Why can’t I have a rabbit?
These are all phrases which roll off my tongue. Ora-Ooma, my smelly childhood doll. “I’m tired,” a phrase muttered constantly. “Why can’t I have a rabbit?” to which, “your mother is allergic” never sufficed. And, Mary-Kate, from the days of dark eyelids and unbrushed hair.
There are certain words, however, that challenge my lips, rolling out against the grain of dried skin. Among these words is the phrase “I love you,” as my practice with them is limited. When I was a child, I listened closely for these words, taking notes on my parents’ performance. I learned the following:
- When mommy says she loves you, you should always feel guilty, because you know she means it. And she’s sad.
- When you tell mommy you love her too, you have to say it in a whisper or with an added grunt, because loving is embarrassing.
- When daddy says he loves you, it’s always because mommy told him he had to.
- And when you slam the door and mommy still says she loves you, it doesn’t mean she likes you.
It would take years to understand that daddy did love me, and that he showed it every time he fixed the shower door or dusted off the ceiling fan. Years of sobbing in my pillow, playing imaginary records of the repetition of his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Years of loose, forced hugs every time I went away and hearing the words “Your daughter’ll be gone for a week, at least tell her you love her.” Yes, this would queue the grunts. The sighs. The whispered but sacred words. And so I followed in his footsteps.
When I was in the second grade, my mother went to Hawaii, and I held a photograph of her to my chest each night she was away. When she came back home, I hid the photo, gave her a slight hug, and went back to my room to play with paper dolls.
And when my sister left for college, I broke into tears, tying my lips tight, making sure not to let the words slip. I loosened my grip around her body and let her drive to Tennessee, smacking my cheeks in frustration.
But as I turned sixteen, I even stopped grunting. No whispered words were ever returned. My mother would say she loved me, and I’d sigh, feeling guilty because guilty was what I was meant to feel.
Falling in love would chap me like a cool wind, and I’d have no high to climb down from. There should be an outlet for this. There should be something better than those sour words. Feeling his t-shirts through my hair-stained cheeks and chasing circles with our thumbs, I’m forced to redefine that phrase which has carried nothing but negativity for all of my life.
These words do not roll from my tongue. They are not my childhood crutches or adolescent chapters. They are heartbreakers, full of guilt and grunts, conveyers of nothing but loose, forced hugs. And yet, when I catch his pupils growing large, or remember his stunted nails, these words are all I want to say: I love you.