Eight Years And Counting
By Erica Rische
Henry Ward Beecher, preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, once wrote that“young love is a flame; very pretty, often very hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. The love of the older and disciplined hearts is as coals, deep-burning, unquenchable.”
Beecher’s observations on love ring true, but what if you, like I do, have both the face of youth along with the older, disciplined heart of one who has a long-lasting, mature love? Where do you fit then?
My relationship fits somewhere beyond the traditional categories of old and young love. It extends the boundaries and breaks down assumptions, as no one ever expects we’ve been together for so long.
It has been almost eight years since my girlfriend and I first met and fell in love. It has been almost that long that we’ve been living together. When I tell people these facts though, they look at me incredulously, trying to add up the numbers in their heads to figure it all out because we look so young.
We are young. We were even younger back in those early days.
I had just turned nineteen. She was twenty. I had just started
attending an out-of-state college mid-year after finally extracting
myself from a very dangerous and abusive relationship with someone
ten years my senior that had ended with me bouncing around residential
hotels and ultimately onto the streets of San Francisco. She had
just tried unsuccessfully to come out to her small-town parents,
who told her that, if she were indeed gay, she would be cut off
from the family and from college. I was the seemingly worldly
artist and openly queer woman at our small, conservative university.
She was an intense, chiseled athlete with incredible gifts as a
Luckily, our paths converged. We quickly fell in love and have
been together ever since, redefining what love, home, family, and
passion mean to us as we walk side by side through the years, consciously
carving out a life that is most meaningful for us. We’ve
now spent our entire twenties growing up and building a life together,
and are happier, closer, and more deeply in love with each year
that passes. She is my lover, my daily friend, my partner,
and my family. She is the one that I lean on who is always there
for me, the one I can tell anything to, and the one who truly sees
me and knows me down to my core. She is the one who is my home.
Neither of us had ever planned on settling down with someone at such a young age. We had visualized sometime in our thirties probably meeting “the one.” But when you find the right fit, you have to run with it, and so we did.
It hasn’t always been easy. Especially at the beginning, when she was still deeply closeted and painfully entrenched in a thick web of lies, internalized homophobia, shame, and fear. I made the choice to go back into the closet, to hide and lie, in order to be with her. I was her “friend” and then her “roommate” for a long time. Our love was cloaked in a million lies to cover up other lies. It was an incredibly painful time for both of us, hiding something that meant so much, but I was young and willing to compromise myself in ways that I wouldn’t be able to, as I got older. And she was not ready to deal with her family’s rejection yet again.
Eventually, years later, she told her family about us and we moved out-of-state. Her parents, who moved in the direction of hard-lined religious fundamentalism after she came out, were convinced that I had brainwashed her, that I was a cult, that she wasn’t really gay, and that having sex me with was like having sex with a dog, which they so tactfully repeated to us again and again. The constant phone calls, manipulation, and attempts to pull us apart put a tremendous amount of stress and pressure on our relationship, but we managed to survive it all and were relieved, despite the consequences and the losses, to be finally open and honest about our love at last.
Those early, painful days of discrimination and life in the closet taught us a lot about growing together. Those difficult times gave us the foundation to deal with hardships later on: family illnesses, intensely stressful inner-city teaching assignments where our lives were threatened, injuries, friendships that came and went, moving out of state and starting all over together, a relapse of my eating disorder from twelve years prior and the debilitating suicidal depression that came with it, and many other challenges. Throughout all of these tests, however, our one constant has always been our commitment and love for each other. It has made everything else worth it.
We’ve lived a very different life from that of many of our peers who have continued on with their typical twenty-something pastimes: clubbing, dating, on-line personal advertisements, casual sex and one-night stands, and various partners at different periods of their youth. Some people tell me that I have missed out by not participating in all that stuff. I look at it differently, for I have been so happy, so known, and so free to be my best self because of the direction my life went instead. I wouldn’t choose for my life to be any other way. And it is a choice - for neither of us mindlessly stays together out of habit or fear or comfort. We stay together out of love, consciously given and received.We stay together because of our genuine enjoyment and admiration of the other. We are each other’s greatest fan and loudest cheerleader and we don’t take each other for granted.
We do not constrain or contain the other. There are no leashes, no attempts to hold the other back out of selfish desires or fear. We both want the other’s world to be as big, happy, and full as possible, bursting with dreams fulfilled. We will both die someday and we only have this one life, a life that we share together, but that is also each our own separately, bigger than the two of us.
We also don’t expect perfection. We don’t expect every moment to be happy and conflict-free. That’s just not life. Too many people we know, queer and straight, run away or break up, not willing to confront challenges as they surface. We don’t run though and we don’t hide. We refuse to dispose so easily of each other like so many do, for we know that we’ve got something amazing, something real, and something that is worth holding on to and fighting for. So, we trust, we listen, and we talk honestly about everything without fear of rejection or loss or change.
As can be expected, having been together since we were kids, there have been a lot of changes in both of us over the years. We have always given each other the space and freedom needed for such growth and change to occur. I needed a lot of time and room to myself to grow as an artist and as an individual. My girlfriend gave me everything I needed in order to think, to dream, to write, to paint, to be, to become. I am a very different woman than the girl who fell flush-faced in love all those years ago, and my girlfriend has loved watching every step of my evolution, as I have with her. Because we have continued to love each other as changed persons throughout the years, our young love has been able to last.
Besides embracing change, we’ve also had the good fortune of having incredible models of relationships to look to for inspiration in our young life together. Most of our couple friends are a decade or two older than us, as we have more in common with them than our partying peers. One couple, in particular, that we greatly admire, has been together over twenty years. My favorite thing about the two of them together is how their faces still light up with love and laughter, excitement and energy whenever the other person is by their side or walks into the room. Despite the fact that they are no longer young on the outside, their hearts have found a wonderful balance between having a love that runs old and deep and that also retains the newness and wonder of young love. I am inspired by their balance of newness and knowingness and hope to emulate it in my own relationship as it progresses through the decades, as our now-young faces age and grow old.
For right now, though, I have the face of youth combined with the deep-burning unquenchable kind of mature love that has come with the time and history, knowingness and selflessness that has been my life with my girlfriend on this journey together. A journey that has forever changed and transformed us both. A journey very different from many of our peers. A journey neither of us would trade anything for. An incredible journey of love and passion and growth. If only everyone could be so lucky.
Erica Rische is an artist and a writer who lives in Oakland, California.