I was 16 years old when I realized I was in love for the first time.
My boyfriend said it first: I love you.
I paused, letting his words hang in the air for a few seconds before saying, I think I do, too.
My tentative admission was all it took to convince me it was true. My few seconds of hesitation were merely a symptom of the fact that I couldn’t name something I had never experienced. Once I was handed the label, I attached it firmly to the glob of feelings in my chest.
Most “firsts” in life, from riding a bike to speaking a new language, are cushioned by the assurance that whatever initial discomfort you experience will be temporary. You’re expected to fall and scratch your knees, you’re expected to butcher the pronunciation of “millefeuille,” but after a saga of numerous semi-failures, you’re expected to finally figure it out. At that point, the thing that used to seem impossible becomes second nature to the point of being totally unremarkable.
Not so with falling and being in love, or so we’re told. Consider how it has been depicted in popular culture throughout history, from the ill-fated romance of Romeo and Juliet to the will-they-won’t-they drama of Ross and Rachel. Love is perpetually uncomfortable and constantly thrilling, we’re told. Love is a story that will keep you up at night. Love is a guessing game rife for over-analysis and misinterpretation. Love is anything but unremarkable. Even a “happy ending” (conceivably the point at which you’ve finally figured love out) is really just a spike in the series of low lows and high highs in the oscillating sine wave that has come to define what a “normal” relationship looks like.
I oscillated up and down it for years.
In high school, that meant engaging in a soap opera’s worth of fights with my boyfriend about betrayals I can’t even remember now and sobbing into the shoulder of his polo shirt and staining it with streaks of Maybelline mascara after we made up. It meant wanting him to want me to spend time with him, but frequently choosing my friends over him instead. It meant using him as a security blanket while simultaneously craving the separation I knew that college (and our mutually agreed-upon breakup) would bring because the glob of feelings had only gotten bigger and it was starting to make my chest feel tight.
It was just so, so much, and we were so, so young. It was messy, uncertain, exciting and devastating and we were messy, uncertain, excited and devastated, and that’s how being in love is supposed to feel, right? Suffocating and intoxicating all at once, right? More often than not, it seemed like he needed me more than I needed him. If there was an upper hand to have, I think I had it.
The mutually agreed-upon breakup happened right on schedule, and off to college we went. We stayed in touch, naturally (because exchanging a text once a day with your ex for four years is a healthy way to keep up?). We saw each other occasionally too, and each encounter confused me more than the last. More often than not, it seemed like I needed him more than he needed me. If there was an upper hand to have, he definitely had it.
There was a period of time when he ignored me for months. I wrote pages and pages of diary entries. I changed his name to a monster emoji in my phone. I convinced myself I was interested in other people. If you asked me then if I was still in love with him, I would have said, No, absolutely not. If you asked me now if I was still in love with him, I would say that whatever I was feeling felt precarious and nauseating and pathetic, so if love is supposed to feel precarious and nauseating and pathetic in addition to suffocating and intoxicating then yes, I was definitely still in it.
Then we both graduated, moved to New York, and started dating again.
“I love you,” he said to me one morning shortly after. Freaked out by how happy that sentence made me, and how uncertain I was about what it even meant, I didn’t say it back. At that point, we had been together on and off for eight years. I thought I loved him on and off the whole time, but looking back, the glob of feelings I labeled “LOVE” wasn’t really love — it was just the raw materials.
I’m not sure when I realized the materials had congealed. Maybe when it dawned on me I couldn’t remember the last time we had fought. Maybe when I scrolled through our text history looking for something and found a whole lot of nothing instead — conversations about what we did that day, what we ate for lunch, how many hours we slept, what articles we were reading. Maybe when a friend pressed me about what was new with us lately, and the only interesting relationship update I could think to relay was that he had recently asked for a list of all my frequent flyer numbers so he could compile them into the spreadsheet he uses to keep track of his own.
Totally and utterly unremarkable. But that’s where we are now, and I’m starting to think that’s kind of the point. That love, in its truest, steadiest, most rewarding form, is extraordinarily dull. That contrary to popular stereotypes and cinematic tropes, there’s nothing to overanalyze, nothing to second-guess, nothing to report, nothing to pursue or refuel. That it doesn’t need constant reassurance that it exists. That it just is.
Which isn’t to say it’s not exciting — it’s just a different version of exciting, a version that doesn’t pick me up and drop me, but buoys me instead.
I say it all the time now: I love you, I love you, I love you. Some people would probably tell me I say it too much, that every time I say it, it becomes less special, a little less meaningful, but I would tell them that it is meaningful precisely because it isn’t special, like air that recycles in and out of my lungs.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.