In the autumn of 1986 B. and I were high-school students working at a fast-food restaurant. He asked me to go steady with him and gave me his gaudy class ring, but it was too big for my fingers. When I tried wearing it on a chain around my neck, it didn’t go with the rest of my jewelry, which I’d made by hand from vintage trinkets and random beads. We were both completely unskilled at being in a relationship. For six weeks I drove B. home after work, and we’d sit in the car, smelling like french fries, and talk and listen to music, careful not to touch each other. Things progressed from hopeful to painful to awkward until one night, fueled by wine coolers at a party, we finally exchanged our first kiss.
That spring we went to the senior prom together, but I broke up with him the next day for no good reason. We remained friends, and a few weeks later he started hanging out with our co-worker Trish, who was from Florida and drove a pickup. One afternoon they left work together, her long blond hair whipping out of the truck’s open window, while I waited for my dad to come jump-start my car. It tortured me to see B. with Trish, but I wasn’t sure why.
In the summer B. announced that his family would be moving to Canada. I threw him a going-away party at my house while my parents were out of town. B. and Trish arrived together. At one point B. and I escaped from the party and sat on the street corner, discussing the U2 song “With or Without You” and how it made us feel. In midsentence, with no buildup or fanfare, B. told me that he loved me. I almost fell off the curb. Never in my seventeen and a half years had someone said those words to me. Love was something that happened to other people.
Now it all made sense: the warm feeling I had when I was with B., how empty I felt when we were apart, how exasperated I’d get whenever he was with Trish. Suddenly I was more than just the middle child of five, a girl with greasy, unstylish hair and weird jewelry who smelled like french fries. I was lovable. And I was in love.
For my seventh birthday a magician performed at my party. I was allowed ten guests. Despite my mother’s suggestion that I include an equal number of girls and boys, I decided to invite only three girls: the prettiest in my class.
One towered over me by half a foot and showed up in pointy-toed boots and a massive cowboy hat that made her seem even taller. Another wore what might have been a leftover Halloween costume — a fluffy orange smock that made her look like a pumpkin. The third was Claire.
I wasn’t athletic or funny. I couldn’t tap dance or sing or play the violin well. So it amazed me that these three girls came to my party and even brought gifts.
For the occasion I wore a shirt with horizontal stripes and pants with vertical stripes. The magician did a double take at my attire, acting as though he might faint. Then he and his female assistant pretended they knew me, as if we were a well-rehearsed act. The magician brandished a trick sword and stuck it into my throat. Unharmed, I grinned to prove I was fine. The other boys were probably jealous. I immediately hatched a plan to become a magician. Claire would be my assistant and my wife. We would drive a gold Cadillac all over Texas, performing at parties, and I would mix potions that would make cats disappear.
Claire and I never spoke to each other that day, but it didn’t matter. Each time I glanced at her, she seemed swathed in a beam of holy light. I floated through the rest of the party as if in a dream.
Much of that day’s magic had vanished within a few hours of my last guest’s departure. My father had worked overtime that day, and after he got home, I overheard my mother giving him a recap of the party. She told my father about the girl who was so tall she could have eaten soup off my head and another who was “very round.” She said the one I liked never spoke, and that all of my “pretty” girls were missing their front teeth. I heard my mother tell my father that he might need to talk with his son about what makes a girl pretty. Then I heard the two of them cackling. Their laughter made my blood boil!
I stormed into the kitchen and shouted through tears, “Well, they’re pretty to me!” Then I marched to my bedroom, where I planned to remain for a long time.
Asheville, North Carolina
When I was in first grade, I loved a boy named Roy. He was good-looking and smart, and I thought he was really something. One day, out on the playground, I decided to kiss him. His reaction wasn’t what I’d hoped: Roy ran crying to a teacher and told on me, but the teacher misunderstood and thought I had kicked him. I’m sure his tears convinced her that it had been quite painful.
The next thing I knew, I was in the principal’s office, and she was ready to spank me. When she asked me why I’d kicked Roy, I said, “I didn’t kick him. I kissed him.”
