“Both Sides Now,” in the Judy Collins version, was the first pop song that ever stuck in my head. It was getting heavy radio play when I was eight or nine, and its reference to declaring love “right out loud,” combined with the crush I had on Judy Collins’s voice, helped to ensure that for me the primary import of “I love you” was sexual. I did eventually live through the ’70s and become capable, in rare accesses of emotion, of telling my brothers and many of my best male friends that I loved them. But throughout grade school and junior high, the words had only one meaning for me. “I love you” was the phrase I wanted to see scrawled on a note from the cutest girl in the class or to hear whispered in the woods on a school picnic. It happened only a couple of times, in those years, that a girl I liked actually said or wrote this to me. But when it did happen, it came as a shot of pure adrenaline. Even after I got to college and started reading Wallace Stevens and found him making fun, in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” of indiscriminately love-seeking people like me–
If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words–
–those wished-for words continued to signify the opening of a mouth, the offering of a body, the promise of intoxicating intimacy.
And so it was highly awkward that the person I constantly heard these words from was my mother. She was the only woman in a house of males, and she lived with such an excess of unrequitable feeling that she couldn’t help reaching for romantic expressions of it. The cards and endearments that she bestowed on me were identical in spirit to the ones she’d once bestowed on my father. Long before I was born, her effusions had come to seem intolerably babyish to my father. To me, though, they weren’t nearly babyish enough. I went to elaborate lengths to avoid reciprocating them. I survived many stretches of my childhood, the long weeks in which the two of us were alone in the house together, by clinging to crucial distinctions in intensity between the phrases “I love you”; “I love you, too”; and “Love you.” The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say “I love you” or “I love you, Mom.” The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible “Love you.” But “I love you, too,” if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the “too,” which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. I don’t remember that she ever specifically called me out on my mumbling or gave me a hard time if (as sometimes happened) I was incapable of responding with anything more than an evasive grunt. But she also never told me that saying “I love you” was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn’t feel I had to say “I love you” in return every time. And so, to this day, when I’m assaulted by the shouting of “I love you” into a cell phone, I hear coercion.