On being young and in love

See, there was this girl….

That’s a really bad way to start a blog entry, especially when you’ve been happily married for nearly twenty years. But I’m thinking Veronica will understand (let’s hope!!!)  since I’m writing about ancient history. What I’m writing about today is risk, rewards, heartbreak, and being young and in love. How much of that kind of romantic love is based in hormones, lust, popular fiction? Is it possible to be in love with the idea of being in love? This is going to be another really long entry, so stay with me.

The thing is, I’m at a turning point in Episode 3 of Insurgent. For those of you who have been with me so far through the first two episodes, you know that I’ve introduced Jim Turville and Rebecca Mays. He’s a nineteen-year-old infantryman who occasionally has colossal fuck ups, but has a streak of courage and valor that we could all use. She is an eighteen-year-old ballet dancer, trying to work out her future in the aftermath of the war.  In short, it’s a love story. I don’t think this a spoiler—I pretty much telegraphed what was coming in the first chapter of the book. If it is a spoiler, well, sorry about that.

I’ve been struggling with this part of the book. I mean, really struggling. I’m forty-something years old. My son is WAY closer to Rebecca and Jim’s age than I am. And though I love my wife passionately, I’m also aware that love is tempered by the fact that we’re parents, that we have been together almost twenty years, and that as adults, we worry about bills, about the children, about keeping the car running, about the job. We know each other’s flaws as well; I’m not supportive enough as a parent, I don’t back her up as much as I should. She’s too tough on the children. I’m too easy on them. I’m too exhausted when I get home from work to be much help around the house. She’s too stressed out by the kids to want to do much either. In short, we’re going through our daily lives, and its very different from the teenage hormonal wash that Rebecca and Jim are going through.

I realized, writing this, that it just wasn’t working. How the hell do I relate to a couple of teenagers overwhelmed by their own emotions to the point they can’t think straight? How do I capture that passionate, overpowering feeling? I knew I was going to have to dig pretty deep in order for this to work.

So I’ve turned to inspiration to two things. The first is embarrassing, but I’ll admit it.  I’ve read a TON of young-adult romance fiction in the last three months. Some of it unbearably sappy and sentimental, but let’s face it, I’m pretty sappy and sentimental myself, always have been. Remember Love Story with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal?  It was made before I was born, but never fails to jerk some tears.  Lately I’ve been reading authors like Jay Asher (The Future of Us), Jessica Park (Flat-Out Love), Cindy Bennett (Geek Girl), Sara Zarr (Sweethearts), Jennifer Donnelly (Revolution) and others. Trying to get in touch with my inner teenager I think. Turns out I’m just as sentimental as I was as a teenager, and it’s trivially easy for these authors to evoke tears.

The other source of inspiration has been my own journals, and I want to home in on a particular time in my life here, a particular time in my own ancient history that shaped who I became as an adult. A time when I fell so passionately in love that it overpowered everything. A time when I was so lost that I wrecked some other really important relationships in my life.

Frankly, re-reading all those old journals, looking through old photo albums, trying to mentally capture what was going on in my head 20ish years ago? Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. But, it’s really helping the writing.  It’s helped me connect to my characters in a visceral way. I hope they make you cry when you read about them.

It started in the spring of my junior year in high school. I’d been off and on dating a girl who I’m still friends with, and we’d had a turbulent relationship, breaking up, getting back together, breaking up, getting back together.  I’ve mentioned before that I dropped out of high school when I was sixteen.  My parents, being pretty smart, gave me an ultimatum. If you’re not going to school, they said, then you have to work, and pay one-third of the rent.  I ended up getting a job, first in a print shop, where I nearly lost a finger in a printing press, then later a minimum wage job in an ice-cream store in mid-town Atlanta.  Working minimum wage pretty quickly scared me back into school, and by the end of junior year I’d nearly caught up with my class.  A friend had encouraged me to apply for a foreign exchange program that she’d been involved with that year, and I applied, though I had no illusions that I’d be accepted. After all, I was a high school dropout with mediocre grades.

So it came as a complete shock that fall when word came back: I’d been selected as one of five students from the city of Atlanta who were being sent on the program. Six weeks in Israel. At the beginning of November, I got on a plane with the other kids from Atlanta and headed to New York, where we met up with 50 or so students from other cities around the country and proceeded to Tel Aviv.

