There are a lot of calls you know are coming. Phone calls. You sense them. It doesn’t even have to be the phone, it’s just contact. How many times have you called or run into someone only to have them say, “I was just thinking about you. That’s so weird!” It can happen quite a bit.
Last Friday I had a 5 minute pause at work and scrolled through some old e-mails, coming across one from my old high school girlfriend. I wonder how she’s doing, I thought, and decided to check in.
“Hey, just wanted to say hello, nothing big.
Wilma is out of the hospital, and my dad tells me she’s going to be moving back into her own home soon, which is great news. When this whole thing went down I didn’t think that was going to happen. It’s a relief. More than a relief.
Things have been good. Just working hard. Too fucking hard I think sometimes, but that seems to be the time of life I’m in.
I had been thinking about you a bit lately, just wondering how things were going. That’s pretty much it.”
And I wrapped it up. A simple e-mail. Nothing more than a hello.
I met her when I was 15, heading into my sophomore year. She was 14, about to be a freshman. She was the first for me, we all have them, the one who crawls in under your skin; the one you seem eternally aware that you are perpetually aware of her presence; the one whose features you memorize; and who, in turn, teaches you not to be such a stupid fucking boy.
She was not the first person I slept with. After we actually did have sex I told my friends she was, and have stuck with that story till just now. It’s not the biggest lie in the world, one built more on want than any deliberate attempt to deceive. She was my first in every sense of the word and I hated the fact, in what was supposed to be the most significant event of my adolescent life, someone had gotten there first.
She’s the one who taught me what it was like to be in love. She was the one who showed me, with pointed come backs and fierce opinions, that whoever I was going to end up with was going to have to be one hell of a strong woman. Fierce, independent, take no shit, put me in my place when needed, up to the task, because, to be honest, I can be quite a handful sometimes. She’s the first person I ever thought of before I thought of myself. There’s something to that, the genesis of understanding that life can be just that much more fulfilling when you put the needs and concerns of someone else over your own. People call it teen love, young love, puppy love and I find all these definitions condescending and bullshit. There is nothing foolish, no pat on the head, about the person who brings you with them to the doors of adulthood.
That was 13 years ago now. Eight since the last time we saw each other, and that was one of the saddest moments of my life. She hated me for a long time. A long time.
A year ago she got back in touch, wanted to talk about a lot of the things that had happened between us. We e-mailed for awhile. She was living with someone, a friend of hers I had met even back then. Things were going really well. I had fallen in love. She was in Australia. Things were going really well.
So her e-mail response to mine from Friday should not have been the biggest surprise.
That’s funny, because I’ve actually been thinking about you a lot recently, too. Things are going really well. Bill and I are engaged. I want you to know that I’m not mad at you anymore. I owe you so much. I know that a lot of who I am as a person is due in no small part to you and our time together. I owe you a lot.”
The first time we ever slept in the same bed together she wrapped her arms around my torso, legs over mine, and laid her head on my chest. She fell asleep just like that, not moving the whole night through. I limped around for much of the following day—sore, cramped, and tired. This was after prom, but I’m not sure, though. I have incredibly clear memories about my time with her, but as for chronology, the when and how of it all, I’m just foggy.
I know you see it in TV shows and a few films growing up, that moment. The ex comes in to town to tell the other that they are getting married. It usually comes in a romantic comedy of sorts, one where the star-crossed lovers were really meant to be and the guy or girl spends the rest of the tale fumbling about winningly to win back the one they are meant to be with. This is not that type of tale.
Maybe I thought that type of scene was just real enough to actually happen, just to people whose lives were much lamer than mine. I have thought of the moment, for her and one other, but in truth it was more of a passing fancy than something I delved into. Still, in my tiny day dreams, it was nothing more than a write off. “You are,” I said, “that’s fantastic! I’m so happy for you!”
This punched me in the stomach.
She was 19 when we got pregnant. I was 20.
I know I said “we.” It’s not to demean or belittle what happens, but when you are 20 years old, when your girlfriend is 19, when you are nearing 5 years together and the future that you dream and talk about in bed, late at night is a full 5 years or more away, then “we” is what it feels like.
People have a lot of opinions about this. They say there is a right thing to do and there is a wrong thing to do. From both sides.
There is something that I’m not mentioning here that I should. She was incredibly religious. Perhaps still is, it’s not something I’ve asked about because I’m afraid the answer will be no, and I’m terrified the answer will be because of what happened.
We spent a lot of time talking about sex. Me, wanting to do it. Her, wanting to wait. There was no pressure to the decision from me, not much at least. The pressure came from just being around each other, from the way we felt for each other.
