In my senior year of high school, everything seemed to be falling into place as it should. I was accepted into all the colleges I applied to and could attend my dream school. I was eager to start the new chapter of my life all the way across the country, but for the time being, I was committed to making the last months of my childhood count.
I was one of the stars in the school musical that spring, and one of the boys for whom I had secretly harbored a crush, who played my father in the musical, had given me flowers on opening night. I was tickled until I realized he had also given flowers to my “brother” and my “mom.” While I knew he did like me romantically, we never went there, but we’d been playing a silly dance most of high school and even a couple years in middle school.
Growing up in the suburbs where I thrived yet still never quite felt I totally fit in, at least when it came to real romantic relationships, was another reason I was looking forward to getting out of my town: new blood and hopefully new mindset. And truthfully, I was sort of glad I had kept mostly out of the messy world of dating—I had seen how it had derailed too many of my former friends.
Still, since we spent so much time together through the weeks of rehearsal, I somehow found myself venting about my past romantic ups and downs to my musical “mom.”
“I have a friend that I think would actually be good for you,” she said. “He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known.”
I asked her why she wasn’t dating him, but I knew her type: a boy with an edge. He wasn’t it. The one picture she had of him left me uncertain if I would find him attractive in person, but I was willing to give it a try. He had the Vania seal of approval, after all.
My future boyfriend was a freshman in college at the time. It sounds old-fashioned to think of it now—in the age of IMs, text messaging and having entire relationships play out on Facebook—but because he didn’t live close by, we began our courtship with letters. You know, those things you write longhand on actual paper, stick in an envelope with a stamp, and the other person receives it in a day or even longer.
Through these letters, C and I shared our interests, our hopes, our dreams and our fears. I learned the gentleness of his heart, how he’d help an elderly stranger get out of his car, by physically lifting him. I knew which movies made him cry. I knew what his family life was like, that his father had been born in Poland and came here at the age of 11 and this his older sister also still lived at home.
And then, C introduced me to the magical wonder of mix tapes. Songs from bands and I’d never heard of like Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr. and The Pixies were carefully selected and arranged to be the best musical experience, telling a story from the heart. After all the heavily produced pop I’d digested after an early childhood of hair metal bands, I never realized how music could be such a personal expression, yet its universality could touch the hearts of young adults all across the country.
We eventually got up the courage to talk on the phone, and we spent hours every night, finally feeling like we’d found someone of the opposite sex who truly got us. The mix tapes got more personal, conveyed specific meaning and emotion. When I received them in the mail, and eventually in person, I felt like I was getting a little piece of him.
Our first date, a double date with Vania and one of C’s friends, was a disaster. We were awkward around each other, and his physical presence didn’t match what I’d envisioned in my mind. He was more than a foot taller than me and had an imposing physical presence with his wide upper body, prominent sideburns and black combat boots on very big feet.
Somehow, though, we got over our awkwardness. Our phone calls up to our second date got more intimate as we imagined what it would be like to kiss. After we experienced the beauty of that, accompanied to a mix tape with plenty of Sinatra, it was obvious that we were falling quickly for each other.
That first summer together was full of beautiful memories. Holding hands on walks in the park. Talking for hours on end about anything and everything. Sharing favorite movies and TV shows (Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, MST3K, etc.) with each other. Introducing each other to our families—more on that later.
C was a brilliant artist. I allowed him to draw me, but I fell in love with his pictures of other characters. He was fascinated with graphic novels, and he got me to nurse an obsession for Sandman especially, but also Books of Magic.
That summer we also shared some magically awkward times. Having fun with some peanut butter, and getting caught half-clothed with a cop behind a huge flashlight at a park after dark. Attempting to go past third base literally on a baseball diamond, only to get the town cops discovering us a little bit later again. Finally getting right in my house downstairs, while everyone was asleep upstairs.
Before I left for college, I went with my family to Europe. We were heartbroken to leave each other, but I couldn’t get out of the trip. In the end, I was so glad not to miss that incredible experience with my grandmother, parents and one of my brothers. We wrote each other every day and kept those letters to give each other when I got home.
Not too much later, I went to college all the way across the country, in California. While I missed him, I was also very excited to be in a brand new place, meeting cool people and experiencing great things. Meanwhile, C was at home getting more lonely and depressed, and his Italian mother was giving him hell for dating a girl who wasn’t his “race.”
Don’t ask me what came over me, but I actually wrote a several pages long letter to this woman sticking up for myself as an individual and as a sum of my parts. I told her how much I loved her son and never wanted to hurt him, that I respected him and her. However, I told her it wasn’t fair to make him feel bad for following his heart. We never became friends, believe it or not, but she talked to C about my letter and apologized. From that point on, she became a little more open, a little friendlier.
Anyway, I digress. C and I were young kids in love. C was the one left behind. He felt sad that I was having fun without him. I felt guilty that I was discovering new things without him. We talked about our relationship, how we could keep it strong if I stayed in California. Long story short, I made the crazy decision to drop out of school and move back East.
Yes, you can guess where this all leads. But first, there were some really good things that came out of this. My journey as a singer/songwriter really blossomed during this time. I wrote dozens and dozens of songs. I wrote fiction, I wrote an editorial that was published. I started working with children. By the summer, I was so itching to be back in school that I started attending classes back home.
As for C and I, I managed to get him to take a trip to Washington D.C. with me. He was biggest cheerleader and champion for my writing. We met each other’s extended families. We had sleepovers.
But I eventually found myself restless and resentful. This wasn’t my life anymore. This was his life that I was trying to convince myself and everyone else was ours.
I withdrew from our relationship long before I finally did the right thing and end it. By then, I had gone back to California. I felt guilty but I was starting to be happy again. A really good friend was turning into more. I loved my classes and liked my new roommates. I was having fun taking full advantage of all the great things the Bay Area had to offer. I knew C would never forgive me. But I had to be fair to him and let him go.
I believe it was a year or two when we next corresponded again. We broached the subject of seeing each other just to say hello, at a mall with his best friend along for support. He eventually canceled because he told me he was still in love with me, still in too much pain. A couple years later, even after he’d dated someone else, he wrote that he still had never really gotten over me.
Then, silly ol’ Facebook happened. Once I joined and he finally joined, I tried to add him a couple times, just so I knew he was okay. He ignored me again and again. Then, one day, out of the blue I thought, he added me. The next day, I saw his status changed to “married” and numerous photos of him and his new bride. There were a perfect pair–big folk with numerous tattoos, and most important to me, they looked truly happy together.
It was so surreal to see photos of his parents and brother and sister again. His mom looked as bitter as ever. His little brother was all grown up. I later saw his sister at a grocery store, but she had her nose in the air as usual and didn’t see me. She recently got married as well.
Life moves on. Letting go enabled C to move on and find the perfect woman for him. It allowed me four years of a truly loving and happy relationship with that friend who quickly became my boyfriend. And I’ve had so many other eye-opening experiences since then.
C taught me how to open up my heart, how to truly communicate with someone—about both the good things and the hard things, and he taught me what love was really all about. I’m only sorry I didn’t honor that love as much as I should have, as much as he deserved.