A Brief History of Love
Writing Prompt: “Crush/First Love”
I don’t know for certain that I’ve ever been in love.
I’ve had crushes, I’ve been in lust, I’ve had fondness and affection for people, and maybe all these things are love in various forms, or maybe none of them are and I’ve never really been in love. I don’t know.
I remember in fifth grade a boy named Patrick Hurley who, I swore to my best friend Emily at the time, I had a raging crush on. But that wasn’t true. I didn’t care a fig for Patrick Hurley, I only felt I was expected to like someone and he seemed harmless enough as a target. Meanwhile, two boys named Andrew and Craig did their best to get Emily’s and my attention, including attempting to talk us into “kissing lessons.” I was fond of Andrew, despite that awful tail of hair he had (that was the fad at the time); he would sit in bus line with me and draw pictures of houses he would build for me someday.
So there’s the world of contradictions opening: professing love for one person while having actual affection for someone else. I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. Andrew was Andrew and somehow not a viable prospect for that very reason. It’s the plot line of any number of romantic comedies. I don’t know if we’d have had a Hollywood ending, though, because my family moved the following summer.
And at my new school for sixth grade, oh! In sixth grade it was all about Joel. Joel, whose family had only come to the U.S. after being missionaries in Nigeria. Joel, whose parents had named all their children with the letter J, Joel being the oldest of four. He was tan, with sandy hair and vivid blue eyes, tall and athletic, and best of all he lived in bike-riding distance. My friend Sarah and I would make not-so-subtle trips through his neighborhood. We were vultures, circling.
The best day of my sixth-grade life came when Miss Fuller named Joel and me co-captains for Field Day. I don’t remember anything else about that day except at the end of it Joel put an arm around me and kissed my cheek. Bliss!
But Field Day marked the end of the school year, and I was switching schools. Meanwhile, Joel’s family was moving again. No more rides past his house.
Seventh and eighth grades were taken up with Kevin Kessler. We had Honors English classes and were Office Aides together. I don’t know why I liked him—today I can’t even picture him clearly—but I did.
Now here’s the problem with being a focused and dedicated individual. I was so often consumed by whatever current crush was on my mind, I was blind to the possibility anyone else might like me. In fact, I was pretty certain no one could ever like me, which is why I often didn’t bother with anything more than jeans and t-shirts, and it was ages before I considered makeup. Meanwhile, my white-hot attention often sent the objects of my desire running for cover. Even when I wasn’t being obvious, I was. I was too intense, even at a distance. It made me unapproachable. Smart and aloof, I had only a handful of friends, people who’d braved getting to know me. But no one knew me so well that I was willing to discuss who I “liked.” Everyone knew, because I couldn’t seem to hide it, but no one discussed it.
My junior year of high school was my nadir. I cringe to think of it. I had the fiercest crush on Mark Pierce. He was a senior, and we were in public speaking together and both National Honor Society members. Without going into details, I’ll just say I made a fool of myself. Utterly and completely. But I felt powerless to scale it back. It made no difference to Mark; he only wanted to be done with high school so he could go off to college and start a “real life.” He had no interest in me or any other ties to our town. He was preparing to shake it all off and run.
And if anyone liked me during this time, I was oblivious to it. My blinders were on. I would guess now, based on broad evidence, one or two people might have liked me a little. One boy who lived around the corner offered to drive me to school (I often walked when I couldn’t have the car). Out of an acute attack of shyness, I declined. I fear now he took it as a rejection, and that makes me sad. Later he would write in my senior yearbook, “And now you even talk to me sometimes.” I must have seemed like a terrible snob, but really I was just living in my shell.
After Mark, I took a break on crushes. Mark had used up all my emotional energy. A boy named Charles auditioned for the role of boyfriend, and I cast him temporarily, but his need to call every day—sometimes several times a day, just to tell me a music video I liked was on or to tell me he also liked apple cinnamon Cheerios—became oppressive. I might still have kept him on, but I inadvertently broke up with him via postcard. I had remembered he liked Billy Joel, and so on the card I wrote a lyric:
You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.
In retrospect, not a terribly affirming message. I returned from my visit to my grandparents in Alaska to discover Charles wasn’t speaking to me. A mutual friend explained why. Realizing I was actually relieved by this, I didn’t bother to plead my case of lack of forethought. I just walked away.
I did have a tiny interest my senior year in a quiet, mild-mannered boy named Jon Howard. After my intense feelings for Mark, and Charles’ intense feelings for me, Jon felt like an oasis of calm. This time I did confide in a friend. She promptly began dating Jon behind my back.
Toward the end of my senior year, a family friend (he was a pastor-in-training) began asking me out. His name was Greg, and he had red hair and, of all things, a beard. I wasn’t all that interested, but Greg seemed like a safe way to gain dating experience. He was unfailingly gracious, always polite, and my parents loved him. But he was boring. It wasn’t long before he asked to walk in the park with me and, parked on the steps of the gazebo, he broke up with me. Gently. It didn’t hurt a bit, actually, because I simply didn’t care.
