At twenty-two I fell in love with a firefighter. I’m not sure if it was his biceps, his broad shoulders, or the fact that he walked through fire for a living, but boy, did I fall hard.

Our first encounter was at a music festival. I was standing in the pit listening to Bob Dylan when my dad’s friend Tom passed out on the ground. This man was the paramedic on duty, and he immediately came over and started CPR. The way he took control of the situation was an instant turn-on. Once Tom was conscious, he and my dad went to the medical tent while I stayed in front of the stage to chat up this beautiful man. Six Coors Lights brought about some grade-A flirting, and a week later we went on our first date.

This was my first time dating a man, not a boy, and I was infatuated with everything he did. He surfed; he was an incredible cook; he changed the oil in my car. What more could a girl want? Our first two years together were a dream. We traveled the world, hiked every week, and became part of each other’s families. It was perfect, until I realized that I was trying to change myself into the woman I thought he wanted. I went along with anything he said because I believed that if I didn’t, he would find someone else who would, and I would never find a better man.

He was always good to me, but once I saw that I had lost myself trying to be his ideal woman, I had to end the relationship. It was the hardest decision I have ever made, and for a while I wondered if I’d made a mistake. But I’m finally starting to find out who I am.

Marissa McClure
Los Angeles, California

I had been waiting for this moment for months. My friends were bringing my new boyfriend to the hospital for our first official date. I’d been hospitalized with complications from lupus since right after he’d asked me out, and for three lengthy months our relationship had taken place over the phone. I was excited, but nervous. We’d never even gone out, and already he was meeting my mother and my closest friends. Because of my lupus I looked terrible. Was he prepared for what he was about to see? Some things can’t be explained through text.

When he came in, he immediately seemed worried. My friends sat on my bed and said hi to my mother. For a while we played board games and got to know one another better. Then my mother and friends left us alone, and my self-consciousness returned: How could he look at me? How could he love someone who was clearly falling apart?

He crawled into the cramped bed to hold me. I let myself cry, and he brushed away the tears and kissed me as gently as he could.

Then the nurse came in with the blood-pressure monitor. The cuff tore the tender, pustule-covered skin on my arm. I gritted my teeth, determined not to let him see how much it hurt, but his eyes filled with tears as he put his arm around me.

I had thought that lupus would never let me love anyone. I had pushed away any chance at a relationship since I was twelve years old. How could I make a commitment when a chronic illness meant living with uncertainty and fearing the future? Yet here he was, smiling at me.

Five years later we’ve shared more hospital visits than anniversaries. Every time he asks if I would change the circumstance of our first date, I say no. He reminds me that living with a disease is all the more reason to love.

Manassas, Virginia

I’d been living with James for a couple of years when I had to leave for a three-month internship. I was concerned that leaving him alone in our apartment would bring out the worst of his domestic habits. His standard of “clean” had always been significantly lower than mine. And although my cat, Tubbs, had learned to get along with him, James had never shown any interest in caring for a pet.

Before I left, we discussed his pet-care responsibilities: Feedings twice a day. (Half a can of wet food, plus dry Meow Mix and prescription kibble.) Scooping the litter box every two to three days. Replenishing both water bowls. Daily exercise with toys. Applying flea medication once a month.

When I returned in August, I was surprised by how close they had become. Not only had James kept on top of the duties we had discussed; he’d ordered dental treats for Tubbs and bought toys for him to chase. He’d set up sleep shelters around the house — piling up a blanket on our bed for burrowing, tenting a throw over an ottoman — so Tubbs would have options when he wanted to settle down.

I’ve been home for months now, but James still does most of the pet care. My only fear now is that he loves the cat more than he does me.

Los Angeles, California

Boyfriend means your mom calls to ask how you both are. Boyfriend means your mom sends him a card at Christmas. Boyfriend means your mom wants to know when his birthday is, and does he like sports? Your sister has met your boyfriends. Your grandmother thinks they all seem very nice. Boyfriends are always welcome to come along, to visit at Thanksgiving, to sit beside you at funerals. Boyfriend means questions about professions, cars, and the chance of babies. Boyfriends always want to buy a ring.

