My oldest friend in the world is falling in love. I’ve known Ann since I was 13, and I’ve watched her fall in love before; in fact, when we first met she was falling in love for the very first timewith a completely undeserving boy, as it turned out.
:But it was love all right: sweaty palms, racing heart, acute despair. And it required dozens of late-night telephone consultations, during which we practiced the teenage art of augury. The look he gave her when she came late to algebra classwas it disapproval? The offhand question“See you at the game?”did it mean he really hoped to see her at the game? Barely pubescent, we were enthusiastic post-structuralist critics, and our text of choice was Don Davidson, blond, curly-headed darling of Ann’s newly awakened heart.
Best friends in high-school, roommates in college and again as full-grown professional adults, over the years Ann and I have deconstructed quite a number of male texts, trying hard, in the beginning of every relationship either of us ever had, to figure the guy out, to guess at his desires, to puzzle out his motives. For us, the confusion of new love requirednecessitateda best friend’s theories, a best friend’s solace in distress.
After eight happy years of marriage, however, most of my experience with new love has been of the vicarious variety; up to my elbows in baby poop and considering a trip to McDonald’s Playland as the ultimate dinner out, I depend on Ann to give me the juicy details of life in Lover’s Lane. Our late-night telephone calls are now long-distance and often costly, but I cannot keep myself from pressing for detailsmore and more and more details. “Did he hold your hand as you pushed through the concert crowd? Did he keep his knee pressed against yours under the table? How long did he kiss you before nudging for more?”
I demand to know all; I’m as urgent as any paperback-romance reader turning the last page. I want to know the exact pressure of his hands on her back, the look in his eyes just before he leans in to kiss her. I wonder what they talk about in those other phone calls that last half the night. “Are you in love yet?” I ask. “Do you think he’s in love? Has he said so? What words did he use?” I wait anxiously for the full report.
That my friend demurs half the time, that after a certain point she will never, never kiss and tell, does not deter me. For more than 20 years I have been asking. Ann doesn’t object to the interrogation. Right up until my wedding dayand actually for the first couple of years afterward, until it became clear that my answers weren’t changing that much from conversation to conversationshe hammered away with the very same questions herself.
I understand the prurient nature of this barrage. Deep in some part of my weary heart I am still 16 years old, still intoxicated with the infinite possibilities of an uncertain future. I look into the next car at a red light and wonder what sort of person I would be if I were sitting next to the guy behind the wheel, that friendly, nice-looking man who has turned and half smiled at me. A stranger in the mall returns my baby’s dropped pacifier, and I feel almost a shock at the barest brush of his finger against my hand.
It’s not just the hormonal renaissance of sexual aching that new love engenders, it’s what new love represents that makes it so crucial. Falling in love is the chance once again to be perfect, to rise to the heights of our own frail limits. Newly in love we are generous, we are kind, we are surpassingly witty, unfailingly beautiful.
No matter that perfection doesn’t last. Each new beginning is full of hope, the chance that this time love will confer on us the majesty and immortality of the gods. Even now, passing my own reflection in shop windows I am startled at what appears before me: not the hopeful, carefully arranged girl I was, but the harried, disheveled hausfrau I’ve become. Is it any wonder that the real-life drama of my oldest friend intrigues me?
But I am 35 years old, and I have willingly given up the brushfire of new love, exchanged it for the charcoal grill of marriage. Despite my fascination with Ann’s love life, I’m glad for the trade. Instead of worrying about whether my true love will call late at night, I worry about whether he’ll get home safely in the rain. Instead of dining by candlelight on blackened fish and capers, we sit at our own dining-room table every night and listen to our baby coo at the lights reflected in the tile, or we give our attention to our little boy as he gives a blow-by-blow account of the magic tricks at a birthday party he attended that afternoon. Instead of kissing until dawn on the doorstep, we lie in our own perfect bed at 10 o’clock, feet intertwined, breath mingling, drifting to sleep in the familiar scents of tomato soup, baby shampoo, and Desitin.
And after all these yearsthrough two cities and two children, through three houses and six used cars, through an uncountable number of ear infections and croupy coughswhen he reaches for me in the dark, and I feel his warm mouth near my ear and hear his dear, murmuring voice struggling to shake off sleep, I don’t miss what Ann has: the ragged breath of new, tumultuous desire. Bone weary, deep inside something nevertheless stirs, and I find myself waking. I turn to the arms I have turned to countless times. I reach again for the life I chosefor the life I choose.