The Opposite of Red
“You never forget your first love, do you?”
I take a second to think about how to answer this question. I am having coffee with a friend about my mother’s age, and she is staring into the distance, reminiscing about a fling she had in her early teenage years. An oversized mug hangs from her fingertips. Leaning my elbows on a table of knotted wood, I’ve been smiling and nodding like I understand.
She looks at me, sighs, and gives me a knowing smile with chic wine-purple lips. “You never forget your first love, do you?” she asks in that same sort of way people talk about the rain outside or being happy that it is Friday, like you are supposed to agree. I almost do my usual grin, nod, and mmhmm.
But this time, I stop myself.
I am twenty-eight years old. I grew up an only child and introverted, and I make up worlds inside my head. I take a while to make friends, although I can get along with almost anyone. I cry quickly and hug a lot. I am terrified of hurting people’s feelings. I get swept away by a piece of music, or an old book, or an amber-hued October afternoon. Red, the color of theater curtains and romance, has long been my favorite.
I used to call myself romantic. Falling in love was a life dream, as it is for many people. I made up stories about my future. The setting always changed – college, a different country, my future Broadway career – but the plot was the same. I would meet someone. I would fall in love. Not like the kind that doesn’t work out, but “true love.” There would be no problems. Maybe minor ones. We would get married.
For some reason, that dream seemed like it lived behind a glass wall. I didn’t feel like I’d be lucky enough for it to come true. But I kept it with me for many years.
I did get my first crush in sixth grade. It was a celebrity crush, roughly speaking – he was a singer from Ireland with an accent like winding hills. I told no one about it.
I got more crushes over the years, through middle and high school. None of them were people I knew in real life. They were actors, characters in movies and books, even some historical figures. Just get through high school, I told myself. (High school was when I called myself antisocial instead of lonely.) When I went to college, I would find someone that I would bump into during the day, could call on the phone in the evening, could touch and talk to.
I went to college. I did find love, love that I had never before experienced. I remember watching Moulin Rouge with six other people, piled on the old lumpy couch in the dorm that used to be a fraternity house. I remember shoving two feet of snow off my roommate’s car so we could eat dumplings from the Chinese place on a February night. I remember singing songs in Japanese, way too high for our brittle voices, as we drove to a band rehearsal off campus. I remember being so excited and happy to be around people, to feel like I could be honest about myself, to care about them enough to want to move the world for them and know that they felt the same for me. College was where I made my first true friends.
And yet, I always kept my eye out for that person. Each year, there was always a different guy with sweet blue eyes. I would let my eyes linger from across the classroom, the cafeteria, the band rehearsal room. If I had wanted to, I could have meandered up with my dining hall tray, sat down next to him, asked questions about where he came from or why he picked his major or what he did with his free time.
I had friends who dated. I watched one run across a quad into her boyfriend’s arms so he could pick her up and swoop her around. I watched another, my roommate, kiss her girlfriend goodnight, look into her eyes, and give her this little smile that was only meant for her.
I knew I should be happy for them. And I was. Really.
But there was a lump at the bottom of my chest, one that had been there for a while. A lot of people know what I’m talking about. Societally, we are expected to be coupled, especially women. Magazines tell us how to flirt, how to date, how to be great in bed. Relatives we only see once a year ask questions. Being single means being desolate; being coupled is a status upgrade, like driving a nice car or buying a two-story house.
But there was another feeling too. This one was sharp, like a splinter you could feel against a nerve ending but couldn’t quite find or pluck out.
Was I the only person in the world who just couldn’t get feelings for anyone?
Why did that story I’d always dreamed about seem out of reach? Why did certain words—crush, dating, relationship, bedroom, commitment, boyfriend-girlfriend-partner-significant other—sound like they came from another planet?
Did I do this to myself, spending adolescent life pining for celebrities and characters?
Was I defective?
I graduated and moved back with my parents. Finding myself once again without a built- in social scene, and not being a drinker or comfortable with bars, I decided to try online dating.
I joined a few sites. On one, I saw a picture of a man about my age with scruffy hair, glasses, and an amiable smile. I clicked Wink. I got a message the next day. He thanked me for checking him out, asked me enthusiastic questions about the hometown he saw on my profile, and invited me to meet for coffee.
I ran my hands through my hair and paced. A week later, I deleted my account.
After about a year, I told myself I wouldn’t chicken out this time. I posted a picture of myself with crimson hair. I meandered through profile pages. I answered quizzes about my personality, the preferences I didn’t know, the stories I didn’t have – artifacts from that alien planet called the dating world.
“You’re on your first date, and your date says ‘I love you,’” one quiz asked. “Sweet or scary?” I clicked Scary.
I finally found myself in a chat with a guy from Minneapolis. He was slender and had wide gray eyes. He worked for a nonprofit, had the same nerdy streak that I did, and was well- spoken and unassuming. He sent sincere messages. He seemed increasingly taken with me. Once I got to know him very well, I figured, I would feel the same toward him.
After a few exchanges, we moved the conversation to Skype, then friended each other on Facebook. I remember my heart slamming in my chest as we messaged each other, “So… are we going to do this?”
And so the guy from Minneapolis and I were “talking to each other.” Long-distance, just trying things out, nothing remotely committed or serious. Really, I should put “dating” in quotation marks. But at any rate, here I was. Dating.
