First Love

Essays on Friendship

About the Book

A “vivid, thoughtful and nuanced collection of essays” (Associated Press) that treats women’s friendships as the love stories they truly are, from the critically acclaimed author of Negative Space

“A tender, unswerving homage to her found family, but also an insightful study of friendship as identity-crafting.”—Elle

Lilly Dancyger always thought of her closest friendships as great loves, complex and profound as any romance. When her beloved cousin was murdered just as both girls were entering adulthood, Dancyger’s devotion to the women in her life took on a new urgency—a desire to hold her friends close while she still could. In First Love, this urgency runs through a striking exploration of the bonds between women, from the intensity of adolescent best friendship and fluid sexuality to mothering and chosen family.

Each essay in this incisive collection is grounded in a close female friendship in Dancyger’s life, reaching outward to dissect cultural assumptions about identity and desire, and the many ways women create space for each other in a world that wants us small. Seamlessly weaving personal experience with literature and pop culture—ranging from fairy tales to true crime, from Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath to Heavenly Creatures and the “sad girls” of Tumblr—Dancyger’s essays form a kaleidoscopic story of a life told through friendships, and an expansive interrogation of what it means to love each other.

Though friendship will never be enough to keep us safe from the dangers of the world, Dancyger reminds us that love is always worth the risk, and that when tragedy strikes, it’s our friends who will help us survive. In First Love, these essential bonds get their due.
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Praise for First Love

“From childhood to adolescence and on to adulthood, [Dancyger’s] intense bonds with other women, based on commonalities as varied as kinship, substance abuse or caregiving, place these essays integrating personal experience and cultural allusions alongside Leslie Jamison’s work.”The Los Angeles Times

“The collection stands out not just for its elegant, unadorned writing but also for the way she effortlessly pivots between personal history and spot-on cultural criticism.”Associated Press

“A tender, unswerving homage to [Dancyger’s] found family, but also an insightful study of friendship as identity-crafting, a way of assembling tools to compose (and improve) a self.”Elle
“Early in First Love: Essays on Friendship, Lilly Dancyger writes about her fire escape [. . .], a perfect metaphor for the refuge found in friendship, for the ways we hold and make space for one another, and this book is an extension of that: a hand to squeeze, a shoulder to lean on.”The Millions

“What if our first and deepest female friendships were the real love stories? Lilly Dancyger holds open the possibility that female friendships are their own ontology, an extended flash, a magical space of being where anything is possible. It’s a dazzling array of essays.”—Lidia Yuknavitch, Literary Hub

“First Love is like a paper fortune teller as essay collection, but for looking into Dancyger’s past instead of her future. Her life folds and refolds in each of these essays, revealing more as she goes in unexpected flashes, and she makes it look easy as she does it. . . . A heartbreaking, funny, wise companion.”—Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

First Love is bracing in its honesty and verve, and is as heady and intoxicating as the relationships it details. It’s an astonishing work, one that made me laugh and cry and feel grateful and nostalgic for my own friendships across the eras of my life.”—Chloé Cooper Jones, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Easy Beauty

“This book is a goddamn marvel of a mixtape—a fervent, generous compilation of love songs brought together so that the whole is even more meaningful than its parts. First Love is poignant, ferociously smart, and unflinchingly honest.”—CJ Hauser, author of The Crane Wife

“Reading Lilly Dancyger’s First Love, I felt immediately returned to first loves of my own—late night phone calls and sardine-sleeping-bag sleepovers, falling asleep to the sound a friend’s voice saying, Are you still awake? Dancyger understands the urgency and entanglement of these early intimacies.”—Leslie Jamison, New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams

“In these essays, love is inextricably bound with pain, a duality the author renders with a lyrical and affecting rawness. Cathartic and intense, this leaves a mark.”Publishers Weekly
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First Love

First Love

I sent my first love letter when I was six years old. My handwriting was blocky and large, requiring great effort and concentration to express this big emotion my little body could barely contain. I made a card shaped like a butterfly—cut out with safety scissors, decorated with elaborate colored-pencil patterns—and wrote to my five-year-old cousin Sabina that being far away from her made me feel like a butterfly with one wing.