Girlfriend means explaining what you mean by “girlfriend,” cheeks hot with shame. Girlfriend means getting drunk to brace yourself for coming out again (and again, and again). Girlfriend means confusion. Girlfriend means your mom stops calling (and you aren’t calling her either). Girlfriend means raised eyebrows. What? Why now? My goodness. Well, if you’re happy, we don’t care.

Girlfriend means friendship. Girlfriend means home. Girlfriend means tears, bliss, laughter. Girlfriend means understanding, someone soft to hold, a face that searches for yours in every room.

Your girlfriend watches you plant a flower garden in her front lawn and doesn’t complain when it becomes unruly; she just mows around it and buys you pruning shears. When you decide to keep that dog you were definitely not going to keep, your girlfriend calls herself his mama (but she’s not putting her name on the paperwork). Your girlfriend says, “I’m so glad,” and, “Everything is going to be fine.” Girlfriend means “beloved.”

Kayla Merrell
North Wilkesboro, North Carolina

I’d been single for a dozen years, and as my son prepared to leave for college, I realized how lonely my life was about to become. After trying unsuccessfully to find a relationship “organically,” I signed up for and Our Time, but no one ever contacted me — and, to be honest, I didn’t find the men my age on these sites attractive. At fifty-seven, I was drawn to men in their forties. Then I discovered the “cougar” sites — for older women who prefer younger partners.

All the men who contacted me were in their early thirties. My first date was terrifying and wonderful but led nowhere. I went on more dates — some lovely, some not so great. I was debating whether casual dating was any better than being alone when twenty-one-year-old Hal contacted me. I immediately told him he was too young. (He would really put the “boy” in boyfriend.) I had always kindly rejected guys in their twenties, figuring they must have been insecure in some way to seek out a woman so much older than they were.

Hal was different, though. His favorite album — by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers — came out twenty years before he was born. I nixed the idea of a sexual relationship but proposed we go to a concert together sometime. We couldn’t find a show we both could attend, so he asked if we could meet for a drink instead.

We talked easily for several hours on our “nondate.” As we said goodbye, Hal surprised me by saying it was too bad he wasn’t in my age range.

“Wait,” I said. “You’ve seen me in person, and you’re still interested?”

We agreed to meet for a real date the following week and became lovers shortly afterward. We have enjoyed an amazing relationship ever since, despite our thirty-six-year age difference. We’ve attended a concert in Central Park and spent an idyllic vacation at a cabin in the Poconos, but most of the time we just watch movies and hang out like any other couple. Hal is sweet, considerate, and witty, and our physical relationship is sensational. Although neither Hal’s parents nor my son approves of the relationship, everyone else in my life has been extremely supportive.

This young man has changed my life for the better. After all those years of being single, I can finally love and be loved.

Manville, New Jersey

On our first date we went to the drive-in theater with his older sister and her boyfriend. I remember sitting stiffly next to him in the backseat, wondering if he’d reach for my hand, put his arm around me, or try to kiss me. I was terrified at the prospect but also hopeful. When his hand did touch mine, I felt such a rush of warmth I thought I would faint.

I didn’t get my first kiss that night, but I can still feel our last kiss, just before I left for boarding school. It was a starlit evening with a gentle breeze, and we were taking a walk. He stopped suddenly, cupped my face in his hands, and gave me a kiss that to me said, I love you.

I haven’t had another kiss as meaningful as that one, even after many boyfriends and two marriages. Sixty-three years later I still feel he was the one that got away.

Susan Parry
Erie, Pennsylvania

My parents were married for fifty-one years. Ten years after my father died, my mother met Leo at her senior center. She was eighty-five; he was ninety.

My mother had always been painfully shy and had spent much of her life living in the shadow of my outgoing father. Leo, who had lost his wife a year earlier, was talkative and forward, and my mother found him charming. They were both involved with the same progressive causes and loved to talk politics. (She once told me that whenever she attempted to discuss world events with my father, he would fall asleep.)

