NOTE: KatieCouric.com published an edited version of this post as “Learning to Love Again” on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012.
As many magazine articles, advice columnists, and situation comedies will tell you, it’s tricky being the first person in a relationship to say, “I love you.” Remember George Costanza? George was left holding what Jerry Seinfeld called a “pretty big matzo ball” because he failed to receive the much coveted “I love you return.” But what’s funny on television is actually quite terrifying in real life. It takes a huge leap of faith and nerves of titanium to say the “L” word first.
Take that terror to the tenth power if you’re divorced.
I know whereof I speak. After 26 years of marriage, my first husband and I divorced. Fast-forward six years, and I meet him. You know, The One. But let’s digress a moment, because playing with these numbers has given me an epiphany.
When I met The One, I was one year shy of my seven-year cellular renewal cycle—you know, that “Aha! Moment” your body supposedly has when all of its cells slough away, leaving you with an almost brand-new self. In truth, as Nicholas Wade wrote in a New York Times science article seven years ago, some cells—“the neurons of the cerebral cortex, the inner lens cells of the eye and perhaps the muscle cells of the heart”— remain unchanged. Now that’s what I call something of great constancy. The cellular structures of the brain, the eye, and the heart—three essential components in registering romantic love, if you ask me—remain constant. The cells in the rest of our bodies hit the refresh key, as it were.
Interesting. But the brain, eye, and heart theory didn’t pass the constancy test in my first marriage, I’m sad to say.
Then again, you never know. I like the idea of considering, given multiples of seven, that perhaps anything is possible. Believe me, I have mapped this out. I was married at 21 and divorced at 47. (Okay, so I’m a year or two off.) But everything did seem possible when I met The One, skipping along as I was toward my next seven-year cycle of renewal. The One and I had a lot in common: we made each other laugh, we sang lyrics from the Great American Songbook while cleaning up the kitchen after cooking together, and the attraction we felt toward one another left us in awe.
And then, two-and-a-half months into the relationship, it happened.
I did it. I’m the one who said it. After a hesitant sigh, he replied, as gently as he could, “I’m sorry. I’m just not there yet.”
Talk about your matzo balls. I could have opened a deli.
“Forget it,” I countered hastily. “I shouldn’t have said it. I understand what you’re saying/feeling/thinking.” (I was trying to fill in as many blanks as I could to cover myself.) “It’s all right.”
I wanted to believe that his reaction stemmed from emotional baggage. Our arms were filled with it. His divorce, however, was more recent than mine. I had reached the point where my baggage, as Dr. Terri Orbuch (The Love Doctor) says, could fit in the overhead compartment. Him? Not so much. He needed a skycap.
Or maybe it was something else. Maybe (Heaven forefend!) it was a case of “he’s just not that into you.”
And so he left, leaving me to wonder if I’d blown it. How could I have misread the signals? Everything pointed to love. All of the signs were there: the caring, the fondness, the intimacy, the long, meaningful conversations, the seeming trust, the genuine enjoyment in just being together. If that’s not love, what is?
I decided I wasn’t going to let this get to me. I was happy, he was happy. (He was, wasn’t he?) We had a date for the following evening; in fact, we had several events lined up into the next month. I wasn’t about to bring it up again.
Until one day I did.
“I blank you.”
“I said ‘I blank you.’”
“What does that mean?”
“It can mean whatever you’d like it to mean. Fill in the blank. For my part, I know what it means but I’m not telling you. More cake?”
He laughed, and that was that. We were back on an even keel. “I blank you” became a running joke between us. He even started saying it to me.
The weeks flew by. Before I knew it, October was here, the month containing the second most dreaded Hallmark holiday (after Valentine’s Day) for single people: Sweetest Day.
I remember the scene as though it were yesterday. I had cooked dinner, something from my collection of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. I bought him a maroon hooded Oberlin sweatshirt, not because he went to Oberlin, but because I did. I still lived in that quaint college town, and he loved its cultural vibe as much as I did. I wrapped the gift and bought a card. I presented both to him with a flourish. Here’s the card:
After he finished laughing, he became quiet. He looked at me across the table and said, “Marci, I’m not saying this because it’s Sweetest Day. I don’t “blank” you anymore. That’s silly. I love you.”
There it was. Four months after meeting him on Match.com, he told me he loved me. The matzo ball dissolved.
Four years after that first sweetest day together, we’re still celebrating. We’ve been married for two years. At the risk of tempting fate, by our seventh wedding anniversary, I fully expect the constancy theory to hold—my heart, my head, and my eyes will see what I’m seeing right now: He’s The One.