When I was quite young I fell in love with a young Italian man who happened to be sailing on the same ship as I was from Italy to America. Within six days on the ship he (I withhold his name as he is alive and well and living in the midst of his sprawling Italian family in Brooklyn) and I quickly found an intimate place with one another, and we smiled, held hands, strolled on the ship’s deck in the golden afternoons speaking affectionate words, kissed, and had a perfectly sweet time. I was thirteen and he was nineteen. When I write about this rare chapter in my life, I find myself astonished that I had this unusual romance at all. After all, a girl of thirteen is quite a different person than a young man of nineteen…
This was rare, innocent, and perfect — and it changed my life forever. Love was offered. Though he and I were never destined to have an enduring relationship, we carried it on for a year of letter writing and daydreaming of one another, while he settled into his life in the lower Manhattan and I finished out my last year in Rome with my mother and stepfather. I’m sure I didn’t imagine that it would go on forever, the way we are apt to later in life when we crave predictability and safety. One of the remarkable things about this relationship was that it came about and thrived in the moment; perhaps that is why I can still remember the details of it so vividly even though it unfolded sixty years ago. I still recall his sharp pine aftershave, his large hands with long fingers, his brilliant green eyes. I remember how his mouth curled beautifully when he sang to me while playing his guitar, and that his body was both long and protective. I remember the soft pale blue sweater he wore on our last night on the ship as we danced to a tinny orchestra, surrounded by the smell of cigarettes and human sweat. I remember it was just enough for us to say, “Ti Amo (I love You)”. Was this unique coming together possible only because we found ourselves caught in this bubble of the ship’s voyage in June of 1958, unaware of anything else that was going on? During those idyllic days I had no clue that my family would eventually break apart, and he had no idea he’d have to settle for drudge work at a pizza shop downtown when he really dreamed of becoming a hairdresser. We simply held on to each other, his tall 6”2” form folded around my short 5’2”, as the outside world seemed to blur in the distance. When we left this romantic bubble behind, the itineraries of our lives took over and we were no longer in control, no longer bound together.
Why do I consider this moment of young love? I’m approaching another birthday (74), and experience the gradual slowing down of my body and fatigue in my brain, and there is a melancholy hanging over my world. Why not look at love and romance? There’s something there that offers hope and comfort. I’ve often been drawn to (and intimidated by) figuring out how to write a “love story” because there was so little romance in my life growing up; intimacy was certainly an unfamiliar experience. Later in life I watched romantic dramas like Casablanca or An Affair to Remember and I cried, I suspect because what I saw was that love stories often ended darkly and sadly, that romantic love was fragile, ephemeral. Yes, that fluttering, quivering, warm body-to-body stuff could not last - it had to burn itself out. I think of the fleeting and feverish life of a hummingbird or butterfly, creatures of unspeakable beauty who are given lives of such short duration… Unlike animals in nature, humans become more and more complicated, as we attempt to figure out our life’s goals and keep a mental list of our preferences and dislikes, and gradually move away from the magic of momentary intimacy. We become committed to getting somewhere and being someone.
Another reason I’m drawn to this mysterious subject of love: the weather inside my head has recently turned cloudy and dull, and I needed to discover something in my mind that would remind me I was a living breathing writer who had something relevant to say. And the first thing that showed up that seemed meaningful was love. A lifetime of reading great literature and listening to the Buddha’s words have shown me a simple and profound truth: Love is what our human lives are about. Love binds us together. This love is vast - it transcends that early romantic love - and it looks like this: lifting up a broken friend, giving food to an anonymous homeless person, mending a withered relationship, giving comfort to someone sick or dying, creating art that elevates the human spirit, advocating for friends and family and community, fostering social change in a dark and dysfunctional society, teaching those who seek a larger understanding of life, or just listening to a young child… If we ever knew (as I suspect we all have) that pure sparkling “in love” sensation where we are able to sense it all: the color of his socks, the taste of the salt air, or the sound of the guitar and warmth of his hands, then we have the ability to pull from our hearts the generosity, honesty, and compassion we need to be the humans we need to be.