When In Love

My significant other Rylan and I are at the age where our friends are getting married, and I’ve noticed a common trend at the ceremonies. The vows don’t seem to be vows in the traditional sense anymore; instead, they’re more an exchange of relationship-defining stories, as if each person is answering the question: When did you first know you loved this person? Rylan’s grandfather is a Lutheran minister and would probably have a few words to say about this new convention, but I happen to like it.

I’m not married, but I am in love. And I know exactly when I knew it.

I even know the exact date: April 2nd, 2016.

It was eight days before the dinner where I met Rylan’s entire family for the first time: his parents, his sister and brother-in-law, cousins, and an uncle. Two weeks before our two-month dating anniversary. Four weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday.

I’d been in love before, but this was the first time I’d realized it without the other person getting there and announcing it first. With my first boyfriend, at fifteen, I remember us lying face-to-face on the futon in his parents’ basement, talking inches away from kissing. I said something like, “I love your smile.” Tyler replied, “Yeah? Well, I love you.” I remember being sort of shocked into saying “I love you, too.” I figured that’s what the nervous stirring in my stomach was all about.

My first serious, grown-up boyfriend (literally a grown-up boyfriend, he was nearly twenty-four) told me he loved me two months and one week into our relationship. I know this because I was seventeen and paid special attention to such things. We were at a wedding reception together, sitting at the open bar, where Chris was drinking scotch and soda. He might’ve been a little drunk. I was sober. He wore a tie, and I wore the little black dress I’d bought for junior homecoming. Chris finished his drink, looked at me, and looked away with a charming smirk on his face. He had something he wanted to tell me, but he wasn’t sure if he should say it yet, now, here.

Then he said it anyway.

I answered his “I love you” with “thank you.”

“Thank you?” he replied. “What does that mean? Thank you, but piss off?”

I quickly realized that the only acceptable response to “I love you” was “I love you, too,” which bothered me for reasons I wasn’t quite able to articulate at the time. I realize now that it’s because I believe that “I love you” is a declarative statement. Not a question.

Even though I wasn’t in love with Chris, I ended up saying the words anyway. It worked like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because I said it, it became so. But I have to wonder how long it would’ve taken me to get there on my own, in my own time. What if he’d said something more along the lines of, “I’m not expecting you to say it back right now. I just want you to know where I stand”?

I can’t remember the first time I said “I love you” to the boyfriend who came after Chris and before Rylan. I was drunk when I said it. Drunk-Anika told Ben that she loved him, and she also told him not to tell Sober-Anika that she’d said it. I’m unclear whether or not Ben had said it to me first. I don’t remember our first sober exchange of the words. We were often drunk. Ben drank because he was traumatized, and I drank because Ben was drinking, and we were in college, and it seemed like the thing to do.

Saying “I love you” in a romantic context became a bigger deal to me after Ben. We broke up in the summer of 2012, and I hadn’t said it to anyone since. I hadn’t felt that way toward anyone since. In fact, I ultimately broke up with the boyfriend I had briefly after Ben because even though he was nice and handsome and safe, he couldn’t understand why I didn’t love him back yet. It was too much expectation, too much pressure.

A month and a half into my relationship with Rylan, we were saying “I like you” plenty, which was great, because if I’d learned anything from Chris and Ben, it was that like was just as–if not more–important than love. I was still in love when both of those relationships ended, but I didn’t like the person I was in love with anymore, and I really didn’t like the person I was when I was with them.

Rylan and I were curled up on the brown couch at my Fremont apartment one night when I said “I like you” for the umpteenth time. He replied softly, “I like you, too. A lot. In fact, I’m starting to feel that like isn’t a strong enough word.” I felt my whole body tense. I braced myself. Was he going to say it now? Already? It wouldn’t have been totally unwelcome, but I wasn’t there yet; I was still very much “in like.”

And so was he, I guess, because he didn’t say it yet.

April 2nd was a Saturday. I dressed in black yoga pants and, in true white girl fashion, I persuaded Rylan that we should go out for brunch instead of ramen. He humored me and we ate at Julia’s in Wallingford. I ordered a quiche and fresh fruit and asked for a cinnamon roll, but they were out, so I got coffee cake instead. I also ate half of Rylan’s side of potatoes. We sat at a small table next to a window that showed off the beautiful spring day, and I guess it called to us, because even though it was late morning, we decided to head for the mountains.

We were not the only people who recognized that it was an excellent day for hiking. First we checked out the trailhead for Rattlesnake Ridge, a moderately easy hike with a huge scenic view payoff, but parking was a daytime nightmare. Then we drove to Wallace Falls, another aesthetically pleasing, easy hike, which was still busy but overall less congested.

Rylan and I had never been hiking together before, and I let him lead the way because I am terrible at setting pace. When we first set out on the trail, I mostly looked at the ground — the dirt trail, the rocks, and the tree roots — so that I wouldn’t trip, but then I started noticing the pretty things happening around me: the sunlight filtering through the moss-covered trees, the many shades of green. And then I noticed the remarkable view right in front of me: Rylan’s butt. How hadn’t I noticed that before? When he asked me, “Do you want to try taking the lead for a bit?” I replied, “Nah, I’m good. Enjoying the view back here.”

He stopped and began glancing around at his surroundings. As a born-and-raised Pacific Northwesterner, he is less easily impressed by scenery than I am. “What view?” he asked. He looked back at me, perplexed.

I looked pointedly at his ass and smirked.

“Oh!” Rylan exclaimed. “Wait. Are you just noticing this now?” Apparently it’s a point of pride with him, and good butts run in his family, but of course I hadn’t met them yet. “I’ve been skipping stairs since middle school,” he explained, and we continued on, Rylan still leading the way.

At the top of the waterfall — Wallace Falls — we disregarded the “Falling can be deadly” signage, taking it neither as a bad omen for our relationship nor for our fates off the trail; we slipped past the wooden railing to take pictures with our phone cameras.

I knew then — when we were walking along the trail, joking and flirting with each other, enjoying our little adventure together — that I loved him already. The words kept bubbling up inside of me, chasing after the feeling: I love you, I love you, I love you.

Back in the city, we showered and changed, grabbed Red Mill burgers, fries, and shakes for dinner, and curled up on Rylan’s futon, where we continued our friendly tradition of eating good food and watching horror movies on his projection screen. We were sitting exactly where our friendship had taken root. And now we were still friends, but we were something else, too. It felt transcendent. We now existed in a time and place where brushing shoulders and bumping knees didn’t make me sweaty-nervous. Just inexplicably happy.

Throughout the movie, I kept stealing glances at Rylan, his face aglow in the light from the screen. His blue eyes. His laugh lines.

I could feel my love for him the same way I can feel my pulse.

And it was enough to feel it. I didn’t need to say it or hear it said back.

Not yet.

Originally published at http://justanotherassholewhoblogs.wordpress.com on April 2, 2019.

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