Part of me was proud of myself. It was that status upgrade. I told my friends about it and got congratulations and eager questions. I’d always wanted to have an attractive person who found me attractive, and here I was.
I’d thought I would be ecstatic.
But there was a different feeling, a thought really, that came when I dutifully logged on to chat almost every evening. When we were talking about our jobs, things happening in our lives, or some cartoon from when we were six years old, it was fine. But when he said sweet things, my stomach lurched. He would tell me I was cute, and I would wipe sweat from my palms. He would tell me he looked forward to meeting me some day, and I would reply with some emoticon twenty minutes later. I kept trying to think up new evasive responses. On some days, I “forgot” to log on.
Even though we were four states apart. Even though we were just “talking to each other.” Not even on the phone.
The thought was this: I didn’t have me to myself.
I told myself that was ridiculous. This was supposed to be stress-free, for God’s sake, that was the whole point. People do this kind of thing all the time and they don’t feel like some part of themselves is ending. So stop overreacting. You’ll get used to it. Give it long enough, and you’ll get to know him better. You’ll fall for him. Eventually. It’ll be fine.
But the thought stuck to the back of my mind like a tick. I couldn’t shake it off, I couldn’t pull it out. I felt it sticking while I was at work, while I was driving, while I walked around a town square and ate ribs at a blues festival. Even when I tried to daydream, I felt like the scenes in my head were no longer mine to myself. I couldn’t unclench my neck.
I wasn’t going to fall for the guy from Minneapolis.
I finally sent him an email: “I don’t think dating is for me.” I cushioned the message with encouraging words. He seemed too easy to hurt, and I feared dealing a disproportionate blow.
The next day at work, I heard my phone chirp from the break room. I snuck back to check it. He had sent a gracious response. He understood. We were just friends again.
My shoulders fell. My neck lengthened. I felt taller.
I took the highway home. The road seemed wider and faster than usual. Clean yellow lines painted determined lanes. I turned up the radio and belted along – every song was great. I rolled down the window and listened to the roar of the highway. Green signs named cities a hundred miles away, and I imagined myself flying toward them, feeling like some old rock song.
I had myself back.
When I got home, I was itching to look something up on the internet, a word I’d heard several years ago. Originally, I’d thought of the word asexual, but it means “experiencing little to no sexual attraction” and I couldn’t quite relate to that.
The word I typed was aromantic.
The search got results. I found a few sites talking about “experiencing little to no romantic attraction.” I also found a discussion forum entirely for aromantics, who called
themselves “aros.” Some of them talked about never having any kind of romantic feelings at all. Others talked about having crushes on fictional characters and celebrities, but never real people. Others still talked about having feelings that went away once reciprocated, or that didn’t start at all until they’d known someone very well.
They talked about being unable to relate to songs on the radio. They talked about not realizing people were flirting with them. They talked about trying to date and panicking when someone was even interested in them. They talked about getting questions from their friends and family that they couldn’t answer, then hearing “Don’t worry, there’s someone for everyone!” Or “You’re too young to know; you’ll understand when you’re older.” Or “Sounds like you’re sick. I really think you should get some help.” Or “But, sweetie, love is what makes us human.”
They talked about feeling alone. They talked about feeling broken. And they talked about how they felt when they found out there was a word for them and that they were not alone and perfectly whole. They drew silly cartoons, made “aromatic aromantic” jokes, and wore necklaces with arrows. They embraced the color green, which is the opposite of red (the color of romance) on the color wheel. They made a community out of something that had once isolated them.
And they redefined the importance of love. They celebrated their friends, their families, even partners they loved platonically.
I sought every aro website, blog, and community I could find. I bought rings shaped like little coiled arrows. I looked for green scarves. I wanted to tell the world.
The splintery feeling I remembered from college was disappearing. I enjoyed listening to coworkers talk about meeting their boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands. Of course, it was not the end of angst. Every once in a while, I would read a novel and run into some willowy passage about a kiss, and I’d slap the cover shut and toss the book under the bed.
But the splinters grew more and more seldom, less and less intense. What became far more common was telling people that I liked having me to myself. When they called me a “lone wolf,” I grinned.
One Valentine’s Day, while wearing a moss-colored blouse, I opened Facebook and wrote a paragraph beginning with, “Falling in love is not a universal experience.” My face flushed when I hit Enter and the paragraph appeared on everyone’s feed. Was this a good idea? I wasn’t sure I was ready to explain that aromantic was a real word, to answer if I’d talked to a doctor about this problem, to rebut against being told I’d find someone one day. Also, it felt too personal. How about I show my underwear while I’m at it.
I checked my phone throughout the day. A lot of people responded. A former coworker, some friends from college, family members, even someone I hadn’t seen since high school. “Kudos for owning your identity!” “A lot of people don’t know this is a thing.” “I don’t care how you describe yourself; I care that you’re happy.” “I’m so proud to have you as a friend.”
I guess I felt like I’d just slain a monster.
“You never forget your first love, do you?”
I take a second to think about how to answer this question. I am twenty-eight years old, and by now people generally expect me to have experienced a romantic relationship a few times over. There was a time this question would have stung sharp in the pit of my chest, but now it makes me think of driving down fast highways, of deliberately wearing green on Valentine’s Day, of a lumpy dorm couch and Chinese dumplings and singing along to the car.
With a flush of pride, I shrug and shake my head. “Actually, I’ve never had one.”