We’re taught that love is messy. We’re taught that love is tangled and difficult and complex and really hard. We’re taught that we have to fight tooth and nail to find The One and that unless we do this and that, wear our hair this way, choose this profession or enlist in this college major, we might not find him or her at all. Yet, most of what I’ve learned about love, and what has proven to be true over the course of my 31 years, I learned in the second grade. What I found back then was remarkably (and refreshingly) different from the world’s take on butterflies, infatuation, and adoration.
His name was Ryan and we bonded over The Oregon Trail. Granted, this was a different time and place, and the world hadn’t seen the likes of Facebook yet. We didn’t even have AOL Instant Messenger, may she rest in peace. There was no social networking, no chat rooms, and no threat. So, no one thought anything of it that my mom let us hole up in my room, crowded around our clunky Gateway desktop, desperately trying to avoid the plight of tuberculosis or a herd of oxen who couldn’t ford the river. Other, more scandalous second-graders may have used that alone time in other ways, but we trekked upstairs with our Mead notebooks and literally took notes together on how to beat the blasted survival game. It was then that I learned that love takes teamwork. Lesson number 1.
Of course, we didn’t always hang out at my house. Sometimes, his mom would pick me up in their bright, cherry red convertible and drive me the two miles to their home near the country club. We’d sit in front of the television and watch Nickelodeon. I don’t remember a ton about my early childhood, but I’ll never forget the day that I tasted my first pizza bite. Mainly because it was like eating liquid fire it was so hot, but also because it was insanely delicious. From that point on, it was decided. We’d watch Nick and eat pizza rolls when we were at his house. It was our “thing” even though we were far too young to know that we’d established a routine. But that’s another part of love, falling into a comfortable set of habits together. It’s not forced, rushed, or even expected. It just happens when two people spend enough time together. At seven years old, it’s pizza rolls and cartoons. Then, it’s leaving your toothbrush at his dorm, binge-watching your favorite show on Friday nights, putting the kids down and grabbing wine on the couch at the end of the day, waking up on weekend mornings to grab breakfast at that same spot. It’s these little moments and memories that make up a life, and doing them together is love. Lesson number 2.
Yet, though the crushes were real and the time spent together was special, we entered third grade with a new perspective. We made those origami paper fortune tellers to see if we should stay together or find new friends. We played M.A.S.H to see what our future held (the end-all, be-all decider of fate when you’re under the age of 10), and we even calculated the number of letters in our names to decide if we were a good match or not (which is totally still a thing, by the way). Maybe it was the answers we got, or maybe it was the fact that his parents were going through a divorce and mine were welcoming another baby. Either way, we didn’t play Oregon Trail that summer and we didn’t eat any more pizza rolls. We never officially ended it, but we never fell back into those old habits either. After that, a few things happened. We met new friends and entered the social circles that we’d stay in for the rest of our elementary, middle and high school years. Ryan’s circle was different from mine and our paths never really crossed again. I saw him the other day in the grocery store. We both went off to college to “see the world” then came back to our sleepy hometown to put down roots. He had a family, and so did I. We introduced our kids to each other and I met his lovely wife, while he shook hands with my husband. There is loss in love, but there’s hope on the horizon, too. And sometimes, the very act of falling apart is intended so better things can fall together. Lesson number three.
I’m grateful that my first crush wasn’t a soul-crushing heartbreak, though I had a few of those later on down the road. I’m thankful it came in the form of the quiet, brown-haired boy down the road who just wanted to make it to the Willamette River with all of his portions and livestock intact. If it had to end, I’m glad there was at least the sweet memory of it to buoy me through the twists and turns that eventually led me to the love of my life. Oh, and don’t forget those pizza rolls.