Dear Lily June,
Bear with me: It has been almost fifteen years since I had my first “real” boyfriend, Nathan. What I remember of him is in bits and pieces, like looking at a pile of burnt ash and cinders and trying to remember the heat of the fire from them. With the first, there is always fire.
I remember his computer screen background had a then-famous video game villain, Sephiroth, engulfed in a background of flames. Those flames backlit the entire living space between the stairs and his bedroom, the place where we, banned from the bedroom, spent most of our time, at least when adults weren’t watching or listening to know otherwise.
Lily, I tell you this because I am not afraid of what you will do with your first; sex is not a crime or a scandal, but an experience. I am more concerned about what your first will do to you. Heartbreak is rarely an option, and firsts rarely last. But oh, the burn is both good and bad and lasting and fading always. The memories cast shadows along your life like a fireplace casts its licking lights along the wall.
I know I should give you the boring details–how we met through a friend of a friend–but I’ve already done the first date letter, and honestly I don’t remember the smaller details that made up our courtship very much. It’s hard to say I fell in love with him, because that would be like claiming to love a flower by its bud, rather than its bloom.
I didn’t really know him well enough, couldn’t know who he would be, because we were too inexperienced, flawed, crazy and young. But I also wouldn’t say I only lusted after him. Despite the fact that the only thing we had in common–like most high school lovers–was each other, it was more than simply a friction-based bodily indulgence and less than the entwining of two old souls. Suffice it to say, I got lost in him.
There were things I loved and things I hated, things I loved to hate and things I hated to love about the whole relationship.
I hated his mother, a man-bashing divorcee who blamed Nathan’s alcoholic and neglectful father for the course of her life. She would talk about her past beauty as a way of underscoring what she felt mine lacked. Once, in a bizarre mood, she made me wash her underwear for her, noting not only once that her breasts, in their heyday, were ampler than mine in mine. I felt strange in their house, as if I had to compete for the affections of the son with the mother, and Lily, I learned:
Beware the overprotective mother whose son is her only connection with male affection. She is the lion with the sharpest tooth, and she’ll hurt her own child just to wound you, too.
I loved looking at Nathan.
Nathan’s own beauty, to me, had nothing to do with convention. We were both acne scarred and awkwardly shaped, the way most adolescent lovers look. I have seen the smooth skinny body he grew into as an adult, and I don’t recognize the gentle giant I once fell for, with hair a long tuft of brown tangles, and the hunchback gait of a fifteen year old boy with the too soon sprouted height of a man. I don’t care for his current perfection; I fell for him when he and I were both still figuring our fumbling fingers out.
That he was a bandgeek added to the beautiful gawkiness of a man in transition: Here was a guy who, by sixteen, could play goosebump-pricking saxophone solos but didn’t have the sex appeal of jazz yet to lean on. Instead, he was forced into a fluffy cotton cap and a bright red Sgt. Pepper style uniform and made to march around an allergy-inducing field. The smell of fresh cut grass and the sight of white gloves now still hold a dorky kind of glow for me.
Lily, your first, if they’re worth their salt, will like you not for who you will or could be but for all that is currently unfurling within you, incomplete and awesome and awkward and real.
I hated his taste in music, the overly bombastic orchestra accompaniment of Meat Loaf, the ridiculous made-up and high-heeled misogyny of KISS.
But I still remember the way he looked in a ripped old Psycho Circus t-shirt, with a chain metal wallet and a pair of ratty jeans. Of course, that means I also still remember how he looked in a his pink swim trunks, the ones his mother thought it funny to buy for her masculine son whose color-blindness prohibited him from knowing what she’d done.
I liked how much he liked what he liked, even when I hated what that was. That’s pretty telling of a first relationship, Lily, and I hope you learn, too, to at least respect what you can’t grow to love.
I hated how I lost my virginity to him, giving myself a little here, a little there, and then all at once. He was afraid the cashier of the local convenience chain–a Cash N Carry now, I think–would recognize him purchasing condoms and rat him out to his mother.
Attempting some stealthy subterfuge on behalf of his hormones, he stumbled soberly into a local bar where we lived, the Perry Town Tavern, and purchased a single wrapped rubber from a vending machine. It wasn’t until we were at one another, hot and heavy, that he realized the prophylactic he’d picked up was a novelty one, complete with plastic spikes meant to make his “manhood” look like it was ready to tango with a teenage Triceratops in heat.
I wish I could say I had the presence of mind or sense of self to see then the universe giving me some cosmic (or at least comic) sign to turn back, but we held the course, plastic nubs and all, and it was as pleasant and painful and exciting and humiliating as anyone else’s first, I guess. Don’t take any first too seriously, Lily.
In fact, I remember a slew of embarrassing moments like that: being caught by my mother when snuggling under a blanket in winter with those two dreaded words: “Hand check.” Heading off with him for a “hike” in the woods only to be unable to answer my mother as to how, if I went into the forest with long pants on, I was able to return with poison ivy all over my upper legs.
