Ah, to be young and in love.
First love is more than a fond memory that warms our heart when things grow cold romantically, or an awkward story to share when we are ready to entrust the care of our heart to someone new.
It is a powerful force that sets the tone for how we mature in the romance department, and it sends us down a path that will affect our love lives until the day we die.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, no one ever sat me down to talk about the birds and the bees. I blame this glaring oversight for why it took me longer than usual to find love for the first time.
It also led to my first love having much more influence over me than it ever should have.
I was sixteen when I met Mary (names have been changed to protect the innocent). I spent the summer working as a counselor at a sleepaway camp, and she was a counselor as well.
I worked in the Green Cabin, and Mary in Blue. The colors didn’t go together, but I didn’t let that stand in the way of love.
Mary was beautiful, funny, smart, and four years older than I.
Even though I knew nothing could ever happen between us, I fell hopelessly in love (or the equivalent when you’re sixteen and have no idea what love actually is). Why I didn’t choose to fall head over heels for a counselor who could have reciprocated my feelings without going to jail is beyond me. Although, it probably had something to do with the fact that I felt incredibly awkward around the opposite sex (much like I still do to this day), but Mary didn’t seem to notice.
Looking at it logically, thirty years removed from that summer, I’d say that I have a tendency to relax and behave rationally when there is no pressure to communicate with the female in question. Since Mary was twenty, and there was no chance of her actually being my girlfriend, I could just be myself and untie my tongue long enough to form words and even complete sentences.
Mary and I hung out all summer. She gave me her college sweatshirt (which I wore constantly) and I gave her my high school one. I spent way too much time wondering what it would be like to kiss her, and absolutely no time thinking about how ridiculous I must have looked following her around the camp like a little puppy dog.
Again, I will assure you that nothing inappropriate ever happened. Mary was well aware of my feelings for her, but did nothing to lead me on. I just kept reminding her that I would be eighteen in a year and a half, and begged her to wait for me.
She would laugh and remind me that a lot could change in eighteen months.
But I knew my feelings were never going to change. I would love Mary until the day I died, and even then, I’d make sure my will stipulated that I was to be buried in her college sweatshirt.
When camp ended, Mary held my hand for the first and only time on the train ride home, and I was in geeky teen heaven. We wrote to each other consistently (this was back in the dark ages before email and cell phones were invented) and she even visited me over her winter break.
For the next year, I didn’t give girls my own age any thought because my heart belonged to the pretty college senior, who was never going to love me back. Plus, high school girls were weird, intimidating, and clearly had no interest in talking to me.
My experience with first love left me thinking that it was perfectly normal to fall for someone who didn’t offer anything romantic in return. I had nothing to compare it to, so I just jumped to the illogical conclusion that this was how love worked.
Thus began my troubling habit of giving my heart to someone who didn’t ask for it, didn’t deserve it, or couldn’t completely give hers to me in return.
My first serious relationship began during my sophomore year of college and spanned sixteen years until the judge finalized our divorce.
In college, my romantic approach was something like that of an unsuccessful fisherman. I’d cast my line anywhere I could and pray that something would bite. My college sweetheart, who would grow up to be my ex-wife, was the first woman who showed any romantic interest in me.
Since my first love had taught me that it was okay to just give my heart and expect nothing in return, I was sure I had found true love when Jamie (again, names have been changed to protect the innocent) actually responded physically to my interest in her.
Love had found me, so it was okay to call off the search. I was off the market and those awkward days of being alone were over for good.
Jamie and I fought constantly, she kept telling me I was going to cheat on her like her father had cheated on her mother, and she really didn’t deserve my love and devotion, but she also told me she loved me, let me share her bed, and wanted to live together after college.
Compared to what I’d had with Mary, this was fairy tale love. We were going to live happily ever after as long as I ignored all the red flags like Jamie’s wild jealousy if another woman laughed at my jokes, or if I paid attention to anyone else when she was in the room.
I took a couple of Criminology courses in college, and one term that has stuck with me was “ignorance of the law.” Looking back at it now, I’d say I suffered from ignorance of love.
I had no idea what love was supposed to be, so anything that was an improvement on my first love was automatically okay in my poorly written Book of Love.
My relationships after my divorce continued down that same familiar path. While I should have taken any road less traveled, my heart was fond of this particular route. I kept falling for women who couldn’t give their hearts to me completely, and I’d stupidly settle for that less than groovy kind of love.
When I finally, by some miraculous intervention on Cupid’s part, met an amazing woman who could actually give me her heart, deserved my love, and wanted my love in return, I screwed it up. My head aches constantly now from trying to figure out how I lost the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Maybe if my first love had better prepared me for what to expect when the love of my life finally appeared, I wouldn’t be all alone on a Saturday night writing this.
But in the end, I have no one but myself to blame for my failure at love.
No matter how misguided the first love, a good man should be able to overcome that obstacle so that he can finally find and enjoy a true and lasting love.
I clearly still have some serious work to do to be a better man when it comes to affairs of the heart.
Photo: Meral Crifasi/Flickr