Men In Love

First Love

You are the first, the only, the best, and I wish you all the luck in the world. I guess I just wished myself luck, since I will be with you — 4ever!

I wrote that on page 108 of my high school sweetheart's yearbook under a photo of me, with Duran Duran hair, hugging her. The yellowing yearbook is in my possession now, which leads me to believe this was one of the items she tossed at my head when our relationship broke up that fall.

There was a lot to love about that girl: her unabashed optimism, her adventurous spirit, her dad — who, as town judge, once dismissed a speeding ticket I got. I even told her I loved her. But I was 17. As with drinking and voting, there should be a minimum age requirement for that particular declaration. And when I think about all that I know now about love, I can't count her as my first. After 10 years in the dating game, and after dropping the L word hundreds of times, who is my first love? Turns out, she's the last person I dated: my wife, Diana.

True love is like your first kidney stone. You can't possibly imagine what it feels like until it strikes you to the ground (I speak from experience, because I've passed enough kidney stones to pave a small driveway). After 10 minutes of talking to Diana, I knew that the knee-buckling, heart-throbbing, butterfly-inducing feeling I had was love. And since this is the only time I've felt that, I have to conclude she's my first. To equate this feeling with other "loves" in my past only diminishes its meaning. It's like calling that kidney stone a "stummy ache."

So what separates Diana from the rest? For one, we don't have to work hard at love. We laugh at each other's jokes, finish each other's sentences, know when to snuggle and when to give each other space. Sure, it bugs her that I never remember to replace the toilet paper roll, and it annoys me that she still can't work the TiVo. But I think she's eternally beautiful and unfailingly fascinating. Even when she talks about getting her nails done, I'm riveted. (People, is that normal?) Past relationships were lopsided, complicated, exhaustingly emotional tugs-of-war. That isn't the case with Diana and me; we have struck a perfect balance.

They say you never forget your first love. And lucky for me, I wake up with her every single morning.

Jonathan Small is a writer in Los Angeles. He lost the Duran Duran haircut after his wife threatened divorce.

Worst Love

Orange Crush
Does having a mission make unrequited love any easier to take?

By Steve Almond

Why did I fall so hard for Nancy Dodd?

Was it her curly black hair, her cupidinous dancer booty, the sweetly embarrassed tilt of her smile?

No. Young Ms. Dodd won me over with something even more irresistible: her total indifference to me as a suitor.

I wooed her with the fierce incompetence only a sophomore in college can muster. This meant slices of pepperoni pizza delivered, unsolicited, to her room (how was I supposed to know she was a vegetarian?); long, disingenuous talks about my devout feminism; nakedly ulterior offers to drive her to the local Waldbaum's in my Mercury Bobcat.

Five months of pursuit ended in the laundry room beneath our dorm. I had timed my spin cycle to coincide with hers, based on a pattern of surveillance that would not technically qualify as stalking. It was more like skulking. We were alone amid the orphaned socks and lint traps. I leaned in for a kiss. Nancy turned and all I?got was cheek.

She said, quietly, excruciatingly, she didn't like me like that.

"Like what?" I said, ridiculously.

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut. It wasn't just the sting of rejection, but the embarrassment of realizing I'd never really had a shot. I'd only convinced myself I did. This is all by way of noting what should be obvious to anyone with a functioning heart: The <00AD>unrequited crush is the worst kind of love you can harbor. I should know. I've been pursuing women who don't like me like that for most of my life.

At Camp Tawonga, it was a champion swimmer named Susie who spent time with me — as I eventually discovered — in the hopes that I would introduce her to my older brother. Years later, in grad school, it was a tall, brassy curator who invited me to her garden party, where I gazed into her eyes for a good half hour, until her lesbian lover came over and began kissing her neck.

I don't know why I've always been so susceptible to these crushes. It may have something to do with giving myself a defined mission. Getting the girl becomes a shortcut to self-esteem. It's also a welcome distraction from my darker demons, the self-doubt and professional insecurity that I wear most days like a crown of thorns. None of this should come as a particular shock to anyone. Men have been finding a way to blame their misery on women for years. Just listen to any blues recording.

This has been true of me since my very first crush: Shelly from Israel. I spent most of fourth grade following her around making bad knock-knock jokes to get her attention. On the last day of the school year, the teacher told us that Shelly had an announcement to make.

"I'm moving back to Israel!" she sang out.

While the rest of the class pelted her with questions ("Do they have Ninja Turtles in Israel?") I retreated to the corner and tried not to weep over my graham crackers and milk. I give Shelly credit, though. She did try to?comfort me.

"Hey, Jokeman" — she called me Jokeman — "I have a joke for you: Knock knock!"

"Who's there?" I mumbled.

"Orange," she said, in her adorable accent.

"Orange who?"

"Orange crush," she said. "Get it?"

"Yeah," I whispered, dejected. "Got it."

Steve Almond's upcoming essay collection Not That You Asked, will be out in fall 2007. He lives and rocks in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Lasting Love

The Best Knot
When love makes you better together than apart

By Michael Bérubé

I met my wife, Janet, in October 1983, when I had just turned 22. She was almost 29. I didn't think much of our age difference, because within weeks I knew I'd met the smartest-sexiest-wittiest woman in the English-speaking world. She's a great dancer from swing to samba, a fair hand at car repair, and a former cardiac care nurse with a Ph.D. in English. Not exactly someone you'd get bored with over the course ofa lifetime.

We married 2 years later. When I look back, I marvel at all the movies in which 20-something men fear the consequences of being "tied down." Sure, it's possible that one of you might be attracted to someone else. But that's hardly the only challenge married couples face.

As it happens, we've faced plenty over 21 years. Our first child had severe asthma as a toddler and was repeatedly hospitalized; one admitting physician thought we'd lose him. We didn't, but a few years later our second child was born with Down syndrome. We've dealt with emotional breakdowns, career crises, and stupefying heartbreaks. Yet through it all, we've managed to love each other for the difficult, fragile, opinionated people we are.

You know that point in a relationship when you think every little thing the other person does is magic? Well, as Sting himself found out, that point doesn't last forever. It's eventually overtaken — not by emergencies and heartbreak but by all the mundane aspects of living under the same roof. Janet does many magical things, but she also flings water all over the kitchen when she's washing lettuce, leaves half-full cups and glasses around the house, and has a strange enthusiasm for both Joni Mitchell and crooning show tunes. Me, I never make the bed, I can't remember our children's clothing sizes, I stay up late, and I like to sleep in. Last but not least, Janet has moderate hearing loss in one ear; I talk fast and mumble. This is not a match made in heaven. It is merely a very good match made on earth.

Love over 20-plus years doesn't always get deeper and more firmly rooted. What's really amazing about lasting love is that it gets more complex. Once we simply walked arm in arm through the world. Now our minds are better together than apart; our bodies heartily agree. And after all this time, I can't think of any other body I'd rather be tied down to.

Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Penn State University and author of Life As We KnowIt: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child.
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