I was sitting across from him on an aging couch in his living room. After months of time spent and adventures had and sex enjoyed, it was horribly obvious that we both felt what we were too afraid to say. I could see the syllables in his dark brown eyes and he could feel the sentences like brail on my shivering skin.
I distinctly remember asking myself how I had arrived at that place. That vulnerable, debilitating place where self-doubt flourishes and the past resides. I had been painfully careful, impressively determined and steadfast in the protection of an already battered heart. I made sure to always leave early in the morning and see other people regularly and outright tell him this tantalizing tryst was anything but serious.
Yet there I was, about to say the three scariest words imaginable. The words that, at times, I’ve said all too easily or have left trapped behind gritted teeth. Words I’ve said and haven’t meant, said and absolutely meant, and said and have wanted to mean to the point of exhausting self-hatred. The words that’ve kept me from leaving, kept me from staying, and have kept me from unraveling more times than I care to admit.
I. Love. You.
While they’re sometimes overused and often abused, when used correctly, there’s no denying that those three seemingly simplistic words are the most dangerous, scariest, and otherwise treacherous words in the English language.
I love you can be a promise failed. A constant reminder of your once-overpowering naivety. As you contemplate saying those syllables just one more time, you’re unwillingly transported back to a living room floor where he said he couldn’t and you begged him to try and the only thing left of an “us” was a shattered picture of aborted happiness.
I love you can be a reminder of your flaws. Everything someone else decided was wrong with you comes barging to the surface, like the blood that forms a bruise you can’t hide. The times you weren’t pretty enough or put together enough or simply not “enough” highlight all that you’re lacking. All that you hope he doesn’t find lacking too.
I love you can mean complete vulnerability. Maybe not right away but eventually you’ll begin to rely on this person. You’ll call for them when you’re sick and you’ll cry on them when someone dies and you’ll rely on them when exhaustion takes its toll. You’re dangerously close to becoming accustomed to their presence so the threat of their indefinite absence becomes overwhelming. It’s not that you couldn’t live without them. You could. You’ll just know that if it ever came to it, you wouldn’t want to. And that want can paralyze you if it isn’t reciprocated.
I love you can mean change. Sacrifices will be made and consistencies will be altered and the time you lovingly treasure as your own will be shared. You won’t sleep in the middle of the bed, you’ll pick a side and you won’t eat the sunny side up eggs you managed not to break, you’ll give those away. You’ll give pieces of yourself and your schedule and your space so that part of you can become an us.
I love you can mean complacency. What if you become a fixture in their scheduled life? What if you’re taken for granted like their bedside table or the light fixture behind that aging couch? What if you become too predictable, with your morning breath and your affinity for The Office? What if love gives way to comfort gives way to boredom?
Three simple words on the outside, but the curves of an “o” and the sharp edges of a “v” hold a complicated multitude of worries and doubts and fears and feelings that don’t have words.
Just like his eyes and the goosebumps on my skin.
I said I love you that night. After the failed promises and the flaws and the feelings of complete vulnerability subsided. After the threat of unavoidable change and horrid complacency diminished, I let the “I” and the “L” strip me bare. I allowed the “O” and the “V” to pry apart my second and third ribs. I waited for the “E” and the “Y” to pull my fear aside. And I let the “O” and the “U” push me forward, like a trusted friend who whispers you’ll be okay and who you actually, against all odds, believe.
I said I love you.
Because the only thing scarier than saying it…
…is saying nothing.
Read more from Danielle: A Twenty-Something Nothing.