I’m trying to remember what it was to be just young, just beginning to understand the ways of the heart and the body, more to the point. the first stirrings of desire that one feels as an early teen, if not sooner, and you find yourself reaching for classmates and finding yourself in cut-class sticky fumblings and sweet summer fields and those landscapes that lay beyond the closed doors of your parent’s house, because it’s all you’ve got and you’ll take it because what you feel is hunger.
I tend to be a cynic here, and firmly believe that what we feel at such a young age is rarely the real thing, if the “real” thing exists at all, even as we age. This, of course, begs the question right away, what is the “real” thing and how does anyone define love for someone else. You can’t. it’s that simple. Love is what we feel. It is that thing that connects us to some other on a level that hits deeper than a desire for some other. It’s about want and need and lust and yearning and a soft of weird mutual and much maligned codependence. At it’s core, there is nothing wrong with co-dependence. It can be a beautifully working thing, a mechanism that keeps two people spinning in the same orbit.
Too often I hear that we all need to be these islands of people, so okay and together on our own and with no need of others. That we can exist all by ourselves and with no support system whatsoever, yet I don’t really know anybody like this in reality. To a greater or lesser extent, we all can achieve this sort of mad independence and be righteous and proud of it. And why not. Being independent is good and needing other people, or even wanting other people, is often dangerous territory. Feelings can go unreturned, love is not always mutual, rejections abound, even dislikes or worse, the complete noncommittal stance of one who could care one way or the other about you and hardly knows of your existence. These are the dangers of what we call love, or more appropriately perhaps, desire. The heart wants what it wants and seeks it out.
I watch as those younger go about arm in arm, awkward in their newfound adulthood, finding their way along the corridor of being sexually comfortable with each other as they reach to each other with complete inexperience and ignorance. The land of what is not known. We’ve all been there, and somehow, most of us find our way through it and to the other side. I even know people who are now married to that first girl they met in junior high school and had their first experience of love, of sex, and remained in that place forever, and happily so. It’s always somewhat bewildered me. How is it possible, I thought, to just know in that way that you need to know, to never want to experience another person, to just be so solid in that love that this is the One, the Only, the person who will always be there.
Perhaps it’s not so simple. Perhaps you just hook up and the years tick by one by one and the next thing you know you are fifty and still with that girl or boy from junior high that you took to the prom and who found you in the backseat of his or her dad’s sedan and you knew then that nothing would ever be this pure, this good, this visceral. After all, let’s face it; there is little in life that we allow ourselves that is as absolutely visceral as those first, early experiences of sex and love. After as we get older, we enter the world of should and ought (sadly) and desire becomes a mixed bag. We shouldn’t want another because we are pre-engaged or because our faith tells us so, or because we are taught that promiscuity is wrong, or because social roles tell is a girl should have X number of partners and a boy Y number and that number will vary from generation to generation, town to town, country to country, and so on… it’s always shifting, moving, like youth itself, so changeable. But no matter where you are or who you are, there is that meter that clicks over at just around thirteen or fourteen, or for some, a bit earlier, that says that the moment is Now. That it is now that we must go out and seek that person and that our classmates or third cousin who the boy at the beach etc is the person with whom we will venture into this unknown land. In short, a person who is at the same age and stage and who is willing and ready to go on the voyage with us.
I remember those early experiences, and I remember that for me, they were perhaps a bit too innocent. That my girlfriends were doing things that for me, didn’t yet feel right and I waited a few years longer, but I remember vividly the desire and the yearning that I felt for one boy in particular, and feeling in that summer that no one, anywhere, would ever measure up in the way that Thomas did. That Thomas with his tennis racket and his sandy blonde hair and his lavender-blue eyes was the only boy I would ever “love.” and I do mean love. I felt that I was deeply in love with Thomas and when he left to go off to college to Yale, and away from the more reachable Philips Andover, I felt that a piece of me had been taken away. It didn’t help that the popular radio song at the time was “Every Time You Go Away” and “Missing You” and the like. I listened to them with great pain. Went out of my way to avoid them, and yet I would be sitting in the backseat of the car and suddenly, there it was, all the old pain (and it was pain) and that fucking huge blackness that I felt was left behind when Thomas left. All I could think about was the way he kissed me and I knew in my heart, I thought, that nobody, anywhere, would ever kiss me that way again and I would never want to be kissed like that again because a desire like that was impossible.
I was fifteen and deeply moved. I was fifteen and in love and my parents made fun of me, laughing at my pubescent tears and my long, boring letters to Thomas’s father (since Thomas himself did not seem to retain the same depth of feeling that I did and had, after several months of heart-wrenching letters, finally admitted that he had since fallen in love with some dark-haired girl named Meredith who looked an awful lot like Tatum O’Neal, who, at the time, I thought was at the pinnacle of beauty and desire by preppie boys everywhere. I was no Tatum O’Neal. I was more like a bad version of nobody. There was no equal actress with whom I could compare, except perhaps Bette Davis, who had similar eyes in some ways (or so I was told a few times, which caused me great distress because she seemed so old, until Kim Carnes wrote the song and made it somewhat cooler to have Bette Davis eyes – then I was proud.) So Thomas moved on, and I never heard from him again. I did stay in touch with has father, who I’m sure thought me a real nut, but humored me nonetheless and wrote me lengthy letters about his life and about his experience in the Korean war.
