An Open Letter to My First Love

Recently I ran across an article called, “We Only Fall in Love with 3 People in Our Lifetime—Each One for a Specific Reason,” whose premise is simple: our first love teaches us how to love; it is our “idealistic” love. Our second love teaches us boundaries; it is our “hard” love, the one in which we experiment with different types of people to find the right fit. Our third love is the “ideal” love—this person is “it,” and the one we never see coming. The first and second loves shape how we view love, so we’re ready when the third, and last, love comes along. The article made me think about my first love, who I’ll call “Ben.”

I met Ben when his family came to Colorado Springs from Michigan to visit his aunt, who was my mom’s colleague. Ben and I had an instant connection: we share a birthday. He is just hours older than I am. We have the same hair and eye color, and at the time, had the same shoe size and similar height and weight. Our “twinship” became our families’ running joke. One day we drove up to Seven Falls, remarking on the interesting whistles that the parking lot attendants used to communicate open parking spaces. Later we played miniature golf, followed by dinner and board games. When we parted, we exchanged addresses and promised to write. Over the next couple of years, our occasional letters became more frequent and intense, and by the spring of 1984, our friendship had blossomed into a full-blown long-distance romance.

Our high school graduations occurred on the same day, three days after our 18th birthday. We spent that summer running to the mailbox every day in anticipation of what treasures we would discover there. We began recording and exchanging cassette tapes, finding this new medium of communication quite a step up; we could say a lot more on a ninety-minute cassette tape than we ever could in a letter.

All these letters, cards, gifts and tapes lived in a box at my parents’ house until this summer when my husband and I found them as we cleaned out their basement. About a month ago, I put the letters in date order and spent an afternoon reading them. Then I spent the next two weeks listening to 900 minutes of Ben’s eighteen-year-old recorded voice, keeping a journal as I went along. I kept thinking about that “3 People” article and wishing I had a way of contacting Ben to discuss it with him. I also wanted him to know how much of a positive impact he had on my future choices. I decided to write him a letter, but an open one this time. I hope everyone who reads it thinks about their first love, and how that person shaped who they are today.

December 8, 2017

Dear Ben,

I ran across your letters and tapes this summer, but I put off going through them because I knew it would take a pretty serious time and emotional commitment. Last month, I finally went through everything. Listening to your voice instantly took me back to the days when we mailed each other several times a week. Most of our communication was everyday chatter, but in between jokes about our jobs, our friends, and your accent (which you swore you didn’t have), we talked about serious things like underage drinking, seatbelts being optional, and our future plans. We also developed a shared love of the same music, including Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You,” Lionel Richie’s “Penny Lover,” (the whole Can’t Slow Down album, really) Rush’s “Entre Nous” and Journey’s “Faithfully.” We also discovered more fundamental things in common, like the importance of religion and family in our lives. We read passages from books to each other, and shared the same excitement and anxiety that things would go well for each of us as we prepared for life in college.

As we transformed from high school seniors into college freshmen, we also transitioned from friendship into romance. We talked frequently about the definition of love, and how a person knows they’re in love.  On one of the tapes you listed the telltale signs: that our minds were preoccupied with each other; that we were envious of the time other people got to spend with us; how we were going to keep and cherish everything each other sent. Your college roommate offered his observation: “You don’t fall in love with somebody, you choose to love somebody.” After sharing this with me, you followed with the words, “We have chosen to love.” We were so preoccupied with each other that I don’t know how we ever got any studying done.

As young as we were, we knew the power of the words “I love you,” and we never said them aloud, even over the phone. We knew those words were meaningless without eye contact. We also knew in our hearts that we couldn’t fully love each other unless we spent time together. We had discussed a visit over winter break that year, but it never materialized; it was too expensive, and our parents didn’t consider our relationship to be serious. I wish we had tried harder to make it happen, because I know we would have stayed close had we been able to follow through with our plans. Listening to these tapes made me miss my own half of the conversation; I’m sure my letters and tapes would fill in some blanks. I wonder if you kept them. After all, you did say, “Someday we’re going to listen to all these tapes over again, together.” 

I want to thank you for teaching me what it feels like to be loved, and for valuing me for who I was, because at 18 I wasn’t sure of myself at all. I had been a victim of bullying in junior high, so during high school I was determined to find a new place in the social strata, not feeling socially comfortable until my senior year. After graduation, I felt like I had to start over from scratch. Your reassurances calmed my self-criticism, and even blocked it: we made a rule not to point out our own mistakes on the tapes, and we weren’t allowed to re-record anything. Thank you for helping to shape my self-criticism into self-esteem.

I finished my BA in 1989 and had been through several failed relationships. By that point we had lost contact, but I still relied on your model of what love should be—and nobody measured up. Then, late that year, I met Darcy, my future husband. Remember when our families visited Seven Falls? You might be surprised to know that Darcy was one of those whistling parking lot attendants, and he must have been there the day you and I met. In a few days, we will celebrate 28 years together.

You finished college, attended medical school, and became a doctor. I changed my major from nursing to English and became a teacher, and then a university professor. Although our lives diverged and we lost contact, maybe this letter will inspire you to reach out; you wrote some wonderful letters, and I’d love to share them with you again. If you want them, all you have to do is ask.

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