I was on deadline at work, so I did what I always do when under pressure and have no time: Googled my exes.
When the first match came up, along with the word "obituary," I literally stopped breathing. My first boyfriend, Bill, dead at age 58.
Impossible. But true.
He died "suddenly." What does that mean? Drugs, suicide, heart attack. None of these things fit my memory of what he would be prone to—then again, it had been 40 years since we had seen each other.
I hunted, searched, Googled, called everyone I knew who ever knew him, but that trail had simply gone cold. Still I was obsessed: Why was it so important to know how he died?
All I could find was this: He was married—apparently happily for 20-plus years—to a wealthy woman with a second home in Germany. Googled her: beautiful, successful. Good for her, good for them. But I couldn't very well get in touch with this woman and ask her what had happened, so all I was left with was my own complicated grief which was about him. Except, who was it about really? Let's face it.
I'm a dick. It was about me.
I stared at his face on the screen. Since he had always been someone who disdained attention, there were very few pictures of him online. So it made sense that this picture was such an old one: He actually looked not so very different from the way I remembered him when we met and fell in love. I thought of those tumultuous, passionate two years so many decades ago when we were both 18, how happy he had made me, how much fun we had together, how he made me laugh more than any human being ever had. I left college as a sophomore to come live with him in Boston until one day he announced that it was over for him, that he had decided to move on.
As the years passed, I figured out he was one of many trial runs. He wasn't the best, or the worst, but he was simply the first man I had sex with, who I fell in love with, for real.
It was the:
First time I said "I love you" romantically.
First orgasm I could attribute to a man.
First time I had some idea of what all those movies and books had been talking about all this time.
First time I laughed so hard I thought I would be sick.
First time I told my parents the news and heard the words from them, "And what does he do for a living?"
First time I counted days, hours, minutes, until I saw him again.
First time a man turned to me and said, "This isn't working, I have to move on."
First time I ever died inside in that particular way.
First time I really thought I would die without this person.
First time I learned that I wouldn't die, that I would go on, and that I would actually heal.
His death reflected the death of that particularly sweet era: that boundless joy of first love. It hurt to mourn that, to come to terms with this loss of the fact of a major milestone in my youth. I know—silly to say all this at age 57, but that's how it feels.
I had to do something, so I visited my 90-year-old grandmother Marietta, mainly because she knows all, and asked her if something like this had happened to her.
She shrugged and said, "Of course. But stop feeling sorry for yourself. There are people out there who've never even have had the love you experienced."
"So … have you?"
She extracted a picture from a dusty box of memorabilia she keeps near her favorite chair. It was one of those ancient tintype photos, a young man in uniform standing next to an apple tree.
She said, "This man was my first, Charlie. I'm telling you he meant everything to me. Can you see how handsome he was?"
I held the photo close to my face and squinted, but the picture was so old and beat up I could barely make out his features. After a few moments she took the photo back from me and stared at it, her face filling with rapture and light, all those decades falling away.
"Yes, Grams," I said. "I can see it now."