First love is a life-changing experience. It happens to most people in adolescence. I waited a bit longer, 23 years old when I, by way of introduction, hit a sunbathing Gamma Phi Delta with a Frisbee. Actually, my friend threw the fateful disc, he and I on a wide expanse of grass behind the chapel at Southern Methodist University, living large and youthful in the spring sunshine.
Blame it on clear air turbulence. One minute the Frisbee was steaming on a rope right towards me. And then it lifted, up and over my head to skid across the brick patio and bang into the leg of the goddess.
I trotted up, ever the gentleman, picked up the errant Frisbee and said, “I’m so sorry.” To which the brunette in sunglasses hoisted herself up on her elbows and said, with just the right amount of disdain, “Ya’ll are so queer.”
I was turning away, but stopped to pick up the gauntlet so sweetly urged. Ever The Gentleman was excused, quickly replaced by the ever-cocky Just Who Do You Think You’re Talking To.
Our eyes met like two gunfighters: “Yeah, but I’m cute, aren’t I,”
I trotted back to my Frisbee friend, handed him the disc and said, “Quick, look behind me. Is the woman in the one-piece green bathing suit still looking at me?”
Larry leaned his head to one side, a Cheshire smile blooming across his face. “Yep,” he nodded.
And so it began.
Hardly two months later, I was sitting in the office of my professor. He taught theology and pastoral counseling. He introduced me to Freud and Jung. But today he would introduce me to love. My chest hurt. My voice was high pitched and incredulous. I had tears in my eyes. I suspect I wasn’t making much sense in English. But I remember punctuating my babbling presentation with “What’s wrong with me?”
The professor was unruffled. He held his thoughtful, near Spockian tone, pace and gaze. He removed his glasses, and chewed thoughtfully on one stem. “These symptoms are in keeping with something I’ve seen before,” he said with a nod. “I think you’re in love.”
Doom and ecstasy collided, spliced together at the genetic level, and waved through my body. “Great,” I said, reaching for irony, but only succeeding in pathetic.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said.
It takes unspeakable courage to let love have its way with you. And, since most of us don’t possess that kind of courage, especially in youth, the other road to Rome is to be waylaid. Ambushed. Some combination of naiveté and hormones makes you unable to defend yourself. You don’t see it coming. Falling in love is not a decision. It’s a happening. It runs you over. It’s not something you control.
What you can decide, what you can control (to some extent) is what happens next. What will you do with the bond that is forged so deeply, so spontaneously, so immutably between you and this alien you can’t stop calling, can’t stop kissing, and can’t stop thinking about.
Falling in love is a gift. If you’d like to keep the gift, you have a lifetime of work and rigor ahead of you. In-loveed-ness is a beautiful yet fragile garden that requires tending, attention and nurture.
39 years later, I’m watching the movie What Planet Are You From (2000), starring Gary Shandling and Annette Bening. Shandling is an alien from a planet whose denizens are advanced intellectually, but feel no emotion. He is sent to earth to clone a baby with an earthly female, to the end that his planet can take over the world.
But, being close to the woman changes him. He cries in one scene, reaching up to touch the tears, saying, “Oh look, now I’m bleeding.” He is stunned to find he is in love. Love has changed him. And love is what makes him decide to leave.
“I’m an alien,” he confesses. “I only came here to take over the world. I could never be someone you deserve. I don’t know anything about love.” And he walks out the front door.
Seconds later, the door opens. The woman comes out and the damnedest thing: “Hey. I don’t know anything about love, either. Maybe we could learn together.”
I’m smiling. I see my professor’s face nodding at me. Yep. It’s true. I’m an alien. I don’t know much about love – loving, or being loved. It’s a mystery that, if we have the courage, commitment and patience, will reach across the abyss of wounds between the alienated genders to heal, to make whole, strong and free.
I think marriages would benefit from men and women who, every once and while, would look across the room at the mate as if for the first time and remind themselves, “I don’t know anything about love. Which, of course, is why I got married.”
“So I might learn.”
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)