(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

I said “I love you” on camera.

My boyfriend and I nestled on the bench, the trees behind us shedding their last golden leaves.

“Tell Jim you love him,” Ari said, framing a shot.

I didn’t want to tell Jim I loved him; I didn’t want to hear his response. The night before, my friend Liz, Ari’s production partner, had asked if we’d help film an on-spec commercial for Kotex. Now we cradled a red velvet cake to share once the camera rolled.

“I love you?” I mumbled, clutching my plastic fork.

“Louder,” Ari demanded.

“I love you.” My voice wavered.

“Sound convinced!”

“I love you!” I shouted, unable to meet my boyfriend’s eyes.

“Now you, Jim.”

“I love you!” my boyfriend boomed. Then I yelled it again.

“Perfect,” Ari said. “But try to sound happy.”

The commercial called for Liz, in a bridal gown, to collide with various red foods while racing to her wedding. Although her white dress collects stains, she arrives brandishing a pair of cotton underpants above her head like a trophy — still pristine. The plot didn’t explain why she carries her underwear instead of wearing it, but the visuals were striking: red roses and kisses, a bride and a groom embracing on the kind of New York-in-late-autumn day where the blue of the sky slices your heart open.

Sitting beside my boyfriend, my heart was super-glued shut.

Jim and I had been dating for four months, long enough to have found a comfortable routine, yet the closer we became, the less we seemed to have in common. I’m a writer; he doesn’t read. He’s built his own computers from scratch, and I can barely remember my passwords. His dream vacation involves a cruise ship in the tropics; when we first met, I’d just returned from hiking in northern Iceland.

We found parallels where we could, but our main commonality was that we both wanted to be in relationships. After a terrible heartbreak, I’d buried myself in my work, using stacks of student essays as an excuse for being alone. He’d been single for eight years and was tired of chatting up strangers.

When I visited my sister, I told her about Jim. “What’s he like?” she asked. I could come up with only bland adjectives: nice, reliable.

When my mother asked what activities we enjoyed, my mind went blurry and I muttered, “We like … walking around. And eating.”

My friend Jason’s comment after meeting Jim: “He’s not what I expected, but if you’re happy … ”

Weeks after that conversation, that “if” kept lingering in the air.

***

“Ready?” Ari asked.

“Yes,” we replied. The camera was rolling and Liz ran toward us — our red velvet cake a brief pit stop on her way to true love. She grabbed a handful, crumbs and frosting staining her bodice.

Our scripted “I love yous” reverberated in the air.

We never talked about that commercial again — it felt too dangerous to have a conversation about the only time we said: “I love you.” We would have had to acknowledge how dishonest it felt.

Two months later, I was at Liz’s real wedding. I called Jim and he didn’t answer. He didn’t answer for three more days. By the time Ari posted the commercial on Twitter, Jim and I were long broken up.

Here’s another version of that commercial, which I sometimes imagine: The couple on the bench aren’t ambivalent but scared. They’ve been burned so badly by loneliness and heartbreak that they can’t quite believe in a story where the bride and groom kiss. But they dutifully recite their lines. And as they speak, something clicks: Their gaze deepens, their lips meet and the soundtrack swells with slow violins. It’s beautiful, a Hollywood ending. After the camera pulls away, they look at each other and say “I love you” again — quietly this time, for the only audience that really matters.

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