Secret relationships are always so enthralling in the beginning. That element of having something just between the two of you that the rest of the world can’t touch makes it feel so special. And if it’s a relationship you know won’t be deemed socially acceptable, there’s the additional element of elicit danger adding excitement at every turn. You may even start to feel like it’s the two of you against the world, believing both of your feelings are stronger than what other people feel simply because you’re willing to sacrifice to keep the relationship going. That’s exactly how things were for me when I started dating My First Love.
From the moment he kisses me in his car, I’m sure I’m in love. I lie to my parents and tell them he’s 19, a silly mistake because his birthday quickly approaches and he becomes “20” before I’ve even hit 16, which does not sit well with my father. But he’s got my mother and brother loving him almost as much as I do in no time, and eventually my dad can’t help but come around on the issue.
I do everything I can to spend as much time as possible with him — participate in less activities at school, do my homework at his place and skip out on doing things with people my own age — because that kind of thing could potentially out us. And I’m happy. I don’t care that I’m missing out on things because I have him, and I feel like he’s all I need. I don’t even care that his family seems to view me as a serious concern, or that his best friend makes no qualms about the fact he feels I’m a jail term waiting to happen. I try not to let it bother me that we have to be careful where we go out in public and that there are just some things I can’t attend with him. All the time spent cuddled up watching sci-fi reruns, discussing Sondheim and Shostakovich, and my very favorite, listening him to play me things he’s written, makes it worthwhile. When he holds me I feel a little less broken, like his arms can physically pull the pieces of me back together.
Eventually we get a little brazen, and he begins picking me up from school. Other students quickly catch on and begin tormenting me mercilessly about my “pedo” boyfriend whenever teachers are out of earshot, but I don’t care. It only makes me more staunch in my stance that I love him and he loves me and we’re going to be together forever. The defiance and naivete of youth at its finest.
It’s on one of these days after he’s picked me up from a particularly brutal day of high school where I feel like no one in the world understands me like he does, and no one else ever will, that I make a life choice that can’t be taken back. As we sit on his bed making out, something that’s been old hat to me since my first boyfriend at thirteen — who I swear was determined for his tongue to spend more time in my mouth than his — I declare, like I have any real concept of what it means, “I want you to make love to me.” He stops and looks at me one eyebrow raised and the other scrunched, a look of half surprise, half thinking too hard. I love that face and I almost giggle, but hold it in because I want him to know I’m serious. “Now?” he asks, his voice filled with understandable confusion given it’s a random weekday afternoon no more than a week after we’ve had a lengthy conversation about why waiting would be best. I nod and kiss him again and when things progress to near the point of no return he asks me if I’m sure, and I think I am, but I would say yes to just about anything in that moment…and I do.
I go home that evening and sit at the dinner table with my parents like nothing has changed, counting the minutes ’til I can rush upstairs to my see-through neon purple phone in my baby blue room with the flowers painted on the walls and Tigger sheets to call him. We stay on the phone until the early morning talking about how much we love each other and I think my world is perfect.
But I’m a teenager, and teenagers are not good with dealing serious situations (and they shouldn’t have to be), so it begins to bother me more and more that I’m a secret. I want to shout from the rooftops how much I love him, but the secrecy that’s a necessity on his part begins to make my not yet fully developed frontal cortex feel like he doesn’t love me as much as I love him. I break up with him in a spontaneous moment of thinking I would be better off alone and resolve to try to act like a normal teenager.
I get more involved at school again and get assigned to stage manage a series of one act plays. Being an all girls’ school, we have to truck in boys from the other private schools to fill our male roles and allow them to work stage crew with us. One boy acts like his role on the crew is to get my attention instead of managing sound, but I’m unsure I really even want to be broken up with My First Love, so I avoid him as much possible. Day after day at practice, he holds up a sign asking me to go out on a date with him backstage while I’m trying to concentrate on the show and every day I shake my head no. On the last day of rehearsals he quits with the sign and I figure he’s finally taken the hint. That’s when I hear him over the loud system asking me out on a date in front of the entire production. I almost faint from embarrassment as all eyes turn to me. Several people begin encouraging me to say yes and out of sheer I have no idea what else to do I agree.
The boy with the sign and I go on a date to a local high school’s sporting event, and run into friends I haven’t talked to much in the past few months. Afterwards we go for ice cream at a spot where two more people we both know work, the kind of place right in town that I could never go to with My First Love, and sit at a table in the corner laughing about how many times we almost met through mutual friends, but never did. It’s nice…and normal. When he asks me to go out on another date, I agree and this time he shows up at my house with flowers for both me and my mother. Despite how much she liked My First Love, she’s quickly singing the praises of the boy with the sign, especially because of his age appropriateness, something my father brings up often.