I met her in New York, but the night we really noticed each other was our second night in Israel. We were staying at a youth hostel in Tel Aviv, and a group of us decided to go back to the old city of Jaffa, which we had toured earlier in the day.  Somehow we ended up on the docks, staring out at the Mediterranean Sea. For a high school dropout from Atlanta, Georgia, this was pretty magical stuff.

We sat there talking for a long time. I have no idea what about, it is lost in time. She was sixteen, a smart, witty and absolutely beautiful girl. Dark hair, beautiful eyes, beautifully shaped face. And she was incredibly intelligent. Smarter than I was, and better educated, and infinitely more determined to academic excellence. I was captivated, immediately.

When we started heading back to the youth hostel, I spotted an old building – a house maybe – in ruins.  I mean old. Possibly hundreds of years old, though I have no idea really.  Anyway, I wanted to explore, and she was the only one brave enough, or possibly reckless enough, who came with me.

A couple of nights after that we were at a party in Ramat Gan and I asked to speak with her. This was a major thing for me, a huge risk. I didn’t even talk to girls, I was so afraid of rejection. But something about the combination of place and time, being so far from my normal reality, pushed me forward. I said something in teenager, something like “Look, I find you very attractive. But on December 8 I’m going back to the United States and I don’t know what the hell to do about it.”

It’s difficult to describe the intensity of the emotions.  I fell absolutely head over heels for her. The next several weeks are intense in my memory. We were together nearly constantly, in an incredibly exotic, romantic place. We kissed for the first time on a mountain overlooking the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan on the other side. We swam in the Mediterranean Sea together. We walked the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem together. She made fun of me when I rode a camel, and we laughed and cried together.

Make no mistake, however, this was no perfect relationship:

I wrote in my journal about a night when a bunch of us went with our host students to a dance club in Tel Aviv. I was no dancer: in fact, I’d always been the guy hanging out in the back of the gym smoking inappropriate substances. I was incredibly jealous when she danced with abandon in a crowd of students, watching as a particularly aggressive Israeli guy danced with her.  To this day I can’t hear U2 (In the name of Love… God I hate that song) without remembering that night and the unpleasant emotions it aroused. 

The entire time we were together, I felt not good enough for her. I was a high school dropout, a former druggie. Her father was an ambassador. I never realized before that trip, I had some real working class hangups. But with her…. with her, I felt inadequate. Overwhelmed.

It’s slightly possible I wasn’t very communicative either. I vividly recall sitting on a balcony with her somewhere, a night or possibly two before we left Israel. She was actively beating me across the chest, shouting “Why can’t you tell me how you feel?”

Because I’m male? Because I was afraid? Both are equally valid and true answers.

On December 9 we flew back to the United States and said goodbye at JFK airport, before she flew home to San Francisco, and I to Atlanta. It was heartbreaking. I don’t recall ever crying so hard any time through my high school years. Over the next six months I wrote songs about her. I wrote hideously bad poetry about her. I couldn’t think about anything else.

Now, if I were writing a novel, I’d do one of two things at this point. I’d either kill one of the characters (gah! It’s true, I do that sort of thing all the time, I don’t know what’s wrong with me!) or they would have a dramatic reunion after lots of angst about their separation.

Reality is, the angst happened.  Big-time. I ended up dating a girl in Atlanta later that year, and because I never really let go of what my wife refers to as “Israel girl”, it caused incredible strain on that relationship. I ended up losing my best friend over it.  And I couldn’t let go. I ended up seeing her again that summer, when I impulsively hopped on a greyhound bus and took the four-day trip across the country to see her.  Two years later, when I came home from the war, we saw each other for a night maybe, in Philadelphia.  Then, several years after that, we had coffee sometime in the late-nineties in Boston when I was in town for a convention. That was the last time we spoke. By that time I was married, a father, and utterly wrapped up in my dual careers in IT and the nonprofit world. She was working on her PhD and headed into an academic career.

It took me years to get over this girl.  When I went back to Jerusalem after high school, and spent several months living and writing there, I wrote her an inappropriate number of letters. With inappropriate content. I’m pretty sure they contributed to her drifting away. When I went to war, I had her picture of us together, taped up on the ammo door inside our tank.

I said back at the beginning of this long, wandering blog post that I’d talk for a moment about my thoughts on the nature of risk.  Because as a young man I was extremely risk averse when it came to women (actually, it would be more accurate to say I was absolutely fucking terrified of them).

