In the summer of 2012 in a city several hundred miles from my home, a man approached the table where I was signing books, handed me his copy of Tiny Beautiful Things, looked me in the eye with a certain kind of intensity, and said, “I’m Johnny.”
I smiled at him, the tiniest bit freaked out. I’d noticed him as I’d signed the books of all the people who’d stepped up to my table before him—who he’d made sure were in front of him by stepping aside each time someone had come up behind him in the line. He wanted to be last, I’d observed. He wanted a word with me.
“Hello, Johnny,” I said too cheerfully and began to sign his book.
“No,” he said. “I’m Johnny.”
He said it with such gravity that I stopped my pen and looked up at him, immediately comprehending.
He wasn’t Johnny. He was Johnny! The man who’d written me a letter that appeared in the very book I was signing. The man who’d told me he didn’t know what love was. The man whose letter had compelled me to stay up too late thinking about his question, who compelled me to more clearly define love for myself.
I thought of him this past week as I read and re-read the letters in my Dear Sugar inbox, searching for the one I’ll answer for the January Dear Sugar Letter. Before I began my search, I’d decided to choose a letter about love. I thought that meant I’d narrowed it down, but I soon realized that I’d hardly narrowed it down at all because so much of what we think is about something else—jealousy, rage, fear, grief, anxiety, longing—is at root (and heart) about love.
Or least it is, if you follow its tendrils all the way back to the source.
How we want it, how we keep it, how we express it, how we receive it, how we replace it with other things. How we sacrifice for it. How we gobble it up. How we find it, how we fail at it, how we fix it, how we let it flower or fade or fertilize our souls so other things can grow. How we live it out as individuals, as citizens of a nation, as beings mindful of all the other beings on the planet. How we give it to ourselves. Or not.
These are the grapplings of love. This is what I’m thinking about as we step into the dark adventure that the first month 2021 has turned out to be. If you’re a Dear Sugar Letter subscriber, you’ll see what I come up with soon (and if you’re not, and you want to receive it, you can subscribe at the link at the end of this newsletter).
And just so you know, writing Dear Sugar really is that way—I come up with something I very seldom know ahead of time that I’ll come up with. I find out by writing. I follow my hunches and trust my intuition. (This month I think my letter will include a story about a tarantula that I’ve had rolling around in my mind for decades, but don’t hold me to it.)
At the book signing Johnny told me that as soon as he’d finished reading my response to his letter a couple of years before (which you’ll find below, along with my response), he immediately got into his car and drove to the woman he’d written to me about and he told her he loved her.
“Thank you for that, Sugar,” the woman said to me a moment later, strolling up to us from the corner of the lobby where she’d been watching our meeting. When she was near enough, Johnny put his arm around her and introduced her to me and together we laughed about love, love, love, love, love.
My twenty-year marriage fell apart. Whose fault? Mine? My wife’s? Society's? I don't know. We were too immature to get married back in the eighties and we both worked hard to avoid dealing with the unhappiness that was hanging over us.
But that's in the past. I've had a few relationships in the three years since the split. One casual, one serious and one current. There was no issue with the casual one: I was up front about not wanting to settle down so soon. The second one started out casual and I actually broke it off when she got serious, but I couldn't stay away and promised to consider long term plans with her. I also told her I loved her after a year of avoiding that word, the definition of which I don't really understand. I balked when it came time to piss or get off the pot and I lost both a lover and a friend in her.
Now I've again met a woman with whom I click very nicely. We have been dating and being intimate for about four months. She's going through a bitter divorce and wasn't looking for a commitment. That sounded perfect, but in reality neither of us was interested in dating more than one person, so here we are in an exclusive relationship.
She sounds like she's falling in love with me, though she won't say the word. I am avoiding that word as well, but clearly we’re both thinking it. I’m afraid of saying it out loud, as my experience shows that word “love” comes loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken.
My question to you is, when is it right to take that big step and say I love you? And what is this "love" thing all about?
The last word my mother ever said to me was love. She was so sick and weak and out of her head she couldn’t muster the “I” or the “you,” but it didn’t matter. That puny word has the power to stand on its own.
