Back in April, The New York Times held an essay contest asking for college students' perspectives on love. What they were really looking for was an account from someone who incorporated web 2.0 software into their relationships. At least, that's what I gather from the winning entry. I wrote a piece for the contest, since I had thoughts on my mind that seemed relevant to the prompt. I'll hold off editorializing until after the (slightly modified) essay...
You’re probably older than me, whoever you are. I wonder what you think of me. We’ve almost certainly never met, but you’ve already made a few assumptions about me. Maybe you think I find face-to-face communication obsolete, that I prefer tweeting and texting to a real human presence. Perhaps you think I’m unconcerned with the older grown-ups and the world around me, engaged in my personal bubble on facebook. Perhaps you think I’m baffled by dating and monogamy, that I prefer casual hook-ups to emotional attachment.
I hope you won’t be disappointed to learn that none of those things are true. Well, I am baffled by dating, but I doubt that’s uncommon among your generation. The truth is that I never text if I can call and I never call if I can talk. The real thing is better than the simulacrum. My experience is limited, and I won’t claim to know what typical life is like for my generation. What I do know is my own experience of what it’s like to be a Texan born in 1989. And if you want to know what love is like for me, I’ll have to tell you about her.
We met on the first day of September our freshman year, on the third deck of Kyle Field. It was hot and windy and mind-blowingly loud. She was so much shorter than me she kept hitting me in the face when she raised her hands at the end of the yells. She had no dinner plans after the game, and neither did I, so we did what college kids do and got pizza.
Our relationship wasn’t love at first sight. We just talked. We talked about high school and where we were from, our majors and our plans. When the words stopped one of us said some more words, or smiled, or asked a question, and the words kept going. We had enough pizza and went back to the dorm.
She didn’t want to date at first. She knew that it just wouldn’t work. We could see some contraindications in each other, most salient among them that she was Christian and I was agnostic. “How can I date someone with such different beliefs from me?” She would ask me that, frowning, and I didn’t have a response more articulate than “just do it anyway.” But we still talked, and laughed, and above all spent time next to each other, rambling at ever higher levels of detail about everything. One night in October we had one of our rambling conversations, and when I hugged her she didn’t push me away. I kissed her cheek and we held each other, and I was her boyfriend.
Our dating must sound so boring to you, who think the shows on MTV accurately characterize how my generation interacts. She’s a proper and devoutly chaste Christian. She wouldn’t even let me kiss her on the lips at first. She made it clear she intended to opt out of the culture of hook-ups and casual sex, and so I opted out, too. Sometimes I wondered if that was the right thing to do. Maybe I was missing out on the pleasure and gratification the media executives in LA promised I could have if I would stop being such a prude. I knew I’d have to leave her to do that, though, and I didn’t want to.
When a couple draws a sharp line on how far is too far, they come up with other ways to keep things interesting. And boy was she ever interesting. We became a pair of junkies, addicted to each other like lab rats on cocaine. Any time I could justify away from studying, and a lot of time I couldn’t, I sneaked down to her room and we’d lie there, holding each other and kissing and talking, until the clock wound past two or her roommate came back.
Sometimes I wonder if my memory is unreliable. Were things ever that good? I tell myself I indulge in nostalgia when I reminisce. When I really delve in, though, and place everything in the theater of my mind as it was on the theater of campus, it’s something beyond words. Holy is the best word I can find. Our lips touch and I feel joy percolating through my soul. Holy. I run my fingers through her hair and gaze into her eyes, black in blue in white. Holy world. I hold her close and she holds me back; I’m absorbed in sensing her her-ness. Holy world, and I share it with you. No, it was really that good.
Like all interesting people she’s a study in contrasts. She’s sweet and calm and kind, so kind I can barely comprehend it. She has a black belt in Karate. She’s profoundly humble, always wondering if the other side of the argument is right all along. She has a dazzlingly bright mind, making me see things as I never would’ve on my own. I became aware of these contrasts and how they beautifully composed her as we laid and talked. In the distance the clock tower chimed and the train whistles moaned, setting a mellow beat to our wanderings. We were young and in love, like ten thousand generations of couples before us.
