“I love you too!” Then, I hung up the phone. Did I say it too quickly? Did my voice go up a notch? Why were my palms so sweaty from just a phone conversation!? My best guy friend, Alex, said “I love you” to me for the first time. I was happy but embarrassed by how swiftly I responded. As soon as I heard the first two notes of “I Love”- I was ready to say it back.

For every subsequent “I love you,” I cautiously tacked on “buddy” or “dude” to reduce the potency of those three words. Deep down, I knew the weight behind what I was saying, but I could never allow him to know it.

Alex was different than most people I have met in the military. While grateful for the opportunity to serve my country, the uniform I donned came with drawbacks. My freedoms of expression disappeared under rigid regulations. Acts of spontaneity and fun were highly discouraged and replaced with gloomy days filled with formations and marching drills. While the military world turned my environment entirely Army green, Alex found a way to splash a variety of color onto the canvas.

I had my heaviest bouts of depression during my earliest years in the military. I thought my soul lay dormant, numb to all that could be alive in the world. On the darkest days, I wish that any remnants of life would be snuffed out to end my paralysis. When I met Alex during my fourth year in service, he saw in me the same darkness he dealt with in himself. However to me, he felt like the sun, peaking through gray clouds. I wanted to chase after his warmth, energy, and light.

He breathed life into me. Which was ironic because he had a death sentence hanging over him. 

A year before we met, Alex became really sick. No doctor could diagnose what was wrong. Eventually, doctors warned him that he may only have a couple of more years to live. With such a verdict, his perspective on life changed. As our friendship developed, he shared with me how he saw life as meaningless – one could do the right thing, pray to God and still not end up where one had expected to be. I was not fighting for my life in a medical room, but I connected to trying to fight against the hopeless trajectory of life; the ultimate end that no one can avoid.

His response to the darkness was to seize every moment of pleasure he could grab on to. His energy and his insatiable thirst for living passionately were contagious. He could be found pulling light-hearted pranks such as creating bizarre help wanted ads for his roommate and his roommate finding out about it only after receiving a dozen or so calls from strangers; posting interesting articles on a bulletin board outside his room like the mystery of the severed human feet that washed ashore in Washington state; or listening to music on his record player while doing yoga on the Moroccan mat he got from his travels abroad. On the weekends, he worked on remodeling a run-down bus that he bought for a road trip to national parks across the United States. At a time when I was looking for what it meant to feel alive, he captured it for me, and I wanted that for myself.

It hurt me to see that someone who I found great happiness in could be in such pain. There was not much I could do for him, yet I wanted to find a way to make him know I was there for him. I tried through the means of pen and paper. When I knew he was about to go away for a doctor’s appointment, I wrote a letter for him to take along. I included facts about nature – “Did you know sloths only poop once a week” or song recommendations “Jake Bugg’s ‘Two Fingers’ is a must listen!” Anything I could think of to give his mind a moment of respite. Though I wrote many words in his letters, it was the ones I did not write that I wanted to express the most – I love you. I care for you. I am here for you.

While it took me longer to actually admit it to myself, in a matter of months of our friendship, I was hook, line, sinker in love with Alex. I grew to love him like I had not loved anyone before. I was scared of my feelings so instead of acknowledging them, I boxed them up and became determined to be the best friend I could be to him. I wanted to become a part of him. His likes became my likes. His interests became my interests. It felt good to be in his orbit, and I did anything to stay there.

While I unabashedly surrendered so much of myself to Alex, he did little in return to show that he really saw me for me. He skillfully drew people in but then seemed confused about how to value their presence. He wanted all the fun of a relationship without any of the work. He once told me seven women had fallen in love with him, but he could not love them back. At that moment, I refused to be one in a line of women – I promised myself to never tell him how I truly felt.

For a while, I made excuses for him and rationalized his self-centeredness with his sickness. Though as time passed and the doctor’s sentence seemed to be misinformed, he became stronger and healthier. When someone says, “you might be dying” then “living like you’re dying” is no longer a cliché. A healthy dose of selfishness is understandable if the final days are so acutely limited, but when the imminent threat passes, can that level of self-centeredness still be accepted? Was the pleasure-seeking lifestyle even what we all should be taking away from that overused expression?

After a year abroad, I visited Alex at his military post. I was not sure if I was going to see him when I finally made it back to the United States, but he asked me to visit. I anxiously awaited the time till I could see him again. During the year apart, we had casually kept in contact but to be together in the same space excited me.  

Despite how much I knew about Alex, I continually told myself he would be different when I saw him. This time he would care to ask how I was doing instead of me asking all the questions. This time he would not be preoccupied with his phone as I waited for his attention. This time he would really see me.

Those wishes did not become a reality. We did have a pleasant time together, filled with drinking and laughing. I remembered how good it felt to be in his presence but also how lacking it felt at the same time. During my visit, we took a hike up a nearby mountain with his neighbors. It soon became evident that Alex and one of the girls in his crew shared a fondness for each other. It was not the first time I had observed him in these situations, and I had become used to pushing my jealousy way down to the basement of my feelings. Along the hike, Alex wanted to take a short cut off the path. We struggled on all fours trying to reach the summit of the mountain. Those of the party that were higher up on the incline started letting loose earth free and huge rocks tumbled down the slope.

One stray rock struck my hand and left a huge gash. I immediately bled all over and even though I tried to play it off, there was no sign of the bleeding stopping. Alex witnessed the whole incident; yet with a quick inquiry about how I was doing, to which I responded it was nothing to worry about, he went back to flirting with his lady friend, making light of the situation. It was one of the boys I did not know well who ripped off a piece of his shirt for me to use as a bandage and kindly checked to see if I was alright. I was grateful for this stranger’s genuine concern and equally disappointed but not surprised by Alex’s lack of care. Like the falling rocks, I was easily cast aside. This was the final, haunting blow. I could not let myself continuously be in a position to be discounted. I knew I had to let him go.

Saying “I love you” to Alex meant something to me. It meant commitment, respect, responsibility, care, and trust. All I was willing to give to him, while only receiving bits and pieces, crumbs, at times that were convenient to him. The Alex in my mind could do no wrong – his reality counterpart could never measure up to all that I dreamed and needed him to be. My waking and sleeping moments filled with all the things I wished he had said to me when I needed him to be there. Birthdays he forgot, promises he broke, and the careless way he handled our friendship.

Though my heart rose at the sound of “I love you,” love is more than a nice way to end a conversation. The words themselves do not have meaning, and if that love is baseless, then like loose rocks on a mountainside, it falls away. Love is more than words, and meaning them is a lot harder than saying them. The next time I say “I love you” to someone, I hope to hear it back from someone who means it just as much as I do.

Nette Monaus is a 26-year-old Haitian American woman currently working in the U.S. Army. She enjoys laughing and a good cry, sometimes on the same day. Her passions include writing down the words she wishes she would say out loud, dancing at any time of the day, and losing her voice at concerts.