The first love is always the deepest. The one you never get over. She’s the one your soul chose, back before you forgot the choosing. Nine months you spun in her tumultuous world. Heartbeats aligned. Your nervous systems one. You felt what she felt. You learned without knowing you were learning. There is no greater intimacy.
What do the eyes of love see? Atop the promontory, you gaze out over the lake. A lake so vast you cannot see to the other side. A few yards offshore is a small inflatable boat, yellow against the gray water. In its shelter, a tall woman sits facing her caramel skin daughter. The child’s smile shows her white teeth. Behind them, the sun is a glowing orange ball, sinking forever into the lake.
The second is like the love of puppies, skidding paws, frenzied tails, clumsy and tumbling trust. All discovery. No discrimination. Damp fur and racing heartbeats. And, as with all young things, the attention wanders, leaving you with one ear cocked in confusion as she skitters away to explore the next new thing.
What is the sound of love? Is it the pounding heart echoing through the ear’s chamber? Is it the sound of her voice mouthing the nickname she gave you, “Cherry Pie,” in low, sultry tones? Is it the music on the radio that plays again and again—a forgettable song that becomes part of you—so that years later, you will hear this song and once more your pulse will clamor?
The third is domestic and it is supposed to last forever. It weaves a myth that returns you both to innocence, transfigures you as soft furry creatures in the pine forest of your imaginations. You gather food for the coming winter and burrow in. Come spring, though, sap runs in the trees and a breeze lures you from the stately conifers, sends you scrabbling over pavement of city streets. Try as you might, you can’t find your way home.
Presumably touch is a vital part of love, yet that’s the memory that fades fastest. The way her hand on any part of your body felt like safe harbor. The way you felt possessed, and liked it. Fathered and well-tended to. You can remember feeling it, yet cannot re-summon that feeling, the nerve storm created by her touch.
With the fourth love you make a home among fruit trees. You plant seeds in soil and believe they will grow. The two of you feast on the harvest and give thanks. You have many good seasons. Then one day the spade strikes rock; land will not yield. Seeds remain dormant in their silent crypt or bring forth seedlings twisted with blight. No balm, no nutrients will soothe the heart of earth once it has turned.
What is the scent of love? Recall the man’s cologne she wore too much of, the overwhelming breath of it in the taxi, a night too cold to roll the windows down. Recall the musk oil she started to spread all over her body, changing her scent, marking her territory in rooms you were supposed to share.
The fifth one brought you through the desert. Sun stripped you to bone, taking you down to the core. Did you give too much away, or did you hold too much back? You’ll never know the answer. Those were the days of learning to speak a language not your own. No matter how long you talked into the night, the syllables would never yield to meaning.
Imagine your surprise to discover that love tastes like a humid afternoon, sticky and sweet as a room in which tears have been falling steadily. The thickness, the dimming quality of light, a sense of thwarted potential.
What of the uncounted? The near-loves, or almost-loves; the could-have-been loves and the ones that masqueraded as love. You’ve saved all the remnants: letters, drawings, dried rose petals, the plastic giraffe and the rubber mermaid, but what does this evidence demonstrate? What is it exactly that you wish to preserve?
In years spent alone, your third eye opens. It glows between your eyebrows as you chant to yourself in early morning before the sun is up. Begin to make a deeper connection than any you have known before.
Halfway through your life something shifts—a definition or a need. Hunger fades to ash or the memory of ash. The heat of your blood cools. The upper region of your spinal column awakens. All the stories, somehow no longer useful, you release to wind. Renounce suffering. Love no longer something to crave but to give. A boundless fountain of cool water from which anyone might drink.
The final love is the love of this trembling world. In all its terrible beauty and fragility. Even as its color begins to fade from your eyes. Even as its vaulted sky dims to infinite white.