“It must feel wonderful to be loved.”
I threw this piece of inner speculation at my mother one day when I was in my teenage years. Of course, at that point in my life I already knew love. My parents, my sister, grandparents, friends, cousins – my list of reciprocated love was long and even in my younger years I was never foolish enough to forget how lucky I was to possess this list.
Yes, I had love in my life, but I didn’t yet know love. The kind that writers write about, singers sing about and Hollywood makes movies about. The kind that is synonymous with romance, passion, respect, intimacy, chemistry. From a young age, the idea of this kind of love surrounded me in the media I consumed and the relationships I witnessed. I accepted it as a natural step in growing up and prior to this moment, I hadn’t given it much thought until I realized how much of an enigma love really was to me.
I have my flaws. Even as a teenaged narcissist, I knew what those were and when I thought about the prospect of someone loving me in spite of those, looking at me as a pillar in their life and complementing me as a natural partner, the power and enticement of this kind of love captured me as it was not something I could wrap my youth-stricken head around.
Could I ever love someone like that? Would anyone ever love me like that?
The image of my future “first love” floated in and out of my head like a silhouette portrait and intoxicated me with its mystery throughout my high school years.
The first time I saw him he was clutching a tray in the cafeteria. His kind, chestnut eyes glanced around the room as he searched for a table with his friends. It was the second month of my freshman year of college and, by chance, he happened to know someone at my table. By chance, it was a table large enough for them to join us.
I felt something deep in the pit of my stomach, something foreign. I didn’t know this person but he did something to me. I felt like his soul became tangible in that moment, just so I could reach out and touch it. Something gripped me and I was overcome with a magnetic pull that only led me to him. I knew that I needed to know him.
We never formally met. After that first encounter in the cafeteria, I found myself in his room one night where he was playing music on his laptop and offering warm beer to a small group of us. We were eighteen and invincible. We’d been told that college was going to be the best years of our lives and, in more or less words, that we could conquer the world. At eighteen, you genuinely believe that sort of thing.
He sat back in his chair with a faint smile on his face, one hand relaxing on the keyboard and the other grasping a beer. Those chestnut eyes softly scanned the room as he watched us lose ourselves in the youthful freedom of the night. I heard the first few chords of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” play, followed by Justin Vernon’s ethereal falsetto:
Come on Skinny Love just last the year
Pour a little salt we were never here
I looked up and caught his eye.
“Bon Iver is one of my favorite bands.”
He looked at me, the smile still on his lips, “This is the only song I know.”
The kindness in his eyes was radiating and it caught me again in that deep place inside my stomach.
I made excuses to stop by his door on the way to do my laundry. One of those times, he made me playlists of all his favorite music, and I burned him a CD of the entire Bon Iver album, For Emma, in return. A few weeks later, I sprained my wrist playing soccer. He brought me ice and helped me wrap it in a bandage. We started getting breakfast together, grew intimate with one another. We were made up of small moments growing into something bigger, something more than my eighteen year-old brain could have anticipated when I stepped onto campus three months earlier.
I was blindly navigating something that terrified me, but simultaneously made me insatiable. Time had no limit, we wanted every moment together.
Months grew into a year and within that time, the rosy filter of novelty peeled away as it tends to do when things seem euphoric. My flaws emerged, as did his. We fought, I cried, we made up, we repeated. I was difficult, he was understanding. He was stubborn, I was accepting. Through it all, he was there to catch me and I was there to hold him up. Even in our weakest times, our love and respect for each other never faded. We were deeply embedded in each other’s lives and neither of us could remember how we were before.
“When did you realize you loved me?” I asked one day.
He looked up at the ceiling in thought as our history racked through his brain and drew itself on his face. He brushed a strand of hair away from my forehead.
“I was walking across the quad one day and I was thinking about you. I realized then that I cared about your happiness more than I cared about mine.”
In two sentences, he defined the love that had mystified me since I was a teenager. Valuing someone’s happiness before your own. Was I ready for this? Did I feel this way? I loved him deeply and would do anything for him, but was I ready to vocalize it in this way?
In the two years following our first encounter in the cafeteria, I lost someone close to me in my family. Someone young who had a lot more life to live. Someone who was robbed of experiencing all of the things I was probably taking for granted at twenty years old. Through it all, he was there to steady me as I walked the tightrope of anxiety and doubt.
On paper and in actuality, he was an incredible person. My friends adored him, my family cared about him as if he were blood. I never questioned the trust we shared and I knew if I ever needed anything he would be there to support me the second I called on him. Everything was there.
Everything except something that I couldn’t articulate.
Three and a half years into our relationship, I felt an emptiness and I didn’t know why. I fought it, I argued with myself, I made excuses as to why I was feeling this way and why it had to be my fault. I fought for us. Realistically, I fought for too long. I was mad at myself for not feeling like we were enough, mad at him for nothing. The same feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me I needed him was now telling me that I needed to pull away. Having questioned love since my teenage years, its true definition was painfully coming into focus as I was falling out of it.
Perception is often dominated by the stories around us. Movies, books and love songs portray love with cut-and-paste scenarios. Two people meet each other and fall in love. Two people love each other but somehow succumb to a hostile, resentful end. One person falls into unreciprocated love with someone else. The list goes on.
I wanted to hear the story of one person falling out of love with someone who had never given them a reason to feel anything other than deep, irrevocable love. A story in which two people in love need to part because one of them can no longer conjure up the feelings that were once so natural. One in which both people are left heartbroken regardless of who catalyzed the end.
I searched for answers in frustration before realizing I had to write the ending myself. A month before graduation, I told him we needed to go our separate ways after we left school. Sick to my stomach, I re-wrote our history. I still loved him, he still loved me. We were still everything to each other in so many ways. I wanted someone to give me the components of our love so I could assemble them and figure out what was missing.
“It must feel wonderful to be loved.” My mother digested this comment from me and came back with one, simple answer,
I can attest to this as a young adult. It is wonderful and frightening and exhausting. It is also heart-wrenching and confusing and self-revealing. Above all, it just simply is.
We try to define love so we can understand it. We try to paint it in black and white so we know what we’re getting ourselves into. Love exists for us to experience it and our first love teaches us more about ourselves than we oftentimes want to know.
I’m not sure if I’ll find what I was missing at the end of my first love or if I’ll ever fall in love again. We write our own stories, but love cannot be defined by words. It can only be defined by feeling. The one in the depths of your stomach that compels you to burn CDs and fake trips to the laundry room to see someone. The one that makes you want to get breakfast with someone every single day, or maybe even put someone else’s happiness before your own.
Whatever it is, embrace it. Try not to let it go. Because the thing about love, it is wonderful.