I remember a time when meeting someone who was just as damaged was a bit of a relief. Everyone walking…
She sat across from me visibly uncomfortable. Eyes darting around the room then resting back at her shoes. The way people do to try and prevent themselves from crying. I kept talking because I didn’t want to call attention to the fact that she was upset. She was known for not opening up. For keeping everything inside. For always having a smile on her face. I took a sip from my coffee and asked if something was wrong and she responded with the most unconvincing “No” I had ever heard.
“Clearly you’re not listening to my story so we might as well figure out what’s upsetting you.” I said in a slightly annoyed yet playful tone.
Her chin began to tremble and she looked to the ceiling. She took a deep breath and steadied herself.
“Seriously,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” She said it twice as if she was attempting to convince herself.
I gave her a moment to compose herself, looked to the ground then rested my elbows on the table and asked, “Am I your friend?”
She sobered up for a second and gave me a look of apprehension, “Uh, of course you are. Why would you even have to ask?”
“And what is my job?” I asked.
“Huh? What are you getting at?”
“Listen, it is my job to be your friend and give you all the perks that come along with that.” I said, “If I was upset, would you be there for me?”
“Of course I would.”
“Now why won’t you let me have that as well?”
Her mouth hung slightly open as she searched for words.
“None of us are strong enough to do this on our own and that’s okay. And sometimes we need a little help. And where do we get that from? Friends. Because that is our job.” I said, answering my own question. “You need to let me be your friend.”
She looked at me and pursed her lips, she looked up to the ceiling once again but couldn’t hold it together. Her eyes fell apart and she began silently weeping into her palms and said, “I told him I loved him last night.”
“Okay?” I said. “And why is that bad?”
“Because after I said it he just said, ‘Oh, okay. Thank you.’ Like I brought him a beer or something.” She took another deep breath and just let it all out, “I just feel so fucking stupid. I always do this. It’s always me saying it first. And I know how dumb this sounds, me sitting here crying because my boyfriend didn’t tell me he loves me back but it takes a lot for me to say that to someone and to have it just hang in the air like that makes me feel… stupid.”
“You know that doesn’t make you stupid, right?” I said.
“Well it makes me feel like that. It makes me feel like some kind of desperate girl who is just throwing herself at emotionally unavailable guys. And you know what the worst part of this is? He’s probably just drinking beer and playing video games like it’s any other night and not thinking anything about me saying those words and I’m over here trying not to throw up because I am so upset.”
“I don’t know how you feel. I don’t. But I can tell you a few secrets about men.” I said, “I have been on the other side of this. I have been that guy who said, ‘Oh, okay. Thank you’ to a handful of women along the way and I can tell you with absolute certainty that just because I didn’t say it back didn’t mean that I didn’t love them as much if not more.”
“So then why in the hell wouldn’t you say it back?” She shouted. “Do you know how awful it makes a woman feel?”
“I do. Now. But when it happened, well it took me by surprise. Saying ‘I love you’ to a person in the beginning of a relationship signifies a massive leap forward and in my mind all I could think was, am I ready for this jump? When I get off the phone now I will be expected to say, ‘I love you too.’ And if I don’t, she will think there’s a problem. And what if I’m around my family or my friends, then I have to explain that this relationship has gotten serious then everyone will want me to talk about it and what if I’m just not ready for that. When you say ‘I love you’ to someone, it is kind of an imposition.”
“Oh, me expressing myself and opening my heart to someone is an ‘imposition’?”
I could see that was probably not the best word choice.
“Not so much an imposition as much as an expectation that I might need time to think about. It wasn’t that I didn’t love those women, it was just that I didn’t feel comfortable saying it right then and there. Truthfully, sometimes it felt as if I was being bullied or shamed into saying it back. I can’t tell you how many times my ex’s would cry or make me feel as if they were wasting their time or they accused me of not loving them back, as if those were tactics to get me to say it. And yeah, most of the time I did want to say it back but under my terms. Not under what felt like duress.”
“Do you think that’s what’s going on in his head right now?” She asked.
“Well, I don’t know him. He might be getting drunk with his friends, he might be sitting in quiet thought on his couch. I have no idea if he is thinking about this situation.” I said, “But I can tell you this. It doesn’t matter.”
She was shocked and looked offended, “What do you mean, ‘It doesn’t matter’?”
“Never be ashamed of your enthusiasm.” I said, “If you love someone, say it. Say it boldly and with strength. Own your words but never say it with the expectation that someone will say it back. While it would be nice to hear, the idea of telling someone you love them is personal and should not be timed or planned according to what you may or may not hear repeated back to you. Because when you say it with expectation it comes across as desperate and insincere. But your love is real and can stand alone and it should be treated with respect – most of all, by you.”
Her tears began to dry and she wiped her cheeks and just sighed and looked out the window. She was beautiful and I wished her boyfriend could be there to see what I saw. I cut the silence and said, “You really do love him, don’t you?”
“Yes.” She said.
“Then tell him. Tell him every day.” I said, “And if he runs away, that’s fine. He’s not ready for you. What I can tell you is that I have never regretted saying I love you to anyone – but I have regretted the times I didn’t say it back when I meant it. Some nights, it eats me up. So from now on, I promised myself I would say it to anyone whenever I felt it.”
She lifted her head and smiled her familiar smile.
I smiled back and said, “Because there are few things more tragic than repressed love and affection.”