I went to bed with my first love on our first date.
“What’s wrong?” Jim asked me. “Why are you crying?” “Maybe we went too fast?” I said, or asked, hoping for
reassurance while worrying that I had already ruined every- thing. I was 23, but a young 23. Also, a proper enough young lady who sent out same-day thank-you notes, who didn’t want a man thinking she was something she wasn’t.
I called my mother, desperate for her advice, and hop- ing that she, too, would not think I was loose and immoral. “Don’t call him,” she said. “Let him come to you.” That had always been her advice, whether I had just met a cute guy in the library at school or someone from a party. “Let him come to you.”
I knew that my mother was right. I knew that succeeding at the dating game meant not jumping into bed with anyone too fast, but I was fully in love with Jim by our second date, when he held and comforted me for hours after my grandfather died. We were married two years later.
In another two years, we separated.
Sigmund Freud once said, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” If that was the case and a girl’s first love is her father, I was in trouble.
I don’t remember having a rewarding relationship with my father, David, before my parents separated. It deteriorated further from there.
My father looked good on the outside, with an athletic build, close-cropped hair, and an engaging smile. He was in advertising and was very good at selling, but when it came to me, he wasn’t very good at delivering. Once he’d moved out with my brother and sister, he told me, “I’ll be there,” but then he wasn’t. It was as if the rest of my family had been carved out and was living with a total stranger.
Even his gifts made me feel like an afterthought. “This is what he gave you for your birthday?” my mother asked as she examined a necklace he’d given me as a teenager. “They’re just cultured pearls, and not very good ones.”
Right after the divorce, my father tried to get all three kids into a “family photo,” but the photographer couldn’t get me to smile. I didn’t feel like smiling. I always felt like crying. It was only my brother, David, who saw the real sadness in my eyes. “Hey, little one,” he whispered. “You can do it. Give us a smile.” For a brief moment, I was able to turn my lips upward just long enough to be memorialized in a photo that masked how deeply our family was fractured.
When I thought about my father or missed him, it was more like the idea of him that I missed. I longed for a fantasy, for an idea of a love that was enduring and unconditional. I daydreamed my way into happy, romantic movies, as if any photo of me smiling were on their mantels, not the one in my father’s new apartment.
It was a girlfriend from college who introduced me to Jim, someone she had met while in law school. His voice on the phone was soothing. “I want to hear all about you,” he said, music to my ears.
He was charming, intelligent, and we talked about our lives. He was flirtatious yet warm. I could almost hear him smiling at the thought of us meeting in a few months, once he had finished studying for the bar exam. I was smitten from that first phone call.
When we finally met in person, he did not disappoint. I felt an immediate comfort with him, not to mention the hypnotic pull of his aquamarine eyes. Those eyes never left my face, no matter which one of us was speaking. No one else in the room mattered.
There was no way to tell how much of my attraction was to Jim, the passionate Italian-American with the big family I wanted to be a part of, and how much of it was to the feeling he gave me, that feeling I had dreamed of since childhood, of someone making me the center of their universe. It didn’t matter, because the feeling was mutual, or so it seemed.
After a year together, Jim moved in with me in my tiny first New York City apartment. I lay on top of him on the bed when we watched TV together, my head against his neck, totally at one with this man. He made me feel connected and important.
Still, the cracks began to show. He devoted himself to me … but he also devoted himself to his family, and I found myself once again in an emotional tug-of-war, trying to com- pete with all the competing claims on his attention. On his birthday one time we had big romantic plans. While he was still upstate visiting his parents, I tried on everything in my closet until I found just the right form-fitted sweater that hugged me in all the right places. I did a last-minute spritz of eau de parfum. Then he called to say he couldn’t get away.
“But it’s your birthday,” I said. “We have reservations at 8. You should have been on the road by now.”
“I know, hon, but my mom is making her special eggplant parmesan.”
“But we have reservations at Plaza España,” I repeated, not comprehending.
On the one hand, I was dating a man who cared about his mother, and that was certainly a good thing. On the other hand, we didn’t speak for weeks after that.
We got through it. We had been together two years, includ- ing one year of living together, when he handed me a card that read, “To my love, will you marry me?”
“Yes, yes!” I cried. I wrapped him in a hug and kissed him with passion.
“Whoa,” he said. “You don’t have to give me your answer this minute. Take a few weeks.”
“I don’t need a few weeks,” I said. “I’ve known since the beginning that you’re the one for me.”
We broke the news to my mother and stepfather first. “Oh honey,” my mom said. “We’re so happy! Although we’re not surprised, I knew this would work out.”
Then we called Jim’s parents, all four of us on different extensions. When we told his parents, there was silence. “Are you there?” Jim asked.
“Yes,” his mother said. “We’re just … we’re shocked.”
My heart had been racing with excitement, and now it felt like something else. Dread, maybe.
“It’s just that we’ll have to adjust to our lives changing,” his father tried to explain.
I was on the phone extension in the living room. Jim was in the bedroom. I couldn’t see him from where I was standing, and I felt utterly abandoned. Why wasn’t he speaking up? Why wasn’t he telling them how much he loved me, how much he wanted to marry me? I wanted him to set the record straight right up front. But he didn’t, and I dropped the receiver and ran to the bathroom, choking on my tears.