She leaned forward and asked, “Why would you want to kiss him?” I of course replied that I loved him. “Well,” said the principal, “just because you love him doesn’t mean you need to kiss him.” I said that my daddy and mommy loved each other, and they kissed all the time.
The principal called my mom, and I was sent back to class — a little shaken but without a spanking.
That night, when I got home, I was in big trouble. My mom yelled, “You don’t just go around kissing people anytime you want. You’d better not do it again!”
As for Roy, he was mean to me for the rest of the school year. So much for first love.
Kirkville, New York
My parents and I made the three-hour drive mostly in silence. I was nearly thirteen years old, and the impending three and a half weeks at camp would be the longest I had ever been separated from them. I was an introverted girl and had led a sheltered life. Going to sleep-over camp felt both liberating and terrifying. As we approached the camp, I saw a young woman with short brown hair and tanned, sinewy arms. She wore overalls and carried herself with an air of confidence. I’d never seen a woman like her before.
On the second day of camp the other campers and I sat outside and waited to hear our group assignments. The woman in overalls introduced herself as Kaitlyn and announced that she would be leading the “pioneers,” the wilderness-survival group to which I’d been assigned.
Over the next few weeks Kaitlyn taught us how to use a map and a compass, how to identify edible plants and trees, and how to build a fire. I badly wanted to be like her and to win her approval. So I pushed myself harder than I ever had before.
One day we were learning how to chop down small trees, and Kaitlyn asked me, “What if I told you that you can fell one that’s bigger than all the rest?” I laughed nervously. Kaitlyn directed me to a medium-sized black-cherry tree, and I set to work hacking and sawing and pounding a wedge into the dense trunk. Blisters formed on my hands, and sweat ran down my face and back. It must have been two hours before that black cherry finally fell. When it did, I saw Kaitlyn’s look of pride, and my confidence soared.
To this day I don’t even know Kaitlyn’s last name. I didn’t have any romantic feelings for her, but she was the first person I ever regarded with such awe and admiration. She helped a quiet, insecure, awkward girl to love herself.
When my eighth-grade teacher had our class read Romeo and Juliet aloud, I was assigned the role of Juliet. Zack, the boy who sat catty-corner to me, was Romeo. A few weeks after the balcony scene, he started walking me home from school. He also took me to his church’s hayride, where he gave me my first kiss.
Then, after several months, he suddenly broke it off. I cried for days. A year later we started dating again. Over the next four years we broke up and got back together repeatedly.
After high school I went to art school, and Zack left for West Point. We didn’t see each other again until the spring before he was to graduate. He asked me to go with him to the Army-Navy football game and the ball afterward.
Shortly before graduation Zack was killed in a car accident. His brother, Leon, was horribly injured in the same crash. Months later Leon told me that their parents had made Zack break up with me in the eighth grade, because they’d thought we were too serious and they didn’t want girls distracting him from his studies. He also told me that their father had forced Zack to go to West Point, where he’d become severely depressed. The crash had not been an accident.
It’s been fifty-two years since that first kiss on the hayride. I’ve had numerous lovers and have been happily married for more than thirty years, but from time to time I still dream about Zack.
My first true love was school. My first-grade teacher was a grandmotherly woman who would invite me to sit on her lap during story time. I adored the attention. My home life was chaotic, and I do not remember ever sitting on an adult’s lap or having a story read to me at home, even though my parents were both teachers.
In second grade I would come home from school and set up chairs in my room like a class for my stuffed animals, then hand out work sheets that I’d created. By the time I was in fourth grade, my mother would let me grade the assignments of her third-grade students.
When I was in high school, my parents objected to my ambition to follow them into teaching. “You won’t make any money,” my dad argued. “You won’t meet anyone to marry,” my mom warned. So I abandoned my plans to teach.
After college I missed the security I’d felt while in school, so I went on to complete a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation. I got a job at a university, supervising student internships in nursing homes. Within a year I found myself lecturing in the classroom. I loved every minute of it.
I married, had children, and became a college professor, but I yearned to be a student again. I chose to pursue a PhD. Rather than overwhelming my already busy life of work, marriage, and children, the effort actually helped restore my emotional balance.
