“Do you love me?” he whispered.

It was always his whisper that got me.

Stroll back in time with me.  I’m newly seventeen and it’s late – probably eleven at night – and I know that I should go to sleep because I have school tomorrow and a Math test to take and a Psychology presentation on projection to do, but I can’t make myself utter any kinds of words that might end this conversation.  My bedroom is completely dark.  The only lights are from the periodic cars that pass down my suburban street and I can sometimes hear tires hissing through the snow that always begins to fall around the time of my birthday.

I turn off the TV when he calls.  I turn out my lights.  I lie underneath my flowered covers on my Queen size bed in the darkness for hours.  At first – when the daily phone calls first started – I thought that I liked the atmosphere of a pitch-black room, but I figured out quickly that I was able to be more honest in the dark and I think he could almost sense the lack of light in my room because that’s when he would start to talk really sweetly.  

That’s when he would start the whispering.

The question about love startled me, but it really shouldn’t have.  I can see now how the question was almost entirely rhetorical because my love for him screamed out each time I took a breath before I said something to him, each time I laughed at a funny story he told me.  There were never any pauses when we spoke.  I didn’t fully know back then that sometimes conversations between men and women could feel stilted because maybe one of the people just didn’t have a lot to say or because maybe both people actually needed to say far too much.

Just last weekend, I was near my hometown for Mother’s Day and we ended up on a street that looked very familiar.

“Your former therapist used to have an office over there, remember?” my mother asked.  She said it quietly as though I might feel something resembling shame that I’d seen a therapist after my father and one of my dearest friends died suddenly just a year apart when I was fourteen.  

“Her office was over there,” I said, and then I pointed to a small white building.

“No, it was way down the street,” my mother responded, and since she’s the one who always drove me there, I knew she must be right.  “Her name was Tina.”

“I couldn’t remember her name at all,” I said with a laugh.

“There’s a lot you don’t remember,” mused my mother – and she’s right.  But there’s so much that I do remember and the memories are so accurate that they still crackle and I can see what I was wearing and the position I was lying in and I can still feel just how I felt then.

I read a book recently about how to improve your life in just seven days.  I go through phases where I become a sucker for self-improvement, and I know there’s something really perverse about considering myself a sucker for wanting to be a better version of myself, but I guess like Carl Jung and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, there’s a big part of me that believes the answers have always been inside of me just waiting to be unearthed.  Still, even Dorothy had some witch in a sparkly dress and a charlatan wizard to help her, so I figured that a book sent to me in two days from Amazon might help me too.  

I started the book last night and immediately got nervous that the Introduction included a line about how most people don’t get through the entire book because they think the process won’t actually work or because the exercises feel too difficult or intense.  I’ve never been one to avoid something due to intensity, but I am constantly someone who feels wavering waves of cynicism that this self-help stuff is pure horseshit.  Some very wise people I know swear by those kinds of teachings – one person I know even exercises to motivational speakers which strikes me as bizarre but not nearly as bizarre as the rest of the shit I know about him – and I like to think that I’m open to personal exploration and that self-analysis can rarely be a bad thing.

One of the first exercises was to think of someone who caused you pain and then to think of someone who made you feel pure love and to try to measure where within you the image and memory developed.  Was it in the way back of your head?  Was it in the front right portion of your mind?  Did the image pop up somewhere in the middle of your brain?  The immediate goal was to recognize the location of the memory and then try to push it towards your thumb as if you were holding your arm straight out in front of you so your thumb would be at a distance.  And on this very first exercise I got stuck because it turns out that my most vivid memories exist in the way back of my throat.  That’s where they appear.  That might be where they live.  That might be why I feel like I have trouble breathing sometimes.

I tried to push the memory into my thumb.  I could sort of do it, but only for a second.  It did make me feel lighter inside, but only for about thirty seconds until the memory scooted back home and when I swallowed, I gulped every moment of that memory – every glance, every disappointment, every smile – back inside of me.

I might need at least two weeks to change my life, I thought before I put the book down and picked up The Shining instead.

On that night when I was seventeen – a collection of hours I recall with total clarity in the way I wasn’t able to even come up with the name of a kind therapist I told my darkest fears to just two and a half years prior – I kind of knew the question about love was coming because the conversation was one of our most intimate and we had just spent part of the weekend stealing kisses on a freezing beach where we all went sometimes, no matter what the season.  We hadn’t fought in a while.  The only things I’d written in my journal lately were about him, the kind of sentences a girl writes the first time she has been consumed by somebody else:

Looking up to gaze at the black sky I see his face instead as it hovers above me, and he looks like a stranger, though I know him well.  I need to see a sky full of stars whispering reassurances that this is right – this moment that ends so quickly stays in my mind for an eternity.

I don’t think I had any idea then how long an eternity could actually be.  Sometimes I don’t even understand the idea of eternity now.

