Matthew is angry. His mama keeps asking him and he doesn’t know. Matthew is almost four and wants to play with the pumpkin, not answer his mama’s question. He stamps his feet and his fists get angry, like they are tiny hard balls of hit. I – don’t – know! Matthew yells. Later, when his mama asks again, his belly feels calm. Love is messy, he tells his mama. She asks, what else is love? Matthew shakes his head. His shirt is yellow. He is on the porch. Just messy, says Matthew.
Carina can’t pronounce her L’s and R’s. Wove, she says. Her mama asks but Carina doesn’t know. Her booster seat is taller than her. It is pink. Carina wears a lot of pink. To be in wove? That means that you weally wove someone. Her mama asks her again, “What does it mean when you really love someone?” Carina doesn’t know, but she guesses. It means you have a ta-woo wove, says Carina.
Gigi is five and trying to go to sleep. Her mama asks her what love is, and she thinks about it for just a second. Her hair is mermaid hair tonight, because she took a bath, and now it is spread like little tickle strands all over the pillow. Um, love someone, and really like someone and love them a lot. Gigi is tired and there are too many words.
Bruce is chewing on his pizza when Caroline the babysitter asks him what it means to be in love. Because his sister already answered, he wants to, too. His sister said that being in love means you have butterflies in your stomach. Caroline the babysitter asks Bruce if they are real butterflies. Bruce nods his head, but he does not know. Later, Bruce tells Caroline the babysitter to ask him an easy question on love, like what does it mean to kiss someone? Caroline the babysitter asks if he wants to answer that question. Bruce says yes. Bruce says it means you kiss someone on the lips. And it feels really nice. And I do it all the time to my mom. Bruce misses his mom and wishes Caroline the babysitter would go home.
Georgia is seven years old and has long brown hair, a purple shirt, a patterned skirt, and lots of bracelets on her wrist. She talks with Caroline about love a lot during dinner and after dinner. She tells Caroline that being in love means that somebody really likes another person, and they have dates all the time, and it is so romantic they faint. After dinner and pizza and milk and the carrots, Georgia tells Caroline about Archer. Archer is a boy in Georgia’s class that she kind of likes. Archer is the only one who is nice to Georgia. Archer is likeable. Archer is liked by all the girls. But Georgia is special. She has liked him since kindergarten.
Iris has been a big sister twice over for three months. Her baby brother Tobin is so small she can hold all of him, his whole entire body, with just one of her arms. Iris has short brown hair and is much taller than her younger sister Margaret, who is seven. The first time she’s asked about love, it is in her kitchen with her mom. Iris says that love means you want to spend the rest of your life with that person. The next time she’s asked, it is by her aunt when she is exploring the woods with her cousins. She answers again, automatically, confidently, patiently, even though she has already been asked, it means you want to spend the rest of your life with that person. Her younger cousin Lillian, who is six, says it means someone else like-likes the other person. Her sister Margaret says it means that you want to get married! A boy and a girl, she pauses, or a boy and a boy, or a girl and girl. Iris’s aunt asks her baby cousin, Willa, who is only three and is hiding behind a tree. Willa just says boy and girl, boy and girl! Iris’s aunt asks Lillian what else she wants to say about love. Lillian says that maybe it means they fart together! They poop together! Iris thinks this is really funny. Yeah, Iris says, they do everything together! Lillian says, for the rest of their lives!
Nick suspects his sister Caroline loves his middle school almost as much as he does. He is fourteen, in the ninth grade, and one of the oldest in his school. This is his last year there. On a Monday in October, his sister drives the carpool to school and asks his friends about love. All of them, William, Sam, Nick, and Althea, give answers about what they think it means. When they get to North Branch, Nick is instructed to bring some more of his friends over to talk to Caroline. Then the head of the school overhears the questions that Caroline is asking and gets very excited. He turns the question into a week-long assignment where all of the students in the school have to write about what they think love means and send their thoughts to Caroline. The emails arrive on the following Wednesday. Some are short, some are long, all are filled with speculation about love:
Maxine asks why love is represented as an organ or muscle in the body. Why didn’t they pick the liver? Or the kidneys?
Sam wonders if love means being in the circle of the heart.
Aine talks about the question of whether or not there is a place where love does not exist. She says that as long as there are living breathing animals there, there will be love.
Marina questions why love ever ends.
William says love is the essence of respect.
Ziven brainstorms about the words “falling in love” and thinks that if falling isn’t good, and “in” is a kind of middle word, neither good nor bad. The love must be a good word, undefined yet everything is its definition. No meaning but every meaning.
Rosemary, who is in the seventh grade, just sends a list of questions.
Dylan and George are asked while they are inbetween normal clothes and sports clothes. Dylan is getting out of his car and pulling shorts over his spandex. The air is a sharp pulling cold, and the boys are close to the end of their season. When asked, Dylan thinks for a moment about his friend Gus’s sister’s question. I guess when there is someone on your mind you just can’t stop thinking about, he answers. Love seems fickle and fleeting to all of them. George says, uh, yeah, when you’re committed to somebody physically and emotionally and that is the only person you’re committed to. When Rowan comes over to Caroline and Gus, he repeats the question to himself before answering. What does it mean to be in love? That you have an emotional understanding and connection with a person. And that it’s strong.
