First Love

by Susan Woodring

I experienced my very first romantic relationship when I was in the first grade. We were at the swings when it was pronounced, by him, by me, I don’t remember: now, we were boyfriend and girlfriend. To commemorate the occasion, he gave me a Snoopy pencil sharpener. The next day, he asked for it back. He said his mother said he couldn’t give away such treasures. I’d already broken it; I don’t remember how. So, I gave it back to him in pieces.

By the time I was eight, I had long forgotten Snoopy-pencil-sharpener boy and decided I was destined to marry Bo Duke. I loved his easy grin and the way he confounded Boss Hog and Roscoe P. Coletrain and how he slid, as graceful as any dancer or gymnast, into the General Lee. I loved the sight of him bare-chested, which was lucky since they showed him bare-chested all the time. Remember: I was eight years old. My neighbor, who made chocolate chip cookies when I visited and listened to me read aloud my very first stories, clipped magazine articles about the real-life John Schneider for me. It was announced that he was to marry a former Miss America. I dismissed this reality, and instead had a dream about him saving me on some dark sidewalk where I’d taken a bad fall. In my dream, I was dying of the hurt back, and he was there, ordering passersby to call 911. I suppose I’d studied emergency procedures in school that year; maybe there had been a law enforcement officer as a guest speaker in my third grade class.

A few years later and on the other side of the country, I was in a minor car accident that left me with a broken collar bone. My mother, a nurse, pronounced it the second she saw me: You have a broken clavicle. I was eleven years old and had just finished fifth grade; Bo Duke wasn’t there to save me. I cried all the way to the hospital. My mother, of course, assumed this was because I was in such terrible pain, but it actually didn’t really hurt very much. Not yet. Instead, I was crying because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. That year, in school, my teacher had explained to us that a broken spinal cord was a very serious injury and that it usually resulted in paralysis and oftentimes, even death. I was scared and young and confused. I didn’t know what a clavicle was or what it might mean that I had broken mine.

The same year I broke my collarbone, I experienced my first kiss, which wasn’t a real kiss at all but a peck on the cheek by the first boy to show any interest in me since my playground love gave me, and then took back, that Snoopy pencil sharpener.

It was the same year I locked myself in the bathroom one afternoon to count out, on my fingers, how many friends I had.

When I was twelve and no longer cared, John Schneider and his beauty queen divorced. I was in love with another, a boy my own age, who gave me a wrist corsage instead of a pencil sharpener. It was the Eighth Grade Dance. I wore my older sister’s dress, altered for length, with a sparkly fuchsia sash that was all mine. His mother drove us. I took off my little white pumps to dance. He held me as close as the chaperones would allow and kissed my bare shoulder. He promised to love me forever.

We had met in the most romantic of ways. Spin the bottle at a boy-girl party. A costume party: I was a harem girl. This was how all the middle grades coupling happened then. Spin the bottle, truth or dare, seven minutes in heaven. Love, or whatever you might call what happens in middle school, is a tricky endeavor: it helped to pretend you didn’t want to kiss anybody. That you were only playing spin the bottle because, well, it was a party. We were in the basement, behind a closed door, all parental elements vanished away.

But, then, love is always a tricky endeavor, isn’t it?

It happens all the time in literature and movies—love and death go together. We promise our lovers we will love them until the end of time; we die of broken hearts. You can’t get married without vowing to stay with this person until death do you part.

There’s a picture of me somewhere in my white dress, the fuchsia sash pulled tight across my impossibly tiny waist. The huge bow in the back is unseen in the photo. I am standing there beside my date, who has long bangs, skater-style, and we both look like we’re afraid to stand too close to each other. But we’re smiling. We’re happy. It’s the late eighties, and my hair, of course, is huge. I’m very, very small underneath all that teased up, sprayed up hair.

That relationship ended cleanly, with little bother to it. He went to Myrtle Beach for the summer, and when he returned, we were done. I don’t remember there ever even being a conversation about it.

This, even after he’d promised he would love me forever.

At least he didn’t ask for the corsage back.

Ending things becomes infinitely trickier when you grow up, sign mortgages. Staying becomes harder, but so does leaving. You and your partner have expectations about the relationship, of course. But others do, too.

When my husband and I separated last winter, an old friend of mine called and more or less demanded an explanation. It made me feel anxious and exposed and guilty during a time when I already felt so panicked, I was walking a stiff, half-hobble to accommodate the sharp pains in my back and in my lungs. I could only breathe when I lay down. I was driving back from a teaching gig, talking to my friend on the phone, and I did it. I enumerated the reasons, then, stopped my car. Wiped the tears off my face, and rebuilt myself, walking up the pathway to collect my children.

A few things I’ve learned. First, there is nothing sweeter than a six-year-old boy giving you a Snoopy pencil sharpener. Every girl has a moment where she loves someone like Bo Duke. That this love is, like the Snoopy pencil sharpener exchange, sweet. It costs you nothing. That it’s a terrible thing, to be eleven years old and pretty sure you’re dying. Worse if you’re too scared to even ask the adult closest to you if it’s true. Sometimes, everything is hard. Little girls do things like lock themselves into bathrooms and count up the people who like them. That, if you’re lucky and you’re wise, you will outgrow such compulsions. But you will probably never completely leave them behind. No one knows what the inside of a marriage looks like unless you are actually there, on the inside, living it. Even then, you can only see what you see: your half.

But, there’s an important moment in my love life I skipped over, between playing in the playground with the Snoopy-pencil-sharpener boy and falling in love with John Schneider. Years before my fuchsia sash. I was seven years old, and life had gotten to me. It was too much for me, and so I’d packed a brown paper grocery bag with a few pairs of pajamas and my roller skates. I encountered my dad on the front porch and explained to him that I was leaving. Running away. He nodded, solemnly looking over my grocery bag. I began to cry then, and he sat down on the porch steps, patting the spot beside him. I put my bag down. We sat that way for a while, side by side. He did not tell me I couldn’t run away—it was already obvious to me that I wasn’t really leaving—and he did not chide me for trying. He did not try to convince me that things weren’t so bad or point out all the good things in my life. I was seven years old. We just sat that way together for a while. I don’t know how long. Really, though, I think I am still carrying that moment around inside of me. That experience of being sad and having my dad sit beside me, bearing witness to my sadness.

I have no idea what became of my first grade boyfriend, though I’m pretty sure the ruined pencil sharpener, probably broken into still smaller pieces, is languishing deep inside some landfill somewhere in central Illinois. I’m Facebook friends with the boy from middle school; we don’t talk much. John Schneider remarried some years ago, and is now a Born-Again Christian. My dad is still the guy, though, the one, to sit beside me on the front porch, dignifying me—my very existence–with this: he never pointed out what we both knew to be true. That I was not going to get very far with pajamas and roller skates.

Susan Woodring
Susan Woodring

Susan Woodring is the author of the novel, Goliath (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) and a short story collection, Springtime on Mars (Press 53, 2008). Her short fiction has appeared in The Cupboard, Passages North, turnrow, Literary Mama and Surreal South, among other anthologies and literary magazines. Her short fiction was shortlisted for Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 and Best American Short Stories 2010. Susan currently lives in the foothills of North Carolina where she writes and homeschools her two children.



Read All Columns by Susan Woodring
Goliath by Susan Woodring
Goliath by Susan Woodring
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