The Preen Team is a hopelessly sentimental bunch. Because of this, we’re releasing a series of essays called “Ugh, Love” where we blurt out our feelings and hopefully make you feel emotional, too.
My first love was a boy with blonde hair who liked to read and was younger than me. He was also taller than me, which already started irking me at 11. At that age, anyone younger, even if it’s only by a year or two, are not allowed to tower over you. He was the missionary’s son and his mother liked me, inviting me over their host family’s house and asking me questions like she genuinely cared about my opinions. We pored over our differences (he had a dog, I liked cats), and we would raise our arms at each other to compare the colors of our arm hair, his wispy platinum strands, my dark bushy wires.
He was my first foray into love triangles—his host sister liked him, he liked me, and I belatedly realized that maybe I liked him too, the desperate kind of liking when you’re a child and someone you know is going away and liking them somehow means they’re going to stay. Missionaries are bound to leave eventually, and before he left, he gave me painfully sweet books with protagonists dealing with grief (or mysteries!) by turning to their faith, while I gave him an awful kids’ sci-fi book where the protagonist swaps bodies with an adult and nothing else of significance happens and nothing is learned. I should’ve given him the Judy Blume book where the protagonist remembers giving a perfunctory farewell letter to a classmate about to move away and writes in her diary, “Maybe I could’ve written something better if we had liked each other,” or something to that effect.
He came back a few years after. It was the holidays and he was in our sala while I hid in my room, sneaking a peak as he sang Christmas songs with the rest of the guests. It wasn’t the same.
That was my first love.
Or maybe it was…
My first love was a girl with a scar on her cheek that she got from a childhood accident. She was the first person I ever met that understood what it was like to have a family like mine, to have a mother slip into your bed at night for safety, to call your father’s phone and hear an unfamiliar voice pick up. The first time I ever cursed at my father, I was on a Skype call with her.
She was bright and awkward and luminous; she loved TV shows sincerely, drew art in math class, and played funny songs on the ukelele. She was my best friend and beautiful and talented and I hated her so, so much. To me, everything she did was both right and wrong: the way she wrote, the way she dressed, the way she brushed her light brown hair. My heart crushed every time I saw her shining, knowing someone, a boy, would take her away eventually. She told me if I died that she would forget about me. I kept my feelings in a jar and each time it grew, I hated her more.
I fell in love with her in a panic; the panic of being a teenager on the cusp of perceived adulthood when you realize that everything around you is changing or about to change and you’re holding on to whoever’s closest to you like a drowning man grasping blindly for a life raft, and the more literal panic of a young child in love when all your life you’ve been told that this kind of love will send you to hell. My father, while on a break from rolling down tarpaulins with images of fetuses and lines about saving dead babies, would sit me and my brother down and tell us about the horrors of the modern world. “Wouldn’t you be disgusted if your best friend said she loved you,” he asked me. I said yes.
Whenever I read Jennifer Egan’s “Sisters of the Moon” and come across the line “in Angel this seems beautiful, like a precious glass bowl you can’t believe didn’t break yet,” I think about her.
That was my first love.
Or maybe it was…
My first love was a boy who loved indie bands and taking pictures and who dropped out of college after a year. He was soover a lot of things: over bands, over communism, over certain forms of technology. I was the new kid in the city, feeling all too well my provincial shoes, and he was exciting—he was everything unfamiliar in the streets I was thrust in and everything that welcomed and rejected me. I wanted to know everything he knew and think everything he thought. My first kiss happened when he kissed me at 8 a.m. inside a fast food chain that doesn’t exist anymore.
We were young but we tried so hard to be so much older and sophisticated than we were. Together we were agnostics gleefully denying every truth we learned, with me basking in the fact that I was allowed to do that. We talked about films (and we called it films) and philosophy and other things that we didn’t quite understand and said things that didn’t make sense when you really thought about it but sounded cool anyways. My professor once told me that something is only pretentious if it isn’t sincere and I held that as a gospel in everything except my personal life.
Our relationship was heavy and intense and quickly toxic. He told my friend that he wanted to take me away, to save me. I broke curfews just to sit on the grass with him. I ditched friends, cut class to make out with him at the bottom of stairwells. I have a photo somewhere of me lying on his chest amid a field of people and it looks like a photo taken many decades earlier than it was.
I treated him badly the way you do when it’s your first real relationship and forever means forever and you cling onto someone in the same breath you push them away. I think he treated me badly too. I think when it’s your first relationship you try to make it fit even when the puzzle pieces don’t match and forever starts looming over you like a shadow because you think you’re supposed to.
That was my first love.
Maybe my first love hasn’t passed yet, or maybe them and all the other people that came after and in between are my real first loves. I’m always wary of saying things for certain, for giving a definite answer and locking out all other possible answers. One of my professors told me to stop hedging, that the only real thing to do was to bullshit with authority. I can do that with most things except for matters involving me.
There’s an old XKCD comic that I always think about. It’s a short one, four panels long. In the first panel, one of the stick figures proposes to another, telling them that meeting the right person is not about seeing a choir of trumpeting angels at first sight but “about growing out of your fears to realize what you have is what you want.” They get married in the next panel. In the third panel, a new stick figure appears, accompanied by a chorus of trumpeting angels. The final panel has the now married stick figure saying, “Well, shit.”
I know, I know. I’ve read the M. Scott Peck articles, I know that love is a choice, and it’s one you make everyday. But I hate choices. I hate deciding who my first love was, or even if I’ve had it. Isn’t there something so strange about lining up all the people you’ve ever cared about and assigning importance to them on the basis of who met you first? What does linear progression have to do with love? What if the person I loved first and the person I love last are unimportant in the grand scheme of things and the real, earth-shattering, knee-popping, commitment-making, everyday-choosing love comes in the middle? What then?
But I think what I hate about this, too, is knowing that this is giving value to people I no longer know, giving them some hold of me by virtue of being in my past. It’s a little weird knowing there are strangers out there who at any given point in time I could potentially run into and who at some point were the most important things in the world to me. There is a one in a million chance I would come across them on the same day. It’s very highly unlikely, but the fact that that’s not technically impossible is mortifying. John Mulaney had it right when he joked that all of his exes need to stop existing. Not in the creepy “no one can have you” way, but “everyone who’s seen my dick and seen my parents needs to die. I can’t have them roaming around.”
Screw closure. If I ever loved you and don’t anymore and I see you at the grocery, I will run away, even if it sends me careening into an aisle of pushcarts.