First Loves


When I knew we would have to be apart for a while, I asked him to visit every other week. I already missed him terribly. He said he’d prefer once a month (keep in mind he was under two hours away, jobless, in his hometown). 

I conceded, probably too quickly, deferring to practical needs. Money was an issue, time was an issue—I hid my hurt. But over a few weeks I realized I could lie in the dead-center of my full bed, the biggest bed I’d ever called mine, in the first room that was mine and mine alone. The space. I had never experienced anything like it. 


My sister could pour her love into others, including boys at school, in a way I found utterly foreign. These boys did not deserve how much love she had. What does she see in them? I thought. 

I wonder now if it wasn’t about the boys. Maybe my sister could feel the presence of love in her—boiling—and nowhere for it to go (the result of our vaguely unhappy home). Maybe she wanted to give her love to someone who could accept it, even if they didn’t deserve it, just to feel the warmth. 

I had love in me, but not love that could be used generously. From the time I was a child, I refused to kiss anyone—including my parents. I folded my love up small and packed it away. I had a belief that I could use it. Just not now.   


A friend asked me shyly to attend the eighth grade dance with him. He was holding a bouquet of yellow flowers. I had said once that yellow flowers were my favorite. I said no (averse to the obligation of standing next to him all night, worrying that he might expect me to kiss him), but he insisted I keep the flowers. 

The rest of the day, people thought I had accepted because of those flowers. They told me I was mean. You can’t take the flowers! 

He gave them to me! I said. What else was I supposed to do? They rolled their eyes and giggled at my cluelessness. One or two of them looked at me skeptically, as if daring me to admit I had done it on purpose; that there was some cruel streak in me. 


I was not boy crazy, but I was still obsessed with love. I read romantic comic books and fan fiction; observed other peoples’ love and got preoccupied with it. As a freshman in high school, I believed that two seniors I knew were secretly in love. I watched them, looking for clues. I assembled a mental list of evidence and wished for a mutual confession. 

At the end of the school year, a dance was held to say goodbye to the seniors. That senior boy approached me and my friends as we tried to dance. He said to me, “You have to move your hips! Here.” He touched my hips and swayed them. One forward, one back; the other forward, the other back. I was stunned by his attention and double-stunned at my realization: I had had a crush on him all along.


The first: in sixth grade. A very tall boy. We had lunch together every day. 

He told us that he was moving to New York after winter break. We had a goodbye party for him at lunch. I considered telling him how I felt, but was far too shy. I wrote about him in my diary, about how much I was going to miss him. 

Next semester, there he was, at lunch. Why are you here? We found out later he’d also lied about a brother dying tragically of an asthma attack. 

I never wrote about him again. I would not abide liars. What a waste of my feelings. 

The second: the summer after freshman year of high school, taking a summer class to clear my schedule for an elective. The boy sat at the desk behind mine. He was already sixteen; he showed me his driver’s license. He used to play with my hair. He looked cool. Boys like him had never liked me. 

At my school, I was a straight-laced school-spirited nice girl. But here? I could be anyone. It seemed perfect to me, to have a summer boyfriend who didn’t know any of my friends. One evening we talked on the phone for two hours. I was huddled on the floor next to my bed, trying to create some sense of privacy in the room I shared with my sister. I flirted with him unabashedly. 

A few classes later, he moved seats and wouldn’t look at me. He never called or texted me again. I was indignant and embarrassed, but didn’t speak to him. I would not fawn for his attention. I couldn’t believe I’d been so pointlessly tricked. What a waste of time. 


Within a month of my first semester in college, we were sort of a couple, though it took more months for him to call it that. 

Why did I like him? He was older than me, well-integrated in the community I was hoping to become a part of. He was funny and sociable. He had not had many relationships, like me. Everyone was his friend. And everyone thought we were a great idea. 

He hated holidays, and especially obligatory gift-giving. On that first Valentine’s Day we’d decided not to celebrate, but then I saw a cheap “build-a-bear” workshop activity in the student center on campus. I participated with a friend, secretly intending to give him the bear. 

“We agreed!” he said, exasperated, when I presented the bear. He said he was upset because now he was in my debt. He was obligated to do something in return or else be labeled a jerk by everyone who knew us. 

I downplayed my devastation. He apologized eventually.  

