first love

Sometimes, when I am asked how I came to be in Providence, I like to say that I followed a boy here. It is not true, really, but it is not entirely untrue. That boy left New York for Boston and I didn’t make it quite as far, but I came close. It wasn’t much of a romance, most of it in my own imagination, but there was one summer – a heady, crushing few weeks of heat – that sparked a long, slow burn.

At lunch one afternoon, we talk about men. The women with me are all single. One asks another: Do you have a “type?” There is talk of flannel-shirted mountain men. We laugh. Of men who are handy, can build things.

And you? They ask of me.

It always starts with language. With writing. With M., I remember the moment I knew I would love him. A passage he wrote about a woman, standing in front of the kitchen sink, her back to us. She was washing her bra in the sink, and it was night, and he described the slope of her shoulders. I was reading it in my apartment, for class, and I called my friend G., read it to her. “I think I’m in love,” I joked. But already, there was truth to it.

As for the boy I followed north the year I turned 18, we spent some time together in Boston, in Providence; occasionally even back home in New York, on breaks. It is hard to know when we began, when we ended. Throughout though, we shared language. On one of my first visits, he took me to a poetry reading: Lucie Brock-Broido who was in residence at the time. She read from a collection called A Hunger. I remember a poem called “After the Grand Perhaps.” An excerpt:

    After what is boundless: wind chimes,
fertile patches of the land,
the ochre symmetry of fields in fall,
the end of breath, the beginning
of shadow, the shadow of heat as it moves
the way the night heads west,
I take this road to arrive at its end
where the toll taker passes the night, reading.

   I feel the cupped heat
of his left hand as he inherits
change; on the road that is not his road
anymore I belong to whatever it is
which will happen to me.

 

During those years, those on-again, off-again years, we read James Joyce together. We talked about the Catholic Church. We read each other poems about love. Occasionally, he’d send me a title or two – an obscure drama or poetry collection and I’d hunt it down, devour it. So that even at a distance, we could share language.

At lunch, we talk about the men we have known. This town is small, few secrets remain so for very long. “I have to leave the state,” one woman says, exasperated. “I know too much about the men in this town.” I am grateful that the men I have known have moved on from here. I used to think it would be a wonderful, important thing to remain friends with those you have loved. I thought, how could you be so close to someone for a time and then simply not be? But this was before I understood the cruel sadness of accidental encounters in downtown parking lots. Better, perhaps, to have one’s memories.

We talk about what we require of love. I am reminded, as I often am, of Rilke’s Letters on “Love and Other Difficulties:”

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.…”

This of course, is easier said than done.

After Boston, the boy went back to New York. I did, too, eventually, but by then he had moved west. He talked about the life we might have together, at some future time, under some as yet unknown circumstances. And I said yes, of course, of course. We made easy promises: ones that neither of us expected to keep.

Back in that first summer, we’d sit in the sun and talk about the path our lives might take. “I want to spend some time in Northern Ireland,” he told me. “I want to write about what’s happening there.” I thought he would laugh when I told him that what I wanted was to be a “happy novelist with a big, rambling house and a garden, somewhere near the ocean.” But instead, he cupped my chin in his hand, and said, “I can’t imagine anything sweeter.”

Those early loves shape us, I think. They sketch out the parameters in which we organize our understanding of love, of desire. Our expectations. Long after the desire has faded, when you can no longer remember the places you went, the things you said to each other, what you wanted from each other, you can remember, perhaps, a handful of details that can still surprise you, even decades later: His sharp intake of breath when he first saw your body. That first line of the poem he wrote for you, while you slept with your head on his shoulder on the bus back to Providence. What he whispered to you on the train station platform before the doors closed the last day you spent together. And then the long silence that followed.