A few months after they met, Leo told my mother that if she wanted to move in with him, he had a guest bedroom for her. Her immediate response: “If I live with you, I’ll be sleeping in your bed.” She soon moved into Leo’s condo, returning to her own home once a week to check the mail and the garden.

When the family gathered that Thanksgiving, Leo and my mother cuddled on the couch like two love-crazed adolescents. At first we, her children, were embarrassed, but we soon found the new couple’s happiness charming. Back home they would stroll along the boardwalk by the ocean, holding hands, radiant as young lovers. People passing by would pause and smile at them, astonished.

Four and a half years into the relationship Leo had a stroke. His speech became slow and slurred, but his smile remained bright. My mother bravely became his caregiver. They continued their walks along the ocean, my mother now pushing Leo’s wheelchair. During the last few months of his life, hospice workers moved in with him. My mother warred with them constantly, objecting to their mechanical routines, their lack of compassion, and what she thought was an overuse of morphine. When Leo died at ninety-five, she wrote a poem for the memorial service called “An Ode to a Beloved Companion.”

My mother is now 103, still healthy and cognitively sharp. She insists on living alone, cooking her own vegetarian meals, and washing her own clothes. Every year, on the anniversary of Leo’s death, his daughter and her husband drive my mother to the cemetery, and, in the Jewish tradition, the three of them place a small stone on Leo’s grave.

It makes me happy to think that my mother found the love of her life at eighty-five, even if their affair lasted only five years. My only regret is that the man of her dreams was not my father.

Dan Howard
Concord, California

A few years ago I came across the term asexual and immediately thought, That’s me! For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I was missing the punch line of an inside joke whenever my friends got on the topic of sex. I’ve simply never experienced sexual desire. Finding a label for how I felt was like having a weight lifted.

At the time of my discovery I was four months into a short-lived relationship. I came out to a small group of friends before I came out to my boyfriend. (In hindsight, the fact that I didn’t trust him enough to tell him first should have been a red flag.) Despite multiple reminders of my asexuality, he never listened. He told me he could “fix” me. He claimed he understood what it meant to be asexual, but that didn’t stop him from repeatedly doing things that made me uncomfortable. It got to the point that I was scared to be alone with him.

When he broke up with me, I was devastated. I blamed myself for how he’d treated me. I was afraid that my asexuality made me undeserving of a better relationship.

It’s hard to be asexual when not many people know what it means. It’s hard to be in a relationship when your partner doesn’t respect you. The worst part was feeling alone and afraid when I was supposed to feel loved.

Name Withheld

A friend and I agreed to caravan from our hometown back to college — him leading in his car, me following in mine. His girlfriend made the trip with us, and my friend suggested that she ride with me so we could get to know each other.

As my conversation with his girlfriend began, I learned that her hometown was near the town where my own boyfriend had grown up. The name of her high school rang a bell. A few more exchanges confirmed that my passenger had been my boyfriend’s high-school sweetheart.

We had a two-hour drive ahead of us.

Laura Rose Taylor
Flagstaff, Arizona

As I approach my dad’s house, I grow nervous and think about turning back, but this visit has been planned for weeks. I can’t leave now.

When the door opens, he’s smiling broadly, like an exaggerated version of himself. Inside the house everything looks clean. There are fresh flowers on the table and a lemon scent in the air. After a couple of minutes I finally see her, sitting there like she owns the place.

There’s something unnatural about meeting your dad’s girlfriend. I knew this relationship was good for him, so I tried to be positive, but the moment I saw her, I hated her. I couldn’t stand her fake smile and colorful outfit, her overpowering energy and constant jokes. Above all, I hated how my dad acted when he was around her: like a different person than the man I’d known my whole life.

The night was a disaster. My dad’s attempts to make conversation only made us feel even more like strangers. I moved the carrots and peas around my plate, trying to avoid eye contact. After I left, I had the feeling things would never be the same.

