Do you really love me? The day had been so pure, so platonic, a perfect moment in the course of a budding sophomore relationship. We had gone to the movies and seen some romantic comedy or other. I had held her hand. Then we walked across the street to Barnes and Noble, she teasing me about my fuzzy scarf, and we talked while we shared the Godiva chocolates I had bought her. Images of the day cascaded through my mind like a waterfall, a foggy image of wonderment and fulfillment emerging from the spray—the scarf to match mine I had given her for Christmas draped far more elegantly on her shoulders, her momentary smile at the theater when I bought a box of Junior Mints and a Coke to share. We sipped hot chocolates as we walked hand in hand through Riverside Park, swung in the swings alongside children in the playground, the emotional hurricane of a day ending up at my kitchen table as we finished the last of the chocolates. My mother made herself scarce but popped her head in from time to time, betraying a nagging suspicion or overpowering curiosity at Eyck’s first girlfriend.
Do you really love me? It was the question I had dreaded, sought to avoid all day long. I didn’t know if I loved her. We had been going out only six weeks and I was still getting used to the novelty. To me, I love you was a statement of submission, whether to uncontrolled urges or to wild emotions. It was a declaration of infinite devotion, a pledge of eternal loyalty from a Catullus or a Romeo or an Abelard. Who was I, at fifteen years of age, to proclaim this? No, it was too foreign, too adult a topic to broach. Valentine’s Day aside, was this a promise to be made lightly, a weakness of character to be spoken aloud and rendered plain and clear for the whole world to hear? No, it was too personal and invasive a statement to make. Perhaps I had committed myself to the relationship with more fervor than she. Maybe she was lying in wait for me to play the romantic fool, to disgrace myself by naïvely hoping my affection would be reciprocated. Fearful and unwilling to reveal my hand, I clung to the hope that I could bluff my way through the day with a semantic ambiguity. Love, Eyck, I reasoned, was milder than I love you. It was gentler and less grave. My card could be her Rorschach test, a screen onto which she could project her thoughts, her hopes, her concerns about our relationship.
Do you really love me? The words hit me like a blow to the chest; I had not anticipated this moment. My mind’s vista of the day, a mosaic of images, jokes, and smiles exchanged, dissolved into mist and was replaced by a dark fog of doubt. Silence fell, pure and absolute. In the moments that followed—deathly seconds that felt like hours—I scrambled for words. The river of self-doubt which I had tried to bridge before, the currents my fears of rejection and shame, flooded its banks and swept me along. And in the midst of the tumult I struggled for the answer, any answer that could placate her. Truly, the choice was impossible—to answer “no” would be inconceivable, to answer “yes” would be to admit my love only after prompting, and to indulge a kind of solicited insincerity. As the seconds ticked by my response remained as elusive as a breath of air to a drowning man, just beyond my reach. And out of the confusion as I gasped for air I felt like a drowning man who, his body writhing with need for oxygen, does not remember the meaning of truth. In my haste I loosed a promise I could never take back or deny. I love you too, I responded, with apparent firmness and conviction. The matter was settled; my feet stood on solid ground.
But in the days that followed I found myself racked with guilt. The pledge of loyalty and commitment that I had made rang false and its echoes reverberated through my life. Unlike Nick Carraway, I suspected myself of several cardinal virtues, but one of those had always been honesty. My conscience followed me, a persistent ringing in the ears which I could ignore but never quite escape. As its echoes rippled through my life, I began to question my own sincerity elsewhere. I was not burdened with knowledge that I had lied, for in my own mind the meaning of “love” was still vague. Rather, what troubled me was a sense that I had distorted the truth and misrepresented myself. On the one hand she had been too forthright in asking as she did; she all but demanded an affirmative response. She had spoken in blunt language and thus expected an answer blunt and without subtleties. On the other hand, I began to consider that she might be in the same place as I. The sense of terror I had felt on that Valentine’s Day, the fear of leaving myself vulnerable and exposed to haughty laughter and scorn, had congealed and led to a form of self-pity. She had trusted me. Perhaps I had committed a great narcissism to assume that I took that leap of faith alone.
I would have never expected that the words I love you could be the easy thing to say. But the second time came easier than the first, and soon we exchanged the phrase regularly, even carelessly. Those words which had filled me at first with such dread, whose consequences had once loomed so large and ominous, became the lightest of filler phrases in a text message or email. As trite and soulless as a Hallmark card, the words carried nothing of my true feelings, which were a jumble of conflicting thoughts and affections. As weeks and months passed, my guilt grew to encompass a sense of betrayal. Perhaps I had misled her by my words and goaded her on to commit herself more fully to our relationship than I. Perhaps I was doing to her what I had myself most feared: creating an inequality of reliance and trust. This sense that I was not reciprocating, that I was merely going through the motions, pained me through ever encounter. Every I love you deepened the bond and each one moved me farther from the moment where I could step back and question what I had begun.
Fortunately, over time my emotions came into line with convenience and ushered out my fears. As the days and weeks rolled by I began to feel something stir, something sharper and more specific than the inchoate excitement and dread I had felt before. It was a late onset of my desired disease, a welcome shudder of passion—the real thing. This new feeling, what I can honestly call love, emerged for me not out of a single encounter or of a single day, but out of many images tiled together in a larger mosaic. Yet while I felt this potently, the nagging knowledge of its convenience continued to vex me. I faced the same problem as before; how could I know that what I felt was truly love? Was this true affection or some twisted creation of my conscience, merely the shadow of the real thing? Sometimes this thought still haunts me. I lie awake and fear that out of one small distortion has sprung a great deception, its stakes so high and its victim so innocent that I do not dare deflate it. But then I calm myself, force myself to reason, and remember that the love I express today I feel for real. The fact that I claimed it before I felt it was a crime of the past, not an injustice that survives. I refuse to let myself believe otherwise; if there is a great deception, I must be a victim too.
Age 17, Grade 12