thirty-nine and it’s your daughter’s eighth birthday, and I cannot say “I love you.” I arrive with my husband and our twins who immediately sprint to the large and imposing bouncy castle filled with other screeching children. I go to place our gift on the growing pile and watch you through the sliding glass window, taking in the five-o-clock shadow and prescription glasses that have appeared since we last met. Your wife walks past me and squeezes my arm as we fall into an easy chat about new and insignificant things. All the while I wonder if she would smile the same way if she knew that I cried for four hours after you told me she was pregnant again.
It’s winter again, you’re forty-six and I can finally say “I love you.” I scribble it onto an otherwise blank card and tuck it into an envelope. I take it to the gravesite and place it amongst the flowers left by your family. Despite the years, the flowers are fresh and I realize that the visit must have been recent. I’m still for a moment, shivering as the snow whips in the wind and snaps at my ankles. I’m silent as I read the stone over and over again, ‘Beloved Husband and Father.’ Not ‘best friend,’ not ‘one-time-lover,’ not ‘almost… something.’ After all this time, in the end, there is no place for me here. I pick up my card and place it in my coat. After another moment I turn and walk back to my car as the wind freezes the tears on my face before they can be seen by my husband in the front seat. He asks me if I’m okay, and for the first time, I do not lie.
“Yes, I am.”
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Beautifully written 🙂