We argued sometimes, as all couples do. We argued about whether math was a useful tool or a form of artistic expression. We argued about whether our school should have female yell leaders. Most of all we argued about religion. It hurt like a hundred paper cuts when we vivisected each other’s ideas about truth and reality, but we felt we had to. We wanted to be right. More than anything else she hates to see conflict, and here was an infinite source of conflict.
The little wounds this mental fencing opened healed after some time and gentle words. About two years after we started dating, though, she saw the writing on the wall. The arguments were too much, the joy too little, and I left that summer after our sophomore year for an internship in Seattle. I still loved her, but I told myself that too would pass.
I returned to College Station renewed, wiser for our time together and my time in Seattle. At least, I hoped so, since I was certainly older. Since that halfway point I’ve dabbled with others. There’s the girl as airplane-crazy as me, the girl from Texas State I met at a Stephen Hawking lecture, the girl who was half-Texan and half-Irish. We made out in the piney woods by the Louisiana border, in my dorm room while the air conditioner clacked and rumbled, on a hot June night in a park in Cave Creek. They’re all interesting people, and I wish I knew them better.
The truth is, though, that I don’t know anyone like I know that first love. Whether we knew it or not, we were still addicted to each other, and kept talking even though we didn’t kiss anymore. I gave her a book on epistemology and she gave me a book on theology. The line where my mind stopped and her mind started increasingly blurred as the lunches and socials marched on. The message formed and crystallized in clarity. I didn’t want to date anyone else. I wanted to be with her.
I pulled out all the stops and tried to express myself as articulately and plainly as possible. I explained to her how embedded her self was in mine. I was acutely aware of her faults, but I was used to them by now, and none of them were cloudy enough the dim the brilliance I could see through the cracks when she let me peek at her mind. The reality of her presence, her there-ness, her existence apart from yet intimate with me as someone uniquely wonderful lit my consciousness like a bonfire. At one point I told her that I was more certain I wanted to be hers for the rest of my life than I was sure that I had blood in my veins. I meant it. Maybe I’m a romantic.
Hopefully you’ve felt this emotion. It’s an alien concept from the idea of love as a commodity traded in some grotesque zero-sum game. For me, love is divorced from concepts like satisfaction or reassurance or gratification. It’s the act of knowing that the one I love is real, that she’s a gorgeous human composed of flaws and talents, and a churning desire to do all I can for her. I wonder what she meant when she said she loved me. Maybe it was something like this. She’s clarified her intention not to renew this intimacy, though, and so I move on.
So what is love in this postmodern age? I imagine about the same as it was when things were modern, and about the same as it was before that. The imitations of love abound, but the real thing is something consuming. Love isn’t a currency to be bartered; it’s a train that clicks and clacks and marches forward, a discovery of that holy kernel that lives in each human soul. Discovery is wicked and violent, and most people get hurt doing it. But to avoid it is to take a sedative and sit life out. I don’t want to do that.
If you understand what I’m getting at, you probably know all this already. If not, and I’m talking past you, my hope is that you at least see my generation as a little more human, a little more like people than like characters in a fiction. I hope you have love, or find it, in whatever form you’re tuned to express it. As for me, I wander on, a little bit older but still pretty young. It’s a numbers game, and I can be patient. You may find happiness hooking up or traipsing from lover to lover, but I know myself better after what I’ve been through. So I wander and wait for someone new, in hope of the day when I’ll tell her I’ll love her forever, and her voice will echo mine.
...Truth be told, I'm not happy about the way this turned out. My first draft was almost 50% overbudget on word count (the final draft came in exactly one word under the upper limit). I had to trim the essay mercilessly to fit the length limit and it shows. My prose also has a way of meandering between long chains of GRE study words with complex sentences structures and short sentences that look like they were written for the Simple English wikipedia. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Looking it over, I keep thinking the eternal lament of how much better it could've been if I'd just put more time into it.
I'll almost certainly write more about the person I reference in the essay here. It would not be an exaggeration to say that our relationship and its aftermath was the most significant event in my life during my college years. For ease of reference I'll call her Augustine from now on.