Much has been written already about singer-songwriter Frank Ocean’s revelation that his first love was a man. dream hampton’s gorgeous open letter to Ocean speaks volumes about the bravery of Ocean coming out as – well, as a man who fell in love with another man, since that’s all he has revealed to date.
After reading Ocean’s notes about love, I’ve been thinking a lot about love and bravery, but not necessarily in relation to sexual orientation and identification. In sharing what hampton calls “one of the most intimate things that ever happened” to him -”falling in love with someone who wasn’t brave enough to love you back” - Ocean’s real bravery was in writing about love.
This brilliant evocation of the feeling of first love took me back to my own first love, many many summers ago.
At the time, I thought I was a veteran of love. I was in a long-term relationship that had grown stale over distance and time. Yet we held on to the notion of being together, “togetherness” meaning, for me, that he was who I would wind up with after law school if I couldn’t find anyone else before I graduated. My mother was more attached to the idea of my marrying him than I was, and remained so till the end. (Up until the last time I saw her before she died, my mother would ask me why I never called him after my divorce. Mothers. Sigh.)
But like Ocean, it wasn’t until I met the man I think of as my real first love that I knew what being in love was really about.
Ocean wrote, “On the days we were together, time would glide.”
I remember almost every moment I spent with him that summer 20 years ago. His eyes. His smile. Our laughter.
“By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping. No negotiating with the feeling. No choice.”
There’s no negotiating with the feeling, but there is a point where you decide to let yourself go, to allow yourself to fall, to run with it and damn the consequences.
It was freeing, that feeling.
“He said kind things. He did his best. But he wouldn’t admit the same.”
I remember crying in a hotel room, upset because my love never returned my “I love you”s. That we were in a hotel room and not at his house, or mine, was a giant red flashing DANGER sign I conveniently overlooked. At some point in love, you get wedded to the notion of yourself in love and the notion that the other person feels exactly the same. Only in hindsight are you able to appreciate all the signs that the other person didn’t feel the same way.
That night, and only that night, he said it: “I love you.” Even through the fog of my tears, I wasn’t convinced he meant it. His words came from his throat, not his heart. My ears heard what they wanted to hear. We continued for another day, another night.
Of course it didn’t last. I’ve written about him before. It turned out my first love was engaged to someone else.
“I kept up a peculiar friendship with him because I couldn’t imagine keeping up my life without him. I struggled to master myself and my emotions.”
I didn’t break things off with him immediately after I found out. It took a few weeks – including a charade in which he claimed to have ended things with her. I ended it when I found out she was back and probably hadn’t really left.
My love was like an alien in search of a host. I knew I couldn’t give that real love to my putative first love. I ended the long-term relationship, breaking both his heart and my mother’s. And then I rebounded, hard, for the very next guy who came along.
After the rebound relationship also went up in flames, I sought to master love. Like Ocean, I sought to “master myself and my emotions.” I didn’t want to feel that raw, that exposed, anymore. I had lovers, but kept myself – my heart – out of it. That didn’t feel right, either.
Then I met my ex. I was ready for something. He was something. It wasn’t love, though I tried to tell myself it was. He knew I didn’t love him before I did.
And now? Ocean is right – we are all “wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to.” Like Ocean, I’m grateful to my first love, even though it wasn’t what I hoped it could be. I keep returning to this relationship in my own mind, not because I’m searching for the high of that first love, but because I’m constantly seeking to understand the lessons to be learned from this love, from my failed marriage, from all the relationships that have led me to this moment in my life, this moment when I’m still contemplating love and what it means for me in my current relationship. I’m looking beyond my partners’ flaws to my own flaws that led me to choose them. Ultimately, those are the only ones I’m capable of knowing, and at least trying to fix.
Perhaps first love teaches you nothing more than the knowledge that love is possible. We still have to determine how that knowledge actually applies to the person before us, and whether or not we’re willing to let go, or….let go.