I love you… I think

July 4th weekend, 1998, Mike and I decided to take a trip to Put-in-Bay in attempt to make up for the trip we never took on our first date. Because we wanted to stay over night, and I was still battling with my mom over whether or not it was decent to go on over-nights with just my boyfriend, I asked my friends Diane and Bonnie (not Mike’s step-sister, but a friend of mine by the same name) to join us. We got a camp site on the main land in Port Clinton right by the lake. We planned to spend the day on Put-in-Bay, maybe catch the fireworks, and then return to our camp late in the evening. Mike and I had been dating for over a month now and, while my friends had met him at various social gatherings, they really didn’t know him quite well enough to consider him anything other than the guy I was dating. This weekend, I felt, would give them the opportunity to get to know him better and likewise he, them.

Bonnie, Mars Girl, and Diane at camp - July 4, 1998

The weekend started off pretty nicely. We arrived the evening before the fourth and set up camp with enough time to cook a meal. Then, looking for adventure, we hiked down a busy road to a restaurant that we hoped served drinks so that we could chill out and relax. The walk turned out to be much longer that we’d realized from camp. The proprietor of the restaurant seemed really miffed to have us there drinking and chatting–not eating–and he kept coming around leering at us as if just waiting for us to do something that would give him the excuse to kick us out. We weren’t being obnoxious or even loud, just enjoying quality time among friends. I suppose it was perhaps our age that made him suspicious of us.

We left the restaurant right before its early 12am closing. We left money on our table for the tab but we unintentionally underpaid. We were halfway down the street when the proprietor shouted after us, running to catch up. He’d finally figured out what we barely over 21 (with the exception of Mike) “juveniles” were up to–we were trying to dine (drink) and ditch! Mike jumped in to smooth things out–perhaps being the oldest amongst us he felt he was the best fit for that part–and paid the difference in the tab. The proprietor accepted the money with a grunt, and then turned back to the restaurant. We laughed about the incident the whole way back to camp (and sometimes years after), making fun of the proprietor–a grumpy old man–who’d hated us from the moment we walked into his restaurant. It seemed funny to us at the time because we were the complete opposite of “young trouble.” I think this was a shared memory that bound us together as a group–the moment when my two closest friends accepted Mike as a mutual friend as well.

The next morning, we hung around the picnic table at the camp, eating breakfast and chatting. Things continued to go great between my friends and Mike. And Mike was being incredibly affectionate towards me, sitting behind me, his arms around my waist and occasionally resting his chin on my shoulder. I was trying to control the public displays of affection around my friends for their benefit but his sweetness towards me was irresistible. Something was shifting between us, intensifying, and it was thrilling.

Affectionate Mike at camp, July 4, 1998.

When we finally decided that it was time to hit Put-in-Bay, I walked away from the camp to clean my breakfast plate at the water spicket. Mike followed me. I don’t remember quite what we were chatting about, but I turned to give him a quick kiss on the lips and as I did, he took both of my hands in his.

“Be careful,” he said, his eyes glowing with this new intensity. “I might fall in love with you.”

A warm feeling passed from my heart down to my knees. I’d been waiting for Mike to bring up love for several weeks now, since I’d first started having true feelings of love for him. However, having been burned in the past by too soon professions of love, I’d vowed to myself that I was not going to be the first one to say it in this relationship. No, I was going to let Mike arrive at the conclusion himself. I figured that when a guy said it first, he really meant it, instead of feeling obligated to say it merely because I’d said it first.

I was taken a little off guard, though, because I’d not expected him to say anything remotely close to admitting he loved me. Not on that weekend, the least romantic of all, when we were hanging out among friends. Still, it was a delight to hear and I lived from the high of his confession. Throughout the day, whenever we had a moment alone, he’d repeat his statement. Each time, it was a word of caution, this partial admittance, as if all I had to perform was one, temptation-filled act, and he’d lose all control of his emotions and become hopelessly no-holds-barred in love. As if he hadn’t already fallen in love with me. Each time he repeated the statement, I just smiled and kissed him. I wasn’t settling for a half-confession; no, I was determined to not admit anything until he stopped hiding behind hypotheticals and full-out admitted it.

It was becoming harder and harder for me to resist revealing my feelings for him. My stubborn resolve was starting to melt. But if I said something first, if I admitted to even agreeing with his statement, then he’d have the upper hand over me. My previous dating life, though relatively simple, had left me slightly jaded in regard to men and love. I was afraid that if I let him know how I felt first, then he would back off from his own statements in fear. It had to be him first.

