The smash hit series Normal People, adapted from the book by Sally Rooney, inspired four stories of first love.
By age 22 I thought there was a good chance I would go through life alone. I had never even kissed a girl, hadn't held hands or anything. Part of it was that I was ugly and shy and afraid of talking to women and had a bad haircut and a single bed and couldn't cook or look after myself and cried about everything and didn't have anything interesting to say.
That year, for the first time, I got my haircut at Silver Snips in Panmure, where I was living in a one-bedroom flat with my dad, sleeping on a rollaway bed in the lounge. The hairdresser was from Pitcairn Island and was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in real life. If she had cut a single large chunk of hair from the top of my head, tossed it disdainfully on the ground, spat on it and said, "Now go," I would have thought that the best haircut I'd ever had.
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I had been in love with my hairdressers before, most of them. At The Stomping Penguin in Howick, age 13, I remember hearing MC Hammer's U Can't Touch This for the first time while getting my bowl-cut trimmed by a woman so attractive I could hardly breathe, let alone talk about landmark moments in rap music.
But that was just teenage infatuation. This was different. I talked and laughed with - let's call her Marianne - and felt so comfortable and easy with her. I asked her to make me look better than I did. She got rid of my floppy nerd-curtains and replaced them with a bad-boy bedhead look and blond highlights. I looked at myself in the mirror and knew my life had changed. I drove to Pakuranga Plaza, walked into Life Pharmacy and got my ear pierced, then went home, where my dad asked what was wrong with me.
I never saw that hairdresser again but a few months later, on a Friday night, a friend and I had some drinks at the London Bar and were walking down Queen St when he saw a couple of women in a phone booth.
"Should I talk to them?" he said.
"Sure," I said, staying well back, humiliated for him in advance.
A few seconds later, one of them came out of the booth and started talking to me. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen not cutting my hair. We went to a karaoke bar and, while my friend sang Frank Sinatra, she kissed me. Later we walked along the waterfront holding hands. I had never been so happy.
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That was my first girlfriend. She broke up with me a couple of months later and I cried so much I could hardly breathe. It was a cold, winter night and I went outside and took my shirt off and pressed my chest and back up against the condensation on my car in the hopes I would get sick but it didn't work. A year or two later I was mostly over her.
There is a particular quality of light peculiar to childhood. It is the world soft and diffused, as seen through tent awnings, campfire smoke and seaspray. Everything is just out of reach. In another week-month-year you'll learn some things are permanently unattainable, but right now, it is a happy childhood. Everything is possible and Todd from Reefton definitely loves you.
He's staying at the Cowshed Bay camping ground and your parents are the people in charge. It's a short-term contract that involves a lot of sausages and white bread for dinner and a sleeping bag instead of sheets. You are 8 years -old and this is the last summer ever that your hips will still be bony. Perversely, the stretcher is super comfortable.
I was an outsider. An opportunistic kind of friend. "Hi, are you staying for long? Where are you from? Do you like your school? Can I help you build that dam? Do you have a torch? Should we come back at night and look for eels?"
All of that is made up. More likely, I mooched past Todd and his crowd as many times as it took for one of them to notice that girl with a big front tooth and straggly hair. We definitely did build a dam, because 95 per cent of all childhood encounters involve attempts to circumvent the natural order of things.
Cowshed Bay is in Marlborough's Kenepuru Sound, a stone's throw from The Portage Hotel, where people did not sleep on stretchers. At The Portage Hotel, they did disco. The world in a particular kind of pink and yellow and blue flashing lights, where people's breath smelled like cheap wine and two kids were pushed together. I wrote it down, in pencil, in a red hard-backed notebook: Todd asked me to dance.
Oh yes, this is love. Right foot to left foot, left foot to right foot. Eye contact, but in the corner of your vision an awareness: Love is a performance. Other people are watching. That's how you learn to do this in the first place. Love is copying other people's moves.
