I was lying in the bed of my current lover. I don’t know if I would call him a lover, maybe just an intimate friend. Or a spiritual hookup. I’ve stopped labeling these things since I turned 30. They are too nuanced and complicated to put a name to.
We were lying head to toe in his bed. His left arm was wrapped around my ankle and my chin was resting on his knee. I listened as he explained why I shouldn’t spend the night. “Well, it’s 90 percent that I have stuff to do tomorrow and 10 percent that I may get more attached.” I knew exactly why getting more attached would be a bad thing. Because my lover wasn’t ready to be in love and I was. This tragedy hung in the air unnamed.
Weeks earlier we sat at dinner holding hands over a bottle of wine and having what he calls a “meta-conversation.”
“What’s the goal?” he asked.
“I want to fall in love.” Right after the words came out of my mouth, I knew it was a silly thing to say. Love is not a goal; it’s a journey. A journey, I, for one, am constantly on. I fall in love 10 times a day with everyone and everything. I fall in love with a man because I like how organized his wallet is or how cool his sneakers are or the tenor of his voice or the way he looks nervous when he says hello. I fall in love with old people limping down the street just because they know more than me. I fall in love with fluffy puppies taking a piss because they are completely unselfconscious, with books because the characters are quirky, with movies because of the cinematography, with moments of all kinds. I’ve been known to say, “This is the best day of my life!” or to turn to the person next to me and shout, “You are my best friend!” if I’m having fun.
Lying there head to toe with my lover having a meta-conversation, I was falling in love with our moment. I opened my mouth wanting to express my deepest gratitude for the swell in my heart. But nothing would come out.
I thought about a column I had read where a man, recently out of a 20-year marriage, asks for advice about when it is appropriate to say the “L” word to a lover, especially with all of the weight the word carries. The advice columnist, Sugar, answers:
“Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep … the best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherf**king s**t out of it.”
Sugar continues, “Your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own. Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.”
Turning the words over, I felt the urgency of love pull at my chest while the pressure of the absence of love was mounting in my lower stomach. There was a silent, tug of war going on in my body, my deepest self trying to determine a winner. I opened my mouth again to speak, but put it on my lover’s knee instead in a half-kiss, half-bite. He grabbed my hand and set it gently on his heart. As if he knew what I was thinking, he spoke, “I get the feeling that underneath your very tough exterior there is such an intense desire to be loved. It goes so deep in you, in all of us really. As someone who is routing for you, I want you to understand that you don’t need to be loved to be validated.”
As he spoke some silent tears leaked from my cheek and onto his knee. I was grateful he couldn’t see my face. “That’s true,” was all I could say. “Are you upset?” he asked. “That’s just hard for me to hear.” His words had released the pressure inside of me. He had seen me for who I really am, even if it wasn’t exactly the way I had wanted to be seen. And I loved him so fiercely for that. I wanted to tackle the motherf**king s**t out of him, but instead I got up, got dressed, and went home.