I'm hardly through my first double something—either sit-up, crunch or v-up—with nineteen more to go on this first round, and she's already into her news of the day. She is Kristina, my trainer. A lovely creature, with doe-eyes, a B.A. in Fine Art, and a fridge-pack beneath her XXS Gold's Gym trainer shirt, who's found an equally enthralling creature with whom to spend her waking and some sleeping-on-the-couch hours. It's early days yet, just the first couple months, but the rhythm of their relationship has a swing to it that looks promising and feels familiar.
"There is one thing that bothers me about Ezekiel. He hasn't said he loves me. I'm just dying to tell him I love him, but I can't."
"Well, just do. Just say it," I puff, as I crunch through the sixth, seventh and eighth.
"No, I can't be the first one to say it," she declares. "So, I'm resorting to things like, "I would say 'I love you' right now but, of course, I don't yet." She rolls her eyes at her own transparency.
"And what does he say to that? What number is this?
"Twelve. He doesn't say anything. He just smiles at me. Or he reaches over and rubs my head. Sometimes he puts his arms around me and just holds me tight and breathes in deeply. I think I can see it in his eyes. But, I just want to hear him say it. Just once." She moans, a little. "That's twenty."
I lie flat on the floor, arms and legs in dead starfish pose. I let out a small wail: "Oh dear, you poor thing. That's what it must be like being married to me. I never say it. And that's all Kevin wants to hear. This must be how he feels. You poor things."
One of the things Kevin wishes he could change about me is the way "I love you" trickles from my lips. Slowly, reluctantly, like calcium carbonate at the end of a stalactite. "Love ya" is never coming out of my mouth—the hot knife through the buttered end of everyday conversations, like it seems to in this culture. (I walk by a girl walking to her car. She's tossing out "love ya's" as she throws her backpack into the back seat. From what I've eavesdropped, she's actually talking to her roommate, not even a love interest.) And then, when I do say "I love you," (perhaps on a day that coincides with the blue moon or the summer solstice), then the next question is always, "Why?"
"Why? You want to know why I love you? Isn't it good enough that I love you?"
"No. Tell me why?"
Then out of my mouth comes some lame thing about that I just love the Kevin-ness of him. That thing about him that makes him Kevin. By the look in his eyes, I can tell that's not what he wants to hear. He wants something about his sense of humor, his brilliance, his athletic ability, his leadership, his charisma, his cheekbones. But I don't offer that. I've got rocks in my mouth. And I try to explain that there is not a specific thing that makes me love him. I just love him. And I'll continue to love him, even when those things are gone.
Yes, there are certain things I enjoy about him. I like the way he can make me laugh out of nowhere. I like the way he has calf muscles that look like somebody took a chisel to his leg and cut in at a 45-degree angle. I like his soft yet courageous heart. I like his mind, even though I don't get how it works. I used to like his curly hair, but that's a cruel memory now. I like the way he thinks about me, and lets me be. I really like that moment when he starts to run, the way his body moves from stationary to flight in such a smooth motion. At a certain angle, I stare at his wrist bones; but only at that angle. However, those things can change. He could lose a leg, and then where would the calf muscles be? Gone, just like the hair. He could put on 50 pounds more and not be able to move at all. So what good does it do to list off a grocery list? Besides, the question always makes me feel like a performing seal. Like I have to find something about him that is the reason I love him.
I think the first time he asked me this I did actually attempt to answer him. The things I offered weren't of the ilk that he found pleasing. They were trivial. Like wrist bones, and the shape his mouth takes when he's about to say something that he thinks might not be well received. He shook his head at my answers and said, "That's not reasons to love somebody." "Well, that's all I've got." I could see his disappointment but couldn't find it in myself to dredge up cosmic causes for me and him. You know, like he's Superman, the Clark Kent to my Lois Lane, the lid to my pot, the cream to my scone.
My mind goes through these things as I see him waiting for this answer. Then I offer, "I just love you. There's no because." Especially when I see you every day, and sleep next to you every night, and wait for you when you're late, and watch you sitting apart from me at church, and wait for you when you're late, and pick up your socks, and talk to you while you fall asleep mid-sentence, usually before ten, and try to go back to sleep again while you shuffle around the bedroom in the dark at four in the morning.
One very hot Saturday at the end of July, I stood in the driveway of our home with my three sons. We each held a broom in our hands; Seth holding it so non-comittedly that he was soon banished to stacking chairs. Our task: to sweep the driveway before the wedding party arrived to take their pictures before the reception. "THE WEDDING" filled this summer. I had spent weeks, it seemed, on my hands and knees, planting, weeding, transplanting, mulching, and trimming in preparation for Kelsey and Matt's wedding. Kelsey's the daughter of close friends and we had just finished our landscaping overhaul—a match made in heaven.
That afternoon, between the ceremony and the reception, we were at home doing final touches, like erecting the wedding arch, stringing the lights and setting up a hothouse of cut flowers. Kevin's final touch, he was convinced, was that the driveway needed to be swept.