I don’t know why she finally decided not to wait with me, but the night it happened I knew hours in advance it was going to happen. She just seemed different, and that was the reason why. I knew her, by the point I knew how she worked. She had decided. We never talked about it, not once. We just ended up in her car, driving by a golf course and parking next to a playground. I remember she was wearing a skirt. And I remember thinking afterwards that, despite that fact that she was the first person I’d ever put before myself, that in that moment I had forgotten about her religion, had forgotten about all the things she’d said all the times we talked about them. I just knew it was happening, with someone I was so very in love with. That’s why for me she’s the first.
For her, love was something more imagined than it was real. She believed in the fantasy, in the fairy tale. She sought it out. When she spoke about our future, or even what she wanted out of life, her words carried a nice, white, picket fence around them. She was not a fool, just a tad unrealistic.
I got away from work for a little bit and called her on her mobile. Voicemail. I stammered something, trying to make sense of what I was feeling. “Hey, it’s me. I, uh… well, first off I just wanted to say congratulations. I hope you believe me when I say I’m happy for you and Bill. I really am. I just feel weird, and I don’t know why. Um… yeah… call me back when you get a chance.”
When she returned a few hours later I was still trying to suss it all out. The honest truth was that I was happy for her. Very. Maybe I always thought that if we ever found out about each other through the usual channels that I would be spoken for by then, not fluttering and flailing as I am now. But the fact is that I never expected to be effected by the news, not negatively. I’m not one of those people who wish uneasy and misery on the people I’ve been with, particularly the ones I’ve loved. I want them to be happy, in every sense and meaning that takes for them. I don’t think I was being foolish, just a tad unrealistic, because something about this hurt. A lot.
“Are you mad at me?” She asked.
“No. No, no, no. Not at all. Why would I be mad at you?”
“I don’t know. You wouldn’t have a right to, but I’ve spent the past weeks trying to imagine how I would take it if it was you, and I don’t think I’d take it that well.”
“I don’t know that I’d call to tell you about it. But I might. I’d hate the idea of you finding out from someone else.”
“That’s kind of what I felt. I wanted you to hear it from me.”
“You didn’t want me to hear it from you. You wrote the e-mail.”
“Well, yeah. I didn’t know how you were going to respond.”
And I told her I was happy for her. I really was. But there was something there, in the back, that I just couldn’t account for. Maybe it was the permanence of the whole thing, the finality of it. Maybe the pain of it was the closure.
“I really don’t want you to think I’m not happy for you,” I said, “because I really am. I really am. But there’s something about this that sucks.”
And then I asked her to just be quiet. To let me speak and to not interrupt.
“I don’t want you to read too much into what I’m going to say. Take this for what it is. I don’t look at you the same way as you look at me. I think back on our time so fondly, all except for the end. And, yeah, I know there’s a lot that went wrong, a lot you did to me, a lot I did to you, but it doesn’t color the way I look back on you for me. And it does for you. I’m totally caught off guard by my reaction to this, but I think a lot of it has to do with that. You own a very special part of me. I love you, not like I used to, but for what you did for me. I’m a much better person for having known you. And this just hurts.”
And I started to cry.
I called the hetero lifemate a few hours later.
“Have you ever had an ex girlfriend get engaged?”
“_______ got engaged.”
“When it happened with you, did you feel weird. I can’t explain my reaction, but it’s not what I expected.”
“I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the gut, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t want her back, I wasn’t looking for reconciliation, but it felt like a loss to me. The worst part was that I was actually happy for her and couldn’t show it. It was fucked up.”
“I just can’t explain it. I am happy for her, but there’s so much tied up in all of it.”
“You guys did almost have a kid together.”
“I think that’s got to be part of it.”
I didn’t know how to tell my dad. And I don’t even remember how it went. I remember being terrified; he was going to be so mad. I went over a thousand different possibly ways of broaching the topic. In the end, I think I just walked into his bedroom, sat on the edge of his bed, and blurted it out.
He wasn’t mad. I cannot remember what he said, but I remember feeling good that at least I knew he was on my side. I also remember thinking, “God, this is one of those times I could really use a mother right now.”
Jennifer had left just months before, walked out, and I remember the whole time I just kept thinking, Of all the fucking luck. The one time I really, really need my mother and it turns out she’s gone. Fuck.
She used to ask me about my mother all the time. “How’s your mother? Have you talked to her? Maybe we should go see her?” She was the only one who got away with this, the only one who could question me for having nothing to do with Jennifer. In part because, unlike the friends I would lose in this period of my life, she was in no way judging me. She never once offered a glance or tone that told me she thought what I was doing is wrong. She never once said, “people just don’t do that,” forcing me to say, “you know many mother’s who’ve walked out on their families either, gone and out of contact?”
She asked because it was in her nature. Because she liked Jennifer, got along with her, and because she knew how much pain my sister and I were in, but also that sometimes a kid just needs his mom.
