I was a save-it-for-marriage kind of kindergartner. My classmates held each other’s hands and pecked each other on the lips. Their parents cooed at how cute it was to see them pretend.
I balked at the idea of such a sacred feeling being commodified by adults, and had cooler things to pretend, anyway. I wanted my first girlfriend to be someone with whom I could save the world from unspeakable evil and then marry. Preferably in that order.
I met her when I was twelve years old, sitting in a circle at my first week of summer camp. Counselors were explaining where to put our plates when we were done eating lunch. The trash would be sent to the landfill, while the compost would be fed to the local pigs. There was only one problem. We were having ham sandwiches that day. I was horrified, yet reluctant to advocate against swine cannibalism in front of all these people I barely knew.
“Say something!” she said. So I did.
Our summer camp, The Wayfinder Experience, was a place for pretending. We dressed up in costumes, came up with characters, fought monsters, and found ourselves somewhere along the way. Late in the week, after the pretending was over, we watched the sun rise on the docks. Her eyes matched the color of the early-morning sky. Because this was summer camp, someone was strumming “Here Comes the Sun.” My heart was hurting in the way I had read about so many times. It may not have been a high-fantasy adventure, but it made for the perfect coming-of-age novel.
A few months later, we were married. It was at a later Wayfinder event. I played an undead faerie king, she an undead faerie queen. It was a small ceremony, accompanied by the giggling of our friends and the marriage speech from The Princess Bride. She kissed me that night, but it was a stage kiss — our lips were separated by her thumbs. Though it wasn’t a real first kiss, the lightning that shot down my spine made me feel alive, despite the whole zombie faerie thing.
We skipped out on rings, but a few weeks before the event we had met up to buy the faerie wings and fake blood. We pretended to be characters from our favorite show, Doctor Who, investigating a local costume shop (then a café, then her house) in order to save the world from diabolical aliens. It was probably a first date, though neither of us admitted as such.
Putting romance on such a high pedestal made the prospect of actually engaging in it intimidating. But we talked every night and held each other’s hands and said I love you, and every moment we spent together echoed around my mind like a good pop song. Our pretend-relationship was perfect, for a while.
She got older, and the two-year age gap between us became more apparent. When she showed me her sketchbooks, there were more pages skipped without comment. When I asked about her day, her answers were composed of more and more silence.
I wanted to help, to slay her problems like so many monsters, but she struggled with a darkness that was beyond my understanding. She began dating a girl that she met at my thirteenth birthday party, who, for better or worse, dealt with similar demons. Their relationship didn’t last very long, but it held a burning intensity that was absent from ours.
Their breakup was destructive for both of them. She didn’t talk about it with me, but I knew her well enough to recognize that she was hurting more than ever. After huddling together on the couch to watch an episode of Doctor Who, she asked me to kiss her hand so she could keep me with her. She needed escape more than ever, and I was there to provide it.
About a month after her breakup and a year after we met, we went out to see a play. Her makeup was more elaborate than usual, and her sleeves were cut to reveal her shoulders. I was convinced that it was for her ex, who also happened to be in the audience. But during the performance, our fingers interlocked, and afterwards we walked around town and everything felt simultaneously familiar and new.
When my dad drove her home, we sat adjacent in the back seat, making silly faces at each other and listening to Neutral Milk Hotel. When we got to her house, I walked her to her front step and hugged her goodbye. She was halfway through the door when she turned around to kiss me. It was nothing grand, just a peck on the lips, like the kiss of a kindergartner.
I became hyperaware of my surroundings, the silhouette of her body in the doorframe, the kinetic pull of the air on my skin, the crickets and bullfrogs playing their songs, and the brief, wonderful taste of her lips on mine. I was completely in shock, frozen and aflame, imploding into my chest and erupting into the night sky, a body sung electric.
“That was…something,” I said.
Soon I was back in the car with my dad, and I stuck my head out the window, and the wind blew through my hair, and Neutral Milk Hotel blasted from the speakers, and the stars and the trees and the animals of the forest rushed past, and everything felt like an indie movie. Life was happening, not just in some imaginary universe with zombies and faeries and monsters, but to me. I had a girlfriend, a girlfriend whom I had fought for, who was my best friend, whom I would save the world with, whom I would marry and live with forever and have beautiful children ….
It was then that our car plowed into a deer.
This was the third deer our family had accidentally slain that year. The first had totaled an earlier car, and the second had happened only two weeks before the third. My dad was enraged. The subject of deer overpopulation became the talk of the car ride home. I stayed mostly quiet.
I spent two months as her boyfriend. She told me that I had always been the one, that she had made so many mistakes, and that she was only happy when I was around. But the parts of her life that were off limits to me before remained mysteries, and our kisses never moved past pecks on the lips. We went back to summer camp, this time as a couple, but 24/7 real-life contact made for a miserably awkward experience.
Shortly after we went home, she posted on Facebook: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I called her. She told me she liked it better when we were friends. She hooked up with her ex on-and-off for awhile afterwards, and I entered the eighth grade. I cried because it was over.
I wanted us to be real, and there were moments when we were. She did, too, I think, but the real world could never amount to the fiction we made for each other. Still, that fiction shaped my real-life coming-of-age more than any book or movie had. We kept in touch, talking about novels and TV shows we liked, and working at the camp that brought us together. She kept battling her demons, and I focused on combating my own. Sitting by the campfire last summer, we held each other like we once did, laughed about faerie weddings and Doctor Who, and told each other how important the other was.
She was the first person I kissed and the first person I loved. That is unassailably true. We got married and saved the world. That’s our story. And I’ll be damned if it isn’t a good one.