After I retired, I moved west, away from family and friends. As I struggled to establish a new life, I was drawn once again to the classroom. I enrolled in a two-year continuing-studies program. My first love has proven to be the most enduring, too. I’m pretty sure that when I die, I will be in school.
Redwood City, California
My father was a shy, self-deprecating, and thoroughly devoted family man. As a child I was convinced he was the handsomest dad around, and every evening I looked forward to the moment he arrived home from work wearing a long overcoat and a gray fedora, smelling of pipe tobacco and after-shave. He would take my mother in his arms and kiss her, then tousle my hair and ask about my day.
My father was passionate about books, and when he had the time, he would read to my brother and me. Every weekend he took us to the zoo, or to a nearby park, or to the library, where he helped us pick out books. He washed dishes, bought groceries, vacuumed, and did other chores around the house. My mother cooked the meals, but he made the desserts — cakes from a mix and pies from scratch. I loved to help him spread icing on the cakes and cut sour apples for the pies, which remain the best I have ever tasted.
My mother would sometimes lose her temper and explode at my brother and me, but I can’t remember a single time when my father displayed real anger toward anyone in our family. His angriest expressions were “Hell’s bells, you would try the patience of a saint!” and “Hurry up! You are slower than molasses in January!”
As a young woman I had several lovers before I settled down. One was a brilliant dancer whose ardor was intense but short-lived. Another was a charismatic poet and organic gardener. But the man who became the father of my three daughters is a quiet and thoughtful family man — gentle, unassuming, and thoroughly trustworthy. He’s my best friend and my companion of the past thirty-eight years. Would I have chosen him had my father not been who he was?
Grass Valley, California
S.C. was fifteen, two years older than I was. His teeth gleamed whenever he smiled, and he always seemed to be surrounded by friends and in a good mood. He was on the track team and won all his events. I would cheer him on from the bleachers, even though I was certain he didn’t know I existed.
During recess one day I was confronted by a group of bullies in the schoolyard. One of them grabbed my arm and twisted it, then pulled me to the ground by my hair. He was trying to shove my face into a puddle of dirty water when I heard a yell from a distance and saw S.C. coming toward us. The bully immediately let me go and ran off with his friends.
S.C. and I walked back to class in silence. When we reached the corridors, he patted me on the back and smiled, and I fell in love with him.
For the next few days I replayed his gallant rescue in my mind. When I saw the word homo written by a bully in big letters across my schoolbook — something I ordinarily would have tried to hide — I just carried on as if nothing had happened. The taunts didn’t bother me anymore.
In 1931, at the age of eleven, I watched from my backyard as Donny, the minister’s son, played softball with his brothers in the lot next door. After the game Donny would come over, and we’d build sand castles in my sandbox or push each other on my swing. As evening fell, we’d play tag with the neighborhood kids, and we’d hide together behind our special bush. These were our “dates” for about two years. Then Donny’s family moved to Canada.
We wrote letters to each other through the years, and in high school Donny — now Don — and his family briefly returned to the area for his oldest brother’s wedding. I was delighted to catch up with him. After that, we wrote each other more often, sometimes describing our romantic successes and failures.
In his letters Don emphasized how much our friendship meant to him and implored me to visit him in Canada. He once compared me to the other girls he dated, saying, “There is only one Alice.” As the war in Europe heated up, he entered the Royal Canadian Air Force. In March 1942 he wrote to me from training camp: “No memory could be sweeter or more pleasant than when we were kids together.”
Later that year I married another man, but Don and I still corresponded often. He mentioned that he’d met someone, and soon they were married and had a baby girl. By February 1945 Don had gone overseas, and, though we continued to write, I also began corresponding with his wife, Jean.
In one of his letters Don praised Jean but also wrote that, before her, he had been in love with me. “During all the time I knew you,” he said, “I never once kissed you or took you in my arms, and yet the feeling I had for you has remained with me throughout the years.”
In my next letter to Jean, I shared Don’s kind words about her. She wrote back to tell me that Don had been shot down over Germany and killed. Her beloved husband — and my first love — was gone.
