Ten Times I Knew I Loved You

Happy 10-year anniversary, Sarge.

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1. It's Feb. 14, 2005, and I am 15 years old. I'm standing by a row of lockers just down the hall from the cafeteria, waiting for the last few minutes of lunch to go by so I can get through my afternoon classes, go home, and forget about school. I hate school, but I like lunch because it means I get to see you. And on the best days I get to talk to you if you happen to wander away from the junior boys into my lowly freshman territory. I live for those days. Our interactions are awkward, stilted at best, but talking to you is the only part of high school I actively look forward to. But today I don't see you anywhere in the cafeteria. You've recently made friends with some seniors and I suspect you've left school with them (a senior privilege, not that that stops anyone) to eat overcooked hot dogs at the 7-Eleven. I try to mask my disappointment as I lean against a bright yellow locker and make small talk with a fellow freshman before the inevitable end-of-lunch bell. There's a tap at my shoulder. I turn around. It's you. You're holding out a rose. "Happy Valentine's Day," you say. I am stunned and silent but screaming inside my head as I take the cellophane-wrapped flower from you. I know you bought it at 7-Eleven. I don't care. I feel like my organs are leaking out my shoes.

2. It's four months later. Summer vacation has just started. Not much has changed in our friendship, but now I know for sure you like me. That should make it easier to be around you but for some reason I am terrified of you, so I decide to not show up when you invite me to hang out one afternoon. You're upset, so I tell you to come to my house so I can apologize. We are in my living room, seated on the black leather couch that my parents still have to this day. Disney's The Emperor's New Groove is on TV and for some reason, we watch it. Then out of nowhere you turn to me, grab my face, and kiss me. Your lips don't find mine exactly and your tongue is moving too fast, but it's still The Best Thing That's Ever Happened To Me. You tell me you have to go, so I walk you to your car. You kiss me once more and this time we find our rhythm, and then you get in and drive away. I am so ecstatic that I run inside and vomit into the kitchen sink. The date is June 20. We don't know it yet, but we'll celebrate today for the next 10 years.

3. We've been dating about a year. You're a senior, I'm a sophomore, and there's nothing to do in our suburban New Jersey town but drive around in your car and waste gas. We decide to park at the high school around midnight one Saturday because we are teenagers and we have only bad ideas. We are sitting and talking, making out occasionally, but really just enjoying the only semi-private space we have. We're there so long the windows have fogged up. Then there's a knock on the driver's side window. We're both startled, but you roll it down. A cop is shining a flashlight into the car, asking us what we're doing at the high school so late. We're honest when we tell him "nothing," but he's suspicious nonetheless. He's reaching into the car, grabbing old Poland Spring water bottles from the center console and smelling them to see if they contain alcohol. He's scanning the floor for anything that will make his night more eventful. His light stops on a hunk of green at my feet. "What's that?" he asks. "That?" you say. "That's a penis, sir." The cop's face turns red. "I'm going to ask you again. What is that?" You reach down between my feet and pick up the object so he can see it better. "It's a piece of wax I use for skateboarding that my friends have molded," you say as you slowly rotate the waxy green dick in the light, "into a penis." The cop has no idea how to respond, so he tells us to leave. You tell him to have a pleasant evening and roll up the window before starting the engine to take me home. I stare at your profile while the passing street lights light up one side of your face. You are the bravest person I have ever met.

4. It's the end of my freshman year of college, and despite being 200 miles away from each other, we're still together. We spend too much time taking $15 bus trips between your school in New York and mine in Boston and even more time Skyping from our shitty dorm rooms. It's finally April, which means an entire summer together is within our reach. I pull a muscle in my neck on a particularly arduous bus journey and decide to see the on campus doctor. The neck cramp is not a cramp, it's a lump. I am given an X-ray, blood tests, and a quick rundown about a cancer called lymphoma, which typically affects 20- to 35-year-olds. I am 19, I am too young to have cancer and I don't like needles. I am so fucking angry that the doctor has wasted my time when he should just stick to handing out condoms. I call you. The concern in your voice makes me realize my anger is masking a deeper fear inside me. It's raining outside, and all of a sudden I'm crying.

5. I am losing my hair in clumps. I can't take a shower without a rat-size clod of my dark blonde hair stopping the drain. I wake up choking on balls of it. I can see my scalp in places, but in others my hair is shoulder length, which makes me feel like Frankenstein's monster but uglier. I ask a neighbor who has three young sons to borrow her hair clippers. In the backyard my family gathers and watches as my neighbor sheers off the remaining patches of hair. The backyard is covered in golden tumbleweeds, and my mom tells me the birds will make nests out of them. I go into the house and look in the hallway mirror. I am so bald. I hear your car pull up outside and I panic. I run into the kitchen and grab the first thing I see: a tea cozy. I put it on my head and go outside to meet you. "Nice hat," you say. You take the tea cozy off my head. You tell me that I'm beautiful, but I don't believe you until the next day, when you show up to my house with a shaved head where your long black curls used to be.

