I made a lunch date with my old girlfriend, my first love. I always thought… I always hoped that by chance or by plan, I would see her again one day. I wanted to know how her life played out. Did she ever forgive me? Did she find happiness? I wanted her to know (if she wanted to know) how my life has been.
It was 1965. We were thirteen and in love, and it was awesome! Emotions are so intense at that age! And the music, what a powerful influence. We were two neglected kids from two screwed up families. In each other we found attention, kindness, affirmation, generosity, love and tenderness. Our relationship was not hindered with the burdens of adult relationships. We had no children to provide for, no house payments to make – no responsibilities of any kind which was good because we had no jobs, no cars, not even a high school education. Although I considered myself mature beyond my years…. We were kids. We had nothing to be concerned about except enjoying each other’s company as much as possible. When the relationship ended after three years, it didn’t end well. She attempted suicide, I felt responsible. I was responsible. That break up is on my list of things I would go back and do differently if I could, equipped now with the wisdom that comes with age.
While searching the Internet to contact a friend, I entered her name also. It said she was deceased. I’d waited too long, our reunion would never happen. But, there were more with her name; I tried again and eventually made contact.
She agreed to meet, and suggested Denny’s at Jansen Beach. I drove my old Toyota pickup into the crowded parking lot; maybe noon wasn’t the best choice. I might have been a few minutes early, so I texted her that I was there. She texted that she was inside, near the back. I found her. We hugged. I looked into her face and was amazed. Other than the evidence of time passing, she looked pretty much the same as the girl I remembered. It’s been fifty years since I’ve seen her; FIFTY. I realized immediately that I must look equally as old to her.
I’ve been working on a theory about love. My theory concerns only love between people, not the kind of love you might have for anything else. My theory is that once love is conceived it never dies. When I consider people I loved who have died, I still love them, even though our relationship has ended. When I think about people I loved who remain among the living, even though our relationship has changed, that love hasn’t died, but it has transformed from an active or romantic love to something else; maybe an appreciative, or respectful kind of love that I’m sure the Greeks have a name for. The people who challenge my theory that true love never dies are divorced couples who appear to hate each other.
We sat in a booth and began to tell each other (the rest of) our stories. She told how she kind of reluctantly married a guy who was in the Army – at her mother’s prodding to get on with her life after our break up. She had been writing to him while he was in Vietnam. After they married, he turned out to be very controlling, and eventually abusive. She said he even controlled the food portions he allowed her to eat. She did have some good things in her life; her son and daughter. They gave her two grand kids and a great grandbaby on the way. I asked if she had pictures, she said no. She enjoyed her years working at Disneyland as a “costume controller,” but it sounded like her happiest years were living in Hawaii while her husband was a dive instructor for the Army. Things started to fall apart when he was reassigned as a Drill Sargent and was eventually dishonorably discharged. Sometime after they divorced, she married what sounded like a friend of a friend. I don’t know how well she knew him, but after the wedding, he confessed how ill he was – and died about three years later.
She said she wanted to look me up, but couldn’t remember my last name. I must have looked confused. She continued, “You did have a few names.” When I met her, I was known by my first step dad’s last name. In the time we were together, my mom remarried and we kids assumed his last name. Shortly before we broke up, I began using my legal name when I got my driver’s license. So, maybe that made sense.
I was anxious to learn about her family, especially one brother, as we had been pretty good friends. I hoped I might catch up with him soon, but I won’t. He died because he burned out his lungs cooking meth, and also burnt down the old family house on Church Street (not in the same event). He married, had two kids and divorced. She told how he once jumped off a bridge in front of a moving train and survived. When asked if it was a suicide attempt, he said no, he was trying to rescue a dog that was on the tracks.
I enjoyed countless laughs with another brother. Today he would be “developmentally disabled,” but in our early teens, he was just kind of a crazy fun guy who sometimes exercised very poor judgement. He choked to death on his own intestines. She said it could have been related to his old, “getting hit by cars” game (imagine something like a ghetto version of Running With The Bulls). She said she had a hysterectomy because of the same “intestinal looseness” issue – it might have been a family trait. When she listed her accumulated injuries, I asked if she worked as a stunt double. She explained how she fell down a flight of stairs and broke both legs. She fell while roller skating and broke both(?) arms, requiring screws and plates. She slipped on spilled ice at the restaurant she managed, fell and broke her back.
One brother died from a bad liver. I used to babysit for one of her sisters. She died, I think she said cancer. Another sister used to be our family babysitter. I remember the dunce that was her first husband. They used to take us with them to the drive-in. After a second husband, she remains among the living, but the sisters are not on good terms – something to do with their mother’s estate. Their alcoholic, ex-boxer step dad who I rarely remember seeing sober, sobered up long enough to buy a hotel and property in the middle of the California desert. She still has his boxing robe, but he and her mom are both gone.
She told me that my best friend for many years became a good friend to her and helped ease her emotional pain. They graduated together from Madison High School. I told her the last time I saw him, we were preparing for an 8th grade class reunion, but he dropped out of the planning and didn’t attend the reunion. He was driving a pickup with a dozen or so stuffed animals in the cab with him, which seemed odd to me for a grown man. She confessed she was driving a car today which contained many stuffed animals, but said it was her daughter’s car. I said, “Speaking of cars” as I pulled my calling card from my wallet and handed it to her. It features a picture of my red, 57 Chevy Bel Air. I explained that I printed those because often at car shows I will meet someone I want to exchange contact info with. She giggled when she saw the car, shook her head and said, “I’m not surprised at all.”
