I’m almost done writing the latest draft of my memoir, a story that spans nearly three years of my youth – from age 22, when I was most innocent, idealistic, adventurous, and passionate, until age 25, when I felt most powerless and hopeless.
My story isn’t really a love story, though, at least not in the traditional sense. But there are traces of romance here and there. I rediscover them as I flip through my personal writings and I’ve polished and edited some of those bits for you, too, so that you can join me on my journey to reconstruct a life
Historically, the longest relationship I ever had was with a guy I met while I was still a senior in high school. We were both working at a bookstore together and I remember how hard it was to believe that someone I liked actually liked me back. I was in such a state of disbelief that I tried to destroy the relationship from the start. We’d gone on an evening walk to a nearby park where I told him all the reasons I didn’t think he should date me. I confessed every sin and every fatal flaw I could think of and, to my amazement, he didn’t run away. He didn’t even flinch. In fact, he continued to write me poetry and create thrifty and imaginative adventures for us to go on for at least another year. But by our second year together, our relationship went downhill. I won’t go into details. Let’s just say we both share some of the blame.
Our breakup happened shortly after I turned 21. We were even engaged for a little bit (although it never really felt like it). A year later we met up for dinner. True, part of my motivation was to see if I had any residual feelings for him after all that time. But I was relieved to know those feelings had completely dissolved. I could hop on my plane to France knowing there was no reason to return. I was free.
The time period covered in my memoir was one of the most fruitful periods in my life in terms of personal writing. I didn’t write daily, but I definitely carried my diary with me more often than ever before. Beginning with my study abroad in France, I also developed a ritual of writing semi-regular generic emails, or, what you might call predecessors to blogs such as this one. Of course my writing was nothing to boast of, but at the time I thought it was quite prolific. It would actually frustrate me sometimes to try and write a story or a poem and suddenly face a writer’s block that seemed nonexistent moments before when I was scribbling in my diary. Now I look at those old diaries and analyze my younger-self. Today, I’m trying to figure out how I became so confused about love.
My first three months in France aren’t covered in the memoir. In earlier versions I wrote about them. I wrote, for instance, of the only five men I ever locked lips with in France and, believe me, it went no further than that because I took the whole “saving myself until marriage” thing pretty seriously and it threw some of the Frenchmen I met for a loop. Most Europeans lose their virginity around 17 or 18. I was 22 and still hadn’t lost mine (and wouldn’t for a very long time). It was like I was from another planet. But at least no one tried to force himself on me. At least they were cool with moving into a conversation or leaving me alone entirely. For me, it was disappointing how uninterested many guys seemed once sex was off the table. I couldn’t understand because deep conversation was almost the epitome of intimacy in my world. In any case, once I settled in Montpellier, my kissing days were over (save “la bise” a.k.a. “French cheek kissing”). I had one French guy-friend and I told him in no uncertain terms that the next man I date will be the man I marry. To my delight, those words didn’t send him running. We stayed friends for the duration of my time there. Sometimes he’d talk to me about girls he dated or wanted to date and I was happy to listen and encourage him in his romantic endeavors. My only regret is not being able to say goodbye. But then again, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to anyone in Montpellier, but you’ll understand why when you read my book.
Here are some thoughts from my personal writings about love followed by reflective commentary from more than a decade later. But, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Then, when my memoir is finished and published, you can read it and have a better understanding of the story as a whole.
Here’s a playlist of songs that would have influenced my thoughts about romance back then. All of them are from musicals because musicals are stories and each song is part of a greater story. I love that!
I didn’t know yet to identify it as such, but that weekend I was suffering from major depression triggered by grief. To be alone at such a time in a city practically made for lovers made the weight in my chest even heavier. In response, I turned to God, personal letters, and my journal. I walked alone at night heedless of the catcalls that follow young women far more often in France than in the States. “Discutez avec moi” was never an invitation simply to talk. There were expectations behind those words I wasn’t about to find out.
The French guy in this case had misinterpreted a smile I’d given him one evening. Americans smile at strangers far more often than French people do and I knew that even then. But like any idealist, I believed this guy could change. I thought we’d meet up and he’d be okay with simple conversation. But then he saw the Celtic cross around my neck and realized there was a reason I wasn’t “putting out.”