I don’t remember a lot clearly about this period of time. I remember she slipped away from me, abruptly and painfully. We would go to dinners and spend a half hour saying nothing. There was nothing to say. Over the weeks it became clear that she was growing to hate me, that, in some manner, I was a part of something that took something so valuable from her. When she cast around for someone to blame I was standing just feet away.
We sat in the living room one night, one of the few times we actually connected with each other in those months. I was crazed, in a frenzy, trying to get back to where we once were. There’s not a lot to tell about the conversation, only that it probably lasted for over 2 hours and I remember at one point saying, “I can’t believe I’m staring at someone I’m more in love with than anyone and there’s nothing I can do to help this.”
Although we would hang on for 6 or 8 months after this night, I knew then it was over.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know if this means anything, but I will be with you the whole time. I promise.”
For the first time she looked at me, imbibed me. It was just us again, just her and me in a living room, just us. “Promise?”
“I promise.” I remember she hugged me and started to cry.
“Will we be alright after this?” She smiled up at me out of the corner of her mouth.
I didn’t answer. I wanted to tell her that we would be fine, that five years doesn’t end this way, but I could not force the words past my mouth.
I never counted on even talking to her after everything wound down, slowly circling to the ground, engines bleeding but hanging on. When we crashed, we hit with a thud, our relationship scattering as we walked away. I don’t think either of us even said the words “its over.” She hated me for a long, long time.
“I want to thank you for how you took this. I want to thank you for making this easy on me, because I don’t think I would have made it easy on you.”
“I’m happy for you. You know I’m not the type of person who can fake emotion; it’s just not in me. I’m really very happy for you and Bill. Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” She paused for a bit. “Look, I don’t know if we will ever talk again after this, but I want you to know that I don’t think it would be the worst thing. Just check in from time to time, see how each other is doing.”
“I think that’d be nice.”
I don’t think there’s anyone who really wants the people we’ve loved to not move on to good lives. I can’t imagine that we’re not, at the very least, capably of this generosity. For the longest time I struggled with one single thought more than any other—aside from passing random kids in strollers, or walking, or being carried on piggy back and thinking to myself, “my kid would be about that age now"—the idea that, maybe she didn’t just hate me because it was the easiest thing to do at the time. Maybe she hated me because in the sum total of our time together, when she added up all of the good and all of the benefits and weighed it against the shit and pain and hurt, maybe in total she had actually lost more than she gained from having known me.
I asked her this very thing. She thought for a little bit before answering.
“I don’t know. I know that I hated you for a long time, that I blamed you for all of it. But I also know I did that because I could. Maybe I took the easy way out, but it was the only way I could cope. But I don’t hate you anymore. And my memories of those first 5 years are some of the best of my life, so maybe I’m beginning to put all this in a more natural place.”
The decision we made, and I could not begin to tell you how we made it, is one of the few in my life that I do not regret. What I do regret is everything that came after.
People have a lot of opinions about this shit, they like to tell you where they stand and on what moral footing. I really don’t care. I find it funny that someone would form an opinion on something like this, would convince themselves that they actually know what the fuck they are talking about when they’ve never had to go through it. Pro-choice, pro-life, I know what side I come down on, but really my opinion of it is for other people. Because the experience of it is far different, more damaging, more life-affirming and more costly than almost any other you make.
Over the years I’ve met people who’ve been through something similar. Sometimes they made one choice. Sometimes they made another. But you end up just living with it. It is what it is. To me, and only to me, it’s a blameless act. Whatever you do, you have to live with it, because it stamps itself all over your person.
Where we have each ended up justifies nothing. The fact that I’m where I am, that I’m proud of who I am, that I live my amazing life, that I think I’m a pretty remarkable individual; the fact that she has fallen in love, that she is getting married to someone who puts her truly above all others, that she is a strong and interesting woman; none of that justifies the decision. It’s the aftermath. The afterglow, your eyes blinking after the lights go out. It become a part of you in a way that very few things do.
And I think that’s why it hurt so much. Because of that. Because she’s the only person in the world I have this in common with. Because that’s how it feels. It happened between us. It was ours. And sometimes that leaves you exactly nowhere, caught between pride and joy, pain and loss.
Everyone looks for that one essential person who will understands our stories, but we choose wrongly so often. Over the years, that person we thought understood us better than anyone we ever met winds up regarding us with a pity, or indifference, or even dislike.
Those who truly care can be divided into two categories: those who understand us, and those who forgive our worst sins. And it’s because of this that I’ll never regret a single part of our time together. She was my first, the foundation by which I learned what I owed, what I was capable of, and what I had a right to expect. So I could never be anything but happy, despite the other accumulating emotions. Because she’s happy. And as stupid as it is to think this way, I think happiness is the bare minimum of what she is due. So Congratulations.