I love you.
I wish I could tell you exactly when and why the words ‘I love you’ became difficult to mean. Maybe the words grew heavier as I gained weight, maybe they turned bitter in junior high… it doesn’t really matter how it happened though, it happened all the same. But on February 26th, 2017, starting right around 2 p.m., I said ‘I love you’ over and over again and I meant every word.
I was in the lobby when I heard that Peter Hart died. I was using a communal desktop to save my data and I was happy because my crush ended up sitting next to me. I was sitting upright, overly aware of my posture and profile, and I was checking my Facebook sparingly because I wanted him to know that I could be serious when it came to my studies. So that was what I was thinking about when Peter died, whether or not I was pulling off the smart and sexy look on a Sunday afternoon.
A couple of things happened before I realized they were happening. A girl named Alex (who I don’t remember ever talking to before) found me in the corner leading into the stairs, and she held me until I could say that I’d prefer to be alone. Some people brought me water, I don’t know who. I tried to clean up in the bathroom and instead walked into my crush taking a shit. I changed into a black dress and tried going to church. But it was an awkward time, they were either in mid-sermon or preparing for evening service; I felt bad about interrupting the good Christians with my irregular guilt, so I ended up sitting in a bus station, near the back entrance of St. Laurence. I felt something that I can only call ‘loud’ come and take over me, and I felt the need to muffle it, or at least cover it up. So I started making calls.
It first started with Maria, then it was Bella, then Natalie, the other Peter, Elaine, Polina and so on. Everybody picked up within the first rings.
Whoever was the first to speak asked, “Are you okay?” and the other, “Yes, are you safe?”
And then it’d go, “I love you” and the other, “Me too.”
It was quick and efficient, almost mechanical. But it was genuine, and everybody knew.
I called Stephen last. He was my connection to Peter, I was a good friend to him and he to Peter. Stephen was probably my favorite person from high school; I took him to Senior Dance. He was the perfect date: he embraced my godawful dancing and offered me his jacket when the first chill set in. At the end of the night, Stephen walked me to the dorm, and I felt love, so much love towards him that I thought maybe I had to kiss him. I’ve done more with people I felt less for. But I didn’t, and I brushed the feeling off as something fleeting, hormonal.
Stephen was already crying when he picked up the phone. He was with someone else, maybe his own Alex.
“Hold on, hold on. E?”
I don’t know how he knew it was me. I never gave him my number. And suddenly, even though I stopped crying an hour before, even though I knew Stephen was probably hurting more, I started sobbing at the sound of his voice.
“No, I’m just on the phone. I need to talk to her. E, are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m okay, Stephen, are you okay?”
“Yes… I mean, no, E. Fuck, I don’t know…”
Then Stephen’s voice trailed off to make a sad, guttural sound and I knew he was simultaneously blowing his nose and swallowing his snot back. And I recognized the love, the love I felt for him at that moment, as the one I felt on the night of the dance. The words came more frantically and more instinctively than ever.
“Stephen, listen to me. I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. Stephen, I need you to know this. Please tell me you know.”
It was a kind of love that I thought had to come with strings attached but no, it was just love. It just was.
“Don’t leave me, Stephen. Don’t you fucking dare.”
And in the midst of the overwhelming loud, a sudden silence settled within me when he replied, “I know. I won’t. I love you too.”