Alice Grant Bingner
Ann Arbor, Michigan
I married young, not long after high school. My boyfriend had finished college and was eager to settle down. I didn’t feel ready for marriage, but he persuaded me with his good-natured insistence that we were right for each other.
Twice during our forty-six years of marriage I became involved with other men. The first was early on, the second forty years later. Both times I was convinced that these infidelities were fueled by true love — unlike my marriage, which I felt I had been talked into. Both times I told my husband I thought we should separate, that I had found someone who was better for me. He was hurt, but, rather than condemn me, he listened patiently, then calmly explained why he thought our relationship was a good one and should be preserved.
After my second affair ended, I came to the realization that what I had imagined to be true love had been merely an intense attraction to unavailable men. It took me forty-six years to understand that my husband is my first and only love.
Before I left home for college, Dad warned me that all guys are out for sex and will lie and cheat to get it, and Mom repeated her litany about the shame of the morning after and the dangers of HIV. I’d never even had a serious boyfriend.
Three weeks into college, I fell into a relationship with Josh, who had a contagious smile and an upbeat personality. We were inseparable, but whenever kissing led to something more, I stopped him, sure that it was wrong. I pressed Josh to tell me if he wanted sex. “Eventually, yes,” he said. “But I don’t want to go faster than you do. What do you want?”
I answered based on my parents’ warnings: No sex. No taking off our clothes. No fondling.
“That’s what you don’t want,” Josh said. “What is it that you do want?”
I didn’t have an answer.
I quickly learned that my body resisted my own rules. But when I placed Josh’s hand on my breast, waves of terror and shame surged through me. Josh waited until my panic had passed, then reassured me that he would always let me set the physical limits of our relationship.
Josh kept his word, but my panic attacks continued as the part of me that craved sex fought the part of me that thought physical intimacy was dangerous and immoral. I expected Josh to leave, but he loved me despite it all, wrapping his arms around me when I needed to be comforted and patiently waiting when I couldn’t bear to even hold his hand. My first love helped me through the difficult process of figuring out what I wanted, rather than what my parents wanted for me.
After graduating from college in the Midwest, I traveled to India to seek adventure and reconnect with my roots. I lived in Mumbai and found a job at a consulting company. On my first day I met a young woman unlike anyone I had ever known. She spoke both Hindi and English flawlessly and with a terrific wit. I was so smitten, it was a wonder I got any work done. I enjoyed her company at casual group lunches, and we chatted occasionally, but we never talked about anything meaningful. I couldn’t muster the courage to tell her how I felt.
I wrote a poem declaring my admiration for her, comparing her beauty to the wonders of nature. I revised it several times to capture my feelings precisely, then wrote the final version in red ink on a page torn from my journal. I took it with me to work every day, but I couldn’t find the right moment to share it with her.
One day after work I saw her board the bus. She sat by an open window, her yellow sari glowing in the late-afternoon sun. I approached her window, intending to read her my poem and ask her out. She gazed down at me with a look of curiosity and smiled, but before I could speak, the bus pulled away.
Somehow she guessed my intent. The following week I learned that she thought of me as “just a kid.”
I returned to the U.S., fell in love, and married another woman. Twenty years later I live a life rich in affection. But the sight of red ink still evokes tender memories. Now, as my son reaches the age at which he might fall in love for the first time, I am determined to share with him how important it is to trust your feelings and express them with confidence.
Vinit M. Doshi
Marko was in fourth grade, and I was in fifth. He was short, and I was tall. He was Croatian, and I was Serbian. But none of that mattered to me. I adored his raven-black hair, olive skin, and playful glances. Incredibly he seemed to like me, too.
Marko and I were together all the time — usually in the company of friends, but occasionally alone. He would stand next to me as I threw potatoes at passersby from my eighth-story window, and when we played the Bosnian version of dodgeball, he made me feel like a superstar.
One day after school our group of eight or nine friends decided to climb an abandoned house and jump from its flat roof. I was the only girl who made the climb. As I stood at the edge, ten or so feet above the ground, Marko moved next to me and said, “You are the bravest girl I know.”
