My birthday falls on Valentine's Day, so hearts have always been my favorite symbol and, as a love baby, my heart has always been wide open.
As I've gotten older, the door has slipped shut a bit. Enlightening experiences - encountering deception or duplicity for example, can mean the difference between leaving a door standing wide and putting up a screened panel so you can still enjoy the fresh air but protect yourself from bugs.
I know now though that once I have loved someone, let them slip through that door, they will always have a piece of my heart. No matter how brief the time we were together, or how bad the breakup, when I look back over the years, each man I have loved has indelibly left his name on my heart.
There are precious memories - sweet Clifton, in the sixth grade, who gave me my first love note, a folded sheet of notebook paper proclaiming me the "sweatest" girl he ever met, who danced awkwardly with me in the gym at the Valentine's Dance - his mom was a chaperone and I wore my mother's red courderoy skirt, oh what a night!
And Creed, the most patient lover I've ever known, who laid me down on his bed, Spanish guitar music on the stereo, lowered his head between my thighs and told me I would not get up until I came for him. It took nearly three revolutions of the c.d. for me to relax enough to submit, but gently, insistently, he pushed me over the edge for the first, delicious time. The result was revelatory - an emancipation. It still gives me shivers to think of it.
There are bastards in there too - Levi, who made out with me in the sunny daybed at my parent's house. When I got up to get some water, he quickly wrote down my two best friends' phone numbers from my Rolodex on my nightstand and systematically checked all three of us off his to-do list.
And Michael M., the college guy I dated when I was a senior in high school. He'll go down in history as my greatest mistake. Handsome and terribly smart, but also terribly cruel, he was the guy who told me he wouldn't marry someone like me because I'd get fat when I was older, who nonchalantly told me not to visit him one weekend because he had a "friend" coming down for a couple days and she'd be sleeping in his bed and the guy who promised me a limo ride and romantic dinner when I turned 18 but dumped me over the phone one week to the day before my birthday, my Valentine's birthday. As a parting gift, I discovered a few weeks later that he was also the guy who gave me a "chlamydia-type infection." At least I learned those lessons young? At least penicillin could fix part of what he broke in me? Bastard.
Stitched delicately on my heart is the moment my ex-husband held our babies for the first time. His joy at meeting our tiny bundles radiated from him in waves. Although our marriage didn't make it, he will always have a place in my heart because I know he loves our kids, even if he doesn't always know how to show it.
And of course, my husband now, who loves my children like they were his own and lets me plan crazy vacations to go white water rafting in the Grand Canyon even though he'd be perfectly happy to just stay home with our dogs watching the DVR.
From the day shit got real, early in our relationship, when I told him I understood if he wanted to stop seeing me because it promised to turn his peaceful existence upside down and he said "I couldn't leave you," to last weekend, at a Braves game, when he told the vendor at the nothing-but-french-fries booth that "I know you don't make the menu, but you might want to tell your managers it's crazy that a french fry place doesn't have chili cheese fries. My daughter was really looking forward to chili cheese fries today and she is seriously disappointed." I know, it's a silly example, but he takes what's important to us and makes it important to him. I love him for it.
The good and the bad, they are all stamped on my heart. And for the ones I left brokenhearted, I wonder if it would be a consolation to them to know I will always carry a piece of them with me. I won't forget their efforts, how they made me feel, and I wish them all the best in life and love, even now.
Well, except for Michael M. I kinda hope he gets genital warts and a disfiguring facial scar and a house full of fleas. Ok. Maybe not the scar, but definitely the warts and fleas.
(See, there's that screen door, protecting my heart just a little these days.)