Why? Because of fear of rejection, and especially fear of loss.  And yet here I was, going through basically two years of long drawn out loss and grief over what was effectively a five-week relationship.  It naturally raises the question: was it worth it?

The platitude would be that you cannot experience joy without experiencing pain. And while it may be a platitude, it’s also true. Would I go back to being an awkward, mostly terrified teen falling desperately in love? No; not on your life. But I do treasure the memory.  Memory of experience, memory of joy, and most especially memory of pain shapes who we are. It inspires our music, our art, our literature, our whole culture.

An indie novel I recently read put some of this into perspective for me.  It’s called “Flat-Out Love” by Jessica Park. The premise is that this girl goes to Boston for her first year in college and ends up living with a family that has … some quirks.  She has her own quirks, and one of the biggest ones is that she falls in love with a guy she’s never actually met, the big brother of the family, Finn, who she corresponds with over Facebook over the course of the year she is living with them. I won’t go into any more details, because it’s a truly incredible book and you should buy it right now. The point is, Julie, the main character, didn’t actually know the person she was in love with. She was in love with the idea of love. She was in love with being in love.

In some ways I was kind of like that. Long after the relationship had come to an end, I held on to it.  Especially when I was in Iraq, it was a way of holding on to my humanity. It was a way of staying sane in an environment that did not lend itself to sanity. I’ve written before about sitting in my tank, the day after the cease-fire, considering blowing my brains out. A lot of factors went in to the decision to put the .45 back in its holster and not pull the trigger. She was one of them. The fantasy of that relationship was one of them.

The reality, when I went to visit her right after the war, was… not the same. She was wrapped up in her own life, I’m pretty sure she’d picked up a new boyfriend by then, and we just didn’t click the same way any more. And that was okay in the end, because some of the things that happened in Iraq changed me in fundamental ways. I wasn’t the person she’d been in love with, and she wasn’t the person I’d been in love with.

Jim Turville and Rebecca Mays, in my book, are going through that kind of love. But what’s interesting to me is that there are many different ways of loving people. Veronica and I have been married 17 years now, and we know each other inside and out. I can tell when she’s losing patience, angry, depressed, happy.  I know how she likes her coffee, I know that she needs more time off from the kids, and I would give anything in the world to have her be happy. Anything.  I’m even pretty sure she won’t murder me after reading this blog entry. Because what we have is amazing.  And it is as different from that kind of fleeting, overwhelming, young hormone-driven love as it could be possibly be.

That’s a good thing. Because in my experience, that kind of overwhelming feeling of being in love can lead to poor judgment.  It is, quite frankly, not that different from being high on drugs. Amazing. Powerful. Life changing. But also, sometimes, heartbreaking.

So, what I’m hoping this leads to is one hell of a love story in the midst of an unfortunate war. We’ll see what readers think when I finally get it finished.

In the meantime, I’m curious if I’m completely off the map here. Anyone want to comment on your experiences with young love?  Do you have any deep insights? Any great stories to share?

Thanks for listening.



  1. Charles Sheehan-Miles

    I’m just popping a note here to say that all that reading and thinking and then writing this entry ended up turning into… what else? A novel, which I’m tentatively titling Just Remember to Breathe. Which I wrote in an incredible two weeks that felt like I was high. It was a lot of fun to write, and will be a lot of fun to edit and publish later this year. Here’s the link.

  2. Erika

    Charles I am really inspired by you, I read your novels and it is the first time I have read your blog. You not only inspire me as a great author but as someone who has experiences of war and stories that I can relate to. I was in a relationship with a soldier in the army and we had the absolute best of times, he showed me that my life was worth living no matter all the suffering that came along with it. He was already one of the family and I was part of his. Things were absolutely great I didn’t think anything could ever go back to the way it was but then he left for a bit and then next minute it was over. Now I am still not sure to this day what the true story was behind it but I know it had nothing to do with me and I’m pretty sure we never fell out of love. The point i’m trying to make is that it took me nearly a year to realise how silly it was of me to wait for him and part of me thought he would come back but I now know that will never happen. I am going to always look back and remember how happy I was and all the great memories we once shared but its now time to leave it in the past.

    That’s the basics of my story! I am really intrigued to read this story and I really hope you write it! I love your Thompson sisters stories and am currently reading the spin off. Keep writing because people really are inspired by you! 🙂

  3. Charles

    Erika, thanks 🙂

    Actually, the book I did publish: it was Just Remember to Breathe 🙂

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