On the day the Bosnian War started in April 1992, our school let out early. Marko and I found each other in the torrent of children flooding the hallways and walked home together. He said his family would probably go to Split, a town in Croatia. My family had never discussed what we would do if war broke out. My plans went only so far as to meet up with Marko and the rest of our crew that evening, as we had agreed. With that, the two of us parted in front of Marko’s building, and I continued home.
Less than thirty minutes later, the first strike of the war blew up the military barracks across the street from my family’s apartment. Two weeks later my brother, my cousins, and I were sent away. In exile I wrote Marko long, never-to-be-sent letters describing the anger, sadness, and displacement I felt as we moved from one town to another. My memories of him and those brief days of childhood happiness shone through the darkness of the ensuing years.
When I started dating, I joked that I couldn’t commit because I had an unfinished relationship. Yet the few times I traveled back to my hometown, I didn’t look for Marko. I feared that nothing would remain of the bright-eyed boy who’d followed me home from school on his skateboard and once impressed me by pouring baking soda into a bottle of Coca-Cola, making it fizz, foam, and overflow.
I moved to North America and did my best to make a home there. One morning, sixteen years after I had first left my hometown, I found a message in my e-mail in-box: “If you are N. from Mostar, then I am your boyfriend from fourth grade. Please get back to me so we can figure out what we are going to do.”
Over the next few weeks we exchanged many e-mails. Despite everything that had kept us apart — time, distance, a history of ethnic hatred and war — Marko and I had found a way to keep each other: in our hearts.
In high school I was a loner and did not date girls. I had a strong libido but felt confused about my sexual identity. In college I withdrew during my first year, hoping to sort things out.
Needing companionship, I acquired a dog from a young married couple, Tim and Kathy. They were about ten years older than I was and had two school-age kids, but we became friends. I began spending weekends at their house, drinking beer and laughing with them into the wee hours of the morning. I also helped Tim build their new home in the country. I admired his carpentry skills, his kindness, and his body. It was then I realized that I was attracted to men — something I had tried to suppress throughout high school. I cared a great deal for Kathy, too, but my feelings for her were less sexual in nature.
I was sleeping on their living-room couch one night when Kathy tried to seduce me. I told her that I loved her, but that I also loved — and desired — Tim. She said that Tim liked me, but she did not think he was into men.
One evening Kathy was suffering from a migraine and wanted to sleep on the couch. She asked me to sleep in the queen bed with Tim. I gladly accepted, and Tim was surprisingly OK with the arrangement. In the dark, with great trepidation, I clumsily came on to him, and we had sex.
What followed was a whirlwind of erotic experiences for the three of us. I would sleep with either Tim or Kathy, or the two of them would spend a night together without me. During my time with them I gained confidence and grew comfortable with my sexuality. After a year I decided it was time for me to return to school. Tim and Kathy and I drifted apart, but I still remember with fondness those first loves of my life.
Josh took me for rides on his motorcycle up and down the hills of San Francisco. Nicklaus was older and sophisticated, chain-smoking while he spoke about topics that seemed worldly to me at eighteen. Tony sang for a thrash-metal band and snuck me into his bedroom in his parents’ house. Jake spouted philosophy and gave me mixtapes with songs from obscure artists. Roger made shocking and disturbing short films that excited me. Gary sang in a choir but always wanted to talk dirty in bed. Aaron encouraged me to believe in myself and gave me self-help books. Rich showed me how to dance in the space between the kitchenette and the living room, spinning me into a passionate frenzy.
I loved each of these men according to who I was when I dated them. And each one of them taught me something. With every breakup I’d weep and wonder how I could ever move on.
Today I’m grateful for every relationship that has helped bring me to this point in my life, as I look down at the sleeping faces of my husband and daughter napping on the couch.
El Sobrante, California
During our freshman orientation he pulled my name from a hat for a get-to-know-you game. He had a Long Island accent and curly hair, and he wore a stylish flannel shirt and expensive leather boots. I was a plain girl from the Bronx with all the wrong clothes. But as soon as we met, he said, “Let’s get out of here.” We wandered the campus and made awkward small talk; then he kissed me.
