In acting class we would say I love you as an exercise. Playing with these three words- each short, sharp syllable – to explore just what the combination could express. Not for us the softness of affirmation, the sweetness of an offer. When you say I love you its meaning can completely change dependent on the stress. With the right inflection it becomes – a declaration. A question. A refutation. Include a quiver, a crack, a pause – and the delivery transforms the message. As a turning point in any relationship we learnt that I love you could take you anywhere.
So perhaps it is not who says I love you first, but how it is said that determines where it will direct your relationship. Take our moment. I don’t say I love you – I shout it. We are in the thick of a party and yet quietly apart – we have become masters of this illusion throughout our first year. All around us the soundtrack of celebration, glasses clinking, laughter and music competing. I swear that right as the words reach you a bravo echoes from the corner. A waiter passes – I take one wine then another, a glass grasped in each hand to face your mute response.
I have surprised us both. Uttered a truth neither of us knew, and now we have no idea what to do with it. You are stony silent and I am afraid, but you only stumble with such words once, and so I try again. No shouting this time. No frustration or sense of attack. In a room of 300 people too busy to notice, I quietly make my vow. You do not say it back. You do not refute my offer, but you do not affirm it either. You merely take one of the wines, touch my cheek and turn away. I have altered our balance and nothing will ever be the same.
That night you push me into the arms of another where I quickly discover I do not have the heart for this kind of revenge. I leave this man in his undressing, with a sorry and a story – I’m in love with someone, you see – as if I have known it all along. To his credit he helps me button my coat. You leave with someone too – nothing happened you will tell me later, but I’m not sure that I believe you, even now.
(The word love evolved from the Neolithic leubh. A core meaning of leubh was to ‘approve of’, itself a variation on ‘to believe’. Belief – beleubh – is therefore in close relation to love. They are linked in our evolution and we are destined to stumble over both from this night on.)
I will repeat my vow many times in the coming years. I am not sure you ever understand any better than that first night. So let me explain something. This love was never patient or kind. It is not the love of your good book. (Eros never even gets a mention there in fact – no wonder you had no idea what to do with it, or how at all to believe). But my love is sacred all the same. To say it was to make a solemn promise – as real as any wedding vow – that I would love you always.
And when you saw me in every storm, when you found me in your sunrise and your rooftop nights, when you read me in each poem, each lyric shared … when you wrapped me round every nerve, when you sought out beauty and arrived at my name – though you never, ever said it, I sometimes believe you loved me too.
“I am forever punished by the gods for being given a fire and trying to put it out.
The fire of course is you.” – Richard Burton