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How Do You Say "I Love You?"

I remember when the world came crashing down around me. It was so unexpected, and yet, the signs had been there. I’d missed them. Ignorant only because of the innocence my sheltered upbringing had left me with yet rendered me unaware of. Back then, I had thought myself strong. Life and Circumstance were more than willing to prove me wrong. That had been a harsh lesson.

Broken, confused, terrified, I sat cradling my head in my hands. How had my life become such a mess? How had I let myself become such an abhorrence in my own mind? I hated myself, I realized. That scared me more than anything else.

“How did this happen?” I wailed in despair.

My phone sat on the floor next to me, silent. I had thought about picking it up a hundred times, but I couldn’t.

Cursing my fearfulness, I wished it to buzz with a message notification.

It didn’t.

That was almost a year ago. One of my lowest points, and I’m still only now clawing my way back up.

Of all the challenges, of all the stupid decisions that led to unhealthy consequences, there are some that continue to haunt me. And yet, I realize that I was never alone. There was always someone on my side, cheering for me and believing when I could no longer believe on my own. My life raft. My encourager and biggest fan. My champion. My best friend.

Cleo looked up from the diary entry she’d been writing as a gentle wind stirred her hair into her face, tickling her nose and lips. She was sitting on the patio enjoying the summer breeze and the birdsong that came with it. The heat of the day made her feel lazy, but she had promised herself to finish the sketch she’d been putting off for the last two days.

She stared at the page she’d been writing, then gingerly set the journal aside to pick up her sketchbook. Though she’d been caught up in her head these days, she was more than relieved to set those thoughts aside for the moment.

The artwork called her attention, and she willingly gave it.

“That about does it,” she said upon completing the last stroke.

At the same moment, her phone buzzed. Seeing the name on the screen brought a smile to her face and her heart swelled. Eagerly, she checked the message.

Mason: Sup.

That simple word brought a surge of joy to her day. Perhaps it was silly to be affected so strongly, but she allowed her smile to grow even wider. Biting her lip as she thought of how to respond, she opened her keyboard.

Cleo: Just enjoying the day. I’m surprised you’re still awake.

The message was sent to the friend half a world away. Additionally, she attached a picture of her completed drawing.

Cleo: Just finished this.

He didn’t respond, so she assumed he had fallen asleep. She smiled at the short conversation a minute longer, then leaned back in her chair to soak in the sun. It was a beautiful day.

Though she liked being back at home, she missed adventuring in foreign countries. Well, mostly she missed the friends she’d left behind. She had many, and it was sometimes difficult to keep up with them all. “Long distance relationships suck,” she exhaled, closing her eyes. Faces jogged across her memory, but one stood out above the others.

Mason had become her best friend in such a short amount of time. They’d grown close because they spoke the same language. Sarcasm. More often than not, they had laughed at each other for the stupidest reasons, and that had cemented their bond. Even now, she could practically feel the last fond embrace they’d shared before her departure. It was a memory she often replayed in her mind. With it, however, came a sense of loss and longing.

Opening her eyes once more, Cleo watched as the clouds rolled by, pushed along on a gust much stronger than the one that gently caressed her face.

Glancing at the dark screen of her phone, she sighed. “I miss you.” There was more she wished she could say, but she wouldn’t. Couldn’t. “Not yet. Not now. And maybe not ever.”

The phone buzzed and her heart leapt in excitement nearly as high as she did in surprise. However, it wasn’t who she’d been anticipating, and she felt herself deflate only slightly.

Chelsea: Hey girl. What’s up?

She contemplated the message before replying.

Cleo: Hey! Just contemplating the woes of life, haha. What about you?

Chelsea: Oh my. What’s wrong, luv? Talk to me.

Cleo: Nothing. Just thinking too much. The usual.

Chelsea: You need to get out of your head. Get some fresh air.

She laughed quietly, amused at the irony of the text.

Cleo: I’m outside right now. How much more fresh air can I get?

