I remember when he first asks me the question. It's gray outside—not quite raining, but a wet smell hangs on the wind. The window by the sink lets in a small square of dull light, framing the blonde head of the boy sitting at the kitchen table. The table is wood, brown and rough, and he is busy picking a splinter out of his thumb. The dishes clink softly as I wash and then dry, a soothing menial task that has become a ritual.
"What is love?" He says, and I am so taken by surprise that I answer truthfully.
"I don't know."
"I love you," he says, his face screwed up in concentration, like the words taste differently to his tongue.
"I love you, too," I reply, the phrase that I will never fully understand automatically falling from my mouth; a response programmed in to us all from early childhood. "Honey, do you want me to take a look at that splinter?" For he has returned to his idle picking, all romantic speculation momentarily forgotten.
The next time he asks me, it's sunny, and he should be in the yard, kicking a ball or chasing after frogs. The dishes are done and the flowers are arranged, and I'm sitting at the kitchen table, flipping through a magazine.
"Mom," he says, coming through the doorway. His overalls are rumpled, and his hair is tousled. He is my adorable Ethan, and at this moment I would do anything for him. "What is love?"
"Why, sweetie," I say, stalling for time. "Love is what I feel for you."
"But what is it?" He persists, and the lack of a splinter seems to solidify his attention on this issue.
"A feeling," I try to clarify, but it's no use. He wants details. "The feeling," I say again, searching the air filled with dust motes in an attempt to find the words. "The feeling of harmony. The feeling that you and another person are so completely together, you are suspended out of time, out of space, and that instead of two hearts, you are one." But he is gone, and I have given my soliloquy to an empty kitchen.
The leaves are falling, red and beautiful, and Ethan will start kindergarten soon. We have been apple picking and cider drinking, made jelly and preserves, and swum in the ocean until our eyes stung with salt water. The ground is turning brown with frost, and the hot chocolate steams pleasantly as we sit at the brown table. The floor is clean, and the flowers are dead.
"What is love?" He asks, and I sigh inwardly.
"I don't know," I respond, falling back on my first answer, in hopes that this phase will pass.
"But you love Daddy?" A sentence fragment, a grammatical error. A statement left hanging on a question mark.
"No," I say, and his face crumples. The broken face of an angelic five year old, exposed to the harsh realities of life.