“Love you,” I mumble, turning off the bedside light.
“What do you mean by that?” you say in the resulting darkness, and I can tell from your voice you’re nowhere near ready for sleep.
I try to answer by pulling the covers up over my ears, but you just say ‘Hey,’ and repeat your question.
“I mean the same thing I mean every night,” I say.
“A signified concept can vary between contexts,” you say, your voice low, as if you’re trying to sneak in the last word.
“Well,” I say, “in this particular context, what I meant by ‘love you’ was ‘Goodnight. Sleep well. And I care about you.’”
“And also,” you say, “You meant, ‘I’m tired, I want to sleep, don’t start anything.’”
“I did not.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I did not. Don’t I get any say in what I mean?” I ask.
“The author is dead and all that,” you say, and I can’t tell if you’re being flippant or peevish, so I turn the light back on and look you in the eye.
“Yes, but you’re not reading a text. You’re talking. To me. And I’m here to help you revise your assumptions about what it is I mean when I say ‘love you’.”
You make that noise you make which causes me to put my annoyed face on.
“Seriously,” I say. “Can’t it be a nice thing? A nice way to end the evening? Can’t we just agree to make it an affectionate utterance? Locate meaning between the two of us?”
“Do you want to have sex?” you ask, and, for the life of me, I can’t read your expression.
I pause, then sigh. “Okay, so maybe I did mean ‘don’t start anything’.”
Your smugness creeps through the air like a smell.
“But,” I say, “words have a surplus, a web, a whole field of meaning. It’s not fair to pin ‘love you’ down to just one thing. Can’t we just be happy with a multiplicity of meanings? Let those signifiers slide?”
“Sounds kinky,” you say.
“What, you actually want to have sex? Really?”
For a moment, I think I see your jaw tense. “Not really,” you say.
“So then what exactly are you trying to say?” I ask. I lift an eyebrow and the silence between us says a bit too much.
“Nothing,” you say. “Or everything.”
Caught unawares by the inherent instability of language and meaning, we sit in bed blinking at each other, looking for a sign. You squeeze my hand, but neither of us know what it means.
“Love you,” you say, and I repeat what have become your words.
After a moment, you turn out the light, but it’s a long time before we close our eyes.