I started spending every night in his room, smoking pot from his glass bong, playing backgammon, and making out with him on his loft bed. He took my virginity, but he would not take me out on a date, eat meals with me in the dining hall, or even acknowledge my existence outside of his room. I became so obsessed with him that I couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork and didn’t make any friends. I believed I was in love and accepted the crumbs he threw me as proof that he loved me, too.
At the end of the semester, I asked him to a showing of the film Last Tango in Paris in the big lecture hall, but he told me he wasn’t interested. I went by myself only to see him there with his best friend, three rows in front of me. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t upset when I ended our relationship. He even said I could still come to his room, which I actually did once or twice.
The next semester I saw him around campus with a pretty girl who had breasts the size of bowling balls. They looked happy together. Every time I saw them, I tried not to throw up or cry. In my senior year I met a sweet pre-med student who took me swimming and hiking and out for beers. I have been with him for thirty-five years. We are the best of friends, but he has never made me feel as though my whole world were upside down, and for a long time I thought there was something missing.
A few years ago I was having lunch in a diner with our youngest child and her grandparents when a handsome middle-aged man approached and asked my name. It was him. He was in town to pick up his son from summer camp. He said he couldn’t believe I looked so young. I later found him online and discovered that he had become vice-president of a successful financial firm and that he and his wife were generous philanthropists. I was surprised to receive a letter from him, apologizing for how poorly he had treated me all those years ago. For a moment I churlishly hoped he was in a twelve-step program and was taking the step of making amends. But in truth I believe that he has become a kinder person.
His letter has helped me realize that I have gotten over him and no longer hold a grudge. What I have with my husband is not perfect, and it is not easy, but it is everything I need.
In the summer of 1969 I was ostensibly “studying abroad,” living in a crowded youth hostel in Paris. One day, on a class tour of Notre Dame, a handsome young man with olive skin, tousled black hair, and soft brown eyes joined our group. When my gaze met his, the cathedral seemed to fade away.
Behind the altar he told me his name was Pablo and that he was a law student from Uruguay. We discovered we were both nineteen and born within twenty-four hours of each other. Pablo had been traveling alone on a strict itinerary. We stayed together in Paris for two weeks, and then I went to London with him for another week. Pablo begged me to follow him to Greece, but I had to return to my college program. On a wet afternoon we waved goodbye through the rain-streaked window of a bus.
We wrote to each other after Pablo returned to Uruguay, where he joined an uprising against the government. He was imprisoned, but his father was able to get him exiled to Chile. When the Chilean president was deposed in 1973, the country descended into chaos, and Pablo’s letters ceased. Convinced he was dead, I mourned and fell into short, meaningless relationships. Eventually I married and had children.
Nearly twenty-five years later, and ten years after my divorce, my dad forwarded to me a letter from a man who was looking for a woman with my name who had been in Paris in 1969. I gripped the back of a chair to steady myself. Pablo was alive and searching for me. Heart pounding, I replied to the letter.
Pablo and I began to e-mail each other. I learned that he had returned to Uruguay and been brutally imprisoned until his father had managed to transport the whole family to France, where they’d lived in exile. In Paris Pablo had met and married a Uruguayan woman named Anna. They’d returned to their home country after the government had become a stable democracy, and then Pablo had begun sending “messages in bottles” to addresses he thought might be mine.
Pablo and Anna arranged to meet me in New York City on their twentieth wedding anniversary. They stepped out of the elevator, and, Lord, he still had those eyes. Pablo and Anna each kissed both my cheeks. Later I asked Anna why she had agreed to visit her husband’s former lover, and she answered that anyone this important to Pablo was equally important to her.
I’ve seen Pablo and Anna three more times over the years. These visits have been difficult for me. I’ve loved this man for most of my life, and I believe he loves me, too, but we never talk about it when we see each other. The last time Pablo and Anna saw me off, he said, “Come back soon,” but I don’t think I will. I don’t want to put myself through that pain again.
