My First Love

Love first hit me in third grade. Debbie Hick was a girl in my class. She had red hair and freckles and was solidly built. She was smart and tough and funny. I loved her.

I never told her that. I never made much time with Debbie. I just admired her from across the room.

Love was Debbie and then Cindy in sixth grade, Denise in seventh and eighth, and then, just before 11th grade, the first girl to love me back was Rainy.

Growing up Seventh-Day Adventist, about the only way I could touch girls was with violence. We’d play keepaway games in the pool. Each guy would pair up with his girl. And then it would be guys against the girls. And we’d toss the ball back and forth. But it was all an excuse for us to feel each other up in the Pacific Union College (PUC) pool.

But I was pretty awkward. I got pretty violent and pretty competitive with the girls. I remember the guys would tell me to calm down and to just use the opportunities to feel her up.

I was about 17 before I could make-out with a girl. Prior to this, I only got to touch them while rough-housing.

Around age 11, I decided that I would dedicate my life to getting laid. This did not happen for another 11 years but at least I had a goal.

I was about nine when I started daydreaming about girls. For three years at the Avondale College Primary School, I thought about this redheaded freckled girl in my class named Debbie Hick. I don’t normally go for redheads but she just seemed so capable, so smart and tough and funny. I loved her.

I never told her that. I never made much time with Debbie. I just admired her from across the room.

I like capable people period. I have fantasies that they will rescue me. I like to surround myself with capable people because I often feel so incapable of looking after myself.

Love was Debbie and then Cindy in sixth grade, Denise, and then Kris in high school…

During those years, I thought that touching girls was the greatest thing on earth (now I know that it is studying Torah). I was so desperate for affection but so mixed up when it came. I was awkward. I was rough. I was frightened. I often felt like a social outcast, that I’d have to totally transform myself to get a foxy chick. I was always going on these kicks to transform myself so I could land a foxy chick.

Come to think of it, I’m still doing this. I’m a teacher of Alexander Technique. That should really impress the ladies. The money and applause just flows in.

There was a girl in fifth grade who liked me. In response, I teased her unmercifully, I put tacks on her chair, and at times I kicked her. After I had once been particularly horrid, she said to me through her tears, “One day you’ll learn what it is like to love someone who kicks you.”

Come to think of it, there were various girls who liked me in elementary school. Some of them I even liked back. But all of them? I drove them away with my deliberate cruelty. I was afraid of connection.

The first time I fell passionate in love was the summer before 11th grade. My girl was Lorraine aka “Rainy” (she was a year below me in school, we both loved Barry Manilow). She was soft and cute and feminine. She made my heart thump. She made me want to be a better man.

When I was with Rainy, I felt connected. I felt like I was living from the inside. I felt alive. She was my missing half. So much of life I missed out on without her guidance and wisdom. Life with Rainy was twice as good as regular life and my pain was halved.

Rainy was very round. She wasn’t fat. She was just round with chubby cheeks. I was very angular. I felt absorbed in her (in a chaste way). She’d duck underwater at the PUC college pool and make these chipmunk faces. I adored her.

We’d gone to school together for three years at PUC Elementary School but we’d barely spoken because she was a grade below me.

I spent the summer of 1982 (between my sophomore and junior years at Placer High School) at PUC and got a job with the camp for kids. Rainy worked in custodial. I saw her every day when her rounds brought her to the gym. We started talking and flirting and I became obsessed with her.

It took too much courage for me to call Rainy on the phone, though once I called her number and when her dad answered, I blasted Barry Manilow.

“Who’s this?” he said. “Disco Jerry?”

Then I hung up. They didn’t have caller ID in those days.

Rainy and I never talked about theology. My dad was a controversial theologian but Rainy didn’t care. We never got intellectual. Instead, we kidded around. Rainy would pull these adorable chipmunk faces. I liked the way she smelled. I liked her simple approach to life. There was no artifice with Rainy. She was just a nice girl. Not terribly complicated. Not terribly beautiful. But a kind girl with all her fingers and toes.

She was my first girlfriend though we never used that language. We never spoke about our relationship. Girls were terra incognita to me. Rainy was my way in to this secret world.

Having her in my life made me feel whole. I obsessed about her. I thought about her constantly. I talked about her. I worried about the state of things between us. By having her in my life, I felt like I had crossed the Rubicon into the winner’s circle. Many of my peers had girlfriends. Now I finally did. I felt cool. With it. That I had become somebody to gossip about.

