First love

It creeps up on me periodically, that memory of my first love.

No, it wasn’t/isn’t my ex.

First love happens much younger, much easier. When you’re young, and naive and thinking that the answer to any problem or challenge is just love. It’s secret notes, stolen glances, butterflies in your stomach and nervous laughter. It’s simple, and yet feels so complicated at the time.

Life will prove us wrong eventually.

He pops into my brain every once in awhile, for reasons I can’t even explain. It used to happen more often, sometimes daily during the more challenging times in my marriage, wondering where he was and how he was doing, wondering if he ever thinks of me too, or if he can feel my thoughts. Asking the “what ifs”. But as time goes by, and life’s rough edges smooth out, the memory of our connection gathers dust in the back of my mind.

I met him when I was 13 years old and he was 12. Crazy to think, but true.

I knew almost immediately that I would love him, meeting him the first time as the new neighbor of my best friend, and wanted so deeply for him to love me. And he did, in his own preteen boy way, that lasted for the next decade or more.

I could watch him all day, just watch him move, and it was enough. He played basketball, and would practice jumping with ankle weights, shooting hoops in his backyard to jump higher. He was so driven and determined, so focused, it was captivating.

I can still see him in the highlight reel of my mind.

We would talk on the phone for hours, back in the day when phones were hung on the wall and used “units”. A time well before cell phones and texting. You had to plan a time to call, to make sure that person would answer and not their irritated parent who could not believe someone would call after 9pm!

But that was the best time to talk. Didn’t they know anything?

Over the years, we went beyond the basic teenage talk of “what’s up?” and “did you watch that show last night?” and other conversations about who likes who and what was going on this weekend, just to stay connected. We dug deeper into our hopes and dreams, our plans for the future.

Talking late into the night, sitting in a dark kitchen or hiding in a back room out of earshot, cast just enough of a shadow to make us feel protected enough to share our deepest thoughts. His love of antiques and rebuilding things, my dreams of being an artist and going to college, what type of life we wanted, always with the idea that it would be together.

Once we talked for hours, while I was babysitting overnight, and agreed that we both wanted a big family. Eventually entertaining the idea that it would be so big that we could name a child after each letter of the alphabet! We spent the next few hours coming up with names, for each letter, for a boy and a girl. Twenty-six names, from A to Z, times two.

I wish I still had that list.

I dated some of his friends during high school, usually after a break-up with him or another ruined attempt at reconciling our relationship, anything to stay within his orbit I suppose. Deep down wanting to make him jealous, wanting him to interfere somehow, but instead he would hang back and wait me out.

Maybe he knew too that it was only a matter of time before we would make our way back to each other?

Our love attraction lasted for years, on and off between new relationships, and sometimes during. The saying “like a moth to a flame” describes it perfectly, the more unavailable we were to each other the more we were drawn to one another. I could not stay away from him, or get over him, no matter how hard I tried, or how distracted I became with someone else. It was just a gravitational pull that I couldn’t escape.

I always came back.

Beach days, carnival nights. Sneaking out of the basement bedroom window in my cut-offs to walk the streets with him and his buddies. Sneaking beers or a bottle of blackberry brandy to walk through the woods. Nervous and exciting, innocent and naive. Flashes of those teenage summers still run across my mind, the holiday breaks too.

And all of the times in-between.

For some reason, I always assumed that we would end up together, happily ever after, just like they show in the movies. I think some of our friends, and maybe even family, assumed the same. Sure, we would date other people and have other experiences, but we were meant to be together.

We shared a history of “firsts” and goofy teenage stupidity, we took chances together taking on the world and new ideas, we made some of our best memories together. We shared a thread, from the beginning, that was woven deeply into our fabric and connected us.

In my dreams for my future, we would eventually get married, and have beautiful brown-eyed babies with his perfect teeth, broad shoulders and hearty laugh.

We would build a perfect life together with flea market Sundays, and lazy, lingering weekend mornings in bed wrapped around each other, or exploring the world together and taking on new challenges. Making each other better versions of ourselves everyday.

Laughing at the same jokes and telling the same stories to our children about how we met and the crazy things we egged each other into doing, sharing common memories that date back to that awkward stage of our lives. Stacks of photo albums filled with pictures of us, our families, and the friends we shared from so many years back.

Back to the beginning. When I was 13 and he was 12.

We would be comfortable with each other, in a familiar way, by the time we joined together. Years of growing together, parallel sometimes, would be a gift that would secure a beautiful future. Being with someone who has known you since you were thirteen, watched you grow up and become the adult you will be and love you is a rare gift.

So very rare.

But love isn’t always enough, or maybe first love isn’t strong enough to endure what life has in store. It’s all much more complicated at twenty three than it ever was at thirteen. Other people cross our paths, unexpected events happen, diverting our expected direction and changing our plans to create a new future we never dreamed of or imagined.

But you don’t know that, at the time, with your first love.

We were so very young. I was willing to believe in fairy tales back then.

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Is this all there is?

I was watching an episode of “Dexter” with my son the other night – yes, we bond over serial killers and crime scenes, there are worse things. In this episode, Dexter is helping a woman track down her rapists – yes, plural – to kill them.

What are friends for, right?

She recounts the experience of leaving her fiancee at the altar only three months before her life took this ugly turn, and how she had arrived at the decision not to marry him. It was so real, so full of truth, and sounded so eerily familiar that I almost couldn’t breathe.