Victoria L. Meier
West Linn, Oregon
I can still remember with perfect clarity the first time I met him. He wasn’t what you would call good-looking. His tightly wound curls jutted comically from his head. He had a bushy mustache and a crooked, goofy smile. He was overweight, and his shirt had several small holes made by embers that had fallen from joints. But he had a quick wit, an infectious laugh, and warm brown eyes.
I instantly knew that this was the man with whom I wanted to share the rest of my life. This would prove problematic, however, as it was my fiancé who’d introduced us.
Port Charlotte, Florida
I had some crushes in grade school and kissed a couple of boys in college, but I had never had an actual boyfriend before Ben, who would become my husband. He, on the other hand, had been in a relationship from eighth grade until he’d graduated from high school. Her name was Rachel, and he told me all about her. They’d started having sex when they were fifteen. Ben had even lived with Rachel and her mom after his parents had kicked him out of the house for doing drugs.
Though Ben and Rachel broke up before college, he made out with her every time he visited home. Before leaving for a year in El Salvador — where he met me — he had lunch with her and hugged her goodbye.
When Ben and I first started dating, I often calculated how much longer we’d have to be together for me to surpass Rachel’s five years with him.
Rachel lives in San Diego now. According to Facebook she is married and has twins. Over the years I’ve wondered about her a lot. Occasionally Ben will tell me a story about her, or mention that it’s her birthday, or I will see an e-mail from her on his birthday.
Last year Ben’s parents brought him several bins filled with mementos from his high-school years. One contained a shoe box full of correspondence from Rachel: notes passed during school and letters mailed to him while they were at different summer camps. At first I felt pangs of jealousy and anger as I went through them. Her handwriting is big and bubbly, and the words reveal a kind of young love I never experienced. She discusses her insecurities about her body, the jealousy she feels toward other girls, her desire to start having sex, and her hopes that she and Ben will one day get married.
I’ve stored the letters and still read them from time to time. Through them I can imagine myself as a teenage girl, in love with my husband in his youth.
Oak Park, Illinois
One cold Sunday evening when I was eleven, I was walking home from an ice-skating rink when a station wagon pulled up alongside me, and a man got out to ask for directions. As I began to speak, he put his hand over my mouth and pulled me into his car. He made me crouch down on the floor of the passenger side until we reached a secluded road on the outskirts of town. He raped me, and then he threw me and my clothes out of the car and drove off. Naked on the snow-packed road, I slowly got dressed. From that point on I was afraid of men.
I fell in love for the first time in high school. For six months I didn’t tell anyone, because I knew they wouldn’t approve of my boyfriend. When word finally got out, friends and even teachers told me I could do better, but I dismissed their opinions. The boy was patient and never pressured me for sex. I felt safe with him.
In college I went to study abroad for a year, and I broke up with my boyfriend. I fell in love with someone in my international-studies program. He was smart and funny, and also eager to have sex. The thought of having intercourse terrified me, but I was too embarrassed to tell him why. I held him off as long as I could, and then I ended the relationship so I wouldn’t have to talk about my past.
When I returned to the U.S., I got back together with my high-school boyfriend because I knew he would wait until I was ready to have sex, and he did. Twenty-eight years later we are married. My husband and I volunteer at our church, do yoga together at the YMCA, and hold hands in the grocery store. But the truth is that my husband bores me. I tell myself that I should leave him, that I deserve to be with someone who makes me laugh and engages me in fascinating conversations, but I know I never will. Though I ache for genuine connection, I’m still haunted by those old fears, and with my husband at least I feel safe.
I was three years old when I had my first sip of beer. I can’t recall what I thought of the taste, but I do remember my father’s smile when I drank it. I could tell that I had pleased him.
As a child I would pull myself onto the couch beside my father. He’d smoke his real pipe, and I’d pretend to smoke my red-and-white plastic one while he shared his beer with me. The rest of the time I was invisible to him. Our only connection was through that twelve-ounce can. Sometimes when he got up to go to the bathroom, I’d even sneak sips on my own.
Throughout middle school and high school my interactions with my father were mostly brief and hostile. Drinking wine with dinner always eased the tension. And when I was hurt by something he’d said or done, I felt better knowing that later I could leave the house and go drink or get high with a friend.