At that point I was where Mark Pierce had been the year before: ready to leave for college and start fresh. I didn’t date much my freshman year—in fact, I went on exactly one date, with Matthew from my French class. We went to play racquetball, which I’d never done. I twisted my ankle. He never asked me out again, and French was awkward for the rest of the semester.
My last big crush started my sophomore year. I had landed a job at a little family-owned copy shop, a place that did photocopies, printing, binding, and offered some typing and graphics services. We sold office supplies and Tic Tacs and had a soda machine that only cost a quarter per can. That alone probably brought in most of our foot traffic.
Danny was one of my co-workers. Blond, blue-eyed, smart and funny. Kind. I liked him as a person long before I started to fall for him.
We didn’t hang out much outside of work, though we did go to the movies a couple times and out to coffee houses once or twice. Something about Danny felt very safe, and I was able to be more myself around him. For the first time in my life, I was wondering what it would be like to share space with someone; I pictured Danny and I reading books beside a cozy fire. And yet for all that, there was very little about the situation that was romantic. I only knew I liked this person and wanted to be around him and spend time with him.
But Danny was a couple years ahead of me in school, and upon graduation he joined the Peace Corp. He was going to Mali. I agonized over this; how could he leave? Finally, I did one of those foolish movie-type things: I sent him a letter telling him how I felt.
To his credit, Danny took it all in stride. He wrote to me from Mali, even sent little trinkets. He had the courtesy not to mention my letter.
It wasn’t until I had moved to Boston for grad school and Danny had settled in New York for law school that he told me he was gay. By that time I’d met the man I was going to marry, and so the announcement had little impact on me in the romantic sense. I did feel a bit stupid for not having known, but then I’ve never had good “gaydar.” Which may be why I got asked out by more women than men in college. Maybe I give off a vibe I’m not aware of. But that’s something else again.
Somewhere in there, I began working on a film set. An actor got into the habit of pulling my hair and calling me “Pigtail.” (And yes, he knew my name, even used it sometimes.) It was such a juvenile thing–all the things he said and did were grade school ways of getting attention. I knew I should be flattered, but I mostly found it confusing. And all the while a location scout named Marcel had become my best friend on the set. My fondest memory is of he and I hanging out during an early-morning shoot, singing “The Way You Look Tonight” rather badly because we were so tired. Marcel gave me candles at the wrap party, to this day the best-smelling candles I’ve ever owned. They smelled like fresh-cut grass. I wish I knew where to find more, or where to find him, because I think I took him for granted as a friend, and I also think maybe he “liked” me just a little. If I knew where he was now, I’d ask him.
Eventually I graduated, spent a year trying to decide what else to do, then moved to Boston grad school. At that point I’d decided to start fresh again. I would focus on my work as a writer, on my career, and love would come in its own sweet time. Which, as it turned out, was day one of my first class. Not love exactly, but the kind of real, long-term relationship I’d never had before.
I spotted Scott sitting across the room when I walked in the door, and I thought, “That’s the boy I’m going to marry.” There was no question in my mind about it, and no echo of love or passion in my brain, either. The statement was a simple fact, something I was as sure of as the sunrise.
Scott dressed in the flannel grunge style popular at that time. He wore a flatcap, backwards like Samuel L. Jackson. He slouched in his chair and oozed nonchalance, insubordination. “Impress me,” his attitude said, “bet you can’t.”
I tried talking to him a few times. It seemed so inevitable, our being together, I figured I might as well get us started. But Scott was reluctant. Or, as it turned out, shy. I had almost given up, was starting to think my usually keen intuition had short circuited somehow, when Scott finally began to open up. We got assigned a project together (Scott’s doing). We met for coffee. Went to a couple movies. Scott cooked for me. Took me to a nice restaurant, then away for a weekend in Maine.
By the end of our first semester we were engaged.
We wrote our theses and planned a wedding for immediately after graduation. I gave up plans for an internship in LA because Scott wouldn’t have been able to go. And I gave up plans to move closer to family and friends because Scott felt we had more opportunities in New England.
Well, my instincts had been right in picking who I would marry. They never promised I’d get everything I wanted.
Scott has taken care of me, though. I can’t fault him there. He loves me, and as little as I know of love, I guess I do love him, too. It isn’t the kind of passion I felt for those teenage crushes, but one is expected to grow out of that kind of thing, and relationships are supposed to evolve into something more staid and mature. Grown-up love.
Or maybe I traded in or up or something. Passion is like a shiny sports car, fast but also not equipped for everyday use. Affection, and the kind of love that comes with it, is a sort of reliable family vehicle with a good warranty. It has four-wheel drive and seat warmers and can get you over rough terrain.
Every now and then a sports car will catch my eye, and I think it might be fun to go for a test drive. Then I remind myself that the thrill is fleeting, that in bad weather a sports car would be useless. I stick with my SUV. Roomy and comfortable, and it fits all the kids.