Now, years later, I love her big smile and positive energy. I love her jokes that make everyone laugh and how she makes my dad act when he’s around her. I guess the new person I saw that night was just my dad being happy for the first time.

Name Withheld

My boyfriend and I were waiting at a baggage carousel, talking, laughing, and casually touching, when I noticed a man staring at us. He looked from my boyfriend to me and back again four or five times before he noticed I was watching him and turned away.

I knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to figure us out.

My boyfriend and I were well matched in our political opinions, our sense of humor, our love of the outdoors, our taste in music. In looks, though? Not so much. He was gorgeous: chiseled jaw, high cheekbones, dark-brown eyes. An athlete, he was broad shouldered, muscled yet lean. He was a head-turner, a guy who might get recruited for modeling while walking down the street. I, on the other hand, was plain.

The world relentlessly reminds you that you are a plain girl, a plain woman. “The privileges of beauty are immense,” Jean Cocteau said. The reverse is equally true. I grew up with comments like:

“You’re pretty . . . pretty ugly.”

“Even ugly girls can be pretty if they smile.”

It would take pages to list all the indignities and straight-up insults I’ve experienced — and still hear. You’d be shocked at their frequency and cruelty, unless you are also a plain woman, in which case you would know exactly what I mean.

Sure, men have fallen in love with me, found me cute, even called me beautiful from time to time. But having this gorgeous boyfriend was the worst. Women would unabashedly flirt with him right in front of me — smile, blush, touch him, give him their number. They either didn’t grasp that we were together or thought he must surely be in the market for a prettier partner. Once, at a Christmas party, he introduced me as his girlfriend to one of his exes, and three days later she suggested to him that they get back together.

Our relationship lasted two years and ended up being emotionally abusive. I’ve avoided too-handsome men ever since.

When his name came up twenty years later, my mother had just one thing to say about him: “He was extremely good-looking.”

Name Withheld

In the spring of 1965 my neighbor, an older fellow named Cliff, called and said he had found a young bantam rooster in the median of the highway and thought I might like him for a pet. I named the rooster Fred, and he grew into a beautiful, feisty bird who was willing to take on any adversary, including the neighbor’s Rhode Island Red rooster, who was easily four times his size.

A year later we acquired a young bantam hen we christened Henny. The pair soon became partners and for the next seven years were parents to many fine broods of chicks. Fred pointed out tasty morsels for his offspring and was on a constant lookout for predators.

In the winter of 1973 Fred came down with a cold, which became bad enough that we brought him in by the stove for a rest and a dose of Kaopectate. When he remained weak, I took him out in the sun for some fresh air. Twenty minutes later there was no sign of him anywhere on the property. We never saw him again.

Henny wandered around the ranch, eating and drinking nothing and emitting mournful cries for her partner of many years. Two days later I came home from school and found her lying in the drive, dead. I believe she died from a broken heart. We had many other animals as kids, but none as devoted as Fred and Henny.

Eric Bishop
Paso Robles, California

It was a muggy Friday evening in Washington, D.C. I promised myself that this would be my last date for a while. After countless nights out and a recent breakup, I was ready to call it quits. I dreaded the thought of leaving my air-conditioned room, but I pride myself on not canceling plans.

He had chosen a rooftop bar a five-minute walk from my house. Sweat dripped down my back as I listened to him talk and talk, but I like energetic people and didn’t mind his chattiness. We headed to two more bars, discussing books, politics, music festivals.

The night passed quickly, and I was glad I hadn’t canceled. Walking home, we reached a crosswalk where we had to turn in opposite directions. I get nervous about goodbyes. I don’t like the stalling or the awkward farewells as you’re leaving someone you’ve met for the first time. So instead of saying anything, I ran away.

Three years later we still joke about the end of that first date.

Sarah Murphy
Los Angeles, California

In sixth grade I tried to woo a boy named Colin, calling him every day after school to tell him how much I liked him. He seemed to enjoy the attention, but nothing happened. By eighth grade I was convinced no boy would ever like me, and I would die alone. All of my kissing practice (using my beloved stuffed rabbit) would be for naught.

