“Saying ‘I love you’ is a wonderful thing,” I remember my dad saying to me one night as I readied myself for bed. I was six or seven, and had just brushed my teeth and come into his office, where - in keeping with a nightly, years-long tradition - we recited a poem together. Only a few lines long, it had something to do with baby birds bedding down in their nests, with mother and father birds dutifully keeping watch through the night.
The ritual began with us alternating lines of the verse until it was finished; it ended with my dad telling me that he loved me very much and would see me in the morning. Every night, without fail, I responded in the same way: by looking at the floor, and smiling, and saying — very quietly, barely audibly — “thank you.”
Years later, at fifteen, I moved with my family from Honolulu to LA. After a summer spent adjusting to the traffic, the noise, and the frigid nights of Southern California (they felt that way to me, at least), I started eleventh grade at a tiny, arts-centric high school in the Valley.
I’d just left a formal prep school in Hawaii that placed great emphasis on academic and athletic achievement; here, a social education seemed more important. The entire school — which averaged 50 or 60 students per grade — attended regular open-mic meetings, where anyone could make an announcement, or sing, or suggest an idea. We once spent an entire week discussing the ethics of having a real skeleton in our science classroom, and another on the politics behind displaying an American flag in front of our school’s main office.
There was something else about this new environment, though, that stood out to me more: my classmates were affectionate in a way that I hadn’t ever seen in people my age. They hugged every morning when they arrived at school. They hugged every afternoon when they left. They leaned on each other’s shoulders. They held hands. They said, I love you.
For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, this made me feel shy and a little awkward, in the same way that my dad telling me he loved me had made me want to hide my face as a child. (For someone with a family as loving as can be, this strikes me as very curious behavior to this day.)
At my new school, I watched the couples— fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-years-old —stroke each other’s arms, tuck pieces of hair behind each other’s ears. It all seemed very adult to me, and slightly confusing, like watching teenage actors playing the parts of grown-ups.
At fifteen, I tried some of these things for myself — putting my head on a friend’s shoulder, touching someone’s hand. Every time, I’d feel myself flinch ever so slightly. I’d wonder whether others could tell, searching their eyes for signs I’d been found out.
“I’m not sure who this person is,” I said to an old friend the other day, pointing to a Facebook photo of a twenty-four-year-old me, wrapped in a scarf on a Bushwick rooftop, holding a plastic cup of what vaguely resembles red wine.
“It’s not all of you,” she said, zooming in to read the words on my shirt, which were lyrics to a punk song dripping in navy blue blood. “Just a version of you.”
It occurred to me recently that I no longer have the desire to do many of the things I found appealing as a younger adult: read fashion magazines, surround myself with things I don’t need, say yes to every offer and invitation that comes my way. Though I appreciate the many different stages I’ve passed through in life, I like the idea of growing out of some of them, and into ones that I like more.
Despite the shyness I felt as a child, I always wanted to be someone who could put an arm around someone, hold a hand, tell the people I care about that I love them. And somehow, a relatively short time later, I think I am. (Being around people who’ve made it feel like a no-brainer helps, too.)
“Fall in love,” my very mystical, magical hairdresser told me earlier this year. “With everything: with work, with the city, with people. Don’t hold back. The second you start making decisions out of fear, you miss out on the best feelings in the universe. Let yourself be in love.”
So I am.
I hear the words I love you, and if I feel it — and I do — I say it back.