I spent the entire summer I was thirteen berating myself for having missed my chance at a first kiss. Jason and I met on a July morning when he was out walking his aunt’s dog, an unfriendly schnauzer named Bruce. He was visiting from Chicago, staying with his aunt and uncle, who lived a block from my house. Because there weren’t many of us in the neighborhood who were similar in age, and because I’d developed a crush on him instantaneously, the way only an adolescent girl can, we’d become friends. I’d shown him my favorite tree, a mature oak near the community mailboxes that I’d climb and spy on my neighbors from. We were in that tree, after a rain, tucked beneath a canopy of branches arching under their own sodden weight, when his hairless leg brushed against mine and our eyes met. In my memory, even though he looked afraid, he leaned toward me. Impulsively, I leaned forward, too, but at the last second my mind caught up to my body, my heart began to race, my back stiffened, and, just like that, the moment slipped away.
When I thought about what I’d lost beneath the tree that day, it was the romantic chin tilt, a la Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. It was the edge that it would give me over the other girls when I started my freshman year at an international-studies high school. More than anything, though, that kiss would’ve disproven what Chuck Kaminski had so authoritatively declared: that I was “the ugliest girl in eighth grade.” That kiss would’ve meant that I was irrefutably desirable.
So determined was I to prove my attractiveness that when I had my actual first kiss, with a boy named Pell, in the hallway outside of my fifth-period Russian class, I skipped the niceties and opened my mouth, waved my tongue around, a white flag’s desperate surrender. When I landed my first boyfriend later that year, a popular, lanky fifteen-year-old with soft brown eyes, an open face, and a near-perfect ‘90s Seattle grunge affect, despite his professed love for me, despite the fact that he called me mein mädchen (German for “my girl”), I still had my moments of self-conscious paralysis when he kissed me or affectionately reached for my hand or touched my hair, even if I was getting more practiced at snapping myself out of it with an invented need to scratch my arm or laugh at something inexplicable that had, at that very moment, struck me as funny.
I found the notes that we passed to each other in the hallway in between classes, “Can you come to my house after school?” too utilitarian, our dates at the movie theater too uninspired, our backseat explorations of one another’s body too nervous and sloppy to be romantic. When we broke up my junior year, I felt panicked, and I developed an intense resolve to find another relationship. Chuck Kaminski was replaced by my own ruthless comparisons to my girlfriends and other girls I went to school with. I wasn’t thin enough, funny enough, smart enough, nice enough. A yearning for an idealistic love and a need to be accepted were inextricably linked, setting me on an ill-fated pursuit that resulted in one disappointing relationship after another.
By the time my husband, Ryan, and I met, I’d had enough messy relationships to know that there was no chin tilt. In my 20s, as a result of my academic achievements and growing independence, I began to experience a gradual shift from a dependence on others for validation to a gratifying self-reliance. We married in a courtyard in St. Augustine, beneath stately oaks with generous strands of Spanish moss. Our guests, many of whom flew in from New Jersey (my side of the family) and Missouri (his), braved a torrential downpour the night before the ceremony, which left them glancing furtively at the overcast sky as we made our tearful vows to one another. Our wedding favors were bookmarks with an excerpt from a Pablo Neruda poem, “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, between the shadow and the soul.” The whole affair, from my Renaissance-inspired wedding gown to our honeymoon in Paris and London, was romantic. We started our first real jobs as high school English teachers. We bought our first house, our first car. Eventually, we went to graduate school and changed careers, had children.
But it wasn’t always that way. At times, we have been distant, angry. We are sometimes that couple that everyone is so afraid of turning into: the couple out to dinner who has absolutely nothing to say to one another.
Yet a life where the stakes are high—a mortgage, a corporate job, a family—has given rise to an appreciation for my own capacity to build something of value. Being a mother has taught me unconditional love. Being a wife has taught me devotion. And all of these gifts, for that’s what they are, were completely unexpected. They came once I gave up on fairytales and gave in to reality. They came with a healthy dose of maturity. I can’t say I regret any of my flights of fancy, though. If those mistakes are what eventually got me here, I would make them all over again—a thousand times—without a moment’s hesitation.