Wednesday, October 21, 2015

First Loves: We Need to Talk?

In "Lives of the Dead," the final story/chapter of Tim O'Brien's composite novel The Things They Carried, his narrator -- who is named Tim O'Brien but is not the author Tim O'Brien -- describes a relationship he had with a little girl when he was nine. His comments always get me reminiscing about young love and its connection to what we're able to put into words, whether we're young or old, and its connection to what we already know or think we know about love:

"We were in love. And it was real. . . . it's tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.

I just loved her. . . . It was pure knowing. Neither of us, I suppose, would've thought to use that word, love, but by the fact of not looking at each other, and not talking, we understood with a clarity beyond language that we were sharing something huge and permanent." (My emphasis, patronizingly added.)
Great artwork for a great book

How close to the truth are these assertions? We can all agree that "love" is an inadequate description of what we talk about when we talk about love, but is "love" actually strengthened or purified because there are no words for it and because it is not linked to adult inventions such as comparisons and timelines? 

I don't know, but I'm going to use two of my experiences, one from childhood, one from early adolescence, to try to find out.

Before I begin, I must give some crucial context, especially for younger readers. In both of these youthful experiences, I would've known little about love or romance that didn't come from sanitized 1950s and early 1960s movies. Whatever acts that Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford or Doris Day and Rock Hudson were prohibited from performing, didn't exist for me.

In the supermarket check-out lines, there were no magazine covers shouting, to little toddlers holding mommy's hand, "SIX WAYS TO DRIVE YOUR MAN WILD," "SEX SECRETS HE DOESN'T WANT YOU TO KNOW," "GET IN SHAPE FOR STRESS-FREE SEX," "ROSIE O'DONNELL'S 5 TIPS FOR A RED-HOT WEDDING NIGHT," etc.

There was no Oprah or Dr. Phil. No Orange Is the New Black. There were no lyrics more suggestive than The Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie." There were Playboy magazines, but they were usually safely lodged between bed mattresses . . . oh, and sometimes you could find them under the driver's-side car seat. But I don't think they explained anything.

There was no Internet with its many tasteful DIY offerings.

In short, it was all hidden from us. So like you, dear younger readers, we had instincts and drives, but we didn't have a clear picture of what they were after.

Finally, in the following brief narratives, I have changed the names of the females I loved. I've done this for two reasons: One, their husbands may read this, look me up, then beat the living crap out of me. Two, if the females read it, I want to protect them from the heartbreak, anguish and regret of missing out on the glory, honor, prestige and wealth of being a high-school English teacher's wife. Oh, what could have been!

The first one occurred at Pinetta Elementary when I was in the fifth grade (full disclosure: I went steady for a while in the third grade, and even gave my girlfriend a friendship ring to make it public, so this wasn't really my first. You know who you are!). That year, there were so few fourth- and fifth-graders that they put us in the same classroom, under the eagle-eyed and exasperated tutelage of Miss Alva Gaston. Fifth graders in the first three rows, fourth graders in the second three.

A friend of mine, possibly Judi Gibson or Faye Hollingsworth, told me that Megan, a fourth-grader, liked me. I confirmed that by staring at that side of the room until I finally caught her eye, and when I did, she smiled. Hey, that's all I needed to know! She definitely liked me.
My son Roy: Young, happy, maybe in love.

She was small, had short dark hair, dark eyes, and when she smiled her pretty smile, her mouth looked like she was just about to speak. Good Lord, it just doesn't get any better.

After that initial contact, our relationship grew and grew. By that, I mean we never spoke unless we happened to almost bump into each other going different directions in the hall. Then we would both smile and say "Hi." I didn't say "Hi, Megan," and she didn't say "Hi, Roy." For me, saying "Megan" would have required too much control of my feelings and their relationship to my vocal chords. To actually say her name? While she was right there? Are you serious? 

Soon everyone knew we were in love. No one taunted us about it. No one considered our behavior odd. Occasionally, one of my male companions, Danny Buchanan or Richard Williams, would let me know when she was close by ("Roy, there's Megan"), but nothing more.

She was all I could think about for months. My idea of a fantasy about her was picturing her as my wife, she and I standing outside our little country house, saying good-bye to another couple who had just dropped by to enjoy some sweet iced tea and boiled peanuts.

As a married couple, we would probably think of things to say to each other. But now, in the golden glow of our pre-adolescent love, what was there to say? I didn't know then and I don't know now. We didn't need to talk, so neither of us would ever have to say "We need to talk."

As an introspective introvert, even then I distrusted and avoided small talk, believing that talking was only for important things. And the most important thing for Megan and me was how we felt about each other, but if we talked about that, we would be experiencing our relationship once removed, making it a kind of meta-relationship and thereby trivializing it.

The real Roy-and-Megan union sat quietly in the air around us, and we breathed it in and kept it safe and pure by keeping quiet.

Naming is limiting, for God's sake! We must've known it! We must've!

So what if our silence contributed to our love slowly and gently drifting away. With no burden of expectation, the thing itself still happened and was no less valuable for being impermanent. Our feelings were genuine, and it wasn't necessary to eventually suffer from a broken heart to make them so.  

For my money, the Megan relationship validates O'Brien's assertions. How dare we speak condescendingly about a child's love. What are we saying to them? "Oh, Buffy, you're not really in love until you've shared a mortgage payment, filed a joint return, learned each other's most annoying habits and spent holidays with the in-laws." We should shut up and leave them to their joy, however long it lasts.

Now falling in love during early adolescence, that's a different story. It's also for another post.


  1. This brings to mind my own experience with love in the 5th grade, albeit nearly the opposite of your own. I had been head over heels for one particular boy since 1st grade. We were aware of each other, spoke on occasion, but my feelings were never returned - and so I pined...until the magic of 5th grade and he suddenly asked me to be his steady. I was elated - for exactly 2 weeks. We talked, we held hands, even snuck in a few kisses, and then it all came crashing down. He left me for another. Oh the tragedy. All this to say that yes, I agree with O'Brien's assessment of love - it can be held in its purist form without words or other trappings of the Hollywood, pulp novel definition of love. The sweetness, the longing, the dreaminess of it - all went away once it became "real" and "official". Without words we can allow ourselves the unblemished fantasy of perfection, of hope. Once the silence is broken, the magic is, too. Ironically, years later, my lost love's path and mine crossed again and we had another chance at love - only to find out he really was a jerk and the illusion was so very much better. Perhaps silence truly is golden.