I love you, he would croon. And for a while I never said anything back. Saying I love you is exposing yourself to everyone, having neon lights positioned at your Achilles’ heel. I would just kiss him and nestle back into his bony chest, inhaling his scent, feeling some moths in my stomach instead of butterflies.
He would sigh and feel a pit in his stomach for me not saying it back. I had a point of pride in that moment, realizing that I had the advantage: the cruel, sweet victory of power in not confessing my love first.
Eventually I said it back. I knew he was mine, and that I was his. He was my flower and my sunshine. I took fascination in dissecting his petals and learning his quirks and insecurities. I would memorize them, and be mesmerized by them.
I nicknamed him something innocent and flowery- it has always been an interesting quirk of mine, giving people endearing yet peculiar nicknames that are extremely specific and meaningful. He was henceforth knighted as my Tropical Fish. It was the perfect name. He was colorful in personality and moved with a swiftness, darting back and forth with perfect posture. He had an obnoxious fluorescent yellow shirt he would wear and I hated it, but it fit his name. He was confident and very proud of his colors, how I pictured a tropical fish should be. He was bony, knobby kneed, and fragile even though he denied it, and I loved it.
We used I love you quite a bit after I finally said it. Ironically, we were watching Finding Nemo when I gave up my victory. The next few months were blissful and colorful, and the world was our reef. I was so delighted that out of all the flowers I had found, I had a perfect little yellow one with a bumpy nose and stubby fingernails that he bit off. He would constantly say I love you, and if I was irritated and wouldn’t say it back he would say I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you until I forgot what I was upset about and repeated the phrase. He talked about how he wanted to marry me and how he was sure I was his soulmate. In that moment I believed him even though I knew the logic in me said that it was silly.
It lasted ten months, arguably a century for high schoolers.
And he started to get busy. I was determined to seem laid back and not upset that he cancelled on me for the hundredth time, and I kept saying I love you because I did. I almost broke up with him then, but he begged me to stay.
It became too much, and it came to the point where he said he needed a break. I’m just so busy, I love you, but I need to focus on this right now. I said okay timidly, and abruptly turned around. I had tears forming already, and would hide them sitting in the very back of the bus on the trip home. He sent me a message in all caps- THIS IS NOT A BREAKUP- but it didn’t matter. I knew it was only going to be downhill. He was busy. Other things were more important. He loved me but it wasn’t the right time.
And then words went around like dandelion seeds, saying we had broken up. I asked him if we were single again and he said yes. He told his friends we broke up and told me we were still together. We tried to compromise. I told him we needed to break up and look me in the eye because that’s how normal civilized human beings behaved. I forgot he was only a fish and not a man, and fish eyes are cold and unblinking.
We had a nice breakup, ending with a jar of happy things from our time together on colorful pieces of paper I made for what would have been our ten month anniversary. The only anniversary present I made. He told me he loved me and he wanted to be friends looking back, that was bullshark.
He told me he wanted to stay in contact. He wanted to try next year when he would be in college. And silly me believed the fish.
I was happy. And then high schoolers do what fish do around the reef- they talk back and forth diving in and out of anemones and hallways. When I would continue to talk with him like friends do, he would still say I love you and I would say I love you too. And then the other fish told me what he told them- I was crazy. They said I was insane, that I was a crazy b**** who couldn’t let go. And never in my life had I been more confused by a fish.
He would say I love you and tell his friends I was crazy and I wouldn’t let him be. The fish was the one who put me on the goddamn hook. I was heartbroken I was lied to, emotionally abused and played with.
He grew angry that I told my friends what happened. His pride in his colors was too bright and I diminished them like an oil spill. He told me I was immature. I cried and cried and cried and cried because the only one I had trusted with my soul had dropped me into a grotto far too deep, with the blackness and pressure crushing my bones, and my screams were only bubbles. Him and his fish friends see me now in the grotto, staring with their cold unblinking eyes.
I smile, say hello, and remain treading water on the reef.
It was then I realized he truly was a fish, and a specific breed. A Zebra Turkeyfish with bright colors, beautiful bony spines and poisonous to the human body- not venomous because he doesn’t bite, only when you truly let him into your soul does the pain set in. It was then I realized that the pretty little yellow flower I picked up was a dandelion, a weed with thorns with a nice appearance until you look further and it’s too late and you prick yourself and the blood is blue.
A fish and a weed is what he was. I would nurture him and provide him with comfort and support, drying the dewdrops on his eyes like the flower he was and giving him little gifts to let him know I cared. I’d give him care packages in rough times and sweet notes to make him smile. He never knew how to dry my tears, however, and I found out why: tropical fish don’t see a problem with salt water.
I know one day the fish will swim across the reef and the weed will look into the sun and realize that I was the sunlight and salt that could help him. But I will find someone who is not a fish. Someone who knows how to comfort me and whose love is more important than his pride, and would never dream of swimming into stinging anemones or hiding in kelp.
By then it will be too late for him, and I will realize that the crushing grotto was merely a tidal pool. A tidal pool where I could swim and the sun would be hot and I would be happy and the days will be long. And the I love you will be eternal.