My Mum says Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You is her song. Each time the dulcet tones waft out from the kitchen, she shushes the family, cries out “this is my song!” and glares at anyone who breathes within a ten-mile radius. Although I don’t quite have the same emotional attachment to the song, being in a relationship during lockdown has meant that calling to say “I love you” has now become my norm. I’ve gotten used to shoving the words in as I’m about to hang up, or in jabbered-out voice notes, crushing them together because I’m still a little hesitant about saying them. Despite the way I rush these words, I want to preserve his response, forwarding his voice notes to myself before they are lost within the next day’s scroll.
My boyfriend lives 305 miles away. It would take me 5 hours and 15 minutes to drive to his house, or 6 hours and 49 minutes if I want to avoid motorways, which for an unfathomable reason I always do. If I decide to incorporate the journey into my daily exercise, it would take 92 hours to walk there, discounting the necessary sleep and rest periods. I could turn up on his doorstep with calloused feet, a bunch of wilting flowers and an ungodly stench. Just the right impression for meeting the parents.
“I used to fantasise about the first time I would say “I love you” … I didn’t expect to be scribbling it in biro at the bottom of a piece of printer paper.”
Of course, I will do none of these things. The pandemic keeps us apart. Instead, I will sit tight at home, squint into the pixelated projection of my boyfriend’s face and read the letters that he sends me, folding and unfolding them into a softness which to my touch-deprived body feels somehow human.
We have exchanged letters for three months now. His are typed, mine handwritten. We began by signing off ‘yours’, ‘yours, with love’, before moving to ‘with love’, and now ‘love, always’. I keep a copy of this final trace on my desk, a lucky charm against all that is not love. Distance makes the heart grow fonder but it also has the capacity to tear chunks off with every “I wish you were here”, the ghost-scent of his aftershave, each time I finish a letter and I’m met with the emptiness of blank space where moments before his presence was conjured with words.
I used to fantasise about the first time I would say “I love you.” Maybe I’d whisper it into his ear as we were a tangle of limbs, or laughing, or as we were looking up at the stars, or during one of the times I would look up at his face or feel his hand in mine and think this is what love feels like. I didn’t expect to be scribbling it in biro at the bottom of a piece of printer paper.
And then I said it. Although, ‘said’ isn’t precisely the right verb here. I said it aloud in my head, punctuating the irrepressible drone of my internal monologue with this moment of clarity, but my handwriting and speech have two different voices. The former has been cultivated to show that the writer is artistic, sophisticated but with enough untidiness to prove that the words are freely flowing from a passionate, enquiring, creative and impulsive mind.
I asked my boyfriend what my voice sounds like and apparently it’s ‘soft’, ‘generally southern’ and then he said, “I’m not sure, I’ve never really thought about it”. “I love you” takes on different shapes in its written and verbal forms. I don’t know if he placed emphasis on a particular word, or read it in my voice. I didn’t get the chance to see if his face changed, made a small smile, or whether there was a look of surprise.
“It’s a thoughtful love that has grown in the margins of notepaper, in the things that we just had to write down because only so much loving eye contact can be communicated through a webcam.”
The little part of me that is still hesitant in sharing emotional vulnerabilities found writing “I love you” easier than risking immediate rejection. I didn’t have to worry about watching indecision or shock or outright disgust fleet across his face. I left the response open, so that he could ignore me, or sign off his next letter with ‘best wishes, meet me in the friendzone’. Not that he did.
Maybe the slow nature of confessing my love in this form has shaped who and what we are now. It’s a thoughtful love that has grown in the margins of notepaper, in the things that we just had to write down because only so much loving eye contact can be communicated through a webcam. In one of his letters to future wife Caitlin Macnamara, poet Dylan Thomas wrote “I want to be with you because I love you. I don’t know what I love you means, except that I do.” I understand that now, because although I have tried to articulate myself properly and work through my tangle of emotions I still don’t quite know what love means.
“I like to think that we have been granted immortality, that someone in seventy years will look back on our love and think ‘so this is what it looks like’.”
I’ve gestured towards it here, but I don’t know if I will ever be able to unpick its seams and secrets. Though, I’m not sure if I would want to. Part of its magic lies in its refusal to be decoded, in its holographic fluidity that shifts with each relationship. Its colours are still bright despite – or because of – the cheap biro that they’re written in, scratching ourselves into a genealogy of lovers, whose words have crossed landscapes and borders and oceans and will continue to do so.
I wonder now what will happen to these words. I like to think that we have been granted immortality, that someone in seventy years will look back on our love and think so this is what it looks like. Maybe one of us will get famous, and after our deaths they will be compiled in a book, alongside the chaos-tweets and the Instagram posts and the love notes tucked into parcel wrapping. Maybe we’ll break up in a blaze of frustration, a quiet I don’t think this is working anymore that we think has suddenly appeared but has in fact been leeching from the woodwork for months, years.
Maybe the letters will stay tucked up in biscuit-tin memory-boxes for strangers to find in a house clearance, dusting off lids to see the traces of lives once lived. Maybe I’ll keep mine as they are now, bound with pink ribbon that also ties my heart together. I am aware of so many possibilities, of so many lives that could be lived as the ribbon frays into its soft strands. I would like to trace these, to wonder who we and I and he could be in multiple universes. But I also know that I need to keep my focus on the present, on the letters that quietly slip through the letterbox, and let my heart swell with every love, always.
Izzy is a student and writer, usually thinking about life, love and landscape. @izzydigs
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