I’ve said “I love you” to too many men in my life. Three to be exact. Is three too many men to have loved by the age of 30? Then let’s forget about number four, five, and six, shall we?
The first was my boyfriend my sophomore year in college, except I didn’t mean it; it was an error in communication. “I love your dick inside me,” was what I meant to say, but I had cottonmouth and the words got caught in my throat midstream. “I love you too,” he said back, still inside me and looking into my eyes in that way that should be interpreted as romantic because of the occasion … because he was still inside me. But he was a control freak who didn’t make me laugh. Worst off, he hated it when I laughed, and so I broke up with him and that was the end of that. That’s the short short version, anyway.
Then there was my first boyfriend when I moved to Atlanta. I spelled it on his arm with my finger one night when we were playing silly word association games with our eyes closed. I spelled it and he told me he loved me and kissed me and I cried a cry like I’d done something criminal. Eleven months later I broke up with him, a week before my birthday—our birthday, the same day. I had rather ruin our birthdays than wait until after. I was afraid he’d buy me a present. I didn’t want a present. Not one when out of love. I didn’t want to be that girl.
There was another boyfriend before him, one from Tallahassee where I’d gone to college. Actually, I never told him that I loved him. But I did love him. Despite his wearing flip flops. Despite my pet name—“kiddo.” Despite the terrible sex. We didn’t break up. He moved away for grad school. Ten years later and we’re still friends. I haven’t seen him since then, but he still calls me to see how I’m doing. He says, “I’m sorry” when I tell him I’ve had a bad day. I can still hear him saying “kiddo” on the other end.
Then there was my second boyfriend in Atlanta, the one I was in my longest relationship with: four years. We rented a house together after three; one with a spare bedroom for guests and an office and a big backyard. It was a dress rehearsal for a life I thought was meant for me. But I was too young, 26 to be precise—what did I know about love and eternity? He was a good man, with a good heart, a good boyfriend. He bought me a CD nearly every Tuesday. He met my family. There was more to him than just those things—more to us, but it’s all from a past I can no longer recall. My confession is that I think I stopped loving him into year two.
Then there was the lover from over a year ago that I mistook for something more.
It’d started as something sexual. “Let’s play,” is what I’d initially told him. He said, “We should get to know each other better.” Except we were already friends. But I agreed and so we met for drinks and he came over during the day and we smoked a bowl on my back porch. It was nice, just he and I, talking without sex, without the stickiness of confusion. It was summer, not fall, and I wore short skirts and tank tops because that’s what you do when it’s summer in the South. A month passed and I was caught in a laugh from something funny he said while we were at the bar when I saw the look of hunger in his eyes. Then it happened—he kissed me. For me, it’s the kiss. That really really REALLY good kiss. I melt. And then I’m suspended. And then it’s like they let go of the balloon and I float away.
When we lay in bed that night, we looked into each other’s eyes and I fell instantly. It felt like arousal, that feeling that rushes from the pit of your stomach up your body and makes your chest swell when the feeling finally hits your heart, except when it’s arousal the feeling is primitive and when it’s love it’s primal; it’s a completely different emotion. Every time he looked into my eyes I could feel the motion of love sweep over me while naked next to him, while he was still inside me. But I let it lay low, the feeling. I didn’t call him, because I’m self-conscious, because I worry I’m being bothersome. But I always picked up his calls, like when he’d be away for work and call to tell me he missed me, or when he called and told me he couldn’t wait to see me. But then my roommate showed me the Instagram, the one of him making breakfast for another girl, and my heart fell in a completely different way and so I ended it. I told him we had an agreement, not one of exclusivity, but one of honesty. I told him a man would’ve admitted out loud that he had a change of heart. And that was the end of that.
Until he called me again and met me outside my office after work. And we went for a long walk to smoke a joint among buildings and statues and the green summer grass. He’d bought a ticket to the movies. Solo. He asked me to join him, but I’m not one for movies. So instead we sat on a bench and spoke for hours. It had rained earlier and the air was thick with moisture and I was dressed in all black and my fringe bangs became side bangs from my wet palms pushing them to the side, but he didn’t notice, he just saw me. At least, I think he saw me. That’s what I thought his smile said anyway. After, we went to dinner at this cute restaurant with parrots and healthy organic food. It was the kind of place they’d film a modern hipster rom-com with Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Zooey Deschanel, except this was real, this wasn’t a movie. My emotions were authentic to the situation, not reactionary to characters in a scene. I gave him a hug when we left the parking lot and the hug felt more like a goodbye than a hello and I knew that was the end.
But I still told him that I loved him, just before I moved away from my beloved ATL. I was back at his house, back on that same couch where we’d sit and smoke together. I told him, “I have to tell you something, and you don’t have to say anything back, but I have to tell you because I want you to know,” and that’s when I said it. I said, “I love you.” He asked if I meant it. I said, “Yes.” He said he couldn’t love me. I said, “That’s okay.” We retreated to his bedroom and I got on my knees because I loved him, because I loved pleasing him, because I loved feeling him inside me, because I loved staring into his eyes in that most vulnerable way. In the morning we showered together and I put on my summer dress and drove away. Solo.
That’s the last time I said “I love you” to a man. That’s the third time I’ve said “I love you” to a man. And it won’t be the last.
But this isn’t a story about summer, it’s a story about fall—the season, this is a story about love—the act of falling in love, not to be mistaken with the act of falling out of love, of falling into despair.