That evening after we watched the fireworks, an abrupt wind storm swept through the Erie coast. We arrived back at camp to tents buckling in the wind, dangerously close to collapse. We decided to call our trip short and hurried to pack up the camp and leave.  Since my mom expected me to be gone all weekend, and she didn’t know about our evacuation from camp, I decided that I would spend the night at Mike’s house. He would be going out of town again for work the following week, so it was our last bit of private time together for a few days. I hoped this time alone would give us the opportunity to talk more candidly about the topic of love he’d so cavalierly brought up while we were hanging out with Diane and Bonnie.

Mike cooking a meal at camp. (I like this picture--he looks cute.)

He never so much as brought it up again, though. Not even the “threat” of possibly falling in love with me. I figured perhaps I’d missed my opportunity to respond. A little voice in my head began to nag me to bring it up. But how does someone bring something like that up if the subject never presents itself. Should I just slide in an “I love you” off-hand, hope it had the desired effect? No, I needed to wait for him to bring it up again. The rest of the evening and throughout the next morning, it never came up again.

The drive from his house to my parents’ house was about 45 minutes. Two voices in my head–one emotional, the other protective and logical–fought with each other over whether or not I should bring up the topic in those long moments on the road. I’m sure we talked of a lot of other things, but I can’t recall what, because my mind was focused on the memory of the words he’d spoken to me while we were at Put-in-Bay. I had to say something.

It wasn’t until we were five minutes away from my parents house when that “now or never” moment arrived. I still remember that we were on passing beneath the highway bridge on the route into my home town of Brunswick. I took a deep breath, and then blurted, “Um, Mike? You know that topic you brought up this weekend? You know… about… um. Possibly. Um. Loving me?”

His eyes on the road, Mike’s mouth twisted into that amused smirk I had grown to love so much. “Yes…” he said, cautiously.

I swallowed. Hard. “Well. I. Um. Think I might be falling in love with you too.”

There, it was said. For better or for worse, my cards were all out on the table. He could cast them away or pick them up as he saw fit. There was no turning back now.

Damn, I silently cursed myself. I still said it first.

Mike’s smirk stretched a little further and I could see him glancing sideways over at me. “I’m glad to hear it,” he replied, his voice faltering slightly to reveal his own unease at the revelation. I hoped I’d said the right thing. I hoped I hadn’t forced a confession out of him.

There was no time to expand further on the topic because we had arrived at my parents’ house. In the driveway, he turned off the car and we sat back in our seats, passing a few words of small talk between us. This was the hardest part of our weekends–taking leave of one another. Not only was I never able to spend the nights with him as I wanted under normal conditions, but even when we did have an entire weekend together, there was always an end to it. Because he worked out-of-town during the week, there were often long five-day stretches of not seeing each other. Such as the one that was following that weekend. Even though our time together as a couple had not been long (or maybe because of), we found it harder and harder to part at the end of our dates.

In those early days of our dating, and much later when things started to head down the path towards marriage, I remembered something my mom had once said: You get married because you never want to go [back to your own] home. I’d never wanted my dates with anyone to end–especially not in the early chapters of a relationship– but with Mike it just seemed an easy, natural thing to live with him. I wouldn’t move in with him, I knew, unless we were married. However, when I later started living in my own apartment, we both would end up spending very little time alone when he was in town–we’d either be at my place or his.

We didn’t kiss or anything at that moment–we couldn’t because my dad got angry about public displays of affection between me and a boyfriend in his driveway–so we just procrastinated our goodbye with idle chatter. Finally, I reluctantly opened the door. Mike also got out, helping me pull my gear from the trunk. We hugged and gave each other a quick kiss on the lips. Then, Mike slumped back into the driver’s seat, but did not swing his legs into the car. He confessed to not looking forward to the coming week.

I tried to provide a positive tone. “Well, at least you get to go somewhere else for a while. That’s always fun,” I tried.

Mike nodded and, with a sigh, said, “But it’s all by myself. That’s no fun.”

He reached out for my arm and pulled me back towards the car. He wrapped his arms around my stomach and, still sitting in the car while I stood, his head fell below my chest. I wound a finger through one of the curls of hair at the back of his head. Then he let go and we parted again.

“See you later,” I said, trying again to sound cheerful though my heart sank. I was going to miss him.

“Yes,” he replied. There was a pause and he looked boldly into my eyes. “I love you… I think.”

I felt the heat rise from the pit of my stomach to my cheeks. “I think I love you too.”

And then he swung his feet into the car, closed the door, started up the engine and, flashing a quick wave goodbye, he rolled out of my driveway and was gone. That was the last time the words “I think” were ever applied to our exchange of “I love yous.” When he called me the next evening after work, he ended our phone conversation with a casual, collected “I love you” as if we’d been saying it to each other for years. Despite the precarious start, “I love you” was suddenly the most natural words we said to each other. We vowed to always mean it when we said it. I know I always kept that vow.

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