Dreamy obsession

I can't stop thinking about my first love, even though I know I chose the right man to marry.

By Cary Tennis
Published July 16, 2003 7:04PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Back story: 10 years ago K and I lived on the same hall in college (I was 19, he was 23 -- big age difference then). There was nothing between us that year but flirting friendship. We spent half our week pretending to study in the lounge but really just screwing around -- he sat on me a lot. I discussed him ad nauseam with my friends who were psych majors. In retrospect, it's pretty obvious I was in love (a first for me). K ended up being done a few weeks before the end of the year and decided to travel before graduation. He kissed me for the first time the night before he left and then just disappeared. It took me years to stop thinking about him on a regular basis.

Seven years later, when I was 26, I got an e-mail from K. My then boyfriend was breaking up with me and I was graduating from grad school and pretty emotionally raw. We spent hours and hours on the phone. It was like no time had passed at all. I had a vacation planned to drive up the coast a few months later and told him I'd stop by. We met, and he declared that I was the love of his life. We spent a few awful hours together while he tried to convince me that I was the one for him and that he would do anything for me. I was no longer the person I was at 19. He didn't love me. He didn't even know me. But who am I kidding -- I absolutely would have given it a shot if I hadn't met the man (six weeks before) who I knew was going to be my husband (and now is). I know I made the right decision. I have never doubted it. I haven't heard from K since then, but it took more than a year to get him out of my head again.

So this week on TV, hubby and I are watching a stupid show where people declare their love in odd, desperate ways to people they have no chance with. A man pulls a woman out of the audience and tells her that after 11 years, she's still the only one for him. She turns him down flat. I was completely frozen during this time, thinking of the guilt I felt because I never told my husband about K. If any time was going to be the right time to tell him, this would be it. I'd almost decided not to when he started going on about how ridiculous this guy was, coming out of the woodwork after 11 years and how it had to be staged because it could never, ever happen in real life. I spilled my guts. We had a good laugh.

The problem is that every night since then I have had the strangest, disturbing, most vivid dreams about choosing between K and my husband. In every dream I have a harrowing decision to make between the two. Even though I always pick my husband, I wake up every morning completely freaked out. I have no idea what to do. I haven't had any contact with K in 2.5 years, and again, I am completely sure I made the right decision. But I need to do something to stop thinking about him. The two times I had to do it before, it took months if not years to just slowly fade away. I'm an obsessing/overly analytical person by nature (I read this letter over 80 times and edited it down from twice its length before sending), I but have learned to handle everything that entails except, apparently, this. Is this just a case of your first love affecting you like no other? Is there anything I can do to get him out of my head this time besides just waiting it out yet again? Help!

Obsessing Without End

Dear Obsessing,

As I understand it, astronomers deduced the existence of the Big Bang by identifying the kind of background radiation in the universe that would still be there if the Big Bang had occurred as they hypothesized it had. So that's what the Big Bang sounds like: a snap, crackle and pop from the first moment of existence. Maybe this first love of yours is like the background radiation of the Big Bang of Love, a crackling that never dies.

Or maybe it's something like the scent of rosemary that lingers on your fingers. Or maybe it's like what you hear on your shortwave radio when you're calling for help at sea.

At any rate, things happen to us, deep, profound, indelible things. That's how you know you're human. That's why we scarify ourselves -- so we can share our scars and say, Here, look, that's where the knife went after it came out of the fire -- it traced an arc across my cheek like a meteor across the night sky. As we age we get marks on our faces and on our dreams; we start reliving things we thought we were over. There he is, your first love, camped out on the doorstep of your sleeping, waiting until you close your eyes and visiting hours begin.

You thought they were kidding or making it up, didn't you, those ancient poets of love and love's torments? You thought that was some old-fashioned notion, those ascetics beating themselves with branches, trying not to think of the shining mistress who has now traveled back to her lord. It's disruptive to your studies, isn't it, to think of that guy sitting on you in the cafeteria, wanting you but laughing about it like he didn't really want you though he did really want you. At first when he's gone you think it wasn't that serious, it was only college, but later it persists like an expensive perfume and you realize one day, awakening from yet another dream of his touch: It was deadly serious! It was the most serious thing that's ever happened to me! It was the poetry of youthful love! But then, like poetry, it's too intense a pleasure to sustain. So you commit yourself to prose.

I hope that when you laughed with your husband, you were really laughing for yourself. I hope you weren't laughing off your own great passion. Because that's what this was: This was a great passion. Cherish it. Just don't go driving up the coast looking for it. It won't be there. It's such stuff as dreams are made on.

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Cary Tennis

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