A Study in Semantics
When I finally say it, we are in the middle of having sex for the first time, in a sterile hotel room somewhere in the middle of Denver. When I had opened my mouth, I intended to say something sexy1 but somehow when words did come they took the form of an I love you that had been dislodged from some place in my guts. He stops moving and looks at me beneath him, his breath falling heavy onto my body.
We both wait for a beat for me to take it back and brush away the comment with a non- committal excuse about what I really meant. I had been staving off this moment for months by doing just that any time I didn’t pay enough attention and let the phrase slip out.2 I try to come up with some way of retracting my admission, but in the position I’m in – pinned beneath and wrapped around him – I can’t seem to pull one out before he makes the decision for me.
“I love you too,” he says, no hint of either relief or anxiety in his voice. He kisses me, hard.
“I love you,” I whisper back when our lips part. There’s nothing else I know to say now.
When we are done I pull him close to me just as he moves to replace his clothing. Then I let go like I’ve embraced an open flame and wait for him to wrap his arms around me on his own.
“I love you,” I say again, and then, “I’m sorry it happened this way.”
I had thought about how it would happen too many time – he would tell me when we were walking through one of the many parks that acted as bastions of greenery in the city, or staring up at too many stars with our feet in the creek just down the way from the campsite we were sharing, or walking on the beach at sunset – none of them included a white-on-eggshell-on-manila hotel room with a picture of a nondescript boat on a nondescript body of water hanging nondescriptly by the window.
“I don’t mind,” he said. I simultaneously believe him and am not comforted by the information. “I think we’ve been saying it accidentally long enough.3 It was bound to happen.”
“How long?” I ask. It’s the same question I have always hated being asked by romantic partners in the past. I’ve never been able to decisively commit so much or so clearly to be able to pinpoint a time or a moment, but rather a series of wrestling matches with myself that finally ends in a sort of beautiful defeat. Now, however, the question leaves my own mouth as uncontrollably as the initial declaration. I look past him, to the picture of the little sailboat by the window.
“It’s not like that. It’s a gradient, you know?”
I do and I don’t, and feel both gratified and disappointed. So I just kiss him rather than try to explain or bother with the half-formed question I keep pushing to the bottom of my stomach.
It isn’t until the next evening, when we are cuddling on the small red couch in my living room that always begins falling apart if you lie down on it for too long, when he tries to tell me he loves me again, that the question finally bubbles up.
“Why didn’t you say it sooner?”
“Well, it was important to you,” he replies. “You made it clear you were waiting for the right time, and I didn’t want to take that from you.”
“I was waiting for you,” I say, as if I were confessing to murder.
“I was waiting for you,” he says, and I envy the ease with which he does so.
“I was scared you wouldn’t–”4 I start the sentence with no intention of ending it. “How couldn’t I?” He looks at me as if I had suggested that I could jump up without
being pulled back down to the earth. “We’ve been together – we’ve spent so much time together. It only makes sense for me to love you.”
I run through a mental list of past conversations looking for a contradiction, and when I find none I concede to my own lack of understanding. I want to say that love doesn’t make sense, that it doesn’t work that way, or that I have this gravity deep within me that feels like it’s tearing my insides apart and I am terrified that I am the only one. Instead I settle for laying my head against his chest and listening for the soft fluttering of his heart.5
The second time we have sex we are lying in bed together late at night. He pulls me to him, kisses me, and says, “I want to fuck you,” and then, “I want to make love to you.”
I want to but don’t bother asking him to specify which he means. For him, the two will always be synonymous.
1 Though I was admittedly going into the statement somewhat blind as to what that would look like – the first and only reason I’ve ever regretted my long-time aversion to pornography. I had tried once to engage in that particular medium, but found that I was unable to enjoy it as intended. All I could seem to think about were how the actors felt about their profession, whether they liked each other, if they liked the director, what they told their grandmothers when asked what they did for a living, and what they would be doing later that day.
2 It had been happening with increasing frequency at the oddest of times, such as when he offered to hold my purse for me, or when he made a particularly terrible Star Trek joke.
3 This is only true in the most technical sense – he had never, not once, slipped up the way I had. He would later tell me he was just better at playing strictly by sets of social rules.
4 Though I knew he would. I suppose it would have been more correct to say that I was scared he would only say it out of obligation or rationality. But more correct than that was a fear that the very act of being the first to break would strip the statement of its meaning to me. I had wanted, desperately, for him to have to admit it without prompting.