The grown-ups called us Snow White and Rose Red, after the Grimms’ fairy tale about two sisters who match their mother’s two rosebushes—one that produces white roses and the other red. Though our mothers shared a sisterly resemblance, I had my Jewish father’s wild curly hair and pale blue eyes, and Sabina had her Filipino father’s warm brown skin and straight black hair, always brushed to a sheen and neatly braided. Dark and light, opposite twins.

“Snow White and Rose Red” (no relation to the Snow White of Disney fame, from another Grimms’ story) is remarkable among fairy tales because the two sisters are not rivals or foils, but simply love each other. “The two children were so fond of one another,” the story goes, “that they always held each other by the hand when they went out together, and when Snow White said: ‘We will not leave each other,’ Rose Red answered: ‘Never so long as we live.’ ”

In my earliest memories, before my parents and I moved from New York to San Francisco when I was five, Sabina was always either by my side or nearby. Sometimes we lived together, and sometimes we just stayed over at each other’s apartments a lot. One morning, when I was four and Sabina was three, we woke up before the grown-ups, and she said she was hungry. I could wait for my own breakfast, but I couldn’t wait for hers, so I took her hand and led her to the kitchen. I pulled a chair over to the counter, where I climbed up and dug around in the cupboards until I found a salad bowl. When the adults woke up, they found us sitting on the floor, covered in milk, sharing an entire box of soggy cereal. That was always how I felt about Sabina—if she was hungry, I would climb obstacles taller than myself to bring her a whole week’s worth of breakfast.

Moving three thousand miles away from her was my first heartbreak.

There’s a lot of cultural mythology around the idea of a first love—that it stays with you for life, a high you never stop chasing. A magic spell cast on a fairy-tale princess, dictating the way the rest of her story will unfold.

One theory about why first love makes such an impact is that first experiences with romantic love tend to happen during our teenage years, when everything is heightened by increased hormone levels, and when the part of the brain that retains memories is maturing. This is why the music we listen to as teenagers tends to remain emotionally significant throughout our lives, and, in theory, why first teenage love stands out—a yardstick by which to measure every other love that comes after it.

But what about the first childhood experience of love, the first person you truly love other than your parents? Does a first sisterly love set the bar for a lifetime of friendships?

It’s true that I’ve never been satisfied with friendships that stay on the surface. That my friends are my family, my truest beloveds, each relationship a world of its own. The best compliment I’ve ever been given was “You’re so many people’s best friend.” Maybe I’ve always sought friendships predicated on deep love and knowing—been unwilling to settle for less—because I learned at such a young age that they’re possible.

Sabina and I told people when we were little, “We love ourchother,” and in the way adaptations of speech made by small children so often do, the phrase feels truer than the original: Between us, there was no separate “each,” only “our.” This was my first definition of love.

Sabina’s father walked out when she was a baby and mine died when I was twelve, so as teenagers, we were both only daughters of single mothers. My mother, Heidi, was the oldest of five, and Sabina’s mother, Rachel, the second oldest—the two of them bearing the deepest scars of a chaotic and traumatic childhood that included foster care, abuse, neglect, and a hippie commune. They carried the impact of their childhood instability into their own mothering in opposite ways: My mother never quite found solid ground, attempting to outrun her demons with frequent short-notice cross-country moves, and to drown them in heroin. She protected me better than her own mother had protected her, but still, I inherited chaos like a family heirloom. Rachel, meanwhile, braced so hard against the chaos that she perceived any deviation from order as a threat—like an overactive immune system reacting to something harmless, an allergy to imperfection.