On Saturday nights my best friend, Karen, and I would have sleepovers in her bedroom, where she had side-by-side twin beds and an impressive collection of cassette tapes. We’d play the New Kids on the Block and fantasize about meeting our favorite band members, Donnie Wahlberg and Jordan Knight. We’d gossip about the boys we liked at school and then prank-call their houses, hanging up as soon as we heard their parents’ voices. We’d stare into the mirror together, worrying about our too-small breasts and too-large noses. We’d beg our parents to drive us to the mall, where we’d try on clothes we couldn’t afford, imagining we were chic, confident girls who had boyfriends. Then we’d get ice cream at Baskin-Robbins and crack each other up doing the Roger Rabbit, a goofy dance inspired by a movie, while we waited in the parking lot for our parents to pick us up.

There would be plenty of boys, but I never again had a girlfriend like Karen.

Kristin Collins
Raleigh, North Carolina

Blindsided by an unexpected divorce, I was living by myself. Work took up a lot of my time and helped ward off the loneliness I felt between my kids’ visits.

About three years into this hermit-like existence, I took a part-time job with a property manager. His twenty-seven-year-old daughter worked as his assistant manager. She was a headstrong woman, and I overheard several confrontations between father and daughter, mostly regarding business practices she disagreed with. I stayed out of it. All I wanted was to do my work.

One day she asked if I would go out with her. I was speechless. There were several reasons why this was a bad idea: What would her father say? I really wanted to keep this job. And would my kids accept it? She was thirteen years younger than I was. I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to date the boss’s daughter.

“My father doesn’t run my life,” she replied, “and he won’t fire you for dating me. Now, do you want to go out with me or not?”

As I said, she was willful — and a bit intimidating. “OK,” I said.

She turned out to be funny, loving, and not nearly as argumentative in private as she was at work. We’d been together about a year when I had a mild heart attack. She rushed me to the hospital, where the doctors were able to thin the blood clot, saving my heart from further damage. She nursed me back to health and insisted I start eating a healthy diet. I didn’t argue.

One day while I was still recovering and unable to work, she brought me an easel, paints, and brushes.

“What’s this for?” I asked. I had never painted before.

“It will be good for you,” she said.

Did I have a choice? No.

She was right. Thirty years later I’m still painting.

A year and a half after my heart attack, her biological clock started ticking — loudly. When she said she wanted to have a child, I told her I’d had a vasectomy. She asked me to have it reversed. Knowing how rough that surgery could be, I declined.

She simply said, “OK.”

About two months later she broke up with me, married an old boyfriend from high school, and was pregnant before her thirtieth birthday. I was again speechless.

John Marcum
Hazelwood, Missouri

After fifteen years of dating men from other countries, I began seeing someone from my hometown of Juneau — a “real Alaskan.” But he was as different from me as my Venezuelan ex. My new boyfriend worked on engines; I couldn’t change a tire. He had never left the United States; I had visited twenty-three countries. He interpreted the Bible as absolute truth; I saw it as metaphor.

During the 2016 presidential campaign our views diverged into red and blue. He saw Donald Trump as someone who finally spoke to him. My disgust for Trump turned into anger at my boyfriend’s conservative opinions.

On the news we watched resentment mount around the country between “liberal elitists” and “blue-collar hicks.” How could I expect people to respect one another’s views if my boyfriend and I couldn’t even discuss politics? I decided to make this relationship work, if only to prove to myself that the country could get through its differences.

It wasn’t easy. I almost broke up with him after he made excuses for the policy of separating families on the U.S.-Mexico border. But in my mind the future of our country was at stake, so I kept trying. There were plenty of arguments, but when we remembered to listen to each other, we came to some sort of understanding.

We’re still together. I hope the country can stay together, too.

