Sept. 18, 2007

the art of firsts

I loved you first. – regina spektor

This is how grown-ups do it – they wait for their bosses to leave and plug an old game in. The game for the night was Digdug.

“I suck at Digdug,” says my friend, hand on joystick, eyes glued on the screen. “I never seem to get these damned… What are these things anyway?” she asks with a slap on the thigh as her character, a short, pixelized boy with a pump as a weapon, sort of dies after being charred by a fire-breathing green thing.

I squint at the screen. “I think that’s an alligator.”

“That breathes fire?”

“Okay, a dragon.”

“And those other things?”

I squint harder. “I have no idea.” The character is resurrected and I grab the console. “Darling, the key,” I begin, drilling appropriate holes through which my character could pass, “Is to get there first” – seeing a bit of strategy, I threw the pump at the Enemy, and then I pushpushpush until… POP. “And nail the beasts.”

“Get there first. And nail ‘em,” she repeats thoughtfully. I nod absently, at first too engrossed. Get there first. Throw the pump and nail ‘em. Get there first, throw the pump, and nail ‘em. Get there first… “Fuck!” Just like hers, my character dies in the hands of the fire-breathing green thing, the flame getting to me first before I could even unleash my weapon. “Fuck.”

“Get there first,” she just says again, taking the console from me. “As with everything, right.” Beat. And then, “Man, that is so emo.”

“I *know*,” I just say back, eyes wide.

*

There’s a certain magic that surrounds things that come first – first times, first loves, first heartbreaks.

Technically, the word ‘first’ means ‘to come ahead of’ something. Associated with the number one, in most cases whatever comes first is regarded highly. First place gets the biggest award. First come, first served. First love never dies. Ladies first.

First, first, first. Has it ever happened to you, that feeling when you repeat a word too much the letters seem to fall apart and the word loses its meaning? It’s akin to vertigo, to falling.

But then, Regina Spektor singing I loved you first over and over is anything but without meaning – it’s overflowing, actually, and I could only marvel at how four words strung together can hold several layers of meaning.

I loved you first. Before he did, before she came. I loved you first. Before you did. Before anything else. I loved you first. Before I knew it. Before I could know better. Before I could stop myself.

I loved you first. Before you told me you were leaving. Before we could even be properly friends. I loved you first before I realized I couldn’t. Before I realized I could.

Regina Spektor’s a genius.

*

Firsts are mostly intimidating, whether you’re the one in it or the one coming after it. And of course, almost always memorable – may it be for the pain or the shock or the fear, or perhaps all.

I remember the first real scar I had, it was one I sustained from falling off my bicycle. It was the first time I tried it on without the training wheels – I made a turn too sharp to be stable and landed on my right knee near a street canal. The mud and the deep wound were nothing short of a mother’s nightmare. Over a decade later, it’s still here on my knee, a triangle of soft flesh, slightly raised.

I’ve had a lot of firsts in the last five to seven years of my life – first time to live away from my folks, first day in college, first vice, first really drunk night, first really bad hang over the morning after. First love, first times of all sorts that I will not detail, first heartbreak. First flat of my own, first paycheck, first job.

So really. I’ve had enough of scary painful traumatic firsts to prepare me for the possibility of other firsts. Which brings me to the assertion that it is in fact scarier to come after the first.

Actually, I shouldn’t be too scared of this – I had never finished first. In any major thing. So technically this shouldn’t be strange, this should be familiar, this feeling of coming only next to something better.

A former mentor used to tell me, to be happy one shouldn’t compare, for there always would be someone greater and lesser than we are. For the most part I think she’s right, but I guess I never really totally outgrew the girl my mother had raised – competitive and determined to win.

Only I rarely did win, and I guess this was the Universe knowing better. I shudder at the thought of the monster I could become, had I won most of my fights.

But really, in some cases, it’s hard not to think about the things – the people – that come before you. All too often I’ve found myself having to fill shoes somebody had left behind, having to keep track of what they did while they were there, of what they did right, what they did wrong.

Most of the time, in order to focus, I try to convince myself that people have unique ways of doing things, and that I should concentrate on developing my own style, my own technique.

But then, really, there are times you have to do a little history check. Sometimes it’s just about not repeating past mistakes. This is the Capricorn in me wanting to do better than the one that came ahead of me.

More often than not though, you come across things that seem impossible to outdo. And before you know it, you’re just lining them up inside your head, the things that perfect creature that got there first had already done, and at the end of it, there it is – the sum of things you have to measure up to.

Is this what you used to do? Is this how you used to do this? Am I doing this right, or at least, somewhat similar to the way she once had?

So the Cap in me starts out wanting to outrun, wanting to win. But faced with the full picture and my small small heart I realize just measuring up will take much of what’s left in me.

*

But then again, there’s coming first, arriving ahead of the others – and still not winning.

“I don’t get it,” a friend of mine had said. “I got there first. And then, poof.”

“Poof,” I’d just repeated, squeezing her shoulder. “I’m sorry it sucks.”

On the screen, the small pixelized boy dissolves after being hit by this monster while in the middle of eliminating another monster.

Game over.

“I’m sorry, too,” she just said.

I grabbed the console and hit Reset. “Let’s play something else.”#