A first love

This is an attempt to capture with words the purity of a first romance … and the ability to reflect on it years later with fondness.

A memory

It’s 1993, I am 15 years old, and this is no summer romance. No, this one sparks during a snowfall and a power outage, and this one will warm me for years. I don’t know yet that the look in his eye and the quiet smile are because he cares so much.

Later Kyle calls and offers me rides home from school. He is a senior, and he has a car that he always parks at the last spot, first row in the student lot (or is it the second-to-last spot?). He plays football, and he is beautiful. His curly hair makes my heart melt every time I see him.

Sometimes we have as many as six people in his car, and I get to ride in the middle of the front seat, right next to him. The gear shift is on the floor and when he leans over me to put the car in park, our eyes meet and the world stops for a minute. We have entire conversations with our eyes.

We spend a lot of time in his car over the next year or two. It’s a hand-me-down Bonneville from his dad. I love that car, love the feeling of riding next to him and the orange glow of the stereo, which plays, among other artists, the Cranberries and a singer who will remain unnamed to protect the “us” of 1994.

His arms keep me warm and safe, and I want him all to myself. But I don’t know how to tell him this. I try to show him with smiles and looks and hugs, but I am too scared to tell him what I want. Surely he has many girlfriends; why would he ever pick me?

As time goes on I think he must not feel the same way for me. He is not asking me to be his girlfriend because he does not want me to be his girlfriend. He wants to play the field, be the Big Man on Campus, be single in college. I see girls looking at him, flirting with him – I know he must be playing games. I mistake his shyness for indifference. He is 17, and he knows everything in the world – it never occurs to me that he is nervous, too.

I never tell him I love him, but I write it in poems and stories that he will never read. I am certain he must not feel the same way, and I do not know that I would have to put myself out there to really find out.

He leaves for college but stays in touch, checking on me through letters and visits home, along with the occasional phone call. A few months later, on par for a college freshman when the other person is still in high school, the inevitable “Dear John” letter comes in the mail – and it is gentle and sweet but I am heartbroken nonetheless.

I never write him back. Actually, that’s not true. I write him several times, but each version of the letter gets crumpled and thrown away. My words are angry and out of hurt, but in the end, I know that will not win him back, so I choose to send nothing.

Years go by and I think back fondly. This is where my life started its course into adulthood. This was the age of innocence and purity and everything here was sincere and genuine. I know now I could never have asked him to be with me, to stay for me, to wait for me. I also know I can’t blame him for going to college and never looking back. A couple of years after he left me, I would go off to college and leave someone else.

I decide my time with him was a lesson to be learned, and he was such a good teacher. So gentle as he showed me the harsh reality that just because I want to be with someone does not mean they want to be with me. It’s a lesson everyone has to learn.

Recently he has come back into my life, this time as a trusted friend. He now plays the role of someone who knows me so well and not at all, all at the same time. We have been apart half our lives; there is a lot to catch up on. College and marriage and careers and geography have taken us in all directions, and we enjoy reminiscing about the past, talking of the present and being glad for a future that includes a friendship that won’t be put on hold for more than a decade again.

He tells me, “That time in life of beginning to grow up, exploring so many comfort levels, learning to come out of a shell is so important.  I feel lucky to have shared with you in a very positive way.  Such a great gal, and that smile, and that look in your eye …”

As we reminisce, I start to see things in a different light. The quiet smiles, the looks that passed between us, the hugs – they meant something. My heart melts like a 16-year-old’s as I realize that at 18, he hadn’t had all the answers and he was just a baby himself – I just couldn’t see it at the time. He wasn’t just playing the field, he was playing it safe with his heart – as I was with mine.  

I ask him to confirm my newfound ephiphany: “You actually cared for me, didn’t you?”

“Are you kidding me?” he says. “Trying to tell you that I could never say it then (due to shyness) but I loved you.”

I stop and think, ‘He’s right.’ And it’s not just now that he is trying to tell me. It was 15 years ago too. I didn’t know how to see it then. But I see it now. 

What an enlightening thought, to look at the memory and see it from his eyes, and he from my eyes – that it was pure and it was innocent and it was necessary. To have him now as my friend means more than I can say. And to know how important and positive our experiences were – what life shaping, life changing moments they were – will be something I can always think of with kindness.