Happy birthday, first love
Today is the birthday of the first girl I ever loved, my first serious schoolyard relationship. Congratulations! What have you been up to all these years?
Living, I guess. Muddling your way through the quicksand of the world, as we all do. I suppose you never were as famous a painter as I expected you to be, since you haven’t become a household name and I’ve never seen your face on the arts programs. But then, I didn’t set the world on fire either.
Too busy living. I guess.
The Grateful Dead got it right on ‘Brokedown Palace.’ “Mama, Mama,” they sang, “many worlds I’ve come since first I left home.” Later on American Beauty they added another fine commentary on the journey of life.
Though the song’s title connects it to other Robert Hunter lyrics about down-at-heel drifters — ‘Wharf Rat’ is my favorite, though nothing Hunter ever wrote comes close to the pathos of Captain Beefheart’s ‘Orange Claw Hammer’ — it doesn’t necessary suggest a hobo to me.
The song, as far as I understand it, is a reminiscence on a life spent drifting so far from home that the only connection left is a memory of a single true love, long in the past.
It’s about the destitution that builds in your soul, rather than the state of your clothes.
The song is maudlin, because lost love songs generally are. When I think of my own past love affairs, I generally think of them in terms of minor-key songs. In my experience, old love affairs can be bitter, and they can be bitter-sweet, but they’re never simply sweet.
The narrator of ‘Brokedown Palace’ has lost everything but his “only true love.” The one that lasts is the first, in my experience, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the greatest love of my life, the most significant, the most passionate, the best.
It doesn’t mean it was anything more than immature fumbling and a teenage crush. We didn’t even like each other much. But, as far as I can see, that first love colored everything that followed.
Where did all this reminiscing come from? I can date it precisely to January this year (2016) when I was writing my book Poems Found In The Wreckage Of A Multi-Generational Spaceship in Indonesia.
My head wanted to write a poem about the release that comes of setting out on a great adventure, the unburdening you feel — which I intended to describe as a lessening of Earth gravity — when you realize you are able to leave all that spiritual baggage behind.
Instead, from its very first line, the poem my pen wrote was the opposite. It was a eulogy for the one thing I could never dig out of my heart. Here it is in full:
Forgive me, first love,
for ruining your adolescence the way I did.
I never knew what I felt,
except that every moment was filled with you.
I wanted to hold you
forever, like the last dandelion of summer.
I spent my nights
whispering to someone who had stopped listening
and my days
in awkward overcompensation for solitude,
a man with a boy’s heart.
They say the new love kills the old,
that opening doors
close others in their wake. I hope it’s true
but why then,
as I step inside this metal furnace
and turn my back on
a long life full of rich and sensual experience
is it you,
and you alone, that I cannot leave behind?
The poem was called ‘Smuggler’s Cove’ in reference to the secret treasure we hold inside ourselves where even our wives can’t find it.
Writing the poem — remembering things so nakedly, for the first time in my life — brought back a lot of sadness, but also a sense of joy.
It was fun to remember that silly boy who knew nothing about love and thought he knew everything, who couldn’t even tell how he was feeling most of the time, who was all flailing limbs and gauche prose. (Wait, what’s changed?)
That boy who found something close to heaven in lying in your arms, my long lost first love. The closest to heaven, in fact, that I’ve ever come, despite constantly trying to find new ways to get there.
I knew the moment I first saw you that you would be important in my life, just as I’ve known it for every other girl and woman I’ve dated, including the one I married. Not precognition, of course, but a prophecy that wrote its way into truth.
You were sitting on the grass outside school, huddled among strangers. You didn’t see me, but I saw nothing else but the way you seemed to fill everything with a quiet, penetrating glow.
What are these haloes around significant people? It’s a question I asked myself in Slow Wilhelm Exit, which takes a cynical look at the way our relationships eat great chunks of our beings and reduce us, if not to our essence, then to the brokedown palace of our soul.
What are these haloes, and how can the godless among us experience them so strongly?
I don’t remember the last time I saw you. A mutual friend, years later, told me she’d bumped into you in France. She added, cattishly: “She hasn’t aged well.”
I thought that hilarious. You should see the way I’ve aged!
And anyway, I understood the psychology. You were better off without her, the friend was saying. She was just a stuck-up butcher’s daughter from a poor part of rural southern England. She didn’t amount to anything but the wrinkles.
I don’t know if that’s true (I doubt it!). I’ve never seen a photo of you since school, and I’ve never been inclined to so much as Google your name. I don’t even know if you’re still alive. I like to think you are, and that you’re as beautiful as the girl I used to know.
You wouldn’t want to Google me. Trust me.
Based, once again, on a sample of one, I can say this definitively: first loves are never truly fulfilled. They feel like a work half finished, a painting you never completed, a novel without a denouement.
So what then, first love, have you been up to all this time? Making babies, creating art, and not thinking at all, unless with horror, of the stupid kid you used to know in high school. Boy, was he a jerk.
For myself, I’ve spent all this time trying to learn how to stop being a jerk. I guess I managed it, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.
You want an honest perspective? Take a look at some of the wreckage piled up behind me on this long and winding highway of life. I have nothing to be proud of, and very little I am.
It’s no surprise that my poem turned into a eulogy. Everything I’ve written has been about you, my first love, when you strip away all that surface paint. Just look at Tessellation Row! Was there ever a starker canvas, one so ruthlessly scrubbed of the very artifice it tries so heroically to hide behind?
But then again, I could equally say that nothing I’ve written has been about you. It’s all been about something much deeper: rootedness. For example, in Biome, I have a character scoff:
“Just pity, he told himself. That’s all it is. What people called this feeling was a lot of things, a gamut of misidentified emotions ranging from sexual possessiveness to homesickness, but it was never, ever truly love.”
Yes, I’ve come many worlds since first I left home. I hope I’ll head onward, physically and spiritually, through many more before my journey is done. But could it be that the torch that burns brightest in my heart, the one I carry through all the turns of my life, is not you at all?