Driving through central Virginia last summer, I passed an ice-blue porta-potty on which someone had spray-painted I LOVE YOU DEBRA. I laughed. Poor Debra. Some lovesick admirer didn’t think that all the way through before slinking up to the construction site and shaking the can, forever coupling his-her-their love with the lavatory. Debra might have been better wooed by seeing her name tagged on a billboard, a symbolic intersection sign, or even a plain slab of brick.
In college, I once walked out of class to see my boyfriend standing on a bench, struggling to tape a length of brown butcher paper to the wall. An ice-blue wall, it turns out. The sign said I ♥ YOU WENDY, or something like that. I remember the paper folding and crumpling like a lunch bag, the black letters and red heart collapsing on themselves, but not what we said to each other. Early dismissal had ruined the moment.
I had wanted that kind of love, once. The kind that demonstrates itself in sweeping gestures: stopping the car to gather a bouquet of wildflowers, standing to dance while everyone else sat. I wanted it too much, my eyes trained on the romance and not the steadiness behind it. My love was partially propped up by a selfishness that stemmed from youthful idealism, a realization that brings me shame now, when a simple touch of the hand would be enough.
I was embarrassed by the butcher paper, by him standing there, caught in the act. The audacity of it needled at me, a declaration diluted by showmanship. He was trying, I knew, and maybe that’s why it felt off. A desire to please, not an effervescent heart, had cut that paper and held it to the wall. I’m sure I didn’t do much to hide the truth: that I cared more about staring classmates than the man I loved.
Maybe Debra was embarrassed, too, cringing at her lover’s clumsy attempt. Or maybe it wasn’t about love at all, and humiliation, not embarrassment, flushed her cheeks as she realized she was the butt of an ugly joke—she, an unattractive waitress pouring refills at the café across the street, or she, the only female worker on site who was just a little too manly in her stained coveralls and work boots. Maybe. I choose to believe in my first inclination, that he-she-they had it right, had that effervescence, and that it wasn’t about spite or tact but about a love so big that it leaks out wherever it can.