Love, Words, and All the Things Between Them by Deborah Landers

It's late at night and the words are tugging at me like my seven year old sister, fighting for my attention with that ever insistent demand, "I have to tell you something!" And, being in want of sleep and unable to claim it, I comply and retrieve one of the hundred notebooks buried in my room.

When the words start talking about love, I almost go back to bed, because love and I exist on uncertain terms. Because I could never understand this force of spirit and nature that mankind holds so highly. And now the words demand that I quantify it, that I name the ones it could be said I love.

I could never refuse the words for long.

The first was in first grade, and I think it was because I knew he was safe. He was family and, if there was one thing I learned in those early years, it was that my family was something I could trust in. I didn't think I wanted or needed anything else.

Then I was told that some kinds of love were considered wrong.

The second found me in second grade. We were spies and heroes together, stealing time at recess to save the world from threats we never fully understood. We ran and laughed and laid claim to playground structures with all the time and effort seven year olds could muster.

I think I still have a picture of us somewhere.

The third found me in fifth grade, when it was still easy to fall in love. He was all dark hair, dark eyes, and the strong but fragile confidence of a preteen boy. We never talked, except for class, and we never played. The next year, his friend asked if I would go on a date with him. I told him I wasn't allowed to date yet.

I learned I could be broken by a thing called love.

The fourth arrived in seventh grade. She found me in shattered pieces, smashed by a boy I didn't know but learned to fear. She showed me her jagged edges, became the only real person I wanted to wrap in silk and titanium and hide from the cruel world. She brought fire to my numbness and laughter to my fear.

I discovered righteous anger standing at her side against her enemies.

The fifth snuck in during twelfth grade, when I thought love was a quality of my past. We got on like a house on fire, with storytelling humming in our blood. We talked for hours about the words that hounded us, sharing them between us like a secret. We traded paper pieces of our souls, trying to make a better picture.

I still remember the story he held as scripture.

The sixth entered like Henry Higgins—suddenly, with no knowledge of my existence, and with perfect elocution. The way he walked, he knew that people were watching him. The way he spoke demanded attention. He had a supervillain's laugh and I fell in love with the danger bleeding from his thin fingers. Then a half-drunk friend told me the story of his tumultuous first year, when most of the college girls pined after him.

I resolved to let my feelings die rather than be the fool.

The seventh and always are the words. They convict me and comfort me, chastise and baptize me. I have reached the point in our long standing affair when I no longer feel comfortable without the tools to write. Though some would call it drowning, it feels like having wings, like free falling while drunk on ecstasy, like finally being able to breathe. Without the words, I wouldn't know I fell in love, wouldn't understand why my attention inevitably returned to a being who had only the most cursory place in my sphere.

Love is work and pain as well as joy, even when you don’t identify it. It's stabbing yourself with the needle while turning a scrap of cloth into embroidery. It's the names carved into my soul with a rusty knife, leaving scars with perfect penmanship. It's the words that wake me up at night, lurching for pencil and paper to trap a being larger than life in a glass cage.

The mood slips away as quickly as it came, my midnight tryst with words leaving me spent and satisfied. And yet, the thoughts pound like my heart's tattoo, whispering the secrets I have never said aloud. Lub-dub, I love, lub-dub, I love. Those I loved—at once named and unnamed—exist in the limbo of my mind, trapped in the moments I remember best, waiting for the words I never said.

I love you.

Somehow, it's the best and worst secret I ever kept, and I still don't know if I could have said it to their faces, could have revealed the mess they made of my mind. Sometimes I wish I'd told someone—one of them—about the fingerprints they left on my soul, opened the gate in my walls to let them further in, said the words I only now recognize on my tongue.

I love you.

I resign myself to cloudy thoughts and bleary eyes come morning. I'll get little sleep tonight thinking of what might have been, of love, words, and all the things between them.

Tirzah Allen