“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.”
In a way, it was true. Ethan and I now had the special bond of travel partners. We had learned what made the other person ugly, and we still liked each other. I was coming to appreciate what a deeply kind and present person he was, and I respected him more each day I spent with him. And yet, every day, I was also realizing something else: we were wrong for each other. It was neither of our faults, but there it was, every time we interviewed someone who was talking about true love.
One of those people was his mother, who has one of those rare stories. She married her first love — her high school sweetheart, and Ethan’s father. As a product of divorce, I’d always believed there was no such thing as truly happy marriages — or people, for that matter. Ethan’s parents, in all their Midwestern functionality, proved me wrong. I’d assumed that anyone who settled for their first love just didn’t know any better, or was afraid to look outside of their original experience. Nope, it turns out some people just really love each other. Forever, even. We listened to his mother’s story, and watched her eyes mist over.
“There’s no way I would have ever imagined that I’d be sitting here, fifty-four-years old, feeling like I’m seventeen. All those fabulous pinch-me-I’m-not-sure-if-this-is-real feelings — they’re all still very much alive. I wish everyone could experience this.”
Even with all my cynicism, there was no way I could see her face and not believe her. This woman was clearly, deeply in love. And I imagined she wanted the same for her son. I felt exposed, and wondered if she could smell the fraud on me. Maybe being in true love gave off signals I wasn’t privy to; something only the initiated could sense.
After the interview, Ethan and I were quiet. I think we might have been thinking the same thing: “I want what they have. It might not happen for most people, but I have to try and find it. And what we have? It’s just not that story.”
We were almost home to California when we decided it was time to eat the mushrooms we’d brought cross-country. We ate them in a canyon, ready to watch the faces come alive in the New Mexico mountains. But desert flies had other plans for us and swarmed our eyes and mouths. They chased us into our little tent, and instead of staring at the clouds, we were forced to trip looking only at each other.
Ethan’s face swirled, his handsome features twisting into a Picasso mess. I felt my eyes swell and tears stream down my face. I cried and cried, and couldn’t stop laughing. After a whole summer, I finally had my release. And man, was I feeling things.
“It feels so good to lie next to each other and not worry about sex!” I remember exclaiming. Maybe he didn’t agree, but Ethan nodded.
A few campers walked by. Their voices sounded like busy munchkins from Oz. They buzzed on by for milliseconds that were also hours. And just then, it started raining in the desert.
“Yes, rain, we welcome you!” Ethan laughed as drizzles came through the tent, dripping into our thirsty mouths.
“Who are all these crazy people walking in the rain?” I asked as more munchkins waddled by.
“We’re all crazy people walking in the rain!” Ethan pronounced. I had to agree. I looked over at my boyfriend’s rotating face. His chin was on his cheek, but there it was, still distinguished. Here was the person I loved, even as I was falling out of love him. In that moment I knew for sure. We would break up, and sooner than we’d hoped. He wasn’t my first love, and I couldn’t let him be my last. But right then, that didn’t matter. I was just glad we were on this trip together.
“You’re the best friend,” I told his bulging forehead-eye.
“You’re my best friend,” he told my melting face. We held each other’s gaze for milliseconds that were also hours.
And then we cracked up.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.