When we were kids, Sabina was allergic to dairy, chocolate, cats, dogs, and at least a couple of other things. Her allergies only added to the impression that she was a delicate thing, a baby doll. The youngest cousin, the baby of the family, she even looked like a doll: big brown eyes under heavy black lashes, and perfect round cheeks. But then she’d smile—her wide, toothy grin proportionately a little too big for the rest of her face in a way that made her even more spectacularly beautiful because it reminded you that she was not a doll after all, but a real girl with a silly smile that was usually accompanied by a bubbly laugh and sometimes a little shoulder shimmy.

My mom brought me to stay with Rachel and Sabina for a few weeks the summer I was fourteen and Sabina was thirteen, when the first flashes of my teenage self-destruction were too much for her to handle. By then we’d moved back to New York, just a bus ride away from Rachel and Sabina where they’d settled in Philadelphia. My mother worked during the day and had no way to stop me from getting drunk in the park first thing in the morning and doing “god knows what else,” so she dropped me off with her sister.

Resentful, I was sullen and silent the whole way to Philly. I refused to make eye contact with my mother as she ushered me out the door, onto the subway, and then onto the Chinatown bus, setting my jaw in an unmistakable pout and pulling my black hoodie over as much of my face as I could, despite the summer heat. My forehead against the window and my Converse pulled up onto the seat as the bus rolled along the New Jersey Turnpike, I blasted Nirvana’s Bleach in my headphones and felt sorry for myself for missing out on whatever trouble my friends were getting into. I still refused to look at or speak to my mother when the bus finally stopped with a wheeze in Philadelphia, or during the cab ride to Rachel and Sabina’s apartment. When my aunt opened the door to greet us, I stood with my arms crossed, scowl still on my face, making sure she, too, knew I wasn’t happy to be there. I saw her and my mother exchange a glance, and prepared to dig even deeper into my sulk.

But then Sabina came bounding toward me, waving her hands in the air and yelling “Yiddy!,” her nickname for me from when we were toddlers and she couldn’t make an l sound. She was wearing a lime-green tank top with butterflies on it, so bright and bouncy and excited. She hurled herself at me, enveloping me in a big hug, completely ignoring how sour I was being. I laughed, just a little, despite myself, and hugged her back, letting her rock our bodies back and forth.

We spent those weeks being kids together—I remember them as the very last days of my childhood, which I’d been halfway out the door and away from but was willing to turn around and stay in just a little longer with Sabina. We made up dances like we used to (I picked the music—the Clash, mostly); walked around her neighborhood picking flowers; went to the library to check out big stacks of books which we read on opposite ends of the couch, our feet all in a pile together in the middle. We helped Rachel cook dinner and cleaned up together, watched movies, went to bed early and stayed up late whispering.

On one of our walks, we found a large dead dragonfly, perfectly intact, its little legs curling up in the air. We both gasped and crouched down on the sidewalk to get a closer look at its crystalline wings. “How can we get it home?” I asked, knowing we’d both already decided in our quiet awe that we would take it with us. “It’s so fragile.”

“Very carefully,” Sabina replied with certainty, delicately picking it up by its stiff tail and laying it across her open palm. Cupping her free hand over its body to keep it from blowing away—but not touching the impossibly thin wings—she started walking again, slow and steady, with a dancer’s control honed over years of ballet classes. I matched her pace, keeping my eyes on her hands and the treasure between them, and we made our way step by cautious step the few blocks back home. We spent the rest of the afternoon decorating a shoebox shrine for our new friend, agreeing that it was a sign—we weren’t sure of what, but we knew it was significant.

“They were as good and happy, as busy and cheerful as ever two children in the world were,” the Brothers Grimm wrote of Snow White and Rose Red.

About the Author

Lilly Dancyger
Lilly Dancyger is the author of the memoir Negative Space, selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, and the editor of Burn It Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women’s anger. Dancyger’s writing has been published by Guernica, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Longreads, The Washington Post, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and others. She lives in New York City and is a 2023 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in nonfiction from The New York Foundation for the Arts. More by Lilly Dancyger
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