When we went to visit his parents upstate the following weekend, things were no better. They greeted me politely but spent a lot of the weekend walking aimlessly around their modest house in Hyde Park, looking miserable and forlorn, or like zombies after the apocalypse. They acted as if they
were in mourning, on their way to a funeral. The funeral of their son, who had so sorely disappointed them in his choice of a bride, probably because I wasn’t Italian like they were.
I was young. I didn’t know how to handle it. I looked to Jim for reassurance, for guidance, but he didn’t say anything and left me floundering. He couldn’t even smile unless he felt sure that his parents were happy about our news, and that’s when I knew that we had at least one thing in common—an inviolate need to please others, especially our mothers.
“Can’t you just be happy for us?” I asked him.
“I need them to be happy,” he said.
I had enough presence of mind to call off the engagement, although I was sick about it. I couldn’t sign up to live for life in a household where I would never be my husband’s top priority.
I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I didn’t know what else to do so I went to stay with my mother and George in Florida, hoping that Jim would see that his life without me was empty.
He kept insisting he wanted me back, but somehow never managed to set a wedding date. When he finally did, I came home.
Jim’s family never warmed toward me, except for his grand- mother, who wrapped me in love from the moment I met her until the day she died. For her 80th birthday, I knitted her a stylish white wool and cashmere sweater, full of twisty cables, and with five fancy buttons. When she opened the box, she cried tears of real joy, and she wore that sweater constantly.
With Jim’s grandmother, I had that familial feeling I had longed for and cherished, with the rest of the family, not so much. During our two years of marriage, Jim and I had increasingly nasty fights about the stranglehold I felt his par- ents exerted on our lives.
“I can’t stand the way they control us,” I would say. “They just want to see us more often,” Jim said.
“But I don’t want to be put on a visitation schedule.” It reminded of how my brother and sister had been scheduled to visit me dutifully on weekends.
After two years married and another two separated, we were divorced. I felt shattered that it hadn’t worked out, and ever farther from my goal of a feeling of stability and belong- ing. I had been so sure of him at the beginning. How would I know how to choose better next time?
Soon after the divorce was final, a homeless man saw me moping along down the sidewalk. “Miss, you looking so sad,” he said. “There is pain inside. There’s no smile with you.”
I gave him a few dollars and tried to fake a smile, but it felt foreign on my mouth. Even strangers on the street could see there was something wrong with me. Even a homeless man on a blanket on the pavement felt sorry for me.
I had to do something. I had to shake myself out of this funk.
I deliberately began flirting with guys again, in a kind of fake-it-till-you-make-it move. Flirting had always come easily to me. As children, my sister had been known as the smart one, while I was the pretty one—which made both of us unhappy and feel lacking. I went through life often setting my sights low to avoid the pain of finding out that it was true, that I wasn’t smart enough. I only finished two years of college, leav- ing to become a flight attendant, not even considering some scholarly field because I feared I’d never make it.
Nevertheless, I’d never had trouble meeting men. Cute guys were everywhere. All I had to do was give one of them a wide-eyed look and he’d be right over to chat, whether I was on the shuttle to Boston to visit a friend, or at the neighborhood gym where, with the help of a bit of blush and mascara, I’d ask for help with one of the machines. It was as simple as that.
But still I was lonely.
Finally, a few years after my divorce, I met a man who made me feel safe and wanted. Larry was an art director ten years my senior who felt like a father figure. He was balding and had a deep bass voice that made me laugh. After a few months of casual dating, we became more intimate.
By now I was in my mid-thirties, and my hormones were in crave mode for a baby. But we had different long-term views of our relationship.
I lowered the volume on the TV; it was a commercial dur- ing “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. “Larry, we’ve been together two years,” I said. “It’s time to look, to think about, you know, having a baby.”
Larry breathed out a fog of the pot smoke he’d been hold- ing in. “I don’t know if that’s what I want,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ready.”
“Okay,” I said, wanting to be reasonable. A reasonable, understanding girlfriend. “When do you think you’ll be ready?”
“Can’t really say.”
He lumbered to the kitchen and came back with another Eskimo Pie from the freezer.
I tried again. “Do you think you’d be willing to talk to someone about this?” I asked.
He reluctantly agreed to see a therapist to help him sort out his feelings on the topic. “Give me a year,” he said.
I circled the date in red a year from then on my calendar and practically counted down the days. When that day rolled around, I broached the topic again.
“So what do you think, Larry? Is it time for a baby?” I asked.
“Huh?” he said.
“It’s been a year. You said to give you a year!”
“Well, I’ve decided it’s not right for me.”
“What? But I gave you a year … does this mean you’re breaking up with me?”
“No, baby, not at all!” he protested. “Of course I still want to see you. Let’s just keep it casual. It’s fine the way it is.”
Fortunately, my mother refrained from saying anything about why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, but she didn’t have to. I already knew that I came off as too needy—because I wastoo needy.
I had to change that. I needed to become someone I was not: independent. I had to get my brain to refresh so I could alter myself into that other kind of woman, the one who was too independent to worry about what a man thought of her.
That’s what I would do. I would become the kind of independent woman that men wanted. I would start by going hiking in the Dolomites.