I say it while he cries in my arms on his birthday. I say it while I lie on his chest on the bus.
I cry myself to sleep, knowing it’s too late but saying it over and over and over again.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
I WAIT SEVEN days to text Rowan. Seven days to sort through my feelings and figure out what I’m going to say. On Saturday morning, we meet at IHOP. I’m sitting in a booth when she slides into the seat across from me. Her long blonde hair is up in a messy bun, her blue eyes shining with worry she’s doing her best to hide.
“I missed you,” I say, and she abruptly stands back up and slides in beside me, capturing me in a bone-crushing hug.
“I missed you too,” she says against my hair. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch.”
I shake my head against her cheek, holding her just as tightly as she’s holding me. “No, you were right.”
She loosens her hold around my neck, like she’s just realized she’s hugging a stranger, and when she pulls away, she looks at me like one.
I take a deep breath, intending to tell her that I’ve realized I love Joel, but the words get caught in my throat.
“Right about what?” she asks.
“About . . .” I rub the spot between my eyes. “God, this was so much easier when I practiced it in my head.”
Rowan studies me for a moment before realization lights her eyes and the corners of her mouth begin to tip up. I’m dreading her giddy reaction when I’m saved by the server who pops by to take our orders. Rowan slides back into her own seat, never taking her eyes off me or losing her full-faced smile. I order for both of us, hand back the menus, wait for the server to walk out of earshot, and scold my best friend. “Stop smiling at me like that.”
“I can’t help it,” she says, her smile growing even bigger. “Just say it.”
“You already know.”
“Pretend I don’t.”
God, she’s so excited, I really want to smack her. “Why are you doing this?” I groan, but her smile is indestructible.
“Because I love you.” She says it easily, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. And maybe it should be.
“I love you too,” I say, and she props her hand on her fist, still wearing that goofy grin.
“And who else?”
I inhale and exhale a deep breath. “And Joel.”
“All together now.”
“God I hate you.”
She starts laughing, and I close my eyes and just say it.
“I love Joel.”
When I peel my eyelids open, she looks like she wants to launch herself across the table to wrap me in another hug.
“Happy?” I ask, and her eyes start to well. The backs of mine begin to sting, and I say, “What the hell are you crying for?”
“You,” she says, running a knuckle over the corner of her eye.
“Stop,” I complain, turning my gaze to the ceiling. I blink rapidly to hold the tears at bay. “Seriously, is it so much to ask for just one day without ruining my mascara? Why the hell are we crying?”
“Because we’re girls,” she laughs. “This is what we do when we fall in love.”
“We get stupid?” She laughs even harder, and I find myself laughing too. “God, this is a mess.”
“When are you going to tell him?” she asks, and I finally turn my chin back down, losing myself in another kind of feeling.
The shadow of our server falls over the table, and she pours us both a cup of coffee. “Your pancakes will be right out,” she says with a smile.
“Thanks.” I force a smile back at her, and when I look back to Rowan, hers has fallen away.
“You are going to tell him, right?”
Scratching my pointer finger over a scuff on the table, I say, “Do you think I should?”
“Is that even a question?”
I let out a slow breath. “How’s he doing?”
When I turn my attention back to her, she’s frowning. “I haven’t seen him much. He promised not to go back to his mom’s, but he hasn’t been sticking around the apartment. I think he might be sleeping in his car.”
“Or in other girls’ beds,” I counter, and when she doesn’t deny it, I sigh. “Maybe it’s better he not know.”
“How is it better?”
“What happens if I tell him?” I stop scratching the table to tuck my hair behind my ear. “I know he told me he loved me, but I doubt he really thought it out. What happens after you tell someone you love them?” She waits for me to continue, but I just shake my head. “Joel and I don’t know how to be in a relationship, Ro. We’re not that kind of people.”
“You’ve had boyfriends,” she argues.
“Yeah, and look at what I did to them.” Guys have told me they’ve loved me before, but I never believed them. They’ve given me flowers and gifts and declarations I didn’t want, and all it did was make me run away even faster. I’ve made grown men cry, and all it ever did was make me lift an eyebrow and wonder why I dated them in the first place.
“But you love Joel.”
“And look at what I’ve already put him through.”
Rowan frowns at me for a moment before reaching across the table and taking my hands in hers. “Listen to me, okay?” I nod, and she says, “I know this is all really new, and I know it’s scary, but you’re going to keep loving Joel whether you tell him or not, and if you don’t tell him and see where it goes, it’s going to be a mistake that haunts you for the rest of your life.”