If I could begin again, I would change the setting. But not the sentiment. The sentiment was perfect.
We were in line at Jack in the Box when I first said “I love you.” Young, broke, and decades from cholesterol issues, we had diddled away the morning in bed and were hunting for affordable, at-the-ready gut-fill. I stood behind you with my arms around your waist, deliriously inhaling the scent of your shirt, when the words tumbled clumsily from my mouth.
I love … you.
The sound of it was electric; it shocked me. It crackled and buzzed with the gravity of the future. I wanted to retract it, to bang the oral “delete” key like a maniac. I also wanted to shout it until I was hoarse, and to tattoo it across my chest in ornate purple letters.
The phrase was so leaden with significance that I thought it might fall crashing to the ground before it rose to your ears. In just three stunted syllables, it quashed my protective cool, exposed my secret notions of what’s worth loving, and declared my reasonless allegiance to all that you stood for, and did, and said.
And then it was time to order. Two sourdough burgers, a side of fries, one marriage, a mortgage, and two kids. To go …
I say “I love you” all the time now. Whisper it. Mumble it. Bark it as I’m galloping out the door. But it’s different now. Predictably and yet unbelievably, the phrase has lost impact, its vibrancy faded like an old sofa after years in the sunlight. (Like that same worn sofa, our relationship itself is more comfortable now, despite a few pesky springs that poke us in the ass when we don’t watch where we’re sitting.)
Our “I love you” has become a reflexive sign-off — the cap on a “goodnight,” the suffix of a “good-bye,” the unconscious “sincerely” of a not-so-sincere letter.
And I hate that. Because loving you, and saying it, feels better now than it ever did before; trust has tempered the terror of handing you my heart in a flimsy fast-food sack. But in truth, the words mean something different now, too. And so I went hunting for new words to tell you how you make me feel — affordable, at-the-ready heart-fill — in the hopes that you’ll hear it. This is what I don’t tell you every day:
• I relish you. I fancy you. I covet you.
• I treasure the opportunity to sleep beside you. It’s like having a ridiculous dessert every single night of my life. How is that even legal?
• I cherish you for finding “charming” and “quirky” certain spousal qualities that others, ahem, unimaginatively refer to as “high-maintenance” and “demanding.”
• I revere the uncanny magnetism of your touch.
• I marvel at you. I wish I were you. I long to delight you.
• I’m awed by the work that you do — your artistry, your ethic.
• I’m moved by the way you look at me when I’m getting dressed, and the way you look at me when our kids are curled up asleep together, and the way you look at me when I’m crying.
• I’m inspired by the problems you solve, the hope you embody, the humor you find in places I miss it.
The setting sure has changed, but the sentiment is still perfect: I love you, Valentine. At this point, though, I should be clear that a tattoo is out of the question.