Amelia, Gabi, and Simone are sitting in the kitchen of a wood frame house, one of the worst of the ones offered to students because they got screwed and ended up with one of the worst lottery numbers. There are other people there, but they step back from the conversation, asking not to be involved, intimidated by the complexity of their thoughts in relation to the question asked. Most of the people are seniors, perched in the space before transition, their every answer and action shadowed by decisions that have yet to be decided. Caroline, their close friend, asks them to talk about love and what it means to them. She tells them to interpret her request loosely, to talk about what feels right. They talk about feeling safe. And comfortable. Gabi says that it has to be a mix, a combination of comfort and excitement, in order for it to really work. Simone spins Amelia’s keys in her hands and says, I’m seeing my boyfriend tomorrow for the first time in two months, so love is… what you feel like when you haven’t had sex in two months. All of them laugh. The kitchen is warm, and outside it is dark, dusk pressing against the windows, its arrival earlier and earlier with each day. There is an intimacy in the room that comes from a soft confidence in the space each person owns. They talk about love for a long time. They talk about how their perceptions of love have changed (Simone says, it shifted once I realized I would have relationships that wouldn’t last) and about the first time they fell in love (16, 20, and not yet). The ones on the outside of the conversation laugh but do not speak. Just listen.
Kemal and Julian are asked as they are walking. Kemal says it means to feel at home. Julian hesitates. He was in a dance with Caroline for barely two weeks, and now she is asking him about love. My honest answer is, his voice curls in the air, I do not know.
Holly is going to turn 53 in May. Her daughter is 23 years old and home for fall break. She sits with Holly and her husband Bruce at the kitchen table. They are drinking coffee. It is raining and cold, and the windows are fog pulled, and the day is slowly untangling itself from its tightly bound nighttime. Holly sips at her coffee as her daughter asks her again to talk about love, what it means, what it feels like, when she first knew she was in love. Holly is kind and goofy and always multitasking, except right now, while she sits with two of her loves, talking about what love means. Her voice sounds like her daughter’s when she answers: To be in love is to have a feeling deep down inside that is very strong that can be exciting and tingly but also just a deep warm feeling inside. She talks about degrees of love and times when love is sure of itself. Caroline asks when she first fell in love. Across the table, her husband Bruce tries to gesture to himself and almost knocks over a coffee cup. The base of the mug spins in a small circle and then settles itself. Bruce’s grin is wide, and Caroline giggles and Holly shakes her head and says, I certainly knew I was in love with your father my senior spring of college. Caroline pretends to be panicked by this information, and perhaps she is a bit. She is almost in her senior spring, after all. Time is moving so fast. When Caroline leaves, Holly sends her this text: I am always a little sad when you drive away… that is love too.
Bob works in computer science. He is balding, in his 60s, and surprised by the arrival of a small female student who walks into the backroom of his office where he is working. She asks him about love and seems surprised when he answers. He says love is you can’t stop thinking about a person, you think about them all the time, and you miss them when they’re not there. She says thank you, tells him that was perfect. She leaves. Bob returns to working, his words and her question circling his mind.
Ann and Jim are there just briefly. Their house is as old as they are and is filled with things that, someday, their children will regret not treasuring. All of these things they are being asked to throw away are precious, or were once precious, or might someday be precious. Ann is having a hard time hearing the things that her granddaughter or her granddaughter’s friend Caroline is saying, but this she knows to be true: one day, these things will be missed. Jim and Ann have nothing to offer the two college-aged girls who come to visit because they do not live here any longer. They now live in a retirement community up the block. They return to their house, however, because their granddaughter and her friend are coming to visit. The friend takes a few photos of their house and seems fascinated by all of their beautiful, old, wonderful things. Ann tells the granddaughter how she will miss all of this one day. Their granddaughter is lovely, talented, and bright. She hugs Ann and agrees with her that she will one day miss many things. Ann and Jim wish that she would come visit more often, but they live over an hour away from her school and their granddaughter always seems very busy. So they settle. Wait for brief visits. Treasure the times they get to see her. The first time Caroline, the friend, asks about love, Ann does not hear her properly. She is 84 and has to lean on her cane to keep her breathing steady. The second time, when Caroline the friend repeats herself, she asks if she can start answering now. The friend nods. Ann says, I think respect for the person that you love is key. Humor… Feeling accepted as you are. And I think those are the three major things that I can think of now, that I would want in a relationship. Then it is Jim’s turn. He starts to answer and then stops. She may have already said it, he says. He does not turn to look at his wife, but his hand is on her shoulder. He answers again, explaining that love is when you don’t have to stop and think, now how should I answer that? You don’t have to because no matter what you do, they’ll be… Jim pauses. Evidence of 85 years of life seems to cling to him everywhere he goes. Moving is heavy. Movement takes time. His wife blinks beside him. Her glasses are thick. I don’t know how else to answer it. He turns his head towards his wife. She is still there. Everyone is waiting. He says, she did a good job.
Caroline Catlin is an activist and storyteller from a small town in Vermont. Her work has been featured on places such as Broadly, Huffington Post, and PANK. You can find her online at carolinecatlin.com.