He first told me he loved me after we brushed our teeth.
That night, we both came home exhausted. We had had a long day— running errands, doing laundry, visiting family, seeing friends– organizing everything we would need for the week ahead. We didn’t have a lot of time together because his work made him travel during the week, so weekends were rushed and chaotic, but I didn’t mind. We had only been dating for two months and I was just glad to be with him, regardless of what we were doing. That night, as we got ready for bed, I savored the minutes we spent together. With the day’s commitments behind us, we could finally be alone.
Brushing our teeth was a particularly nice moment. It was just the two of us in my blue tiled bathroom. Just the two of us staring at each other in the long rectangular mirror, making funny faces at each other while we brushed our teeth, awkwardly, happily, together.
But that night, as Nate brushed his teeth, he seemed anxious and hurried. After only a few seconds he began putting his toothbrush away. I thought he was just being lazy because he was tired, so I tried to stop him.
“Don’t put away your toothbrush—you have to keep brushing your teeth!” I cried. “My aunt and uncle are both dentists and they say that you should brush your teeth for at least two minutes, otherwise it doesn’t really count— your teeth could still decay.”
“My teeth are fine. You are crazy,” he said, smiling and rolling his eyes at me in the mirror.
“It’s true!” I said, both agreeing that I was crazy and still half-heartedly insisting that he keep brushing his teeth. We both laughed.
“I’m getting into bed. Hurry up,” he said, kissing me on the cheek opposite of where I was holding my toothbrush.
“Ok,” I promised, grinning at him through my mouthful of spit, but I stayed in the bathroom alone, brushing my teeth for another few minutes just to make a point.
“Stop brushing your teeth!” he finally called out from the other room. This time he sounded annoyed, so I stopped, worried that if I took any longer he’d be asleep by the time I came to bed. He could fall asleep in a matter of seconds, and I didn’t want to miss the few precious moments I had with him still awake.
When I finally got into bed, it was too late— he had already turned over and his eyes were closed. I thought I would soon hear him snoring.
“Good night,” I whispered, moving closer to him under the covers. “Sorry I took so long brushing my teeth,” I added as I kissed his shoulders.
“I love you,” he whispered, with his back still to me.
“What?” I asked, sure I had heard him wrong. Just a month ago he had told me that he didn’t believe in love, because his parents had once told him they were getting a divorce. They never actually went through with it, but it had made him think love wasn’t real. After he told me that story, I knew I could never tell him I loved him first, so I tried to convince myself I didn’t, even though I already did.
“I love you,” he said again, turning over to face me on the pillow we shared. “I know I told you I didn’t believe in love, but I do now, because I know I’m in love with you.” I lay silent, too stunned to say anything. “And I’m glad you finally stopped brushing your teeth,” he continued. “I was getting so nervous, waiting here alone, thinking about how I was going to tell you that I love you. I almost didn’t do it, because you took so long to brush your teeth.”
“Well if I had known you were going to tell me you loved me right now, I wouldn’t have brushed my teeth at all!” I joked, and we both laughed nervously.
“I love you too,” I said finally and it was true.
For four years after that we brushed our teeth together and made silly faces in the mirror and told each other we loved one another. After two years, we moved into an apartment together, where our toothbrushes rested side by side in a glass in our new peach tiled bathroom. I continued to lecture him about the importance of brushing his teeth for a full two minutes, and the necessity of not leaving wet towels on the bed, and visiting his family on the weekends, and applying for a different job so that he could be home more often, and other things he didn’t care about and wasn’t ready for. He knew I lectured him because I loved him, and because I am the oldest child. He just rolled his eyes at me and affectionately told me I was crazy, and I laughed, because I knew that it was true and that he loved me anyway.
Throughout all four years our weekends continued to be chaotic, as his work kept him traveling most weeks and our time together was constantly cut short. Sometimes, he would go away for long periods— disappearing for weeks, even months— taking his big green toothbrush with him and leaving my smaller pink toothbrush alone in the glass. That lone pink toothbrush pained me, a daily reminder of his absence. But I put up with it, because I knew that he would come back and we would have more time together, eventually…
But eventually, just spending the weekend together was not enough. I wanted more as he came home less, so we fought more and laughed less. I no longer found weekends that revolved around his errands exciting, and I could sense that my lectures, once endearing, had become nagging. One night, tired of the fighting, the loneliness, and his unyielding schedule, I said, “ I think you have to find a new job, or you have to leave.” I don’t know what I expected to come of my threat, but I didn’t expect him to leave.
But he did, accidentally leaving his toothbrush behind. I had once hoped to see that green brush in our bathroom, a comforting reminder of his closeness; now his toothbrush stung me, bringing tears to my eyes as I brushed my teeth alone. When it finally became clear that he wasn’t coming back— not for the toothbrush and not for me — I threw it out in the garbage can under the kitchen sink, because I couldn’t bear to see it lying in the open bathroom trash.
Since then, I’ve had a few boyfriends who have given me toothbrushes, but none have told me they loved me. After two months together, Eric bought me a blue one and gave it to me as a surprise. “I got you something,” he said, excitedly taking the new toothbrush out of his bathroom cabinet and presenting it to me as gift. That night, I beamed as we brushed our teeth together, thinking that this gift meant, I want you to keep sleeping over, which I assumed also meant, and no one else is. But when I brought up the issue of exclusivity a week later I realized that he had a different idea: I wasn’t the only one who had a toothbrush.
Josh broke up with me after two months, deciding that things between us were moving too quickly. He said he didn’t really want to “break up” – he just needed a “break”- so he tried to leave his toothbrush behind.
“Take your toothbrush,” I said as he was leaving my apartment, because to me a break and a break-up are the same thing.
“Well maybe I’ll leave it here, just in case…” he suggested feebly. I was too confused and hurt and angry to ask what he even meant. His ambivalence was annoying. Two months had once been enough time for someone to know they loved me, why wasn’t it enough time for him to figure out if he liked me.
“I don’t think so,” I said simply. “Take your toothbrush, or I’m throwing it out.” And I knew I would, because I had done it before.
On our first night together Brad told me he had a toothbrush for me, but then ended things before we got that far. We had been friends for almost a year, and when I finally slept there for the first time I thought he wouldn’t only give me a toothbrush, but would also one day tell me he loved me. After just two weeks he said he thought we should stop seeing each other, because our feelings were getting too big. I didn’t understand; I had been waiting years to feel something big. Brad didn’t want big feelings though; like Nate, he didn’t believe in love. His parents were divorced and so was his older brother and his last girlfriend had left him because she loved him, but wasn’t in love with him.
I wanted to tell him that I would never leave him, that if he gave me a toothbrush I wouldn’t give it back, that he would never have to throw my toothbrush away. But I was too scared to tell him how big my feelings were, so I left, because he didn’t ask me to stay. In the end, I only slept there twice, so I guess I didn’t really need my own toothbrush.
It’s been five years since Nate moved out and nine years since he first told me he loved me. I’ve brushed my teeth over a thousand times since then, thrown out through dozens of used blue, green and pink toothbrushes. Usually I try not to think about that moment, because I don’t want to feel sad every time I brush my teeth. But sometimes, when I’m alone in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror with a mouthful of spit after brushing for a full two minutes, my eyes well up with tears, and I remember how he first told me he loved me after we brushed our teeth.