Living: A visitor arrives from the distant land of first love ...

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I get the phone on the third ring. He says hello, and I immediately recognise the voice, because once upon a time it was as familiar to me as my own. Two decades ago (is it that long?) it could make me embarrassingly happy or absurdly miserable and, for a time, there wasn't a night I didn't dream of it, soft and boyish and apparently permanently amused. Apparently permanently amused by me: "Now, now, John ..."

The voice barely waits for a response. It sweeps into how are you, I'm in Brighton, I'll be in London tomorrow, could I stay the night, it's been a while, hasn't it. The last is not actually a question.

I say it's been about 15 years since I last saw him - for some reason this sounds like an accusation - and he says, ah, I've seen you on television. And there's a silence that bears promise of turning awkward, so I do polite patter: fine, ring me when you arrive, here's the address, postal code, nearest tube station. He has a pen and paper - he would - takes it down, says he's got to be going, and I answer, me too, though there are things I want to say. (What things? Not sure. Just things). Tomorrow then. Yeah, tomorrow. He puts the phone down first, as in the old days. Never, never could I be the one to put the phone down first. I still haven't mastered the art.

First love: the foolishness, the mistakes, the marks it leaves behind. I'd been bursting to say "I love you" to a man and yet I was terrified of hearing the words tumble from my lips. "I love you" meant crossing an invisible border to some unknown place, passport back automatically revoked. "I love you" was both magic spell and vicious curse, and the more every external force repressed those three words, the more obsessive the compulsion to speak them became. I would practise; really. I'd lie on my bed and repeat "I love you" to a faceless figure in my head, only to mash my face into the pillow, feeling ridiculous, dumb, doomed. One guy telling another guy he loved him - it was beyond imagining.

Until I saw him. Then it was easy. Right away I wanted to say it. "I love you" suddenly didn't seem ridiculous at all. And I remember his wary distance, because there I was, someone who shook when kissed, so electrified was I by the enormity of what the other person was doing. And I remember the distress that distance caused me. I knew he loved me back (though it wouldn't be until we were falling apart that he could say what I no longer needed to hear) but he never did explain the measured - the calculated - space between us.

I think I understand now. He was older and wised-up. He knew then what I didn't: first love never lasts, not in anyone's world. And definitely not in this strange new land I had crossed over into, where youth was the hard currency in an economy of desire, and the currency changed hands daily. He was protecting himself and, in his distance, hetried to protect me, too. Of course, it couldn't be done.

First love is an experiment. You are your own lab rat, devising new cruelties, instructive agonies, testing the outer limits of pain and pleasure thresholds. Two men can make that process so much simpler: blows that they are conditioned - at least nominally - to visit upon women can be carelessly rained down on another male, because he can take it, can't he? And besides both are engaged in a usually undeclared struggle for dominance in the relationship. Not to be in charge means you must be the submissive partner, doesn't it?

I can't recall why we finally broke up. I recall only that once I had slept with someone else - it was suggested that I should - everything changed. I remember an overwhelming sense of failure, the sticky sensation of mess, the crushing disappointment that this would not last, no matter how hard I wished. And realising that failure, mess and disappointment were adult emotions and that wishing was childish, and hating him for enabling me to distinguish them, despite the necessity of the knowledge. Knowledge that would colour every relationship from then on. Fearful of repeating my original mistakes, I will sacrifice almost anything. Hard habit to break.

I'm late home the next night. I tell myself it's not deliberate. He's already there. So is Andrew: old love, new love, when worlds collide. Andrew excuses himself, heads for bed. We're left alone.

It's a breeze. I find that the things, the "just things" I thought I had to say, don't much matter. Seeing him again, it's as if that period of the past happened to someone else, to someone not particularly close who told me the story at three in the morning while I was half asleep.

I do recover portions of what has been misplaced: his warmth, sweetness, his kindness. And I see how I could have loved him, and why it was right to. I couldn't have done better. I was lucky. But it's over. Gone. No big deal. When we kiss goodnight, I don't shake, because I'm kissing someone else. And so is he. Maybe that's the distance he always thought I had to travel.