I wasn’t with my mom when she died. No one was. She died alone in a hospital room and for so many years it felt like three quarters of my insides were frozen solid because of that. I ran it over and over it in my mind, the series of events and choices that kept me from being beside my mom in her last hours, but thinking about it didn’t do a thing. Thinking about it was a long dive into a bucket of shit that didn’t have a bottom.
I would never be with my mother when she died. She would never be alive again. The last thing that happened between us would always be the last thing. There would be the way I bent to kiss her and the way she said, “please, no,” when I got close because she couldn’t any longer bear the physical pain of people touching her. There would be the way that I explained I’d return in the morning and the way she just barely nodded in response. There would be the way I got my coat and said “I love you,” and the way she was silent until I was almost out the door and she called, “love.” And there would be the way that she was still lying in that bed when I returned the next morning, but dead.
My mother’s last word to me clanks inside me like an iron bell that someone beats at dinnertime: love, love, love, love, love.
I suppose you think this has nothing to do with your question, Johnny, but it has everything to do with my answer. It has everything to do with every answer I have ever given to anyone. It’s Sugar’s genesis story. And it’s the thing my mind kept swirling back to over these five weeks since you wrote to me and said you didn’t know the definition of love.
It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep. The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love. And, Johnny, on this front, I think you have some work to do.
But before we get to that, I want to say this, darling: I sort of love you.
I love the way you wrote to me with your searching, scared, knuckle-headed, nonchalant, withholding dudelio heart on full display. I love that you compelled me to write dudelio, even though—on top of the fact that dudelio isn’t a word—I am morally opposed to the entire dude and dude-related lexicon. I love how for five long weeks hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought: But what about Johnny? What will I tell Johnny? I love that one recent evening when I was lying in bed with Mr. Sugar and he was reading the New Yorker and I was reading Brain, Child, I had to stop and put my magazine on my chest because I was thinking about you and what you asked me and so then Mr. Sugar put his magazine on his chest and asked what I was thinking about and I told him and we had a conversation about your troubles and then we turned off the lights and he fell asleep and I lay there wide awake with my eyes closed writing my answer to you in my head for so long that I realized I wasn’t going to fall asleep, so I got up and walked through the house and got a glass of water and sat at the kitchen table in the dark and looked out the window at the wet street and my cat came and jumped up on the table and sat there beside me and after a while I turned to her and said, “What will I tell Johnny?” and she purred.
I always knew what I would tell you. Not knowing wasn’t exactly the problem. What I was mulling over is how I’d get at the layers of things your letter implies to me: the questions you didn’t ask that stand so brightly behind the questions you did.
You aren’t afraid of love. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love. And you’ve convinced yourself that withholding one tiny word from the woman you think you love will shield you from that junk. But it won’t. We are obligated to the people we care about and who we allow to care about us, whether we say we love them or not. Our main obligation is to be forthright—to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying.
And in your case, it will be. You asked me when is the right time to tell your lover that you love her and the answer is when you think you love her. That’s also the right time to tell her what your love for her means to you. If you continue using avoidance as the main tactic in your romantic relationships with women, you’re going to stunt not only your happiness, but your life.
I encourage you to do more than throw up your hands in your examination of “whose fault” it was that your twenty-year marriage fell apart. It was no one’s fault, darling, but it’s still all on you. It would behoove you to reflect upon what went right in that relationship and what went wrong; to contemplate how you might carry forth the former in your current and/or future relationships and quash the latter.
There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in a long-time monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word love are leftover from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.
A proclamation of love is not inherently “loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken.” The terms you agree to in any given relationship are connected to, but not defined by whether you’ve said “I love you” or not. I love you can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful and I’m going to do everything in my power to be your partner for the rest of my life. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m in transition right now, so let’s go easy on the promises and take it as it comes. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m not interested in a commitment with you, now or probably ever, no matter how groovy or beautiful you continue to be.
The point is, Johnny: you get to say. You get to define the terms of your life. You get to negotiate and articulate the complexities and contradictions of your feelings for this woman. You get to describe the particular kind of oh-shit-I-didn’t-mean-to-fall-in-love-but-I-sorta-did love you appear to have for her. Together, the two of you get to come to grips with what it means to have an exclusive, nicely clicking, non-committed commitment in the midst of her bitter divorce and in the not-too-distant wake of your decades-long marriage.
Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.
So release yourself from that. Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.
We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.
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