It's Called Your First Love for a Reason: On Letting Go of Someone You Never Really Had
There was something refreshingly comforting in the stillness of the night’s final hour. On the corner of South 6th, with the Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan to our left, we remained perfectly insignificant amongst the city’s magnificence.
I expected myself to cry, but this time I wanted to taste only the sweetness, not the bitterness of our goodbye. I searched for it on his lips. Finally exhaling, I smiled and pulled back from our embrace to say, “You know, if you look someone in the eyes for four minutes, you’re supposed to fall in love with them?”
With a squinted gaze he laughed, the laugh that still rings in my ear and responded, “Good thing we only got to three minutes and fifty-eight seconds.”
That really made me want to say that I hated him. But mostly, that I loved him.
I expected him to nestle his head into my curls and in his manner of affectionate teasing, comment on the fact that I was being dramatic… like always. But neither us of said anything. We hardly even moved, as our gaze surpassed four minutes and we remained suspended in the intensity of the moment. Perhaps we knew this would be our last goodbye, that we might not ever collide again in this corresponding chapter of our lives.
To me, our relationship had been nothing more than a collision; serendipitous, beautiful, imperfect. That was the only way I could seem to make sense of how two incredibly different people, who were obviously not suited for each other, could share moments where the world would fade away.
As my teenage years came to an end, I began to feel more and more like the cliché romantic living in a cynic world. My previous experience with relationships was a testament to my generation’s emotionally detached dating patterns. I was even more so disillusioned by the pressures that came from coming of age in an emotionally detached world, one that lacked the virtues of kindness, consciousness, and passion. When discontentment turned into depression, I decided to leave the prestigious university that had been making me miserable. I thought it was supposed to lead me to success, but I feared nothing more than waking up one day and realizing I had let life pass me by without ever following my dreams of being a musician.
So he was absolutely right to call me dramatic. I have always had this unbelievable thirst for life, which could be described as “drama”. I yearned to experience everything the world could offer me and for someone to discover it with. Two months into my gap year I wandered into what I’d come to think of as our jazz bar, inquiring about a serving job. For the first time as a young adult, I felt like I was in control of creating my reality.
With a shy smile, he reached out his hand to greet mine as he introduced himself as the bar manager. He greeted everyone with the same sincerity and warmness that drew people to him. Before I noted his chiseled jawline underneath his salt and pepper beard, I noticed his kindness, his ridiculous goofiness and the way he’d tilt his head as we discussed our dreams. Soon, our pre-shift conversations evolved to after hour drinks and day-long adventures. I began to fall for him, the way he viewed the world with bewilderment, and the way I was being reflected in his eyes.
And we hadn’t so much as kissed.
Weeks later came our first kiss and his first warning.
“This is a bad idea...,” he mumbled between kisses. From the front seat of his car, I turned to watch the year’s first snowfall onto East 7th Street as I contemplated my response.
“Why?” I asked but I knew exactly why.
His gaze settled on mine, lingering longer than it ever had before as he said, “I’m already scared of how deep this could get. Besides the fact that we work together, I’m too old for you and your parents are going to hate me.” They absolutely did.
“And I don’t want to hurt you,” he added. I knew reality was not in our favor so I playfully nudged his shoulder and said, “Relax, it’s just a kiss.”
And it should’ve just been that. Our twenty-year age difference, divorce, kids, and his unwillingness to jump into something uncertain would’ve all been great signs, had I cared to notice them. But I ignored the warnings of my friends, parents, strangers, and most importantly, his. Because falling in love with him was as much an interlude of recognition and understanding as it was passionately illicit. Amongst the red dim lights and jazz, I’d often look across the bar at him and ask myself if it was all really happening.
After shy kisses and a few dates, we agreed on seeing each other until I’d go back to college and we’d go our separate ways. But I couldn’t stop myself from fantasizing a new vision of my future, one with him in it, where whatever was happening between us was enough to conquer the factors I believed only to be a romantic’s greatest obstacle.
Several times we agreed it was better to stop. Our relationship had become more a sequence of goodbyes than anything else. I would push, he’d retreat, and we’d conclude that continuing a quasi-relationship was unhealthy for both of us. But with each goodbye, he’d show a new layer to his vulnerability, sharing ellipses of his past, ones that revealed why he was not able to take the leap of faith. It made it that much harder for me to accept that even though he might be letting me in, it was still going to be over.
Afraid to lose him I argued the “why don’t we try to keep it casual.” But he repeatedly was not able to be the person I needed him to be. I began to realize that as much as I wanted our story to be my big love story, I needed someone who believed in it too. My premonitions that he might not ever entertain the idea of a future together, whispered to me many nights like melancholy in his breath against my ear. I would rest my head on his chest, and put an ear to the faint syncopations of his heartbeat, wondering if I could maybe hear the answer to if he loved me too.
After spending the summer apart, dating other people, and one week before I was set to move across the country to go back to school, I finally got my answer. A “friendly” catch-up drink quickly turned into us laying everything out on the table. Coincidentally, he also informed me that he was going to be moving.
“I guess this is going to be it then?” I said as we paid our check and embarked one more time for a week where we’d remain suspended in our moments of transcendence. But I knew it didn’t change anything. Our lives were moving farther and farther apart.
Two months later, thinking all I needed to free myself from our cycle was to hear a simple “I love you”, I found myself back in it, wondering how it could still be the same between us. There he was, staring back at me, like in the memories that constantly looped in my head on replay. As our gaze surpassed the crucial four minutes, I reflected on our relationship, one that was never truly a “relationship”. I thought about how he had confirmed my beliefs about falling in love, yet dismissed them all at the same time. And I wondered what that said about me, my tendency to be vulnerable, and the danger of drowning too deeply in my desire to feel loved.
“What are you smiling so much about?” his voice startled me in our long silence.
I shrugged and smiled. I smiled because above all the questioning of what this meant, what we were, and what we could’ve been, was an unprecedented sense of contentment. For months I had prolonged our chapter, afraid that if I let go prematurely I would risk not knowing him, not experiencing the extent of what he made me feel. But in the simplicity of our silence, I realized that I had experienced what I had always wished for. I had gotten my love story, one that colored my world with optimism and made me believe that it existed for me too. And I knew that only by letting go of my version of the story I had written out, could I ever appreciate it for what it really had been.
A few days after Christmas I tried to explain all of this to my grandmother. A fellow romantic at heart, I began confiding in her, hoping the medicine to heartbreak might be the words of a 97-year-old woman. Since she lived in Germany, I only had the luxury of seeing her once a year. I had never felt more grateful to sit across the table from her and take in the reassurance of her presence.
“I love that we can talk like girlfriends,” she said after giddily telling me about her new boyfriend or as she put it - “life’s final gift”.
Like the most loyal of girlfriends, she added, “How’ve you been doing?”
“I just want to know when I’ll stop missing him,” I said, hopeful that she might be the one with the answer to that question.
“You never will. But you’ll come to realize that that’s okay. I’ve never forgotten my first love. With your grandfather, I had a family, which was the greatest blessing life has given me. But there’s something about your first love and what they leave behind…”
She continued as my mind wandered, imagining a new ending to our love story, one just as cinematically satisfying. It’s the one where I’m sitting across from my grandchildren, after having lived passionately and unapologetically, and my eyes will still sparkle when I remember what it felt like to look into his.