As the afternoon wore on, she continued to chat with Chelsea about mundane things. It was a good distraction, but one that could only last so long.

When night came, Cleo lay in bed, her thoughts turning once more to Mason. She did her best to ignore what her heart was telling her. Unfortunately, she knew too well that it whispered the painful truth. Why did the timing always have to be so off? Even if she was willing to admit to the turmoil within her, there wasn’t anything to be done about it. It would make no difference.

With that depressing thought, she drifted into sleep.

Morning brought no relief. It never did. How long had she been suffering like this? She couldn’t remember. It felt like forever. Perhaps one day she would burst at the seams, but for now she stuffed it all down, as she always did.

All day, as with every day, she thought about telling Mason the truth. Fear and excuses kept her from doing so.

Frustrated, she turned to her journal.

It’s unfair there’s so much distance separating us.

It’s unfair the timing is always off.

It’s unfair that I love you so much and am unable to do anything about it.

It’s unfair that I love you but am unable to tell you.

It’s unfair that I’m unable to tell you because I’m afraid of falling in love.

It’s unfair that we’ve both been so broken, then to find wholeness in each other only to be constantly driven apart.

It’s unfair.

She closed her eyes and leaned back. This wasn’t helping.

“I can’t,” she decided. “Now’s not the right time.” The excuse was an old one, but she told it to herself again. “Even if he feels the same way, what difference does it make? There’s an ocean between us. No. It’s best to just let it lie. Then at least I won’t be a bother for him. He can concentrate on his dreams. And I’ll try to find mine. It’s for the best.”

She wasn’t convinced, but her mind was made up.

Not for the first time, she felt her eyes grow hot and her lips begin to quake. Furiously, she fought back the tears that threatened to cascade, taking deep breaths to calm the rise of pain. No matter how many times she berated herself, the emotion could not be squashed. She wasn’t even sure what it exactly meant. She loved him, but he was her friend. She loved all her friends. He was only different because of what they’d been through together. It didn’t mean she was in love with him, right? She only felt this way because she missed being able to hang out with him. He’d gotten busy, after all, and they didn’t talk as much these days. Actually, they hardly ever talked at all anymore. Besides the short text conversations that were happening fewer and further between, she couldn’t remember the last time they’d spoken to each other.

Mason: LOL. That’s awesome. You’ve got this!

She stared at his last text. As always, his words held a certain amount of power. They were enough to give her courage, motivating her to do more and become better. That’s the way it was. With a simple phrase, he made her feel powerful and inspired at times when she felt weak and inadequate. In fact, that was part of the problem. At times, more than she cared to count, she felt that she was inadequate for him. He was amazing, and she . . . well, she had a long way to go. She couldn’t be the friend for him that he’d been for her.

“I wish this feeling would go away,” she sighed.

If only she were braver. She would tell him what he meant to her no matter the outcome. And more importantly, she would tell him how much she loved him, even if he confirmed that she was just crazy.

“What would I even say?” she wondered aloud. “And how would I say it?”

She went outside, finding a quiet place to think. With the sun warming her, she reached deep inside herself, hoping to find the words.

“Mason,” she said to the open expanse of sky above her. “There’s something I want to tell you. I’ve been too afraid to say anything, and if I’m honest, I’m still afraid. We’ve been through so much together, both good and bad. I’m grateful for all you’ve been to me, and that’s a lot. You’re always encouraging me and pushing me to be better. Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only one benefiting from this friendship, and I often find myself wishing I could do or say more to be to you what you are to me. And. . ..”

Her words trailed off on the breeze. “And I love you,” she said in a quiet voice. “I’ve loved you for so long, and I don’t think I’ll be able to stop any time soon, no matter how much I try.

“But I don’t know how to say any of this to him,” she groaned. “How do you tell someone, ‘I love you?’ Or how do you even know when loving someone becomes being in love with them? What if I’m just confusing everything and jumping to wrong conclusions?”

The sky gave no response, and the wind grew still, stifling any wisdom it might have offered.

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