Te Amo: The Practically Impossible Timing of Love


By Zaron Burnett

I once fell in love with a woman who was married. What made matters worse was that she also fell in love with me. She was from Colombia. Naturally, she was fluent in Spanish. One day, we were together in my apartment, and she taught me to say I love you. But in Spanish. She whispered the words the way I always hope poetry will sound when it’s read aloud, like every syllable has a detectable flavor, “Te amo.”

The first time she said it, she asked me if I knew what it meant. I’ve traveled in Mexico, Colombia, and grew up in California. I understand a high percentage of Spanish when I hear it spoken. Even more, when I read it. But when I speak Spanish I tend to embarrass the American public school system. I can say things like: Yes, I would like more bacon, but no, this is not my dog. Thank you very much.

She’d heard my pathetic version of speaking Spanish. She liked to giggle at my pitiful accent. I assume it was her memory of my accent that prompted her to ask me if I knew what she meant when she said, “Te amo.”

It was simple enough. “…I love you? It means: I love you. Right?” I said, with a semblance of certainty, after I mentally conjugated the verb “amor” to make sure I understood the phrase correctly.

Amo, amas, ama, amamos, aman.

She smiled with this unmasked amusement, and told me I was wrong.

We lay on my bed, decorated by slants of sunlight, and she said the words again, and with such soft syllables that I wanted to curl up and take a nap on them, “Te amo.”

She repeated it for effect, after she saw how the words affected me. She whispered it just as softly as the first time. “Te amo.” Being a writer, she wanted me to understand the subtleties within the syntax of her meaning.

“In English, this translates as… You, I love. This means something quite different than I love you.” She explained to me, as she traced a lazy finger along the inside of my arm.

“You, I love?” I rolled the expression around in my mouth as it translated into English. Then I switched tongues, so I could try it the way she said it, “Te amo.”

For once, my pitiful Spanish accent made her face light up with something other than laughter. As she lay her head against me, I kept thinking about this subtle distinction she’d pointed out. It’s literally the love that gets lost in translation.

We tend to think “I love you” is the same as how one professes it in Spanish, “Te amo.” But as she wanted me to understand, “Te amo” doesn’t mean “I love you” since it more accurately translates as, “You, I love.” These are different sentiments. In Spanish, the “You” comes first. Followed by the verb phrase, “I love.” It is you whom I love.

Meanwhile, in English, we state it far more plainly. It’s a simple declarative sentence, straightforward as they come. It’s a sentence filled with action and feeling. But the focus isn’t on the beloved, it’s on the lover. “I love you.” When said in English, the two pronouns are separated by the verb “love.”

I … love … you.

However, in Spanish, it’s you, who I love.

Te … amo.

You might say that it’s a minor distinction — one could argue it’s mere semantics. But when we were alone in my apartment, when she whispered those three syllables to me, it meant everything. You, I love. You come first. And that’s also why I knew we could never be together. Our timing wasn’t ever right. Try as we might there was nothing we could do about that.

She was married. And a mother. No matter how much I loved her, and she loved me, we lost out to the practically impossible timing of love.
Sometimes, a person comes along too early. Other times, you come along too late. And sometimes, it’s neither of you, it’s just the inarguable logic of the calendar that makes it obvious to both of you. There are those times when you can’t align your life clocks, no matter how much you love each other.

Compare that to when love works out. It often seems like it was a predestined fate; like, it’s just so damn obvious the couple belongs together. And those times when the timing doesn’t work out, well, equally, we wonder: Why the fuck not? What could have happened differently? And what might happen in the future?

But really, there’s just one thing to keep in mind about timing: you can’t force it, so don’t fight it.

I know a little bit about timing. I’ve married four of my friends. (That sounds like we’re in a cult. What I mean is: I’m an ordained minister and I’ve officiated two weddings.) From their weddings and marriages, I’ve learned a lot about love — like how it looks when the timing is just right. And you know what? It isn’t always obvious when it’s happening.

Feeling an unavoidable pressure not to fuck up their special days, I thought a lot about what makes a marriage. I wanted to do my part to marry them off proper. But since I was reinventing the ritual for each wedding, I didn’t know quite how to do that, so I asked both couples to tell me their love stories.

And then, I told their love stories to the guests at their weddings.

I noticed that for both weddings to occur, their love stories required the full blessing of perfect timing.

The first couple met because of a jungle sickness. She was in law school, and was dying, slowly. She was stubbornly trying to keep up with her workload as all of her bodily fluids tried to abandon her. She was on death’s doorstep a few times that semester after she came back from Bali kissed with some rare jungle fever. After she didn’t die, and the semester of law school was over, her best friend insisted she go out with her to a party. She declined. She still felt half-dead. Her friend persisted. She argued that she just couldn’t make it. But then, finally, she relented, and went to the party.

