Sometimes we have to look for love -- not from strangers but from the people already around us, the ones who show it in unexpected, wonderful yet slightly weird ways.
By Leigh Newman
1) Your annoying talking pumpkin-head key chain shows up in their junk drawer -- or your broken pen or ancient bowling scorecard. None of these are items that anybody in their right mind would covet. But they are things that indicate that the person enjoys thinking of you while looking for the Scotch tape. Or that they're doing something that's only possible when somebody deeply adores you: They're keeping your garbage around their nice clean house because they think that you might think it's not garbage at all, and they're waiting for that moment to hand it over to you and for you to go, "My talking pumpkin-head key chain!!! I thought I lost it!" At which point, they will get the huge hug from you that justifies the past few months of listening to that eerie electronic pumpkin voice go, "Smash me, sucker!" every time they shut the junk drawer a little too hard.
2) Their mom knows your birthday. No, you have never met her. Yes, they talk about you that much.
3) They never get so busy that they can't give you the "Awesome!" Or the "Shut up!" Or the "Hilarious!" Or the "I'm trying to work here!" In other words, they reply to every truly dumb email, text or tweet that you send their way… including the one with a cat in a shark suit chasing a little duckling, while riding a Roomba.
4) You never complain about the freezing house (out loud) because you too want to save on the heating bill. But you do get so cold sometimes that that your fingers stiffen, leading you to drop and break juice glasses and send garbled, misspelled texts from your smartphone like: "Pring home ilk! Beeeee xxc.." Which is why striding into the house on December 22, the darkest night of the year, and hitting that wall of warmth created only when the thermostat is set to 70 is such an overwhelming gesture of tenderness. So much so that it may inspire you to buy fingerless gloves and set it back to 62 for them… next week.
5) You look good in the badly focused photo in the too-dark room. Because they took the picture, and pictures taken with love are so much more flattering.
6) They feel the need to tell you how to put on a seatbelt. Or to inform you it's not OK to eat just the head and not the stem of the broccoli. Sadly, they did not get the memo that every other adult in the universe got, the one that explains that bossing around a busy grown-up woman is not the way to get attention. Unless the busy grown-up woman stops and thinks about what is really going on -- which is love.
7) Watching the rest of your pals at the restaurant table luxuriating in their chocolate lava cakes and blackberry crumbles à la mode at the end of the meal is excruciating. Which is why they brought the gluten-free cupcake for you. And why they had it put on the cart with all the other desserts, so that you'd get the pleasure of selecting yours and being served just like anybody else. No, they didn't tell you who did this. And, yes, even the waiter thought it was awesome.
8) They are under 5, they are over 2 and they jump out from behind doors to surprise you and cause you to scream, slip and fall on a left-out Lego.
9) They are under 5 they are over 2 and when they ask why you're not married and you explain, they say, "Huh. If I were grown-up, I'd marry you."
10) They treat you like a business client. After lunch, there is no hugging or "Let's do this next week!" They pull out their smartphone, whip open the calendar and nail you down to a specific time and day.
11) You feel wittier and suddenly charismatic with them. Because they are laughing at all your jokes and everything else you say. Which, when you think about it, is like throwing love tinsel all over your every word.
12) You like Tootsie Pops, it's true -- who doesn't? But someone has sent you a huge padded envelope stuffed with them. The candies are not the point, of course. It's the wrappers. And whoever has done this understands that perfectly. In fact, whoever has done this got on her knees on the dirty floors of pharmacies and supermarkets all over town, the better to paw through the boxes of Tootsie Pops by the checkout counter and examine the intricate folds of the waxed-paper coverings and select only those that have stars on them (which means, by extension, the ones with the little boy in an Indian headdress holding a bow and arrow). You sigh. You're thinking that your aunt who went to all this effort still doesn't know that the company does NOT give out one free pop for every 10 wrappers. But … you are wrong. She already knows that! She's sending the feeling behind the false urban legend, the joy of finding a special extra lucky thing and feeling as if you're special and extra lucky because of it -- even if no tenable, official luck actually exists. Which means she loves you, in her own quirky, obscure, takes-too-long-to-explain way. Which is how so very many of us love.
Leigh Newman is the deputy editor of Oprah.com and the author of the Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Great Big World, One Long Journey Home.