Years later I imagined the situation from his perspective. How must it have felt? To meet this new girl suddenly, to have other guys telling him he would be crazy not to “go for it”? Maybe he had never been sure about his feelings for me. Had our relationship begun out of peer pressure? 

If it did, he didn’t mind for long. We stayed together until my last semester. 


As a kid, the relationship drama among my friends bored me. I didn’t think you could feel real love until you were at least sixteen or something. Why bother? I could wait my turn. 

My turn came when I was sixteen, but it wasn’t quite right. I could never decide if I was in love or if I was seeking something else. Was this a corrupt feeling, disguised as love? 

“Emily likes yellow flowers,” he said, absently, as he passed a display of bouquets in the grocery store. My friend told me about this as part of her warning. Be careful. Seriously. Every time you come into a room, he only looks at you. 

My friend understood more than I did. I should have listened to her. But she couldn’t have known this was exactly what I’d hoped for. I could have love without the difficult actions of love. I could have love without having to experience any shame. 


My friends used to say that they could never see me with a boyfriend. I shrugged it off, but I was hurt. Why not? I wondered. It seemed vivid enough to me that I was capable of love. What was I hiding, unintentionally, from my peers? 

He became part of my reasoning. Clearly I was misunderstood by these people, who could not see me outside of the role I inhabited within our adolescent social structure. But he understood me. In some other, more essential way; beyond words or acknowledgment (or mundane reality). 

And this explanation served me well: for once I could imagine physical intimacy without disgust. 


I was happy in some ways. Because I always had a boyfriend, I was equipped with an instant shield against other undergraduate men. I didn’t want to go to frat parties or complete someone’s girl-to-guy ratio, and I didn’t have to. An instant shield against loneliness. 

He asked very little of me. But I was lonely in an unexpected way—he sometimes didn’t seem interested in me. Did he even think I was pretty? He said he was nervous because I was pretty. What could I say to that? So I went about my secret plans to be beautiful and irresistible; plans that never materialized the way I wanted them to. 

Years later, with a clearer mind and no more anger, I saw how much fear existed in him. And in me. We were both protecting some essential piece of ourselves. We wanted safety more than we wanted love. 


My single short-lived high school relationship. The boy was a friend. He texted a mutual friend and said: “I’m starting to have a crush on Emily, but know it will never happen, lol.” Why not? I wondered. (I should admit my ulterior motive: to get my first kiss before I graduated.)

My favorite moments of our brief relationship were in two types. The first was when we were among friends privately. Our status as a couple was elevating. We’d drive to fast food restaurants and pick up lunch for everyone; the solid, reliable couple. I was proud of him. 

The other was when we were alone publicly. We used to kiss in the parking lot of Dunkin Donuts, against his car. I liked to pretend I was someone else, someone much cooler and more interesting, who did not go to the school I went to, who made out in parking lots and didn’t care who was watching. 

With friends publicly, I wouldn’t even hold his hand. Alone privately, I was on guard, I could sense him trying to find a way to touch me. I couldn’t stand the anticipation, which was somehow both too obvious and completely unpredictable. 


Two boys I had attended school dances with commiserated—as a joke with some truth to it—that I was the worst dance date ever. I laughed at them, hoping they would perceive a cruel streak in me. (You can’t take the flowers!) But the truth was I couldn’t bear to be seen dancing with a boy, especially not slowly, especially not closely. What would others think? What if he wanted something from me?

And their jokes could be cruel. I faked my period once to avoid having to dance with a boy. He told the story after: That tampon got more action than I did! Everyone laughed, including me. But all I could think was that I hadn’t actually been on my period, so there was no tampon. I never told anyone—what was my excuse otherwise? 

(Privately, I claimed to myself that the reason was simple: I didn’t want him to see me dancing with these boys. During my only relationship, he used to get angry and storm out of rooms. Be careful. Seriously. I got a thrill from his jealousy.)


In the dyad of love, I tended to imagine myself as the desired, not the desiring. I listened to love songs and imagined others as the “I.” This is probably common among girls, who are used to seeing women as desired ideals, and used to the male perspective on love. So often, girls hope that someone will like them, not that they will like someone. I never thought that I could desire anyone. 

But I realized later that this was an adept little sleight of hand I committed against myself. I did have desire. I just took that desire, my love, and reflected it back onto the one I desired. I did not have to feel the weight of my feelings; the desirer’s feelings are in some ways heavier. I didn’t need to open myself to this possibility or that impossibility. I could just imagine others lovesick. Really it was me. I was lovesick.


