The restaurant was so dark I could barely see him, backlit by some dim lanterns that kept the place moody, warmly toned, but technically visible. There were dark corners where booths held people, in pairs, speaking to each other intimately over the soft piano music. Cutlery clinked against glass or porcelain, subtle. I appreciated that the music wasn’t too loud, since this was the sort of place where people talk about intimate things over their meals; it surprises me to no end how many eating or drinking establishments miss that point. I was taking in everything: the small sounds, the slight taste of wine in my mouth from my last sip. The tablecloth was silky smooth under my fingers as i traced the edge of it for something to hold on to and tried to look him directly in the eye as he spoke, holding his gaze. I wanted to look anywhere else. The walls had beautiful art on them I wanted to study. It was a strange geometrical modernist sort of imagery within which you can see virtually whatever you want. The texture of the carpets was suddenly something I wanted to inspect and find the pattern in. I imagined looking at the ceiling. I wondered if it was interesting, speckled or peaked, if it had an inset to it. My lap, shrouded in black as usual and containing my other hand, the one not tugging on the edge of the tablecloth, but I did not look down. I am sure my nails are fine and do not need my attention, but I want to check. Ignoring these impulses became my secondary focus while my primary was to listen to him. It was considered attentive to look someone in the eyes when they are speaking from the heart, wasn’t it? He seemed to mean what he was saying. I wanted to believe his intentions were good. I think he did. I took note of my own skittish brain. Why can’t you just listen, why are you so easily distracted? What are you doing, mind?
I had been going into any romantic or sexual connection for the last few months with a pretty clear caveat that I was not well-equipped to be relied upon for emotional care or labour until further notice. I was recovering from some relationship implosion trauma and the well I had of emotional energy with which to deal with the feelings of others was very slowly refilling. There was about an inch in the bottom. That is nothing when the image in my head of this well sizes it comparable to a wheat silo.
He was explaining to me, on our second date, that he was in love with me.
He said that he felt empowered by the fact that I was so open and accepting, that he felt safe expressing the feelings he had because he knew I wouldn’t judge him. He also said that he didn’t expect me to respond in kind, that he was just happy to be in my life in a meaningful way.
He said this to me the second time we spent time together in person.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I inhaled, and knew, logically, that oxygen should get to my brain, but felt a bit like it would not survive the journey for some reason. Something was constricting in my chest. The air passing through my lungs just wasn’t enough.
I ignored that feeling.
I smiled and thanked him for his sentiment and his kind words. I might have reached out and taken his hand as some gesture of affection, or something to indicate that it was okay. My brain flooded with emotions. I was flattered, but I immediately felt guilty for not telling him I loved him back. I felt some shame. It was happening again. I did not know that the guilt would eat at me until I said it to him a short time later, maybe a couple of weeks. I don’t think I meant it in the way he thought I did, I also do not think I was influenced by him alone. That influence did not just come from the fact that he had said it first, or anything.
It came from everywhere.
Everything I understood about wanting to make people happy by giving them what they want, about the supposed fragility of the male ego not being able to cope with rejection and therefore to reject even a little was an act that could lead to my abuse, or about there being value in loving with an open heart and that the meaning of the word didn’t have to be what is traditionally assigned to it. About gratitude, bravery, honesty, and that love conquers all, or that it is enough. About this being a warning sign.
About ignoring warning signs.
The list went on.
There is a flavour to the “I love you” that follows the one that was too soon to be real. It doesn’t quite taste the same in your mouth as you form the words with lips round over the o’s and teeth coming together with lips over the vee. there’s a sense of the words being pulled from your lips without you quite being okay with it. The feelings accompanying it are trepidation, uncertainty, nerves. As opposed to having freely given them, or that the momentum of them leaving your throat was coming from something deeper inside of you. Something probably like your own agency. Empowerment. Safety.
Sometimes people do things, say things, to garner some sort of response. We don’t even know we’re doing it. I have done this. I have acted particularly in order to get through to an understanding by the other person, based on what I thought they would understand. I am not happy or proud that I have acted in this way. In fact, I’m committed now to speaking as clearly and as from the heart as I can so that people can have the sort of reactions they want to have, and making space for them to do that. But prior to my better understanding of myself and how I communicate, I would do and say things based on a set of information I had that suggested “people” (generally) act a way in response to the act. If i was being critical, I would call my own behaviour manipulative. If I am being kind, I call it influential.
The words are practically synonymous, but I bet a different feeling manifested when you read them each. I had a different feeling typing them. I searched through thesaurus to find words that more accurately portrayed what I meant. I glided over calculation, persuasion, conviction… none of them seemed to quite be so close and yet quite so juxtaposed.
A set of dominos begin to fall with love-bombing. The person who is professing their love might feel a set of emotions based on the fact that they have just revealed themselves in a vulnerable way. Maybe they feel a sense of relief, something akin to an exhale after holding one’s breath for a little while because they are going through a tunnel: a superstitious thing people do. Maybe there is an increasing sort of tension as they wait for the other person to respond to their disclosure. It may have taken every ounce of courage within them to admit it. Perhaps this was the first time they had ever thrown caution to the wind and just, you know, spoke their truth.
Maybe this was their equivalent of standing on the edge of the giant precipice of the unknown, uncharted waters, terrified.
Maybe this is just how they fall in love. Quick, hard, abrupt.
Maybe this is what they do to get the other person to act similarly. Maybe this has “worked” for them a million times.
Maybe they have actually never felt like this before.
Maybe they want me to react.
The person on the receiving end has to wrangle through their own feelings about “love” as a concept: what it means, what the word represents for them, but also how this has happened. Maybe they start to replay through the short exchange of interactions with the other person to scan them for some sense of how this came to pass, and are juggling that along with trying to figure out how they feel, if they feel similarly, whether that’s reasonable, whether it is safe to say out loud in response, but mostly how to react.
Maybe they’ve never had anyone say that to them before.
Maybe they don’t know how they feel about the person, but they don’t want to outright reject them.
Maybe they are used to people falling in love with them as it happens every day, so this is normal.
Maybe they’re terrified of their own feelings, have now been asked to deal with those of someone else, and it’s too much.
My cued reaction, now, is to respond with “what do you mean?”