We begin dating, but it’s hard not to think about My First Love. I find myself wishing each moment I spend with the boy with the sign, is with him instead. I do my best to push the thoughts away, telling myself that the boy with the sign is kind and loveable…but still he’s not what I had in mind. When I see my future I see My First Love, and one night I call and tell him that.
We get back together and everything is perfect once more. He makes an effort to show me I’m the girl he loves, not some dirty secret, and I do my best to keep my irrational teenage mood swings under control. He even comes to my junior prom, which is a story in itself, but not for today. Just as it seems things have finally evened out and we’ve settled into contentment, I’m hit with onset of a medical condition that alters every plan I had ever made for myself.
Through all of it, he stays by my side. He helps my parents to cope, and he takes my little brother, who is by default getting less attention while my parents deal with me, on outings to make him feel less neglected. He does everything he can to help me feel like it’s going to be ok and I don’t know how I or my family would get through it without him. But as time goes on and it becomes clear that recovery will not be swift, we go through what many couples experience in a situation like this, and he begins to feel more like another one of my caretakers than my boyfriend. When I finally start to get to a better state, I’m desperate for things to go back to normal and to try to get on with my life. Most of all I want things to go back to how they were between us before hospitals and IVs and wheelchairs.
One day, sitting at my house in the middle of a discussion about writing a musical together, I blurt out that I want to get married. I catch him off guard. He tells me he doesn’t think it’s a good time to discuss it and as he rambles on I think about what would have happened if he said we should. I realize I would be married at 18, and probably have to decline my college scholarship and go to a state school so I could commute from his apartment. We’d eventually buy a house, most likely somewhere local, and have a child, but probably only one or two, since he isn’t really a kid person. And that would be my life. I tell myself that it wouldn’t be enough, while everything inside me is screaming that with him it would be. We would work on productions together, and spend Saturdays in bed watching The X-Files and be happy. I would be happy. But obviously he wouldn’t be. I immediately feel like I’m not enough. Maybe it’s because I’m sick and he’s not sure he can live with that forever, or maybe it’s because half the time I’m an emotionally confused mess. Either way, his answer hurts me in a way I don’t fully explain to him.
We continue on together and he comes on the trip my family plans as a going away to college present for me, as if everything is normal. And maybe he thinks it is. We say we’ll stay together as I start my freshman year, but I’m slowly letting go of him one bit at a time. It’s self-preservation. I know how it ends now, and not with us together forever as I once hoped.
I convince myself more and more that this a good thing. That I’m not yet 18 and still have an entire life ahead of me to explore. I make friends quickly at college and when I tell them I’m seeing someone and they eventually get the details out of me, they’re as judgemental as the girls in high school, but in a much kinder, we want to help you way. They all seem to agree I’ve been victimized, something that makes me extremely uncomfortable talking about and hits on things I have never discussed with anyone. One friend can tell how much the topic affects me, and assuming it’s My First Love that’s causing my refusal to discuss, she tries to convince me see a counselor about the relationship (and physically takes me to the campus office without me realizing we’re going there for me.) The more I argue with people about My First Love, the more I become confused about how I still feel about the relationship and eventually I get them to lay off. But at that point I’m unable to lay off it.
I know I love him, but I can longer tell if it’s romantic love or the type of love you feel for someone that’s been by your side through everything, someone who knows you like no one else. I’m selfish and I don’t want to lose whatever it is we have, while at the same time I’m trying to figure out what I want in life and from My First Love if he has no intention of marrying me. I begin to wonder if I want something romantic with someone else. I make horrible choices and I hurt people.
I make no excuses for how I acted, even if I never set out intentionally to cause harm. I was just an immature kid learning to be independent for the first time, and dealing with growing up and a medical condition that added to my already severe insecurities…and not doing a good job of any of it. I wasn’t equipped to deal with a relationship of that magnitude, and I guess that’s what it all boils down to. No matter how much he loved me, and I truly believe he did, or how much I loved him, I was incapable of handling a relationship that serious in my teens.
But it didn’t truly end there. I would soon realize that “not a good time to discuss it” in no way meant I don’t ever want to marry you and that letting go of your first love is not as easy as making mistakes and saying goodbye…but that’s a story for another day.
As Rebecca Wells so brilliantly put it, “There is the truth of history, and there is the truth of what a person remembers.” I’ll try to bridge that gap as I tell you the story of how I eventually figured out I suck at love. Come back weekly for new installments.