Once I Had Love

by Will McMillan


    I was five years old the first time I saw Debbie. In a gossamer dress she stood, hands clenched into fists on her hips, a backdrop of black and white lines floating behind her. On either side of her body a grip of men hovered, attempting, it seemed, to sooth her defiance. A slash of cursive, as red as heart’s blood, spelled out a single word. Not only the color of her thick, flowing hair but the musical institution in which she was queen: Blondie.

    Our next-door neighbor, Lisa, was nursing a crush on my older brother. She’d given him the record, “Parallel Lines,” by Blondie as a gift. He took the record and, reading the song list on the back of the album, put the needle on song that he wanted to hear. We were in our bedroom, Debbie’s voice and the music nothing more than background noise. And then I heard it. “Once I had a love, it was a gas. Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass.” Startled, I turned to my brother. “What did she just say?”

    He laughed. “She said love’s a pain in the ass.”

    “What’s this song?” I asked.

          There was something in her voice. Something in her singing the word “ass’ that flipped a switch in me.  She was confessing of lost love, but there was venom in her voice, as if even though heartbreak mattered, it didn’t much matter to her. I walked over to the album cover and picked it up, my gaze locking with hers. Her eyes were fixed and confrontational, daring me to complain about her filthy mouth. But now I believed it was true.  Love was a pain in the ass, Debbie. You’ve made me a believer.

    That night, and for many months after, I put the record on and listened to Debbie sing, mooning over the cover of the album. I fantasized about her, what she was up to, what our lives would be like if and when we somehow met. Did she enjoy mayonnaise on white bread as much as I did, or more? Was she as fond of the toilet rug in her bathroom as I was of mine? Did she enjoy the way it warmed her feet when she stood to pee? Every time a Blondie song came on the radio I felt giddy, as if it had come on specifically because I was listening. Every time a commercial for the latest “hit’s of the 70’s!” 8-track or record came on T.V. I rushed out to watch it, waiting to see the footage of Debbie singing into the camera. She was my girl. No one could understand her the way that I could.

    “I have a surprise for you at my house,” my cousin Sherrie said to me one late afternoon. Her and my mother had been out running errands for the day with me tagging along. We were driving back to Sherrie’s house to drop her off, and I was sitting quietly in the back seat, the wind from the open front windows blowing shapes with my hair. “I think you’re going to like it.”

    I leaned my head to look at Sherrie in the front passenger seat. “What is it?” I asked.

    “Have to wait till we get back to my house. It’s a surprise, but I’ll tell you one thing. It’s very special.”

    Debbie, I thought, clenching my hands into fists. My God, it’s Debbie. Debbie Harry’s at her house and she’s waiting to meet me. In my five year old brain it made perfect sense. Sherrie had a surprise for me. One I would like. It was very special. All signs logically pointed to Debbie. I conjured her up fully in my mind, saw her sitting at Sherrie’s kitchen table, maybe enjoying a glass of tropical punch Kool-aid, impatient to see me. Destiny had finally made its move and found a way to bring us together.

    “Can you roll up your window a little bit?” I asked my mom.

    “Too much wind?” she asked.

    “No, I just want to make sure my hair looks good.”

    “For what?”

    “For whatever.”

    She laughed, rolling up her window, and I marveled at my mother’s acting ability and skill. For what, she’d asked. As if she didn’t know. Her performance was a good one, good enough to earn her a front row seat at mine and Debbie’s wedding later on that year.

    We pulled up to the house and Sherrie went inside, returning a moment later with my surprise. “It’s a lava rock!” she said, presenting it to me as if it were a gold medal I’d earned for riding in the back seat so well . “I found it the other day at the river, and do you know what’s cool about lava rocks? They float! See, all those holes? It makes the rock lighter so it stays on top of the water. Try it in the bathtub at home tonight and see for yourself.”

    I took the rock from Sherrie, holding it up to my face, my disappointment as immense as the lava rock was unimpressive. I couldn’t believe I’d actually thought Debbie would be waiting for me, I was stunned at my own delusion. That night I tossed the lava rock into my bathwater as Sherrie had suggested and watched as it sunk like an anchor to the bottom of the tub. Fishing it out, dirt from the rock forming swirls of grit in the water, I felt something that might have been a lava rock sitting in the pit of my stomach. I knew who Debbie was but she didn’t know about me. She’d never heard of me, had never seen or listened to me in spite of all of the times I’d seen and listened to her. I was crushed.

    Year after year, through all my different phases, I would end up falling in love with all sorts of blonde divas: Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Lady GaGa. All of them meant something special to me, but it’s a rare sort of magic when true love also turns out to be first love. Those other ladies were fine, but the quality I liked most about them was a quality that already belonged to someone else. “It seemed like the real thing…” Debbie sang. Something that seems like the real thing feels like the real thing too, and real is exactly what it becomes.




Will McMillan was born and raised just outside of Portland, OR. He’s been featured in The Sun, Nailed, and several other literary journals. He was also featured in the September 1st, 2017 episode of This American Life, yet his greatest accomplishment has been and always will be his ridiculously in depth knowledge of all things Star Trek.