We used to go to the PUC pool on many afternoons and were quite affectionate (though I was frightened to kiss her that first summer), rubbing in liberal quantities of suntan lotion on the other’s soft skin (one of the first time I’d done that on a regular basis), much to the amusement of the older folks around. I got quite a reputation. I was a fast Adventist! My friends called her “Action Jackson” because of our innocent antics. I was known as “Hans Ford” because I tried to look like a guy who knew how to touch a girl.

Sometimes our touching was too much for me and I had to lie on my stomach on the cement so my excitement wouldn’t show.

Our first summer together, we never kissed. I was too afraid. I only knew how to dunk her in the pool and to twist her nipples and other violent displays of affection.

I remember there was this younger girl in our circle who was very forward. She liked to grab our privates and twist them. “She’s gonna get raped one day,” my friend said.

I got the idea from her twistings to twist Rainy’s nipples. I only did this once or twice. It was frightening to be so transgressive.

So how did I know she loved me? Because of the way her eyes shone when she saw me. Because of the way she laughed at my jokes. Because of her smile. Because she didn’t run away. Because she talked to me day in and day out. Because our conversation was never forced. Because she let me rub suntan lotion on her back at the college pool. Because she answered my letters. And the next summer? Because she made out with me. Rainy was not the type of girl to make out with someone she didn’t love.

Once in the PUC pool that first summer, I was frolicking with Rainy, when this little black boy wearing a face mask popped up from under the water and said to me, “Why is your penis sticking out like a lance?”

I’ve never been so embarrassed.

Rainy let out a yelp and swam away.

I dunked the little black boy and swam after her, trying to talk my way out of my embarrassment. “Stupid kid,” I said. Then I jumped out of the pool to show that I wasn’t hard, that I hadn’t been stalking her through the water with a loaded gun in my pants, pointing at her, ready to go off.

We grew quiet and never discussed what had happened. It took a while for her to meet my eye.

I never did discuss erections with Rainy. We frolicked like puppies with their balls removed. At age 16, I was obsessed with sex. I loved the porn. But I kept those urges separate from my urge to love a real live girl. These disparate feelings only came together for me for the first time at age 22 at UCLA when I took on my first lover.

In high school, we all knew that guys got erections, but it was mortifying, particularly in the stiff upper-lip Seventh-Day Adventist context, to have it pointed out publicly in front of the girl you loved.

Here’s the closest analogy I can think of — imagine someone had pointed out to her in front of me, “You’re bleeding all over the pool.” How would she feel? Everyone knew that teenage girls menstruated, but when your blood flow was pointed out publicly, it was embarrassing.

Was I afraid that she wouldn’t like me after that? No. I realized the event had no great objective meaning. I just found it mortifying, the most mortifying thing that ever happened to me. It was like I had lost control and peed my pants publicly.

Did I get mad at my body? No. I understood that my erection was normal. It was no sin to have an erection. What was unacceptable in my culture was to talk about such things. You didn’t point out someone’s boner. It was uncool. We were Seventh-Day Adventists. Sister White didn’t talk about erections and neither should we.

We weren’t Jews who could talk about everything without shame, including killing the Son of God.

If this exact same incident had happened in a different context, in a more context where we had joked around about such things, it would not have been as embarrassing.

I have no sense of self. Everything I feel is conditioned by the people around me. The exact same things around different people evoke very different emotional reactions in me.

If I’m talking to you and you find the erection incident hilarious, I’ll likely find it hilarious too. If you find it cute, I’ll find it cute. If you find it embarrassing, I’ll find it embarrassing. I’m always looking for mirroring, for other people to tell me who I am, which inevitably exhausts them, causing them to put limits on me, which I take badly.

In late August 1982, my mother arrived to take me home to Auburn (almost three hours drive away).

Rainy worked as a janitor. I went to her little office in the gym to say goodbye. I was emotional but abrupt. Just before leaving, I grabbed her and kissed her on the cheek.

We began exchanging letters. Every couple of months, I made it back to PUC to see her and my other friends. One weekend, Rainy told me she was going to a concert that Saturday night with some college guy. I made no reaction but I was mad. I was jealous. I didn’t know what to do with my fears so I stopped writing to her.

Months went by. Rainy broke down and wrote me about how hurt she was by my silence. I felt good and strong that she loved me this much but I didn’t reply.

