Still, there is a sense of missed opportunity. Maybe there is nothing, ever, that can equal the recollection of having been young together. Maybe it’s as simple as that. [He] was the person [she] loved at her most optimistic moment.
— from The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
I heard a story the other day about someone whose brother got engaged to his high school sweetheart – the brother is in his 40s, and he and the woman had been out of touch for more than 20 years when they reconnected and fell in love again. I’m a sucker for stories like that, and it made me think of my first love. I’ve had three (what I consider) “real” relationships in my life – one in high school and two in college. None of them lasted longer than 10 months. I don’t know what that says about me. Since then (ages ago, if you must know), I haven’t dated anyone seriously. It’s kind of sad, actually. Anyway, I thought I’d do a little deconstructing of those three relationships and see what I come up with, and lucky you gets to come along for the ride.
So: J. We met when we were 16; we both worked at an amusement park during the summers, and he worked with my best friend. I don’t remember exactly how we met, but I remember that our connection was pretty immediate. We didn’t date right away, at least not officially, because by the time we met, there wasn’t much time left before I was leaving for Spain for four months. We intended to have “a two-week fling” (yes, that’s what we called it – what the hell did we know from flings), but at least on my end, I was head over heels well before the end of the two weeks.
We used to sit in his car in the parking lot after work, late at night, just talking for hours. I didn’t have my own car then, and my parents used to have to come pick me up when I was finished closing. I don’t know how many times I made them wait, or for how long, because J and I never wanted to leave each other. And I’m telling you honestly, for weeks, we didn’t do anything but talk. He’d never kissed anybody before, and I was not that much more experienced. We had our first kiss in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven across the street from the amusement park. It was a Tuesday. I remember what I was wearing and the date, too.
I was heartbroken when I had to leave for Spain. J came over the day before I left, and we spent the afternoon making out and saying goodbye (my mom was out of town, my dad was already in Spain, and my brother was at college). In the weeks leading up to my leaving, J would joke that I would meet a hot Spanish guy named Don Flamenco and fall in love and never come home. As I was walking back up to my house after leaving him at his car that day in September, he called my name. When I turned around, he said with a grin, “If you see Don Flamenco, tell ‘im I said hi.” It was kind of a movie moment.
Spain was torture for me early on. I must have written J 10 letters before I ever got one from him. When I finally did, what he’d written broke my heart. He said he’d started dating someone at school (we went to different high schools), and told me how her eyes sparkled and some other crap I used to know by heart but have apparently forgotten. We had agreed before I left that we could date while I was gone, but I never intended to, and I hadn’t expected him to. I sent him even more letters after that, and thinking about what they probably said makes me cringe. I had a bit of a melodramatic streak back then (which is, I think, marginally more controlled these days).
By the time I got home from Spain in January, J and Sparkles had broken up, but he wasn’t ready to date me again yet. The day he told me he was – “I think we should try it your way” – was probably the happiest day of my high school life. I adored him – he was the funniest guy I’d ever met (and still is), he was thoughtful, I thought he was so handsome (baseball hat, crooked smile, and all) – and I felt like, at 16, I was done. I attribute a lot of that thinking to the fact that I’d never had a real boyfriend before him, and I assumed (from my extensive reading of young adult novels) that “love” was all you needed to end up together. I learned, though, that it doesn’t quite work like that.
Six weeks later, sitting in his car in front of my house, J broke up with me. That may have been the first time I heard “It’s not you, it’s me,” but I can’t be sure (it definitely was not the last). He said that he felt confined by the relationship, that when he was at school and girls flirted with him, he felt bad if he flirted back, like that meant he was cheating on me (since I wasn’t there). The true irony in that is that I used to feel that way with every “boyfriend” I’d ever had before J – I never wanted anyone to know I was “dating” (you know, dating like you hold hands in the hallway, and meet at your locker between classes) a guy at school because what if another guy I liked better than this guy saw me and then didn’t ask me out if he liked me because he thought I wasn’t interested but I really was interested? (I told you I was a little dramatic back then. Next time you’ll believe me when I tell you something.) When I met J, I realized for the first time that flirting is natural, and just because you flirt doesn’t mean you’re interested in that person or not interested in the person you’re dating. I never wanted to be with anyone but him from the day I met him, and I told everyone who would listen that we were dating. Even my parents.
When he broke up with me, I thought it was the end of the world. I thought for a long time, even between and after those other two relationships, that J and I were meant to end up together, and I spent a long, long time trying to make him see that. We danced around each other several times over the years, but he always backed off first. In the end, he married and moved to Texas, and he’s getting his PhD in something ridiculously right-brained like Renaissance Literature. To his credit, he put up with every crying phone call, every pleading letter, every sappy birthday card, every angry email (he wasn’t good about staying in touch – I just cannot imagine why), and we came out as friends at the other end.
A few years ago, I read through all the emails that had gone back and forth between us, and I was aghast. I immediately emailed him and said, essentially, “Dude, I realize I was crazy, and I’m so sorry.” I can’t imagine what it must have been like on his end to get these emails (and letters and phone calls) from me, and what it must have taken for him to not tell me just to leave him the hell alone already. I promised him then that he would never get another email (or letter or phone call) like that from me again, and I’ve kept my word. Partly it’s because our friendship is more important to me than anything else. Partly it’s because I respect him and his marriage. Mostly, though, I think it’s because I grew up somewhere prior to that and realized, as great a story as it would make, that we are not going to end up together. My life is not a movie Becca would watch on Lifetime.
The quote that begins this post brings tears to my eyes every time I read it because I think it’s exactly why J occupied such a huge place in my heart for so long: he was the one I loved when I first learned what love was. I know, looking back, that our relationship couldn’t possibly have been everything I thought it was. We were together for too little time, and I was a fool for drama back then. I overlooked a lot and gave him too much credit. I mean, objectively, when someone says, “I love you, Melanie. I don’t know if I mean it, so don’t hold me to it, but I think I do,” that’s not exactly a solid foundation for a lasting relationship, to say the least. At 16, though, the only part I heard was, “I love you, Melanie.” He was never ready to be what I thought he was, what I wanted him to be, and that’s ok. It’s enough that I got to love him for the time that I did, and that I learned, eventually, that you have to listen to everything, you can’t just pick and choose the parts that fit the story you’re telling in your head.