She told Dexter how she had pushed herself hard all of her life to please her parents. She was a good student, the first in her family to go onto college to get her degree. Followed by her masters. She was involved, athletic, smart. She was a good girl. Then she met the “perfect” guy, fell in love, and that eventually lead to planning a wedding. She had checked all of the boxes, and done all of the right things, her entire life.

It wasn’t until she was almost at her wedding day that it finally struck her. This is it.

For the rest of her life, she would be part of a couple that had the same friends, the same neighbors. They would have cookouts in the backyard on weekends, visit their families for holidays, attend PTA meetings and birthday parties for their kids, and have “date nights” once a week. They would do these average but good things, for the rest of their lives, and grow old together. That was it, that was the sum of her future life.

Is that all there is? she wondered. And so, she didn’t show up to her own wedding.

The reason that this struck me, made me sit still as stone as I listened to her, was the fact that I had basically the same epiphany about 18 years ago. Not at the altar, of course, already married with a child.

It was a typical day in our fairly new tri-level home. I was already a stay at home mom, taking care of our baby, who was about a year old at the time. He was in the pack ‘n play in our bedroom, watching a kids singing show, while I scrubbed the toilet in our attached bathroom. Innocent enough.

Something that I did weekly, along with all of the other household upkeep and day to day life. But for some reason, that day, it suddenly washed over me…this is it.

This is my life for the next thirty, or probably more, years.

We will have the same friends and neighbors, that we have over for barbecues on weekends and parties for our children’s birthdays. Our families lived close enough that we would see them on just about every holiday (and I’m talking every holiday – that includes Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and any other “day” holiday you can imagine), every birthday, milestone and reason to celebrate. We would probably live in this house for awhile, until we could afford to move into something bigger, but not too far from the same area most likely.

There would be football and basketball games for the guys to watch at the bar, Tupperware and Candlelight parties for the wives to attend to order more of what we really didn’t need. Possibly a group camping trip, with all of our kids, once or twice a year. Baby showers, graduations, funerals, weddings and everything else in-between with the same people.

That was it. That was our future. My future. For the next thirty plus years.

And for some reason that day, with the toilet brush in my hand and the sound of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ being sung in the background, I thought to myself “Is this all there is? Is this it? There has to be more.” I could see our future like a movie montage, because it was all so familiar already.

How did I get here?

This is what I had always wanted, had dreamed of, wasn’t it? I wanted to be married to a good guy, live in my own house to take care of, have kids and be a mom. But that wasn’t always the end story I had seen for myself, had always dreamed.

In the beginning, I had also seen a career in a big city, meeting new people, making big decisions and earning my way through life. Having one of those cool apartments with the hardwood floors and glass doorknobs, downtown over a convenience store or bar. Walking to museums and plays, getting opportunities to travel and see the world somehow. I had dreamed of being independent.

I wanted more.

As much as I loved what I had, and really did want it, I also wanted the other side of the dream that I didn’t really give myself much time to figure out. After graduating from college, the constant mantra of “you need to find a job” was pounding in my head, and repeated by my parents, so I basically took the first job I was offered. Not in the city, not in a cool design firm like I had always dreamed of, but instead a corporate art department job with benefits and vacation time. And a commute of about an hour, to another suburb, still outside of the city.

All of this came flooding back to me that day, while I looked around, toilet brush still in my hand.

When my ex came home that day, I asked what it would take for him to be offered a position in another country and if it was possible. I had heard of others in his line of work taking jobs in France, England, Germany. Why not him? He explained that he didn’t have the qualifications to go; he didn’t speak another language, he didn’t have any foreign clients, and he was married. They usually preferred to send single people who were more available and easier to move.

I still pushed on with the idea, telling him that if an opportunity ever came up to go somewhere else, like another country, I was willing to move. To have a new experience. If I couldn’t make it happen personally, I was willing to support him to make it happen.

Oddly enough, only a few weeks later, he was approached for a foreign assignment.

And as they say, the rest is history. That began the crazy, and challenging, journey that lasted close to ten years. And that journey brought me here, to this place. This place in time, in location, in mind and soul.

Almost back home, but not quite. Almost back to “normal”, but not really.

It wasn’t the dream I had dreamed when I was a child, or in high school or college, but it was very much like a dream in many ways. The meaning to the old adage “be careful what you wish for” became incredibly clear as time went on though.

It was amazing and exciting, the new experiences and meeting new people from different backgrounds, speaking different languages – so much to learn about the world! So much to explore. But at the same time it was also scary and confusing, and sometimes more difficult than I ever could have imagined. There were many highs and lows along the way,  over the many years and multiple moves, making me stronger in the end.

It had challenged everything I thought I knew or understood, pushed me out of my comfort zone, made me question everything about my previous life. There was more than one “right” way to do things, and more than one type of person or food or language. It changed the very core of who I was, for the better, in my opinion.

Would I have been just as happy without this experience? Would I have gotten over my feeling that there had to be more to life, blamed it on hormones or sleepless nights with a teething baby? Shut my mouth and just went along with the program, like everyone else was happily doing? I mean, what you don’t know you don’t know, right?

No need to second guess it or go through the list of possible “what if” scenarios now, it was the life I was meant to live. It was more than the life I had ever expected, or even thought I wanted. It was life changing.

I had asked myself so long ago “is this all there is?” never realizing where it would lead, how it would end, or how it would shape me in the future.

But now I know, no this isn’t all there is, there is so much more.