For months, I pined. I went to the old Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and sat high up on the hill reading Marcus Aurelius Meditations and preparing myself to start college in a few months. I was still a kid. Barely sixteen, and being thrust too soon into the world by some accident of differences in the European and American educational systems and pushed ahead by too many grades, too soon, and while I was tested intellectually prepared for this leap into society, I was in no way prepared for it emotionally. College girls had already learned the rough lessons of first love and had moved on. By now, they were on their third or fourth boyfriend, serious or not, and few, I found, still held onto their virginity. IT was not, at the time, a hip thing to do (as it became for Generation Next – who seemed to hold onto it for many years longer than previous generations had). I was sorry that I had read so much freaking philosophy and philosophized my way out of what likely would have been one of the best experiences of my life, which would have been to lose my virginity to Thomas who at least, if he wouldn’t be the forever guy, was certainly the right guy for the right now, and it would have been good and sweet and all the things I think it should be for a young person just venturing out.
To be clear: I didn’t want to get fucked, not at that age. Not literally, not metaphorically. I wanted to be made love to, or my idea of what making love was anyway, and although I had fantasies in which we did it, I had been reading Plato and his ideas that sex drained the mind of its creative energy and Aurealius who was a real Stoic (as we know) and so I stuck by my “only over the bra” rule (much to Thomas’s frustration and my own, for that matter.) Yes, I wanted to know what that hardness in his tennis shorts was all about; often when we kissed, I strode him and felt him beneath me, moving gently in the summer grass, the mosquitoes nipping the bare backs of my leg and my ass under my tennis skirt. The truth is, I was afraid. Whatever it was that he had there felt strong and firm and good but at the same time, it felt grown up and foreign and slightly terrifying to a young girl my age, my size, a little petite at the time, and he was a bit tall. The confluence of such factors made this a no go, and we left it at relatively heavy petting, and I’m deeply sorry about it.
The point is, as I watch my own family now go through these same stages, I want them not to be as locked up as I was at their age, and although they are not starting work at college at fifteen as I was – which was certainly too much – in a way, their place reserved in high school for a few more years is the best thing. I watch as our own children reach out to those others; the pretty girl with the long hair and soft features and legs as lean as poplars. I look at her and I can see the sweetness that no doubt, our own boy can see. What’s more, I can see, I believe, what it is that he finds desirable there, because I know that once, I was her, or like her. And once, I knew a boy who was as good and as honorable as he is and that I loved him.
Forget about whether that love was real, because that is a bogus argument anyway. One could say that of any love and question a love at forty as being real or not real. It is real if you say it is. IF you feel it is. It is real if it feels that way to you, and despite emotional maturity and the rest of the argument, the heart still aches, breaks, and yearns and it wants what it wants and that is good enough for me. If that is not love, then I don’t know what love is. Yes, I simplify, but perhaps we overcomplicate this stuff anyway, and that was my great mistake.
Marcus Aurelius and Plato and Aristotle and all of my other excuses not to venture into the good ngiht with Thomas are just that – excuses. They were a quick and convenient defense for a thing that I feared and clearly was not ready for. I was fifteen to his eighteen, and so perhaps that is understandable, but in many ways, the experience could be a metaphor to other ways in which I have lived and sometimes, still find myself living – or not living as the case may be. Its’ fine to intellectualize things and talk about them, but life is in the doing. It’s in the getting out there and living it, not in the thinking about it. I could agree with Plato and Aurelius all afternoon, but at the end of the day when night set in or when the sun rose the next day, I still wanted Thomas and by God, I wanted him with me, right then, as Sinead O Connor sang, I wanted his hands on me. Whatever and however that was or would be, it was what I wanted, and though we had made great great strides in that direction, our love was never fully consummated. He left and went off into the sunset with Meredith, who, for all I know, perhaps he married and had little preppie and cute babies with, and I, well, I left and went to work for a huge publishing conglomerate at a job that I was absolutely not ready for, and to a college where I, appropriately, studied all those great men who had managed to keep me so chaste for so long only to throw it away eventually because I got tired of waiting for another Thomas. Instead, i gave all of this thinking and over –thinking. I should have been having searching and fumbling first love or sex or fucking or whatever you want to call it. I should have been dying of heat and of heat in the mid-summer sun and learning what it means to truly give in to desire, over and over and over again, and the fuck with what anyone said, including my family, including his family, including teachers and by God, especially including Plato and fucking Marcus Aurelius.
Their wishes and thoughts and philosophies are all well and fine and have served me well later in life, but youth is meant to be lived and lived fully. Not to be sat out on the periphery, on the edge or the stands looking down on those friends who were having all the fun and wondering what gumption what it was that they had that you didn’t that made them, in your eyes, so brave and grown up. In my case, it was truly simple youth and matter of age; my classmates were older, and though Thomas was only three years older, there is a world of difference between fifteen and eighteen, especially a stringent Anglican by way of North London Episcopal-schooled girl and an American boy who played tennis all summerlong and got to hang out by the beach parking lot making sure no trespassers parked at the private beach (talk about a dream job). Our worlds were completely different, and though they collided, they could also have overlapped, had I only been able to get past the smack of – or the thought of the smack of – a nun’s sharp ruler smacking hard on my knuckle.
I tell our children, live now. I see them with their great loves, they tell me, and I admire their unyielding drive to one end goal, which seems to be to explore as much as possible both physically and metaphorically. I allow them to close the door fully, even though many other relatives would chide me for this, for children of the opposite sex at “that age” should “never be left alone in a bedroom.” By God, they must just do what nature had intended!
All I can say in closing is this: let our children not make the same mistakes I did. What a waste that would be. I pull the door shut with a quick wink; hope it lands in the right place.