I’m thinking about my first love for the first time in years. I mean really thinking about him — not marveling at the fact that he’s now married and has a child. I’m thinking, specifically, about the way I was with him, how I saw him, how I saw myself. One memory comes back the strongest: we’re lying on the grass in a park on a May afternoon, just weeks before our graduation from high school. I’m looking at all the strange features of his face: the tiny red veins circling his nostrils, the earwax in his ears, the too-short hair. But for the first time I am not sickened with fear at the unavoidable humanity of him, as I’d been with the previous few people I’d dated. I loved that he was imperfect. I didn’t see him as imperfect, I saw him as specific, beautifully specific. There was no one like him. There never would be. I thought I would marry him.
Arguably the best love story of them all, Romeo and Juliet, taught us that the who of love isn’t nearly as important as the other factors: when, where, how. I still think out of everybody in my school, I could never have loved anyone as much as I loved Dylan, but the when was instrumental to our relationship. It was senior year: we were finally on top. We got an immense amount of confidence from this. We’d gotten into our first choice colleges.
We could relate to each other, but more than that, we were ready for each other. I suddenly knew, more or less, who I was. I actually liked who I was, which hadn’t always been the case. When I’d torn apart all the previous people I’d dated, I had just been trying, in my head, to bring them down to my own timid and trepidatious level. With Dylan, I didn’t have even the most remote interest in doing this.
But there is another undeniable factor: he made me feel important, beautiful, perfect in my own specific way. He gave me more confidence. He asked for nothing in return, but in turn, I gave him exactly what he gave me. When people say that someone is their “rock,” I think of Dylan. He had so much to give. He didn’t give it cautiously. He didn’t wait for permission, or for cues. Maybe it seems old-fashioned to want someone like this. To want a “rock.” But it comes from my own lack of confidence, not some wish that we still lived in a male-dominated world where when we swoon, there’s somebody there to catch us.
Another recent piece about love on this site, Brianna Wiest’s “Things To Consider Before You Leave Them,” argued that love is never the problem — that the real challenge is “the other crap” that gets in the way. This has haunted me since I first read it. My knee-jerk reaction is to see this argument as a cop-out by people whose relationships aren’t going well. That’s because my cop-out when a relationship isn’t going well is that it’s the other person’s fault and that we should break up. That the other person isn’t right for me. That some other person could bring out whatever feelings and whatever potential in me is being stifled by the current person. A person could go through years, decades, a lifetime, of long-term relationships guided by this philosophy. I think, thus far, I have.
I love the beginning of love, love in the abstract. I have loved it, I think, since the age of about four. I’ve always been in love with some boy. Before I even knew how to read, I discovered that loving someone, or having a crush on someone at the very least, made life more interesting. It colored the mundane day-to-day experience of, well, kindergarten. It intensified everything: math tests, nap time, play dates. Who wouldn’t want to always feel this way? Again, it mattered little who the person was, especially back then. But the first person, for what it’s worth, was Gerard. What a name!
What also qualifies as the beginning of love: relationships that never go anywhere — unrequited love. I was a fan of having crushes on, essentially, the guy in school least likely to have any idea who I was. Simple reasons for this: I wanted a muse. I didn’t want anything to actually happen, because that would be boring (clearly I hadn’t been enlightened by Dylan yet). It was the chase — the unfulfilling, disheartening, humiliating chase — that motivated me. I liked to write, and chases fueled me. Every ounce of anything I got from the object of my affection, even if it was nothing close to affection, replenished me, and I pressed on, lusting after his heart, whomever he happened to be. Except — not really. I lusted after lusting after his heart. I erected a protective barrier between lust and love, between objectification and intimacy.
Intimacy begins not as a privilege shared between two people, but as a state of mind. Now, I visualize my ideal relationship and realize that on certain key levels — the levels, really, that transform something from a friendship into a romantic relationship — my current relationship doesn’t match up to my vision. The theory goes that I have the power to make my relationship — any relationship — anything I want it to be. That it takes two to tango. That if I act the way I want to be treated, I will be treated in kind. Do unto others, in other words.
But it’s a chicken-egg scenario. (When you start to say that your relationship is a chicken-egg scenario, you know you’re in trouble.) I don’t act a certain way because I’m not being treated in a certain way. Why should I act first? And so the cycle continues, nobody tangoing, until someone makes a move — in or out.
Meanwhile the mind treads in dangerous waters. Cynicism becomes the guiding force. I am convinced, for instance, that every couple in my life will eventually break up — a PTSD-like reaction to my parents’ recent divorce, no doubt, but stemming also from a longstanding doubt about my own capacity for commitment. I have been in seven serious relationships, and I’ve ended all but one of them.
The eye begins to wander, because surely starting over would be easier than fixing “the other crap” that is apparently “getting in the way” of love — the baggage, the patterns, the mental dependencies. There is some merit to the idea that a fresh start does a person good. But I am obsessed with fresh starts. They’re my answer in the face of anything difficult.
I cannot see the middle of a relationship at the beginning, but I can see the end from the middle. I know that there will be an end. There has to be. This is just a stop on the road.
It’s my belief that the older we get, the less that sudden moves are permissible. As we grow older, we make — hopefully — deeper commitments to people, longer commitments. A clean break likely has more serious consequences at 50 than it does at 25. In turn, the older we get, the less easily things should be entered into. Where once we trifled we now tread considerately. But our habits follow us wherever we go. We’re confident that we’re too old to make the mistakes we used to, but a few years down the road, here we are, contemplating upending everything again.