Summer Koester
Juneau, Alaska

As a girl born in the 1950s, I was told I needed to get a boyfriend when I grew up. At twelve I had my first slow dance with a boy, in the neighbor’s garage at a picnic. I had numerous boyfriends through middle school. I wore “going steady” rings and learned about hickeys. But I refused to lose at basketball when I was better than my boyfriend.

In my freshman year of high school I experienced my first serious crush — on a powerful blond girl named Linda. I didn’t fully understand the implications of my affection for her, and I continued to date boys and went to the requisite proms and dances.

In college, trying to figure out my feelings, I had sex with men, but the first time I touched another woman in a romantic way, I realized the truth. I didn’t decide to want a girlfriend over a boyfriend. It is how I was made.

When I came out at the age of twenty, homosexuality was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. My first girlfriend was taken from her college dorm in a straitjacket and given electroshock therapy as a cure for being gay. Then, in 1974, all of us homosexuals were “cured” overnight when that diagnosis was dropped from the manual. I never would have dreamed back then that in August 2014 I would be able to legally marry the woman I loved. I’ve gone from insanity to marriage equality in one lifetime. But I still fear for my LGBTQ+ community and our rights in the future.

Debby McGee
Eugene, Oregon

I’ll be thirty in December and have never had a boyfriend. I have a master’s degree and two jobs. I’ve worked with elected officials. I’ve met civil-rights leaders. I’ve testified for major corporations in court and in front of grand juries. I even have a state-house resolution named after me. But I can’t seem to get into a relationship.

As a twenty-nine-year-old black woman, I get surprised looks when people learn I don’t have any kids. In high school I told myself that I would have my first child by the time I was twenty-five. (I blame music and television for putting such thoughts in my head.) Now I don’t know if I still want children. I’ve never even been someone’s girlfriend.

The first time I ever slept with a man, I was seventeen. (He was twenty-seven.) Behind closed doors he said he was my boyfriend and told me all of the things that young girls want to hear, but in public he was with other women. I’ve had other sexual partners since then, but I’ve never even casually dated someone. My only time going out for Valentine’s Day was when a guy friend took me to Pizza Hut.

When I was growing up, the only healthy relationship I saw was between my high-school English teacher and her husband. They were truly best friends. Other than that, I saw only divorce, sugar-daddy situations, and marriages between people who didn’t really like each other. I have trouble identifying signs of romantic interest. It seems like good men don’t speak up, and the men who do make a move on me are full of it.

I’m slowly losing interest in sex. I’ve gotten so used to not having a boyfriend that I can’t even imagine being in a relationship. Being single only bothers me when someone speaks as if there were something wrong with it.

Pensacola, Florida

The summer before my senior year of high school, I had been with my boyfriend for a year and a half. We dreamed of marriage, and I had a box filled with letters proclaiming his commitment to me. We were both virgins, and that summer we decided to have sex. We slept together three times.

One Sunday my boyfriend was supposed to drive me home from work but never showed up. I phoned his home, and his mom told me he was out golfing with his dad.

That night I called repeatedly until he got home. When we finally spoke, he told me he wanted to break up. I was crushed.

After school started, it was unbearable to see my ex holding hands with other girls. I pretended to have mono and lay in bed for a month. (I was one of eight kids, and neither of my parents had the energy to confirm my story with the doctor.)

When I finally went back to school, I still couldn’t handle passing him in the hall like we barely knew each other. So I had a “relapse” and stayed home another month.

My dad finally noticed my misery and wrote me a note that I cherish to this day. A first-generation Italian immigrant and World War II veteran, he wrote: “Your breakup has left me feeling helpless as to what I can do for you. But it’s not the end of the world — just think of how bad off you’d really be if you lost your health, eyesight, or hearing. Thank God for all of your blessings. I love you. I’m proud of you. Think of today and plan for the future. Love, Dad. P.S. What seems bad now might be the best thing that ever happened to you.”

No psychologist or Zen master could have put it better.

I have no idea what happened to that boyfriend. I married my college sweetheart, and we’ve been together for thirty-six years.

Name Withheld