Aside from the typical declarations of love to friends, family and pets, I have said "I love you" three times.
I have meant it twice.
The thing is, there is a distinguished difference between "loving" someone and being "in love" with someone. I've never had trouble with the first, but the latter has never come particularly easily to me.
That's not to say I'm cold, or against the notion of love. Rather, I have always been independent and particular with regard to my romantic choices. While other people become infatuated with ideas of romance and love, I have simply never been the overly-romantic type.
As such, I often find myself avoiding the act of "casual dating." Most of my relationships seem to develop from the exploration of established friendships or long-running connections.
This was, essentially, how I eventually fell for my best friend without even realizing it.
The first time I met him, I was 19 and starting my first shift at a local bar. I was attempting to weave my way through the crowd of regulars with a tray of drinks in my hand. Out of nowhere, a tall, dark-haired guy stepped in my path, flashed a smile, grabbed my face and planted a quick kiss on my lips before I had any chance to object.
Stunned and offended, I asked one of my new coworkers who he was. They informed me he actually worked at the bar as well, and "thinks he can do anything just because he's French."
The following week, I attended my first staff party. The theme was "tequila night," and the next thing I knew, he had slung me over his shoulder to carry me home (despite my protests).
From that moment on, he became one of my best friends. We spent the following year sharing trips to the library, classes, gym sessions, shifts at work and plenty of late nights.
He was five years my senior, and soon made the decision to join the army. While I helped him study for his aptitude test upon entry, I couldn't help but feel like I was about to say goodbye to a very large part of my heart.
Of course, we never really directly discussed our feelings for each other. He was typically a rampant player with several women in his life. But he was never anything but good to me.
I was the female constant in his life, and he was the male constant in mine. I took pride in understanding him better than any one else did.
Saying "I love you" to each other became second nature. It came as naturally as our friendship had. I never had any doubt in my mind that I meant those three words in their entirety.
Our relationship thrived on a different dynamic than I had experienced with anyone else.
The problem is, I soon came to realize there was no real working definition to this type of relationship. Friendship and love can overlap, and create a certain grey area that is often hard to navigate.
Admittedly, there was a certain advantage to the way I developed my love for him. All the progressions and signs I would normally avoid to suit my anti-romantic core happened naturally.
I didn't see it coming, which meant I couldn't get in its way. By the time I figured out where my heart really was, it was too late.
We knew each other better than anyone else. There were no games, no awkward dates or bad nights. We were honest and real with each other.
No fight or misunderstanding could keep us apart for long because our relationship thrived on friendship first.
I think, more than anything, I coveted the exciting familiarity of our bond. In my mind, love is isn't just about sex, dates or showing off. It's about being with a person who makes you happy in a way no one else can.
Love is like coming home. He felt like home.
Sadly, the reality is, life usually doesn't follow the plot of the romance movies we so often see. The best friends were in love all along and, eventually, they gave in to their undeniable chemistry and decided to be together, right?
Well, not necessarily.
The truth is, pinning down the bridge between what is platonic and what is utterly romantic is easier said than done. Love can be a tough pill to swallow when you can't quite define it.
The pressure is different. After all, you are best friends. No one wants to sacrifice that kind of bond, only to see things potentially go up in flames. This love is complicated.
So, what did we do?
We dated other people. We were constantly unsatisfied with the relationships, though, and struck with feelings of jealousy we never wanted to address. But we were still stuck in purgatory.
We refused to let each other out of our lives, despite the insurmountable distance between us, as he excelled within the Army and I finished school.
When we did see each other, we fell back into the comfort of our familiar bliss, and silently clung on to those moments until they were (once again) in the past. It became a cycle of highs and crushing lows, of missing someone you know means more to you than you ever want to admit.
More than anything, we were scared of our feelings for each other. Neither one of us wanted to fully take the plunge. But at the same time, I put those feelings for him on a pedestal.
This is how I should feel about someone, right? Why does no one else inspire those feelings in me? I was igniting a frustrating competition in my mind, but it wasn't a fair fight. I would never let myself be happy with him in the back of my mind.
The reality is, no story is ever the same. We can make all the predictions we want, but there is no guarantee.
Sometimes, we may nail down the ending we desire. Other times, we won't.
Best friends can be lovers and lovers can be best friends, but bridging the gap can be a difficult ride. As I write this now, I can say I still love him.
However, I eventually recognized the way my love for him was also tearing me apart.
Our dynamic may be unparalleled in my mind, but I cannot close myself off to everyone who does not immediately compare.
The fact is, no one will; not without the tender time we had to grow our friendship and love.
That will never happen if I refuse to give it a real chance.
There may be a day we end up together, but that day has not yet come. That is a hard conclusion to come to, but eventually, one has to accept the hard truths in order to move forward.