The first time my boyfriend said “I love you,” after we had been dating about 18 months, it was like a fairy tale. Or at least one of the better seasons of The Bachelor. It was 4 a.m. on New Year’s Day, and we were walking through the streets of Rome back to the apartment we were borrowing near the Trevi Fountain. The street cleaners were gathering up the empty champagne bottles that littered the empty streets that glowed yellowish, like all the streetlights were full of fireflies. I had my arm around him, and we teased each other as he stumbled a bit drunkenly. “You know I love you,” he said.
But then, like all the lights splintered and the fireflies sailed off into the sky carried on smoke, like the notes of Nero’s fiddle playing, he started to backtrack. “Well, um. I really do like you a lot, and well. I don’t know,” he said. I squeezed his shoulders and kept walking, the smile I showed him trying to stifle the silent anxiety attack that was brewing inside.
I was scared of hearing it as much as he was scared of saying it. It’s not that we’re not an affectionate couple (though most of that affection happens in private) but we’re both a little bit afraid of the power that the L word (no, not “lesbian”) has in our culture. A person waits around for that picture perfect moment when his soul mate gazes into his eyes and says the word and they are forever transformed. Their bond is somehow cemented and permanent, and it can never be undone except by death, infidelity, or a court order.
The funny thing about “love” the word though is that, after that one magic moment, both members of the couple are then obligated to say it to each other every time they speak. Saying “I love you” at the end of the phone conversation is like some kind of talisman that keeps your partner from getting hit by a bus because, of course, the one time you forget to say it he is going to end up dead, and you will forever have to live with the guilt of his not knowing that he loved you.
Maybe that’s what we’re both afraid of, that once we start we’ll have to keep the love going indefinitely, calling just to say it like a Stevie Wonder song that will now be stuck in your head for the rest of the afternoon. (You’re welcome.) I don’t want saying “I love you” to become perfunctory, like some obligation that must be endured like taking out the trash or watching the next season of American Horror Story. I want “I love you” to be special.
Right now, in our relationship, it is. My boyfriend and I have been together for four years and every few months one of us will slip and an “I love you” will come out and it lands in the room like a grenade. Well, maybe a grenade is a harsh analogy. It would be like a grenade if grenades only made a long bang that scared you but that showered you in sunlight, lollipops, and silly string that is easy to get off and doesn’t stain your clothes.
What I mean is that when I say “I love you,” on the phone, for a minute I freak out that I said it, like I broke some sort of unspoken agreement, and my boyfriend sounds a little bit uncomfortable for a moment and then we carry on with our conversation. Or, if we’re at a restaurant and my boyfriend says, in the course of conversation, “Obviously, I love you,” it makes me as nervous as it did that first time, but delighted to hear it, warm and fuzzy on the inside, but mixed with those escaped fireflies.
The great thing is that “I love you” still has power in our relationship. It still has impact, like that first time he said it. We don’t use it so often that it’s a synonym for “Goodbye” or “Good night” or “Thank you for going to get Indian food with me even though I know that you really hate it.” When an “I love you” happens, it’s a special occasion, and I remember almost every instance with vivid detail, and I think that’s something special.
I like that it’s special, but maybe it’s something special about our relationship that I don’t need to hear it all the time for reassurance, to quell the insecure impulses that maybe this other human doesn’t feel the same way about it. I feel it when he holds my hand in the movie theatre just so he can be closer. I feel it when, yes, I go eat Indian food even though it’s disgusting, but it brings him so much pleasure. And I think we both feel it walking through Rome in the middle of the night, tipsy on the cobblestones, happy that we’re together and that we don’t need to talk about our emotions to feel them. Those are the times when we feel it so much we can’t help by saying it out loud.
Brian Moylan is a television and pop culture writer who lives in New York. His mother is very proud of him, even though she's not entirely sure what he does with his days.