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True Stories: First Love America
My road trip with my boyfriend taught me a lot about love — just not what I expected to learn.
by Rachel Krantz
"You guys have been dating for five months? And you're going to live out of a car together for how long?" That was the reaction we usually got when we told people about our summer road-trip plans. And as we stared out of opposite windows at the endless rows of corn, it was starting to seem like a valid point. My boyfriend Ethan and I were just two weeks into our romantic journey, but the honeymoon was definitely over. We'd started to fight — or not so much fight as just annoy each other, without the release of actual arguments.
Ethan was a slow and deliberate traveler. I was more spontaneous and emotional. In other words, we were the same people we'd been before, amplified by travel. I wanted to discover the country through late nights at dive bars and adventures with strangers. Ethan wanted for us to be happy, and to stay at least a little on schedule. We'd set out for the same memory-of-a-lifetime journey. We just had different maps.
And then, there was the problem of the project: First Love America. We'd come up with the idea just a few months after we'd met: what if we took all summer to drive cross-country and collected America's first-love stories? People would tell us the story of their first love, and we'd record them. I had a background in radio and a job I wanted to quit; he had the summers off. The idea was simple and sweet, just like our new relationship.
Once we were on the road, it became clear that the project was at once ruining and making our trip. It was fascinating to talk to strangers and get so many memories on tape. It was also stressful and emotionally exhausting. We were stunned at how ready people were to unload on us — most people talked for close to an hour. Every first-love story was different. Some were funny, some were boring, and some were downright profound. But all the stories we heard shared one common trait: in one way or another, the experience had scarred the person telling us about it. The scar wasn't always painful, but if they were really talking about their first love, it was always there.
It turns out your first love is a lot like the family you're born into. It doesn't have to define the rest of your life, but it certainly determines the way you see your chances.
Werner was an old German man who gave free sailboat rides in Minneapolis. We went out on the water with him at sunset. Out on the lake, he spoke slowly, like he was telling a ghost story. He'd lost his mother in the war; twenty years later, his wife left him. It was unclear which woman was his first love, or who had broken his heart more. He spoke softly, breaking the bad news of his past to Ethan and me, the innocents. Each sentence seemed to take minutes to ripple out across the water:
"One morning, she said in a nice friendly voice, 'Werner, it's not going to work out.' But guess what? I did not hear her friendly voice. It took me many years to figure out why. I was five years old when my mom left me... So my wife stayed. I couldn't bear the pain. I pleaded. One day, I remember, I saw her leave the house. She left, and when she said goodbye, she had to walk down some steps to her car. It was like freeing a bird and seeing her fly..."
When his story was done, we sat silently, rocking on the dark water. Some fireworks went off over the lake. Werner looked at us with that hope the old who know better put into the young who don't.
"So how does it feel to have met Prince Charming?" he asked me, completely serious.
I paused, choosing my words carefully, not wanting to break both of their hearts.
"Ethan isn't my Prince Charming," I told Werner. "He's my Real Person. And that makes me love him more."