I was fifteen, and it was the Reno Rodeo. I was volunteering at the rodeo handing out programs. I was dressed like a cowboy, and I had a fucking mullet. Somehow, it wasn’t too horrible at the time.
It was a blast. I spent most of the time I wasn’t actually picking up more stacks of programs looking at and flirting with all the cowgirls in and around my age range, because I was fifteen. There really isn’t much else a fifteen-year-old wants to spend his time doing.
She was my best friend’s sister’s best friend. I met her before, at my friend’s house, but she was always just his sister’s friend to me. She seemed nice enough, but I never really noticed her. Until the rodeo.
She was in the group handing out programs too. She was dressed up in her country outfits, and suddenly this girl was the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen up to that point. It was like suddenly finding yourself wearing blinders. She was the only one I could see. All the cowgirls and other girls in the crowd just moved to the background.
And she was sweet. I tried my best to team up in her sections as much as possible. We talked and got to know each other a little better. We got pretty close as we worked together handing out those programs. I liked her a lot, and got the feeling she might like me too. I really looked forward to showing up to do it all over again the next days because I would get to see her. When I would see her as I arrived in the morning, she would smile. I imagined I must have been smiling too. I can still close my eyes and see that smile, if I try.
On the final day of our program duty, we decided to do the whole rodeo carnival. I spent as much time as I could with her. I loved talking, flirting, and just being near her. I knew that one of the guys who was handing out programs with us liked her too, and they knew each other better. But she still seemed to want to be around me. I remember all of the sights, sounds, and smells of that night. I remember her face in the white mini lights that lined the sides of each of the little concession booths.
There was a country cover band set up, with a little dance area. Right as the night was winding down, they played The Dance, a Garth Brooks song that remains one of my favorites. I asked her to dance, and we did our little slow teenage dance sway together. It was perfect.
Soon after, my grandmother died and we went to Cleveland for the funeral. Whenever I had any downtime, I thought of the girl I danced with at the rodeo. I knew I wanted to be with her. The next time I saw her was the fourth of July, but she was with her parents, and so I only talked to her a little bit. I kept bugging my friends about when they thought she would come over again. Finally, 10 days later, she was there. After we left my friend’s house, we both walked together. I asked her to be my girlfriend, and I kissed her on the sidewalk down the street. I can tell you what square of the sidewalk it was, if I was there.
She was my first. My first everything. But mostly, she was my first love.
Of course, I was young and had no idea how to relationship. So it went like a lot of first relationships go. She was often jealous, and I often took her for granted. We both also seemed to want completely different things out of life. One day, after I was the one who got jealous and said some things I regret, she was done.
I was devastated. For years. My confidence was shot. I figured I already had my chance at true love, and I blew it. So I settled for people who were not right for me, over and over again. I lost contact with her as a means of self-preservation, because seeing her and knowing I couldn’t have her was just too much to handle.
Enter the internet. Remember Classmates? I think I had a MySpace account, but just for the hell of it, I created a Classmates account. And right as I was escaping a bad situation with someone, I got a message from her.
I’d say it all came back, but it never went away. I wanted to be with her. I tried. But she was not going to leave her husband. Besides, would I really want to be a homewrecker? If she would have left though, I would have.
In fact, I would have all the way up until I got together with Hannah.
With Hannah, I finally felt again like I felt way back when I was fifteen, only now I was an adult and knew how to work a relationship. Hannah was someone I loved so strongly, and was actually right for me. The love was strong, but we were actually compatible too.
When Hannah died, I knew I would never stop loving her. I won’t.
And I know loving Hannah won’t stop me from loving again.
I know this because I never stopped loving my first love. Even when I was deeply in love with Hannah, and never would have even thought about anyone besides Hannah.
Love may change forms, but real love doesn’t go away. My first love taught me that.
My first love also taught me that love can fucking hurt. A lot. But she taught me that sometimes, it is worth the pain. That initial pain may have helped prepare me for all the hell I would endure later. Maybe it helped me not to give up when my Hannah was taken away so tragically.
Because “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”*
*Words in quotes are from The Dance, written by Tony Arata and Garth Brooks.