Since I arrived in Montpellier six months earlier, there’d been no kissing, no hand-holding, and very little hugging. Physical affection had been reduced to the French cheek-kissing ritual known as “la bise” which isn’t really kissing, if you think about it. There is a very light touch of one cheek to another but the kissing itself is mostly in the air. The sound of lip-smacking solidifies it. No actual kissing; just really loud pretend kissing. The above writing came at the climax of my mental breakdown. It was meant to be my last entry ever before I diminished into the world, weaving in and out of different lands and cultures without a name or passport and demonstrating a Mother Teresa style love in every village and every town. Mother Teresa never married. If she could live an impactful and meaningful life without a husband then so could I, right?
I elaborated a bit more on this in my “epistles” from the psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France.
Still delusional, I fought against the very idea of romantic love. In my head the memories of lonely Frenchmen who thought love and sex were one and the same were fresh on my mind. One of my very last memories of such a misunderstanding was a day or two before I left Montpellier. I agreed to help a very tall young man with his English. He told me he was a Christian so I used a Bible verse from either the gospel of John or 1 John (it was a while ago) for our tutoring session. I had him read it and then asked him what he understood. At the end of the meeting, he invited me to his place for coffee. I was smart enough to know that “coffee” was usually a euphemism for sex and so I politely said no to which he replied, “but Jesus said to love your neighbor! Come to my place and make love to me!”
I shook my head and said back to him, “Jesus didn’t mean that kind of love.”
One of my guy friends had professed his love for me over the summer. Before he went away in the fall, he burst into my dorm room to tell me how he felt and request a farewell kiss. But I turned him down. I enjoyed hanging out with him but I didn’t feel the same for him as he did for me. And yes, there is something empowering about rejecting someone’s advances toward you verses being rejected. Besides, by this juncture in the story, I’d been given a diagnosis and I’d researched it extensively. I knew there was no guarantee my medication would always work and I’d never have another breakdown. I wondered if it was fair for me to date anyone.
Rich Mullins never married. He was engaged once but that’s the closest he ever came and towards the end of his life some were dubbing him the “happy celibate.” He didn’t eschew that title either. He said in an interview once that maybe God did want him to be celibate and the way that he accomplished that was by breaking his heart.
I love Rich Mullins and it saddens me at times that I didn’t come to love him until after he died. But I was also still a teenager when he died and he was in his early forties. The point is that, even after death he had such a strong influence on my life that I began to think more and more of celibacy as a gift. Jesus didn’t even marry so why did it seem like everyone in Christianity made such a big deal about marriage?
I recommend you read Paul’s chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s often read at wedding ceremonies, or so I’m told. I actually haven’t been to many weddings. My “touched with fire” reference is both to Kay Redfield Jamison’s book of the same title and the only textbook manic episode I’ve ever experienced. Someone told me once that mania has a way of bringing your greatest desires to the surface. For some that means becoming overtly promiscuous. For others it means going on a wild spending spree or impulsively taking a plane to London. For me it meant living out and sharing a New Testament kind of love. Of the four Greek loves, I’m referring to agape. Look it up.
The rules of love change when you discover you have feelings for someone you don’t want to have feelings for.
Just when I feel like I can accept not falling in love (or at least not being loved in return), someone I’m interested in shows interest in me. It is unbelievably annoying. So does this mean celibacy isn’t my calling in life? Does this mean that the next guy I date won’t actually be the guy I marry? And how much of my story do I tell him? I owe it to him to give him some sort of warning before he chooses to be in a relationship with me. He needs to have a chance to get out while he can!
This becomes the story of my life, at least the romantic end of it. There will be one more short-lived romance before I turn 30. It wasn’t ideal but anyone who knows me knows I can easily fall into self-pity and self-hatred. I see my flaws much quicker than I see my gifts. But when someone loves me and I don’t fully understand why, I begin to think maybe I’m not such a royal fuck-up. If someone I love can love me, then there must be something about me worth loving.