Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Love You: Fiction by Pir Rothenberg

I Love You: Fiction by Pir Rothenberg


The first time R and I said “I love you,” what we really said was “Isle View,” which was a park on the Niagara River with a picnic table and a slipway for boats where R’s fat parents would drive us in the evenings, holding hands in the front seat while R and I groped in the back and whispered, “Isle View. Isle View forever.” Everyone knew the joke. It worked best to just mouth the words, or to say them aloud softly or quickly. One day, behind the garage, R said to me, “Isle View.” “Isle View,” I said. She said, “No. I’m serious. I really Isle View.”

I swallowed hard.

“Isle View, too,” I said, soft and quick.

She smiled, melted in my arms, and I stared with a cockeyed expression through her hair, wondering what we’d really said, that time and every time after.


I had outgrown that old joke, but my next girlfriend, K, stuttered, and every time she said “I love you,” what she really said was “I l-l-l-ove you.” At first I endeared her stammering, but after months never hearing the phrase spoken in full, while saying it with eloquence myself the whole while, I grew anxious. “I l-l-l-ove you” was not, in a strict sense, “I love you,” and although I tried to think of it as a substitution or synonym for “love,” a codeword she was forced to use because of her impediment, I couldn’t help but be aware that “l-l-l-ove,” on those same grounds, could just as likely be a codeword for “boat” or “dwindle” or “Subaru.”

Finally I said to K, “I don’t understand what that is, that ‘l-l-l-ove. Do you mean, ‘love’?”

“Of course!” she said, angered.

But she still hadn’t said it.


After A said “I love you” I went home and replayed the words in my mind but couldn’t capture exactly how she’d said it. It wasn’t a flat, robotic “I-love-you”; there was a stress on one of the three words. “I love you” sounded like she assumed other people didn’t, like I was unlovable but she would take on the dirty chore. “I love you” had an air of disbelief, as if of all the things she could verb-me—“I run you,” “I jump you,” “I skip you”—love was the most shocking. It felt accusatory, too, like I was merely fond of her, or suffered her, or disliked her altogether, and there she was like a martyr with all her love. “I love you,” sounded even worse, implying there were others, but that I ought not worry since she didn’t love them. But now that she’d gone and said it that way I had no choice but worry. The final combination, “I love you,” was not really a combination at all, for a stressed word needs an adjacent word unstressed. The closest thing that phrase came to was a shriek, and that, I realized, is what I wished she’d done, shrieked it.

Pir Rothenberg’s work appears in Harpur Palate (summer 2007); another story is forthcoming in Makeout Creek (2009), and the anthology, Richmond Noir (2010). He was nominated for the Best New American Voices anthology (2005). Until 2008, he taught fiction, poetry, and composition at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he took his MFA degree in fiction (2006).