Since she still felt half-dead, after about an hour at the party, she grew very tired, and sat down on the floor. A man seated in an inflatable kiddie pool, surrounded by half-melted ice and cans of beer, rolled a ball across the party to her. She grabbed the ball, looked up at the man who rolled it to her, and she just knew …she would marry him.

Imagine if she refused her friend. What if she said no to the party and stayed at home since she was legitimately half-dead from a rare jungle infection? But no, the timing was right, and she got lucky. She went with the flow, despite all of her initial reluctance. Luckily for their three sons, she got her ass up and went out to that party — even though, really, she just wanted to lay down and die. The couple married in the Chabot Space Center, it’s an working observatory, nestled up there in a wrinkle of green hills high above Berkeley, California. The timing was right for them.

The other couple were a long-shot. They met in his hometown where she’d moved to attend college. For weeks, maybe months, they circled each other at parties, and flirted at after-party hangouts in those warm evenings of late spring. By summer they were a thing. They flowed together as easy as a snow-melt river.

Later on, I lived with her, and her roommate, who was my girlfriend. He lived across a shared courtyard. The four of us spent many moon-soaked nights laughing. We talked about everything under the stars. Then when we got bored, we dreamed about new places. Soon, we all decided to move to Los Angeles. But we moved without him. The timing wasn’t right for him. They broke up, and the three of us headed to LA.

When I piled my stuff into my new place, my girlfriend was there to help me. Neither of us knew we were about to break-up. But there were signs. Like, when my girlfriend saw how one of my new neighbors looked at me from where she lay, stretched out on a chaise lounge chair, next to the pool, with sun-dappled ripples of water reflecting marbled light across her bikini and very tan skin. My soon-to-be ex-girlfriend tightened her jaw and said with an unmistakable acid dripping from every syllable, “Looks like you’ll have fun living here.”

Damn, if she wasn’t right. She knew me well. But neither of us would guess that the woman by the pool would later teach me to say “Te amo.” All I know is that I loved both women, but the timing wasn’t right.

After my ex eventually left Los Angeles, I still saw her old roommate around town. And when her ex called me, he always asked about her. I never wanted to tell him that she was dating. And I didn’t want to betray her trust and tell him that it wasn’t going well. So, I never mentioned to him that she was burning through douchebag dudes trying to find a guy worthy of her time. Instead, I just told him I saw her from time to time.

Didn’t take long for him to change his mind and move down to Los Angeles. He got a loft in downtown. And with the slow deliberate laconic speed of a western hero he asked to see her someday. Maybe it was all the shitbag LA dudes she’d met, or maybe she still felt that same spark for him. Whatever it was, she agreed. They went out. Within a month, they were living together. Within a few more months, they moved up north.

That’s where I married them. They swore their vows in the same courtyard where we’d spent so many summer nights, laughing our asses off, under that wide open sky that seemed like it had been painted with stars by a lazy Jackson Pollock. Eventually, for them, the timing was right.

That’s the tricky part. How do you ever know if the timing is right? When do you hang in there and when do you let go?

I don’t think you can ever know. It’s not logical. Love is not sequential and orderly like a clock. It’s certainly a feeling that overcomes any obstacles. But only when the timing is right, and the obstacles are ones that you surmount together. This is inescapably important. You both must want it. To be together.

Since there’s two of you in your relationship, for the timing to be right, it has to be right for everyone involved. That’s what makes the dance of love so often feel like you’re slipping around on a sheet of black ice. It’s not always a graceful dance. But when you do move beautifully together in time, like a sexy tango, that’s the sort of love affair that grows into a marriage (or lifelong partnership). When it’s right, it’s like two people win the lottery at the same time. Takes some luck.

My friend got really lucky that Los Angeles is so deeply packed with douchebags. That, and he was persistent. And optimistic. And when the timing was right for both of them, they just flowed together. Now, they have a rad little red-headed son, who makes all their missteps seem silly and their family feel like something that was fated to happen. I don’t know. All I know is watching the whole twisted path that they took to be together it never looked obvious. They were a long-shot.

I feel terribly lucky that I met and fell in love with my Colombian neighbor. We can’t help it that our timing was absolute shit. That part wasn’t so lucky. She taught me the subtle difference between “I love you” and “Te amo” and from her, I also learned when the timing isn’t right, no amount of love can keep you together.

Maybe, one day, someone might roll a ball over to you, you’ll look up, and maybe you’ll already know them, or maybe you’ll look up and see them for the first time and you’ll just know they’re the one, but in all your possibilities only one thing remains the same: When the timing is right, love works out like it was always meant to be. And when it doesn’t, there’s nothing else you can do.

Or, as the woman sang in that old song, “Que sera, sera…”

You know what that means, right?

What will be, will be…

The future is not ours to see…

Que sera, sera.

writer photo

Zaron Burnett

Zaron Burnett III is a writer based in Los Angeles. He's Playboy's roving correspondent; and is presently working on his first novel.

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