She sat there in the passenger seat of my car for what felt like several minutes of thoughtful pause.

I don’t think she knew how to respond. Had he just said “I love you” for the first time? Do I say it back? I’m sure these thoughts were two of many reeling through her mind in those brief seconds.

“I love you too?” She responded with that girlish chuckle that I still recognize today.

We had just been on a date. Not our first, second or third…but about nine months of dates later.

I had been deflecting her affection and emotionally stunting the progress of whatever this was. I knew something was there, I knew exactly what it would mean and I just wasn’t sure if my mind was as ready as my heart was. Like many men, and many more men who have been hurt in relationships, my emotions had gone astray after feeling so devastated by a previous love interest.

We were off and on again high school sweethearts who had come to a less than sweet conclusion. I had been a jerk to her for quite some time which lead to her realizing that she deserved better and wanted something different. She dumped me one day at the start of summer, minutes before I had to be at work.

I will never forget the panic I felt. We had threatened break-ups and had in fact broken up temporarily in the past, but this time was genuine. I could see it in her eyes, she simply didn’t love me anymore, much of it was my own fault and some of it was just growing up and setting her sights on her future, one that didn’t include me.

She rose from the sofa expressionless, no emotion and walked out of my parent’s parlor, off our porch and out of my life. I hit my knees in despair.

The next ten months were brutal. I was a bitter, angry and hard-hearted young man. I began making choices I had never made before. I’ve been in about ten fights in my life, six of them were during that year. I’m a lousy fighter, but it didn’t seem to matter. I was confrontational with everybody, friends, parents, and complete strangers. Add a party scene with other testosterone filled young men…and well….

I had always been the nice guy, even voted “Everybody’s Buddy” just a couple years earlier in the superlatives of my senior yearbook. In that heart-break phase though, I was nobody’s buddy.

I dated five girls in that window of ten months. I use the term “dated” for a lack of a better word. It disgusts me when I look back at how I treated them and mislead them. I was not at all interested in any relationship with them, or anybody else for that matter.

The real irony was in the midst of that phase, I had a good friend really try to have a heart-to-heart with me. They told me I deserved better, could do and be better. They shared they hated how depressed I was. I became defensive and claimed that I was happier than I had ever been. They looked at me seriously and just said, “you’re going to come out of this”. I resented them for telling me the truth.

My mother, a pure-hearted and sweetly spoken advisor attempted the same talk with me not long after. She shared that she had been praying for me and that she was confident that this would all pass, and I’d come out of it better somehow.

She ended our discussion with a suggestion. She thought that I should write down what I wanted in a companion, every detail. She said to pray over it and put it somewhere safe.

I did that. Every detail. The physical features that occupy young men’s minds, but also the very sincere characteristic traits of what I desired most in a companion. The list filled up one side of a sheet of notebook paper. It had two columns on the front. I read over it several times, prayed over it before folding it and stuffing it into the back of my bible.

I can’t explain why or how that helped me, but it did. Within a few days, I noticed I hadn’t felt that out-of-nowhere “punch in the stomach” feeling you occasionally get when you’re heartbroken. I wasn’t thinking about the past relationship anymore. I wasn’t angrily changing the channel every time a “stupid love song” (or video) came on. I was over it.

The next few months, I had clean up to do. I had to restore order in my life. I couldn’t erase the behavior or mistakes of that year, but I could certainly make a new path for myself by immediately changing my attitude and opting for better choices in my life.

After a long, dark, cold, and miserable winter, it was my soul that was refreshed that spring.

I turned my focus to my education, my part-time job and my friends.

One Friday night, I was in a friend’s basement shooting pool. A girlfriend of my buddy began chatting me up. I had never really known her that well, she seemed curious to know all about me. About 20 minutes into the conversation she slyly revealed that she had a pretty friend at work that she just knew would be a nice girl for me to meet. She insisted and promised to make it a group date. I reluctantly agreed.

I hear people, say “I just knew”, describing the first time they met their spouse. The first time I laid eyes on my wife, I didn’t know.

I did see her sitting on my friend’s couch, with her legs curled under her. She had on faded blue jeans, brown sandals, a white and light blue western style plaid shirt over a white tank top. Her skin was a deep, dark summer’s tan, I could see creases of lighter skin between her fingers and painted red toes. Her hair was shiny, black and had big gorgeous waves. I saw all of these things seemingly at the same time… but I didn’t see them first.

The first thing I noticed about my wife was the way she looked at me.

Her head slightly tilted downward, eyes big and looking at me through long dark lashes. Her beautiful smile shining between soft lips and a dimple just on one side.

I should have known. I didn’t. Not yet, not then.

A large group of us went out that night. We hit several places around town and had lots of laughs and plenty of fun. At the end of the night, we exchanged numbers and I assured her I’d call.

The friend who set us up called me the next morning.

“Are you going to call her?” She asked.

“I’ll call her, don’t worry. I just don’t want to seem too eager.”

“That’s stupid. If you like her, call her.”

I didn’t call….for three days. Our friend persistently pestered me to call her all the way up to that third day when I finally dialed her number.

Her dad answered and took a message. She called back a few hours later and we had a conversation that lasted three hours. I got off that phone, I still didn’t “know”, but I was starting to get a pretty good idea.

Several dates, phone calls, and weeks later…my mom reminded me of that list I had made. She had never seen it herself, but was curious about it. I went and pulled it out to share with her. I was amazed at how much of that list lined up with what I was learning of this Amber girl.

Weeks turned into months. We both worked and went to school, but we spent every weekend together, partying and running around with our friends and occasionally doing something just the two of us.

“That girl loves you.” My mom said one night after Amber had left the house.

“I know she does.”

“Do you love her?”

Smiling, I couldn’t answer. I did love Amber, but there was something deep down, dark and seeded in my heart that said “You’ve been here before, and you got crushed.”

I will fast forward through the confusing part where this lead me to break up with her. Yes, that is not a typo. I broke up with Amber. She insists still today that break ups are mutual and that we never broke up. Instead, she is firm that I dumped her.

I, however, insist that it doesn’t count if it doesn’t last longer than 24 hours. I called her the next morning and asked if we could hang out.

Luckily for me, she still loved me. We went to dinner and the movies that Sunday evening. We saw Titanic.

We had talked about the movie the whole way home, but now it was real quiet. There we sat in the gravel driveway of my childhood home. The car turned off, sitting in the dark. I don’t know why, nothing triggered it, but I found words coming out of my mouth revealing something I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to reveal.

“Just because I don’t say ‘I love you’, doesn’t mean I don’t.”

Typing those words just now, the emotion of that moment hits me hard. I was so in love with this beautiful soul but my hardened heart had prevented me from saying so. I was a sensitive guy who had fallen hard before and I was fighting to overcome this darkened heart, irrational fear and lack of trust. Not trust in her…but trust in love. Trust of loving somebody again.

I looked across the car and even in the shadows cast by the street light, I could see her toothy grin. I felt her hand reach across the console and grab mine.

“I love you too?”

We have shared many sweet loving laughs over that exchange in the years since. She reminds me that the first time I ever said I loved her was by saying “I don’t not love you.” We chuckle, but she knows how that was a major turning point for me.

I always choke up, right now included, when I think about her.

She knew from the beginning. It took me much longer, about nine months. Truth is, I knew all along too and it just took me that long to overcome some things. Thank God she is patient. Thank God she is so kind. Thank God she endures my baggage of anxiety, emotions and compulsions.

Happy Valentine’s Day to the beautiful woman I share life with.

I still don’t Not love you more than ever.

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