(a) I drove. You gave terrible directions but somehow we made it to the tiny, unnamed Mexican joint off an equally tiny and unnamed side street. It was half tienda, half restaurante, and you led me past rows of prepackaged Latin American snacks and a bar with men engrossed in a television to the last booth in the row. The waitress came over. I ordered un agua, por favor, and when she didn’t understand my too-quiet, bastardized version of Spanish you broke into an unfettered stream of rolling r’s and lilted syllables and the waitress smiled. Un agua arrived, sin problema. I barely knew you, but I could love you.
(b) Later, I put my unfinished enchiladas in a white take-out box and we walked outside, the bright sunlight making us both squint. I reached for my keys. The box fell. I laughed and bent down to pick it up and my sudden motion flung my water into the air and all over my hair and you couldn’t help me because you were doubled over, laughing too hard. Then I knew: I could love you.
(c) Your bookshelf was cluttered with Rosetta Stone tape sets — Czech, Russian, French, Italian. “I can’t resist them at yardsales,” you said, flushing and scuffing your foot along the wood floor.
“Tell me something in Czech,” I said, turning over the back of the box and looking at the unfamiliar syllables. Ne, není to horký venku, je venku chladno. No, it’s not hot outside, it is cold outside.
You turned redder. “I keep meaning to get around to actually listening to them.”
I laughed, put the Czech back, thought, I could love you.
(d) We pretended to watch a movie. Your fingers beat a tattoo on my knee. Your house didn’t have A/C, but your 17-inch screen needed the fan more than we did. There, in a tiny steamy room in backwoods North Carolina, I decided I could love you.
(e) I showed your picture to my mom after that particular date. “Oh honey, he looks old,” she said, squinting and holding up my camera. “Can you make it zoom in?” I zoomed as requested, panning around until my screen showed your face: beard, glasses, hint of a smile, sun slashing your face into dark and light segments, eyelashes that were stuck together in tiny triangles. “He just looks so old,” she said. She rubbed the screen, as if that would somehow erase your beard, and the years that it added. It didn’t matter. I could love you. I don’t, but I could.
This happens with everyone. It is inevitable. Once, I was lucky and I could love you turned into I love you. Once, I was unlucky and I could love you turned into I hate you. Lots of other times, I was typical and I could love you turned into I like you decently enough but not enough to take you to meet my parents.
This happens with you, too. You smile at a girl in your Biology class wearing an A-line skirt and glasses, and you imagine sitting with her in a café in Paris on your honeymoon. You meet a boy at a bar drinking your favorite kind of beer and you wonder whether he likes TV and will want one in your future apartment. The phenomenon of I could love you is heart-wrenching simply because it is universal and inescapable.
Sometimes I wish I could turn it off, flick the switch that reads, “not interested in potential loves-of-my-life, thank you very much,” and walk home from the grocery store without head-over-heelsing about excellent eye contact from someone with the bluest eyes. And sometimes I’m glad I’m human so that when I go home and post on craigslist missed connections and actually receive a legitimate reply, I have the leeway to decide: no, I had the perfect moment of the bluest eye contact right there on the sidewalk. It doesn’t need to be anything else. Because at that moment — I could love you.