6. It's my last chemotherapy appointment. I am 20 pounds lighter, sicker, and somehow more bald than six months earlier when I shaved off all my hair. You have come to every single doctor's appointment since I got sick, but today you have a final exam and the professor won't let you reschedule without losing credit, even to hold the hand of your sick girlfriend on her final round of chemo. Today should be a happy day but I just feel done, and it's especially hard to feel up to anything without you here. Normally we'd be sneaking around the hospital, eating French fries from the cafeteria, and playing pool in the patient lounge until I am called to the infusion room, where we'd watch DVDs of Arrested Development and drink mini cans of ginger ale while they pump me full of poisons. When my name is called to start chemo I get a sick feeling in the back of my throat in anticipation for the battery chemicals that are about to be forced into my veins. Then I see you walk through the curtain. "But your exam," I try to protest. "Yeah," you say. "Fuck that class." And you plop down next to me in the infusion chair.

7. I'm standing inside the arriving flights terminal at Heathrow Airport in London scanning the river of faces for yours. It's been less than a year since I recovered from cancer, and in an attempt to reclaim my bizarrely interrupted college career, I decided to study abroad. You're supportive even though it means we'll be apart — really, truly apart — for an entire semester. And it's been hard — especially for you, because while you're home starting your unbelievably stressful student-teaching stint in the South Bronx, I am eating and dancing and laughing my way through every corner of Europe. It's March, your spring break, and you've scrounged up the money to visit me, cutting our four-month-long hiatus in half. As I watch passengers walk by I can feel my heart pounding against my rib cage. I have stolen a beer out of a corner store in Paris and urinated on a famous windmill in Mykonos. I have smoked hashish in a strange apartment in Barcelona and ridden on the back of a motorcycle in Athens. But none of it is half as thrilling as how I feel when I see you round the corner in that airport terminal.

8. It's 8 o'clock in the morning and we're buying microwavable breakfast burritos at a truck stop somewhere in the swamps of eastern Texas. I have somehow convinced you and our good friend Jordan to take this cross-country-and-back road trip with me in an attempt to escape my six-month-long, post-college unemployment and there's a good chance you'll never forgive me for it. In the last five weeks and 9,000 miles we've slept at a complete stranger's apartment in West Virginia, been woken up by a hungry black bear in Wisconsin, ran from the police for illegal camping in Washington, stranded the car on a beach in California, and we still have days' worth of driving before we get back home to Jersey. We are broke — broker than broke — exhausted, and heavily unshowered but we are hoping to make it to New Orleans by nightfall to celebrate my 23rd birthday. Jordan starts the engine and I settle into the backseat in preparation for the long drive. Just then, you turn around in the passenger seat holding a truck stop brownie with a lit pink candle stuck in it. You start singing "Happy Birthday" at the top of your lungs, and Jordan beeps the horn for every "Cha! Cha! Cha!" The early-morning ruckus has caught the attention of truckers in the parking lot, and many of them are leaning out their driver's side window to see what's going on. I'm laughing so hard I'm practically screaming and when the song is over you tell me to please blow out the candle so we don't set the car on fire and have to call our parents to pick us up. The road trip was supposed to be over by my birthday, but bad luck and worse scheduling has landed us here instead. Somehow it still feels like home.

9. Against all odds I've landed my dream job. Well, sort of. I've landed a fellowship at my dream job, writing for a website I love, which means if I don't perform well in the four-month-long audition period I won't be hired full-time. So I have a taste of my dream job, which is somehow even scarier than never knowing what it's like. I have only a few weeks left in my fellowship to impress the hiring managers so I throw a Hail Mary, a post about why you should never mess with the ocean. The post creeps up to 900,000 views and I am happy enough with that, so I stop obsessively checking the view count and leave it up to fate. Then one morning before work you tell me you're coming over to my parents' house where I regrettably still live before I run out to catch the train to New York. I think nothing of it, as I hear you come in the house and run up the stairs to my bedroom. "Hey," I say over my shoulder as I dig through my closet, trying to find a shirt to wear. "Hey," you say. "Ms. Million." I turn around and you're holding a homemade trophy. "1,000,000 Views for Ocean Post Awarded To Erin Chack." You made the plaque out of construction paper and glued it to your old T-ball trophy. Today I've been with that job long enough to watch it outgrow three separate offices, but that trophy has never left my desk.

10. Not even a month ago I bike home from work to find you sitting on the porch of our little Queens apartment. We've moved into this pre-war one-bedroom together about two years ago and over the months slowly built it into a home: There are skateboards hanging above the dining room table and an herb garden on the ledge of our kitchen window. Spring has just started creeping into New York and the porch has once again become our favorite spot in the apartment, so it's no surprise you're there enjoying the last rays of the setting sun. We've both been invited to hang out with separate groups of friends tonight but we decide to blow them off to hang at home, drink Coronas, and talk. Maybe it's because your birthday is coming up, but I decide to bring up something that's been floating around my brain. "It's weird," I tell you. "We're finally at the point in our lives where I feel like I've caught up to you. I watched you graduate high school, go away to college, get your first job, and I've always had to trail behind. Watch what you did and try to do it my own way when it was my turn. But now for the first time in our relationship we're sort of standing on equal ground." You take a moment to consider this, looking at the ceiling for a second before returning your eyes to meet mine. "But it doesn't feel like equal ground to me," you say, "because throughout the years I've always loved you. But now I admire you."

So I wrote this to tell you that I admire you too. I have for 10 years, and I plan to for 10 million more.