Talk though we did, my love, there were certain conversations we never had.
On that first trip to White Cliff, we had not yet said I love you. I was hyper-conscious of it, both its absence, and the desire to say it, and those three little words were pressurised inside me on that drive. A funny little vision, the idea that saying I love you is like popping the cork on champagne. Seeing the words rise to the surface like little bubbles, the way they might spill over when finally released. It makes me smile to think of how tightly coiled I was before that first I love you. I knew it had to come from you, that you had to be the one to say it. But you were taking your time, and I was in a kind of agony for fear of what that might mean. I knew that your father proposed to your mother after just one week of dating, and that Joe was engaged to Jane after only 8 weeks. The men in your family had proven themselves swift with their choices. Meanwhile, I was swallowing those most hopeful of words, whilst we talked of almost everything else.
It happened at White Cliff, where that sense of beginning resolved itself into the rest of our lives. We were making love, if I close my eyes I can see this night, see our bed against the window, the gauzy curtain floating toward us in a kind of moonlit dance. Such poetry prescribed to these memories – turns out I have this talent too, Ben.
I was watching the curtain, and you above me, your beautiful, serious face in shadow, your touch just as light on my skin. I need you to know something, you said as you moved inside me, and I closed my eyes, squeezed them tight, listening to your breath, and the advance-retreat of the waves outside. My eyes were still shut when you said – I love you, Anna, and I kept them closed to hold on to the moment, to take in your body and your words. Cells and words absorbed, dissolving into each other.
And I cried Ben. I cried that first time you said I love you, lying there with my eyes squeezed shut. That’s why it took so long to say it back, that was the pause you must have felt, the silence that led you to roll off me, and turn away.
I returned the words against your back, remember?
I love you too, Ben.
I’m in that same bed tonight. Eyes still closed, searching out the memory, embellishing it with ideas of moonlight and dancing curtains. Perhaps all I really remember is the way you said I love you, and how it took so long for me to respond. From then on, it turns out we were only ever going to be able to make light of such declarations. Removing the I from the sentence, learning to hand out love you breezily, this compressed version that would become far easier to say to each other, and to receive.
We moved from declaration to assertion so quickly.
But that first I love you was magic, Ben. I just never told you, never had the language to tell you about champagne fizzing, about phosphorus under my skin. What else did we forget to say across the years?
~ Anna, The Memory of Stars