Picture this: our driveway is 100 yards long, shaped like an old-fashioned thermometer, with the bulb end close to the house for parking. It's asphalt, which sheds little grey pellets after the winter's cycle of snow-melt-freeze-snow-freeze-melt. As part of the landscape overhaul, we had a turn-around installed next to the elm tree, and two new parking spaces cut into the left side. Both the turn-around and parking spaces are covered with pea gravel. Winter detritus and pea gravel, and delivery trucks and cars up and down make for a not-quite-so smooth driveway.
In my eyes, it didn't look so bad. I didn't look out there and think, "Oh, heavens, we've GOT to sweep the driveway." Because who wants to sweep a driveway, especially our driveway? I wanted to plant the last few daylilies that I had picked up at $2.50 each that morning at Home Depot. The flower bed was to the north of the house, near the garbage cans. Nobody would see them, but I thought they would look just great there. But, I could see, by that twist of his mouth, that Kevin really wanted the driveway swept.
As he was finding power for the DJ and spreading bark under the crabapple trees, he didn't have time to sweep the driveway. That's why I was standing there, in 95 degree heat, with three reluctant sons, sweeping the driveway. The conversation went something like this:
"Why are we sweeping the driveway?"
"Your dad wants it swept."
"Tell him to come do it himself."
"He's busy doing other stuff. We can do this. He wants it done. So we're doing it. . . . And do it properly. To get this gravel up, you're going to have to really bend down into your broom. Use your core, bend your legs." This is me in my best, rational, calm mother voice, when inside my head I'm thinking, "The whole freaking driveway . . . he's got to be kidding."
"I'm only 10. I don't have a core," Adam whines. Half-hearted sweeping motion, like he's trying to get dust priceless China with a push broom. "This isn't working. We'll be sweeping right through the reception."
"Get your whole body into it. Lean into the broom. Move it into a pile. Then go get the shovel and the wheelbarrow."
Christian, voice of reason, trying to sound really adult: "I don't see why this is necessary."
I'm starting to lose my Virgin Mother-like calm as I realize how long this will actually take us. So, I level with him, one pseudo to another: "Christian, I don't think it's necessary either. But, it's really important to your father. Every time he looks out here, all he can see is this driveway. Something about it makes him cringe. So, we're sweeping the driveway. We're going to give dad an hour of our time and sweep this bloody driveway. Part of being married is doing what you can to give your partner what they want. This we can do for him. Hopefully when you're married you'll do things for your wife that you think are totally unnecessary but that will make her happy. This will make Dad happy. So, we're going to do it." I look at him, as the sweat runs into my eyes, and I can feel the dust creeping under my fingernails—my worst. "Alright?"
He looks at me with seventeen-year old chagrin mixed with a little affection, "Alright! I just asked."
We swept, we piled, we shoveled, we barrowed and dumped. Amazing how much debris can accumulate over a winter and a spring in pieces no larger than a young, green pea. At one hour, we stopped. The driveway looked like we'd given it a haircut and a shave. Who knew it could "clean up so good" as Grandma Rose used to say? I didn't have eyes to see that one. But Kevin did.
Back to the question: "Why do you love me?" Instead of asking "Why do you love me?" Kevin should ask me, "When do you love me?" Then I would have lots of answers and things to point to: I am loving you when I stand out in 95 degree heat sweeping a driveway that bothers only you. Not only that, I actually coerced, cajoled, threatened, and cheerleadered two sons to sweeping that driveway with me. I am loving you when I sense you awake and unable to sleep at four in the morning, and turn to offer what I know puts you right back to sleep. I am loving you when I let you sleep on late Sunday afternoons and put out the chairs for yet another youth meeting at our home. I am loving you when I buy the big bottle of roasted, salted cashews and the Australian black licorice. I am loving you and seeing you clearly when, after years of resistance, I drop my unspoken but probably still sensed desire for you to "just get a job with a company." I am loving you when I listen to you unload about the day, and actually bring my brain to bear on some of the issues you face. I am loving you when I give up my writing day to finish your projects. I'm loving you when I dress up in pioneer clothing, bus to Wyoming and push handcarts with other people's teenagers because you have to go. I'm loving you when I match your socks! That's when and how I love you.
If I can make a statement like "I love you because . . . ," it naturally follows that there's also an "I don't love you because" somewhere in there. Surely love, the relationship of love, isn't a cause-and-effect. Is it true that because Kevin makes me laugh, I love him? Some days he doesn't make me laugh. Some days, I just roll my eyes and half-bite my tongue. Some days he just gives me a wide, wide berth, and has been known to banish me to my room. So on those days, do I not love him, because I'm not laughing, and does he not love me because I'm shouting at his children? No. We're just not enjoying each other so much, and we're both watching and waiting to see what is needed. (Timeouts in my room with a book! Divine.)
Ultimately—in the end, and the middle and just about as soon as the honeymoon ends—long-term love has nothing to do with the object of love, and everything to do with the one loving. It should be enough to say, "I promised to love you. So, I do. And I will. Just watch."
Title: from "Do You Love Me," by The Contours