The soft, diffused nature of childhood. You're 6. Back-lit in an apricot-coloured cotton nightie. Come sit on my knee, says the teenage babysitter. Kiss me. You know he loves you because last week, he ignored all the adults in the lounge and asked you what you were reading. You wanted to reward his interest and so you snuck into your mum's room and used her hairbrush that you are not allowed to use. You made your long hair longer and smoother. You made yourself several brushstrokes prettier than before because you saw that somewhere. This new love is unexpected. You don't like it. But you made it happen.
There is a photo in an album. A chronicle of a teenage life. The pages, once sticky, had clear plastic you stretched over the top. Sealed, protected. State-of-the-art till the glue dries yellow and the pictures fall out. He and I are lying on the sand on our tummies, looking straight at the camera. My first thought is I must be 14 and he about 17 but he died in 1994 at 30, so he must've been 16 and me 15. I lied and said I was 16 because 15 seemed so inadequate. Unqualified. He is smiling and we look close and comfortable. We are on a family holiday in Acacia Bay, in Taupō. The first thing that strikes me about him is he seems to see nothing else but me. It's like sunstrike and I drive straight into it. He is tall and beautiful. He is polite to my parents so that they feel they can ignore us and get back to the crossword. My sister and best friend are also there to deflect. One of them takes that photo.
It is chaste. What a word. We chaste each other. We pash. We stare and we share addresses. He lives in a city two and a half hours away and I think I will never see him again. He sends two letters and a Valentine's card. We'd spent three days together, then six months communicating by letter. Then comes our chance for a reunion. I am in the school debating team and i'm going to be in his 'hood. I go to his house. Nice house, on a hill with a spa pool. I don't like spa pools. We sit opposite, not close or comfortable. I don't have the language. I sit in the tepid, cloying water kind of paralysed. A shadow comes over his face and I recognise what it means. Words have abandoned us but none are needed. We know.
I never see him again, until the photo in the paper, about 15 years later. He had been murdered. Gone. I look at that photo of us now and of the horrific future that beautiful boy had coming.
I do not think of the word "love" until long after we leave the beach and start writing letters. First love - not defined or measured by time spent together - but by absence and loss.
I met him on an island in New Caledonia.
At 18 years old, I used my hard-earned savings from my job as a cadet journalist - my first job out of high school - to travel to somewhere French-speaking, so as not to have wasted the previous five years' dedication to learning the language in high school.
He was a primary school teacher, from Australia, eight years older than me, leading a school excursion. We met on a day trip to the white sandy island of Phare Amedee. Adam was tanned, with dark eyes, a contrast to my pale and freckly teenage skin and fair features. Some time during the day trip, Adam seemed to forget about his teaching duties, instead preferring to accompany me snorkelling.
"Mister, are you flirting with that girl?" one of his pupils asked. I giggled. He blushed.
That night in Noumea, the two of us hit the nightlife, drinking cocktails, dancing at a beachfront club, stumbling on to the sand where we lay for hours, talking, laughing, kissing until dawn.
We saw each other a few more times and agreed to stay in touch. On the morning of my departure, I found a note he'd slid under my apartment door, saying how he looked forward to seeing me again. That summer, he visited me in New Zealand and I booked flights to Melbourne for a couple of months later to see him.
We stayed in touch with emails, carefully considered 160-character text messages and lengthy toll calls. I'd never been in love before. But this feeling I couldn't shake - it had to be love, right? And I had to tell him. I wrote him a letter, declaring my feelings for him. What could possibly go wrong?
He called me the day the letter arrived. He seemed distant, a little cold. But he thanked me for my honesty, saying he "wasn't there yet, but soon". I held that piece of information close to my heart.
Another week passed. He called again, a few weeks out from my trip to Melbourne. He broke up with me. Turns out, he didn't love me. In fact, he'd actually met someone else. They were together now. Heartbroken, humiliated and rejected, I changed my flights to fly to Sydney instead, where my sister lived. "It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all," she told me, repeating Tennyson's words. But I didn't believe it. I vowed not to fall in love again.
And so when I met my next boyfriend later that year, I refused to fall in love. Love only leads to pain, I told myself. I chose not to love him, not even close, not even a little bit. And yet, when that relationship broke down, I was in more pain than I had ever experienced before. It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Perhaps it's true - the pain of loss never quite outweighs the pleasure of love.