She asked if I remembered, “Our corner.” Sadly, I did not. It was the street corner closest to her house. We would just hang out there away from everyone, lean against the fire hydrant and pass the time.
She asked if I remember the jacket she bought me. After my family moved to Newberg, I would ride the bus to Portland to see her on weekends. She said I admired it in the window at Penny’s on Union and Killingsworth when she would walk me to the bus stop, so she bought it for me. She said I wore it often (with my cut-offs). I wish I remembered that. I explained that whenever my memory fails me, I confess that I’ve had Chemo Therapy – it’s a perfect excuse which no one questions.
She asked, “Do you remember the box?” She had it delivered to me at school after our breakup. I was summoned to the principal’s office by two girls I did not know, saying there was a family emergency and I must leave with them. I played along. They took me to the parking lot and gave me a box containing a collection of memories – records, cards, letters, souvenirs, pictures, rings tied with a ribbon she used to wear in her hair; abundant evidence of a young girl’s broken heart. They told me about her suicide attempt; her hospital bracelet was in the box. Remember the song, “Traces of Love” (The Classics IV 1969)? This box embodied that song, but with the added element of suicide. I told her most of those things are in “my hoarder room” upstairs.
I told her I remember one day after receiving the box, I was sitting in the living room of our family home in Newberg when I felt compelled to get up and look out the window. I did, just in time to see her and two young ladies drive by in a 1964 Chevy Impala. I saw her, and she saw me. I asked if she remembered that. She did. I walked out and stood by the street, if they circled the block we might talk. They didn’t.
She confessed that she’s tried to end her life three more times. I told her I was sure that seeing me now she would have to admit how foolish it would have been to have ended her young life over the loss of what turned out to be a fat, old man. She just smiled and shook her head very slightly.
She said there will be no more suicide attempts, “That’s all over now,” and Jesus (“My Jesus”) is very important to her. Although she doesn’t associate with any particular church, she’s a believer with strong faith and is a concert attending connoisseur of Christian music. I told her the name of my favorite song, the one that will play at my funeral (if I have one), “I Can Only Imagine” (MercyMe 1999). I told her about the Christ centered Bible teaching church we attend, Athey Creek Christian Fellowship.
“Do you remember the first time I saw you?” I asked. Our regular babysitter (her sister) was not available one evening, so she was sent in stead. When I got off my bicycle and opened the front door, there stood my new babysitter – a sexy, grown up young woman in makeup and nylons; and she was my age! I ran (calmly) and hid in my room until I conjured up the courage to string enough words together to approach her with a sentence or two. I didn’t see her again until months later when my family moved across the street from her. We moved quite often while I was growing up. I count 27 places (including JDH and two foster homes) before I graduated from high school, so maybe the odds of ending up across the street from her weren’t really that long.
She remembers, and I remembered, the last time we saw each other. The day – months after we split up, I knocked on her door. When she answered, I asked to see her brother, but she and I talked a little first. She remembers immediately putting up a wall of defense, not rude, but understandably cold. After we spoke briefly, I went downstairs to visit her brother. I don’t remember what we talked about or exactly why I chose to see him then. Maybe because he was a good friend I hadn’t seen in a while, or maybe the visit really was to see how she was doing; and she seemed to be doing okay.
I learned today that years later on his deathbed, her brother told her that I told him I came back that day to try to reunite with her. Believing this meant trading her sadness from being the one abandoned for the sadness of forever disallowing (with her wall of defense) the possibility of reuniting. I think she’s blamed herself for this and maybe for some unhappy paths her life has taken; paths that might have remained unknown if only she had allowed us to get back together. Or, maybe I’m over analyzing.
I don’t remember telling her brother I wanted to reunite. If that was my goal, I would have pursued her. I don’t remember everything from those days, but I do remember the undeniable feeling before we broke up, that our relationship had become doomed. The young love we enjoyed so much at age 13 – 14 – 15 was waning. I felt guilty that I could feel it happening. I felt guilty that I was letting it happen. Emotions are very intense at that age, the good and the bad. I’ve learned in this life that you can’t make someone love you. I realize too that you can’t compel yourself to love someone. For this, I am sorry. Love can bring great joy. Love can bring great pain.
As I listened to her talk, it seemed clear that her happiest memories were from long ago when we were together. I’m pretty sure she remembered me at least a little better than reality. After divorcing an abusive husband, she probably remembered me as being even better. After her second husband died ending what sounded like another disappointing relationship – in her memory I might have been approaching some sort of legendary status.
I think true love stories are about couples who marry and make a life together. Every day they practice putting the other ahead of themselves. They remain faithful and committed for the duration. They speak the words, “I love you,” and they know the joy of dedication and compromise that shows, “I love you.” These are real love stories, and it’s the kind of love story to which I’ve continued daily adding pages for 45 years with my precious wife. But they make boring movies.
The best love stories for movies and books are emotional dramas about the love relationship that could not be. Budding lovers forever part because of a selfless, sacrificial decision; or they might be unwillingly parted, forbidding their promising relationship from ever developing to its obvious potential. These tragic, “love lost” stories wrench your heart. Why are they so much more powerful than the, “happily ever after” stories?
I unintentionally authored our unhappy ending, sentencing our story to that bitter sweet, “love lost” category, never knowing that she mistakenly reassigned that blame to herself.
A couple hours had passed and I’m sure we could both feel our visit winding down. We continued talking as we walked to our cars. Was she forgiving? She’s glad I’m happy with my life. I asked her to please give herself permission to be happy, as I had the very strong feeling she was not, and hasn’t been in a long time.