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Three Little Words
By Rachel Kramer Bussel

"I love you," I recently said to someone I'd only met two hours before. I said it in a baby voice, followed by lots of air kisses directly in her face, those three simple but potent words falling easily from my lips as I looked down at her round cheeks and wispy hair, the length of our acquaintance irrelevant to the strength of my emotions.

Did I mean it? In the case of Frankie, an adorable 6-month-old, who had spent the previous two hours wailing every time she looked my way, yes, I did -- at least, I thought so. It startled me to realize how I had fallen for her as I'd watched her squirm in her cute onesie, tan pants, and little socks, burrowing in close to her mom or dad whenever I dared to look her way. I didn't plan to say it, or think it, or feel it, but there it was.

When she finally let me hold her, she felt so perfect in my arms; not so heavy that I felt scared of dropping her, not so light that I'd worry about her not breathing. Maybe it was my words, or the way I held her, walking around and cooing, showing her the sights of her brother's bedroom, but she calmed down for a few moments, enough to let me bask in her presence and stare into her sweet little face when I wasn't bombarding her with kissy noises. In this instance, I not only wore my heart on my sleeve, I wore it in the equivalent of blaring, fluorescent lighting, so nobody, least of all me, could miss it. My overt display of passion was as much for my own sake as Frankie's. I needed her to know the depth of my feelings much more than she needed anything at all from me.

I say "I love you" to my one-year-old cousin Adam all the time. I make sure to say it loudly, so he knows that I mean it with all my heart, which I do. I want him to know that I'm someone he can come to at any time; that I'm reliable, that I am safe and secure, especially if his parents aren't around. From the moment he was born, and perhaps even before then, I felt waves of emotion welling up in me, as if just waiting for a person to unleash them upon, though the time I've spent with him over his first year has permanently cemented that bond. I've tried to visit him at least once a week, and even went on vacation to Puerto Rico with him and his parents. Seeing him smile, having him grab my necklace, or offer me his sodden bagel, fills me with something that feels like more than love, something indescribable. I can only imagine it's a minute fraction of what parents feel for their kids. Is it because he's my cousin? Because he's small and pretty much helpless? Is it selfish to be so elated by his simple smile, to love him when in truth I hardly know him yet? And what about strangers' babies? I was slightly conflicted over whether "loving" Frankie was the right thing to say, or do. Her parents are friends, ones I admire and adore greatly, but love? I wouldn't quite say that. So can I love her and not her parents? I feel like a scrooge for even asking.

As I left their apartment, I had to face the fact that when it comes to babies, I'm easy, and it's not just because I long for one of my own as, at 31, I hear my biological clock blaring its ultra-loud alarm at me morning, noon, and stroller-filled night. I have what I call the "wall of babies" on my cubicle at work -- at porn magazine Penthouse Variations; most are the children of friends or family members, though one is a clipping from the newspaper of a yawning newborn named Dio who I deemed too cute to be banished to the recycling bin. Do I love him? No, but my heart flip-flops just a little when I see his photo.

Telling adults I love them is trickier, even when it's true. Sometimes I worry that my heart is too big, too wide open, allowing those who surely don't deserve it entrance, but I never feel such qualms around kids. They make me feel like I have "un corazon grande," as I recently told my new boyfriend about his own heart, one that's capable of much more than I often give it credit for. When babies draw that love out of me, they make me want to be a better person for them, so I can be someone who deserves to love them so strongly.

Telling Frankie I loved her made me think about the meaning of the word, one some of us toss around so lightly and others withhold forever. Babies are easy to "love" because aside from screaming and pooping, there's little they can do that could be deemed annoying. But is loving someone really just about finding them "not annoying"? I hope not. In fact, I know when people love me by how willing they are to verge on the point of annoyance, to risk my anger by telling me something I probably don't want to hear.

On the other hand, sometimes I say "I love you" to people when I don't really mean it. It's easier than launching into a complicated explanation of what I really feel. Take my grandmother's husband, for instance, who barreled into our family in 1991 and expected it to immediately revolve around him, as the oldest and richest. To me, family is about give and take, about loving people even when we find them infuriating . . . because we know they would do anything for us. I'll sign cards to both of them with a half-hearted "Love," scrawled as illegibly as I can manage, but the sentiment never truly reaches past my outer layer of skin. You don't just get that status for doing nothing.

Unless you're a baby. To me, babies, whoever they are, are like family. My cousin Bess, Adam's mom, says that babies are closer to G-d. I don't know if I believe that, and it gets tricky when I try to pinpoint at exactly what age they drift away from G-d, and stop being completely cute, and the "I love you's" don't come as quickly or spontaneously. But I do think there is something about their wide-eyed innocence that makes me, at least, want to offer them a little piece of myself, and maybe in exchange get back a little of their wondrous, unclouded vision.

Whether it's "right" or not, I want to love Frankie. I want to love all the babies who are in my life, even if they just live on the baby wall and largely in my imagination. Maybe, on some level, they are easier to love, to become completely smitten with, than adults with all our baggage and personality and miscommunication. Don't get me wrong -- I'm fiercely loyal to those I love, and they are many. But nothing makes me feel as special, as loving and loved, as holding a child like Frankie. So would I say it again? Would I tell her those three little words, even if they sound somewhat grandiose, almost boastful? Even if I can't say them as boldly (or at all) to her parents? Yes, I would, in an instant, because they couldn't be truer.

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