That Junior year of high school, I finally learned how to kiss.

I went back to PUC the summer before 12th grade. I kept running into Rainy. I slowly let down my guard. One day, I walked her home. After we crossed a log over a stream, I grabbed her and kissed her on the lips for the first time. We made out for about five minutes and then took a break to breathe.

“We could’ve done this last summer,” she said.

I didn’t explain that I had been too scared, too inexperienced, too awkward. We kept french-kissing. Long, slow kisses, just the perfect kisses for a summer’s day. She had soft full cheeks and I loved to pinch them. I felt like a grown-up. We’d walk through the woods around PUC and hold hands.

We never discussed why I had stopped writing to her.

I kept making out with her for a few weeks. I once got her back to the home where I was staying. I got her into my room. I got her on to my bed. I began violently making out with her while trying to take off her clothes. I felt like she owed me since she’d gone to concerts with the college guy, but she wouldn’t let me go anywhere with her. She kept saying, “I’m not that kind of girl.”

For some reason, I decided to take it as a personal slam. Frankly, I was still hurt about the college guy, and now that I’d gone as far as I could with her, I let her go.

I felt like I could do better, that I could get with someone smarter and finer.

The spell had been broken. I didn’t want to be hurt again. I was a coward. A lifelong pattern.

At age 17, I thought that love and the skills I learned with it would give me a permanent feeling of connection and confidence, that I had taken the great leap forward and moved irretrievably into the winner’s circle of life. Winners had girlfriends. I’d had a girlfriend. Ergo, I was a winner!

I was wrong. I had no success to speak of with women for the next six years. All I had were my memories of Rainy and my unrequited fantasies about other girls.

What does love feel like for me? A flutter in the heart, an empty feeling in the stomach like when you’re reaching out with your foot and the stair isn’t where you thought it was and you start falling through space. Love is that time falling through space until you crash into reality. Love is a fantasy. It is a projection on to people of magical qualities and then blaming them when they disappoint you.

Love does not disappear for me when I obtain the object of my desire. It changes. It deepens. It becomes more complicated and shot-through with hate and ambivalence.

Love expands my world. I’ll try more things. I’ll meet new people. I’ll get new ideas. I’ll discard old ideas and old habits that were holding me back.

Love improves the quality of everything in my life.

Love is dangerous because it sheds my defenses.

Love makes my life more intense.

The intensity of love has not diminished as I have aged.

With love, I always think I’ve permanently kicked things up to a higher level. And it’s always a delusion. When the love ends, so do my delusions and my normality is even more painful because I’ve tasted what it is like to be abnormally fine. I’ve had some borrowed functioning for a few months and mistaken it for personal growth.

I always felt stronger after attaining love, more psychically able to deal with life. I was secure now that I had the mirroring I needed. And it was always a delusion.

I learn from each relationship but I’m still essentially the same.

What is love? That which enables you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t (for good and for bad).

Love is the elixir that gets one out of an unwanted self. Love is the balm that heals all wounds. Love is a drug that takes away pain.

Love is cool. The cool successful popular people have love and when you have love, you are cool. You have been validated by somebody else. She has tied her fate with yours.

Love is when you devote yourself to another and she to you (though love is much deeper and more lasting when you are both devoted to causes greater than yourselves). Love is when you can tell the other person everything and she won’t use it against you. Love is trust and generosity.

I feel more comfortable talking about how I’ve exploited women than how I’ve loved women. I find it easier talking about my bad self than my good self. I have these delusions about myself as a ruthless exploiter of women. I find that status easier to claim than that of a needy boy insatiably seeking nurture. Would you rather be thought cruel or pathetic? I’d rather be thought cruel.

If I call myself bad, then you can’t hurt me. You can’t shame me. I’m protected! I love having my walls up.

My mindset might have something to do with being a preacher’s kid, or just being the typical addict with the conviction that he is irretrievably bad, that his needs will never get met through ordinary life, but that there’s a substance or a process that removes his pain.

I’m a nurturing attentive boyfriend. I give what I want to receive. That’s how I know how to nurture. And from my dogs. I liked how they would bound up to me and lick me.

I call every day, even a couple of times a day, just to check in. I can listen to her for hours without judgment and without giving advice. I like to stroke my girlfriends. I like to stroke them physically. I like to stroke them emotionally. I like to stroke them spiritually.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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