In my early twenties I started drinking Scotch — my father’s favorite drink, which I’d always complained smelled like wood and made me gag. When he found out that I’d developed a taste for Scotch, that old smile returned. I overheard him calling his best friend to share the news.
For a while my father and I talked more often and hiked and drank together. He let me try his chewing tobacco, and we joked about entering a father-daughter tobacco-spitting contest. At the end of our nights together he would go to bed, and I would head to the bar.
Over the years my father’s pride turned into disapproval. He persuaded me not to get a bartending job or to move into an apartment above a bar. “You need to learn to pace yourself,” he would say, and he told me that if I didn’t stop drinking so heavily, I would end up a barfly who looked seventy-five at the age of fifty. I believed him, but by then my need for my father’s approval had been replaced by my need for alcohol.
Almost every one of my childhood and teenage crushes went unknown, because I could not bear to express my feelings. It got no easier in college, where I was always the friend, never the boyfriend, though I maintained a private devotion to several women who captivated me.
When I first met Janelle, I was drawn to her. We volunteered at the same children’s home in Bolivia for a year, and a few weeks after we returned to the States, I managed to squeak out an invitation for a date. She graciously said yes. Less than a year later we were married.
Our relationship was never rocky, but neither were we on fire for each other. My timidity did not magically go away after the wedding, as I had hoped it would. Sometimes I wondered whether other marriages had more pizzazz, and if our love was lacking something important.
Now, almost sixteen years since our wedding night, we’ve paid off college debts, fixed up a house, planted gardens, and celebrated holidays with each other’s families year after year. We’ve been together through the births of three children and the death of one of them. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. At a party we can communicate with each other across a loud, crowded room with just a glance.
When we are alone, our physical intimacy is enriched by years of mutual care and respect, and our pleasure is deep and resonant. I used to make naive young love to a naive young woman, which was beautiful in its own way, but now I make wiser love to a wiser woman who knows me as well as any person ever will — and likes me anyway.
Tim and I were fourteen and convinced that our attraction was not just puppy love but something special. We made out at every possible opportunity and had long, intimate conversations about his alcoholic mother and strict father and his dream to learn how to fly a plane. I shared my fantasies of traveling to exotic locales. Then his family moved from Oklahoma to Alabama.
Tim and I wrote to each other daily. I collected money in the school hallways to buy him a bus ticket so he could visit at Thanksgiving. We talked about marriage. But after a few years of occasional visits, our plans for the future faded. Our letters became less frequent and more mundane. I got engaged to someone else.
A week before my wedding day, Tim appeared at my door. He’d driven from Alabama to talk me out of it. I’m not sure what surprised me more — his visit or the depth of feeling I still had for him. I went through with the wedding, however, and moved out west with my new husband. Tim joined the Air Force, got married, and had a daughter. Decades went by. From time to time I thought of writing to his father, but I didn’t.
Then came the Internet. In idle moments, when I searched online for long-lost friends or co-workers, I’d type in Tim’s name. Eventually one of my searches brought us back in touch. We exchanged e-mails and caught up. He had looked for me, too, but I’d divorced, remarried, changed my name, and moved by then, making me much harder to find.
Tim told me that he had become an airline pilot and flew in and out of an airport just seven miles from my house. He also carefully broke the news that he had untreatable cancer. Then he shared fond memories: our first kiss and the hot-pink minidress I’d once worn to a school dance. His message ended: “I will write as long as I can, but I don’t know how long that will be. Just in case — I love you. I always have.”
He did continue to e-mail me. I always wrote back immediately, offering some of my best memories, gleaned from the diary I’d kept while we had been dating: the Jan and Dean rock concert we’d attended, my tally of how many times he had called me on the phone (412 as of August 4, 1964).
Two weeks ago Tim mentioned that he’d given my e-mail address to an old friend and asked him to get in touch with me “if anything significant happens.” Today I received an e-mail from that friend informing me that Tim has passed away.
According to my diary, Tim moved to Alabama exactly two weeks and fifty years ago. We’d said our goodbyes, tearful but certain we’d find our way to each other again. We did, and who knows? Maybe we will again.