There was the time his mother decided, full well knowing what she was doing, to give her neighbor a tour of the upstairs bedroom, while I huddled my unclothed body under a blanket I prayed she wouldn’t choose to remove. There was the time she found an open condom wrapper on his floor, to which he quickly replied, “It’s not mine” (as if any parent would believe we were holding onto an empty wrapper for a friend).
Then there was the meeting of the minds, the conference between our mothers meant to discover how to keep us off of one another, but to no avail. By the time they attempted to disentangle us, we were velcro. Velcro glued together.
There were moments of extraordinary beauty, too. There was a time–maybe it happened more often than once–when “after,” I unwittingly fell asleep in his arms, the air conditioning making the temperature of the air fairly arctic so that his body burned all the more against mine. There was sunlight that crept in from the windows to dapple and play across the bodies we used to learn and play with one another.
There was a ring exchanged on a Valentine’s Day in rain. There were many a moon stared into with a feeling that our feelings for each other cast more light on the world than that.
Then, there were moments of explosive cruelty, the way my jealousy sought to possess him fully, the way I insisted he stopped “leaving me behind” to hang out with his own friends, the way I stopped calling mine. If I had any regrets or apologies for what transpired between us, it was just that: trying to take a brush fire and force it into a jar so it would keep lighting the darkness of my days. Trying to take two inexperienced, unsure lovers and make them into a single island unto themselves.
Lily, with your first, don’t make your mistakes mine. Keep your friends close. You will need them when you and your partner burn through one another, and the inevitable heartbreak splinters your young heart into still-beating shards. You will want someone(s) to help you put the pieces back in place. To help you find another kind of light beyond the flame.
Nathan and I used to play this game where he’d whisper to me in my “sleep,” and I’d turn to him and respond as if in a dream. In reality, he knew I wasn’t sleeping, and I likely knew he knew that, too. But it made us feel as if consciousness wasn’t a barrier to our feelings for one another. So when, one night, he whispered over and over into my “sleeping” ear that I should be with someone else, I knew he was breaking it off between us, even though I was eventually the one to utter the words, “It’s over.”
I went home that night and cried as if to quench any fire I’d ever felt. I wept for days and stumbled, as if sleepwalking, through my life. The simplest things hurt. Walking the hallways of my high school and seeing the hair he’d grown long just for me like a lion’s mane I could no longer touch without putting myself in serious danger. Listening to any song with any trace of heartbreak in it, like Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face” as I did over (and over and over) on repeat on my cd player for days.
My life felt, in those moments, as if it had grinded to a halt, and there I was sitting on an Earth that wasn’t spinning anymore, dizzy from the circular dance we’d been doing for almost three years together to a song that suddenly, surprisingly and unsurprisingly, stopped. Sometimes, in dreams or memories, the same old fire raged within me, threatening to extinguish any oxygen. Sometimes, I could shrink the light to a single candle, a single tear, and then I could walk away as if my legs hadn’t wrapped themselves dozens of times around his body.
There were soggy-boxed rainy days with old possessions returned. There were sofa coma days where I fretted about what hadn’t been in the boxes. There is, I can only pray, a landfill somewhere with an old Polaroid of me posing naughtily and a mixed tape of me singing some sappy Jewel melody. Be careful, Lily, the souvenirs of yourself you allow others to take.
I will not lie to you, daughter: That first relationship–the one where it is your “first-first” with everything–can wind you up and wound you like no other. But eventually, you can take the sweet with the bitter, especially when you find that, no matter what you believe at the time, that person isn’t the only one who’ll ever touch you. They won’t be the last first you ever get lost in.
I am grateful to Nathan for the lessons so long ago because he was, at that time, in those flame-licked days, the only one who could have taught me. I am sorry for the wrongs I did him before I knew enough of relationships to know I was doing wrong. I am glad I have not forgotten the little things, his birthday, the way his body swayed the time we danced at a homecoming, the way his homemade mac & cheese tasted, how he was a master cheater at Monopoly, even when there’s nothing I can do with those little truths but shrug and call their owner someone I used to know, if I ever really did.
You will deserve, Lily, someone who knows you through and through and who will love you even across the many days and ways you’ll grow and change. Not all relationships are necessarily meant to last forever, though the memories might. Some relationships are only meant to cherish a momentary version of you, a flash of your former self they keep preserved inside their pasts.
I hope you find a first who honors you heart and soul. I hope you find a lust that burns beyond your wildest dreams. I hope you’re not afraid to get yourself a little lost, even if it means mistakes and regrets and pains and humiliation and a whole host of haunting memories. These may not be the wishes you wish for from your mother. But I wish you this beauty. I wish you songs that punctuate the times. I wish you getting caught a bit and groundings and the thrill of sneaking around a little–but carefully, please.
I wish you life, Lily, and I’ll never be the mother who tells you it isn’t messy. But it’s worth it. Every single burning moment that brings you to who you are and who you’ll love and who you’re going to be.
- “Streichholz” by Sebastian Ritter (Rise0011) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Streichholz.jpg#/media/File:Streichholz.jpg