We were in the mountains. It began to snow. I was standing next to him while the others played some game. He came closer, reached over, and began plucking bits of gathered snow out of the folds in the sleeve of my sweater. I watched him; he didn’t look at me. I stood still and hardly breathed. 

A few months later, he would announce that I was the reason he believed in God. If she can exist… then God must exist. 

So he is in love with me? Am I in love with him? I wondered. Then: How can he say that? Is he insane? 


Don’t you know, I wanted to shout, petulantly, but never did. Others would have gone double the distance weekly for me. Others have loved me more than this, and I picked you. As if this “fact” could kindle something in him. He was stubbornly sparkless. 

Until, over the phone (what else could I do? I had school, and he wouldn’t come), I tried to leave. Through tears, he said: but I do love you! You’re my best friend! 

Friendship always seemed more sacred to me than love. He probably didn’t do it intentionally, but he had said the exact right thing. I cried with him. 

After three more months were up, I was angry. He’d dangled what I wanted in front of me, as if all I had to do was stay. What he’d really done was admit that he was capable of what I wanted, he just wouldn’t give it to me. His outburst seemed so selfish: how can you leave if I love you? 


What did I do wrong? he said to my friend. (She told me everything he said, warning after warning.)

Nothing tangible had changed. I just woke up one day as if a fog had burned away. Now I was cold and disgusted. What have I done? Did I do this? I couldn’t speak to him. 

People noticed something was wrong. He’s going to ruin this, I thought, as I watched him sulk in public, as he refused to cut his hair or wear decent clothes. Ruin what? I didn’t know what I was afraid of. Being blamed? It made me sick to look at him; his face was too jarring; I had so recently looked for that face to feel happy. It made me sick (and angry, I felt angry) to think that I had hurt someone so badly. Did I do this? 

He must have—I thought with all the weight of guilt—really loved me. 


Afterward, I had dinner with my friend back home. We talked about him and about her warning. I told her the story I’d been telling myself since it ended: I’d known all along the effect I had on him. I’d done it on purpose. Some cruel streak in me. 

“You’re a heartbreaker,” she said, with an air of resignation, and I felt heartbroken. I’d done so much expressing but failed to express any truth. I didn’t know what to do with this experience. I couldn’t call it a relationship, but something had happened, something had occupied those three years. I couldn’t call it love, because I couldn’t decide if I had loved or if I had simply reacted to his inexplicable feelings for me. It couldn’t be all smoke and mirrors; he had made me feel loved in some important way. My new friends in college called me a victim of something. I didn’t feel better when they said it wasn’t my fault. I was more disturbed by the possibility that it might have had nothing to do with me at all. 

I sent an impulsive text. I said I was sorry. When he responded, I regretted it. How have you been? he wanted to know. I never wrote back. I returned to my safe lover back east, who was—thank god—a staunch atheist. 


I wrote in my journal, with melodramatic finality, that heartbreak felt like disappointment. 

I had a dream of us dancing, not long after we met. Magically I imagined that I had been given a glimpse of our future (wedding day?). But my journals also candidly catalogue the worries I had from the beginning. I read somewhere that a committed relationship is a decision to have the same fight over and over again until one of you dies. When choosing a partner, one should ask: What fight am I willing to have for the rest of my life? 

It’s that simple common knowledge: the problems you start with turn out to be the problems you end with. (But knowing this ahead of time doesn’t help much, does it?)


He couldn’t accept that there was no incident I could point to, that I had no list of grievances. Neither of us will be happy, I said. Not what he wanted to hear. He assured me that he could correct any behavior I wasn’t satisfied with. Not what I wanted to hear. 

He messaged me constantly, demanding that I meet with him in person (again) to explain myself (again). It was so relentless that I blocked his number. He called my friends. He mailed me a box and a letter. I didn’t read it. 

He did not know me quite well enough. He didn’t know that when people begin to want things from me, when people try to sway me with orders and dictates, I am able to conjure preternatural obstinance. Every application of force only makes me more willful. I have no generosity, no sympathy, and no love. 

Or, rather, I have love—but I can fold it up, small, and pack it away. I don’t need it now. I don’t need it now. I can wait.