That one simple word which makes the other three utterly irrelevant.
James could never finish the sentiment without adding that last little clause.
We were young and at university. So now supposedly, to a 'woman of the world' graduated and obviously far wiser than my 19 year old self, it doesn't really matter.
But James was my first love.
The thing that made our two years in love but not together so hard was just that. We were not together.
Like so many since the 1990s revelation of girl power and sex without love we thought we were different. Well no. That's a lie, I never thought I was different, but like women since the dawn of time I believed that I could do the impossible and change a man. Until then at least I could try to pretend that 'I love you, but' was enough.
So we powered on regardless.
The other complication and little 'but' in our way was my best friend at the time, a guy we'll call Matt, with whom I'd grown very close but was only ever friends with. For reasons I'm still not entirely sure Matt had asked James never to date me. Made him swear to it.
And so in this pre-adult world of lust, and friendships which set ground rules for your own life and expectations, we seemed to have no choice but to keep our whatever it was a secret. To not fall in love. That would ruin everything. But, well, you know.
The first night we slept together I had said something which would then haunt me for the next two years. He laid there, understandably exhausted in my tiny single bed, broken springs supporting both of our bodies in a mess in discount sheets. I smiled and whispered;
"Don't worry, I'm not going to fall in love with you"
As soon as I heard the words I knew it was a lie.
Like most young people falling in love our relationship consumed us both. It was all I could think about, when I would see him again, if we would be alone, what would I wear, would he be wearing those awful track suit bottoms again? We were of course sneaking around, him riding his push bike over to my halls late at night to see me for a precious couple of hours. Living double lives, lying to our friends and exchanging what we thought were subtle 'in jokes' across crowded SU pub tables. The whole charade made our non-relationship even more delicious.
And even though it wasn't classically healthy I was happy. Well at least I was happy until I would feel those words bumbling up in the back of my throat which I knew I wasn't allowed to say.
That was the worst part. Laying next to him feeling a way I thought I wasn't allowed to feel.
That and the feeling that a part of him regardless of the lie, which wasn't really worth lying about, was ashamed of me. He wanted me but he didn't want to be with me.
He would never fight for me, turn around and say, 'fuck this I want to be with you!' And despite all my apparent 'Girl Power' I never told him how I felt either.
And when he told me 'I love you, but...' I accepted it, never asking for more.
Over two years later I finally worked up the courage to tell him what I wanted, but it was too late.
I remember that day. We hadn't slept together. In fact we were barely sleeping together any more. We had gone out for breakfast and hardly spoken, except James had noted in great detail how large the girls breasts were on the table next to us. It wasn't the first time, but it was the first time I couldn't pretend to be cool with it.
As we walked home to his dingy little flat in Leeds, not holding hands because we had learnt never to get into the habit for risk of being seen, I'd already decided I wouldn't spend another night with him. Too young to talk things through and make them work, but old enough to know what I wanted, I left him.
He cried and I didn't, neither of us shouted, we knew it didn't work any more. We weren't any different.
That was almost four years ago.
Last night we had dinner together for the first time since I walked out of his flat that day, cowboy boots, and bad highlights.
He turned up last night on a bike, which this time had an engine, but, he was still wearing track suit bottoms. My hair now dark brown and shoulder length, I stood on the pavement laughing, so different but entirely the same.
We hugged for a little too long and I thought, this isn't weird, I think I'm over this person. This will be ok.
And it was. My 'I love you, but' had grown up but not changed. He has a girlfriend now, and somehow, that was ok. We talked about work, and life, and we're happy for each other's happiness.
I looked at his hands on the table, hands which had once held me, and I felt a sad little pang that now they were just hands. I looked at him, studying his face and body, more stubble now, broader shoulders, and although he was the same and his words still sounded like James, and our conversations were still ours, he was not mine.
I'm not really sure the feeling that I took away from last night, only that I'm glad.
I'm glad that he had happened to be in London this weekend, and glad he asked me out to dinner, and I had said yes. I was glad that we were able to laugh about all our arguments, that we accepted the hurt we caused each other, but now neither of us were in pain. I was glad we finally admitted that we both had once loved each other, no but.
As we said goodbye for some reason I thought for a second about kissing him, but it was the 19 year old me that wanted his lips. My slightly wiser self knew it was not a good idea, and would lead only to ruining the evening, which really had been very nice.
So instead I said goodbye to the man who had once been the boy that I loved. We hugged for a little bit too long and I didn't let him walk me home.
Because 'I love you, but' will just never be enough.