Sometimes, I wish I could feel love as intensely as I did when I was 13, chasing after a boy who didn’t even like me and who I once blew behind an elementary school. It was my first heartbreak. I remember feeling it so vividly because it was the first time my emotions had conjured real, physical pain, like dropping 20-pound weights on my chest.
When I was a high school sophomore, love felt more substantial because it was reciprocated, but I was just as naive.
“I love you,” my first boyfriend Cameron said, looking straight into my eyes, a minute or two into our first time together. It took me by surprise. It was so perfect and orchestrated that it felt like he rehearsed how, when and where he’d say it to me.
“I love you too,” I replied quietly in between thrusts.
When he eventually broke up with me, and aside from the chest-hurty feeling returning, the primary emotion I felt was betrayal. “How could you break up with me? We say, ‘I love you’ to each other all the time!”
Ever since, I’ve had a weird complex with the “L”-word. In the words of Michael Che, “like” is much better than “love.” People kill their loved ones all the time. No one ever kills someone they like.
To be clear, the “L”-word itself doesn’t bother me. I tell my friends and family I love them all the time. It’s the weight that surrounds it when it’s applied to significant others.
It was once the ultimate goal in my preteen eyes — guided by the Katniss and Peetas, the Hazels and Augustuses, the Alex and Masons. Nowadays, I cringe when I watch movies and someone refuses to stop chasing after an ex-SO because they “love” them. Because love is just a proxy for their selfish desire to impose themselves on someone who doesn’t want them. Love, as an unconditional, unchangeable state of being, just invites toxicity. Your unremarkable testament to commitment, claiming you will be bound to someone regardless of what they do or who they become, suggests obligation. Obligation to stick around no matter what happens. That can be pretty beautiful. It can also be pretty terrifying. People need to feel comfortable with leaving relationships when they become unhealthy.
Funnily enough, I accidentally told my current boyfriend that I loved him about a week into dating.
“I love you because you say shit like that,” I said in response to some dumb joke he made, casually and unnoticed to me. Well, he certainly noticed, because his eyes grew wide like saucers and his mouth was agape in shock. I corrected my slip.
“I mean, not like that. What I meant was, I love that you say shit like that.”
Even now, months later, he refuses to tell me he loves me because he,“doesn’t know what it is.” He wants to be sure that he’s in this ultimate state with me before he starts telling me he is in love, which is fair. But clearly, I don’t believe that this ultimate state is something anyone can ever achieve. He doesn’t want to devalue the word, whereas I don’t think it has much value at all. Especially when we throw it around the way we do. We’ll be at dinner and he’ll say, “I fucking love Indian food.” Imagine pledging allegiance to Sangam Indian Cuisine before your own girlfriend. But for some reason, “I appreciate you,” or, “I value you” doesn’t have the same ring as “I love you.”
Even though the “L”-word doesn’t mean much to me, it means something to him, and that in turn, affects me. I can’t say it doesn’t hurt a bit that he doesn’t say it to me. Once again, love takes its position as the some goal for me to reach. Until then, the “I like you”s will suffice.
Riley Read is a student at Cornell University. Tongue Tied runs monthly this semester. Sex on Thursday appears every other Thursday.