I used to read him some of the things I’d written.  He loved my writing and sharing it made me feel brave.  He liked the stuff about him most of all.  I can laugh now that he was my very first narcissist.  I stop laughing when I remember that he wasn’t my last.

“I do love you,” I whispered back that night.  It was the first time I ever said those words to a boy and I can still feel the odd combination of gripping fear and total relief that it was finally out there because I’d imagined how the moment might go and it was never this way but when I heard him exhale for a minute and wait another fifteen seconds, I knew he was about to say it too.

“I really love you,” he said – and that time he didn’t whisper.

What changed after that was nothing and everything and it all happened at the same time, feelings colliding into expectations, fears conjured up at a mere blink that read as purposefully elusive.  The love never waned, but I guess it began to feel a little bit more desperate and neither of us really enjoyed how much each of us relied on the other for happiness.  We were graduating soon.  We kept our relationship very loosely defined.  We knew each other better than either of us knew anybody else, and it only began to frighten me when I realized that he might actually know me better than I knew myself.  I knew – even then – that that’s way too much power to give to anyone.

I want you to want me – but I don’t want you to know it.

I wrote that line in my journal somewhere around April of that year.  The snow had long melted and I could see tulips blooming and he started driving around with the top down and I began to try to train myself not to care so much.  One night my mother was out and she told me I could have some friends over so I invited about ten people, the core group we were hanging out with in those days.  The group used to be so much larger but we’d whittled it down and I saw how much better life could be if you surrounded yourself only with the people you genuinely liked.  That it took so long for me to come to that realization bothered me.

I knew that we’d all smoke, but I also knew that I wasn’t in the mood to drink and my best friend and I got the silly idea that we should go buy that soda that used to exist before more intelligent people than us intervened and had it taken off the market.  Jolt was advertised thusly:  All the sugar and twice the caffeine.  It was basically cocaine made legal and we left my house in the hands of two of my girl friends and she and I drove to the pizza place where the soda was sold and then we decided to grab a slice before we went back home.

Pulling down my street – filled with sugar and caffeine – we saw that his car was already in my driveway, that he had arrived and I wasn’t even home.

“That’s a good thing,” said my friend – and I hated and loved that she was right.

My hair was up that night in a clip and tendrils fell almost romantically around my face.  I’d never worn my hair like that before, but earlier in the day I started playing in front of the mirror, twisting my hair this way and that way, and all of a sudden this weird style was achieved and I couldn’t believe how much I liked it.  I kept it that way until some of my friends showed up.

“Do I look ridiculous?” I asked.  There was still time to toss it back into a ponytail.

“I kind of love it!” exclaimed my best friend – and she was rarely the kind to exclaim or to give compliments easily.  I think that, even with girls, I have been drawn towards people who are somewhat withholding.  The only thing that makes sense as to why I am like this is because I like the challenge of cracking people every now and then.  I’d love to blame it all on my parents because that’s just such a convenient way to avoid responsibility, but I didn’t have withholding parents and even now, my newest parent – my stepfather – is not a withholding kind of guy either.  There might actually be nobody on the planet who lavishes me with more compliments and who smiles so widely because he knows just how much I love him.

I kept my hair that way and I walked into my own house that was filled with my friends and the guy that I loved.  Someone had put on a CD, and I think I remember it being Bob Marley but that sound memory isn’t as clear as the rest of it.  I was wearing jean shorts that were frayed and a white tee with The University of Delaware printed across the front in navy.  I’d gotten the shirt when I went to see the school as a last-ditch effort to find a college I could actually see myself attending.  It was our last step on the college tour that had taken us from California to Indiana to Manhattan, and I fell in love with Delaware the moment I saw the campus and the brick buildings and breathed in the air that smelled liked rose bushes and anticipation.

“You look really good,” he told me that night and so did he.  Later on, we all left my house and went over to my friend’s house to go swimming.  It was a last minute decision and I didn’t bring a bathing suit with me.  The guys probably went naked – they were always naked in those days – but I borrowed a bikini from my best friend and my breasts were nowhere near as large as hers and the suit kept almost sliding off.  I remember that the sky was clear and it was fine when we were in the water but that it was freezing when our skin hit the air so we stayed submerged.  I remember him swimming towards me in the deep end where I was holding on to a kickboard and that my hair was no longer up because I’d jumped straight into the water upon arrival.  I wasn’t then and I will never be a girl who refuses to get her hair wet when there’s fun to be had.  He dipped his head under the water and when he picked it back up, the water rolled down his face in big drops and hit his lips when he smiled and I smiled back as our legs moved beneath us underneath the kickboard.

“Do you love me?” he asked. 

“Do you love me?” I threw back and I reached forward and pushed a lock of hair out of his eye.

“Yes,” he whispered.