First love

It creeps up on me periodically, that memory of my first love.

No, it wasn’t/isn’t my ex.

First love happens much younger, much easier. When you’re young, and naive and thinking that the answer to any problem or challenge is just love. It’s secret notes, stolen glances, butterflies in your stomach and nervous laughter. It’s simple, and yet feels so complicated at the time.

Life will prove us wrong eventually.

He pops into my brain every once in awhile, for reasons I can’t even explain. It used to happen more often, sometimes daily during the more challenging times in my marriage, wondering where he was and how he was doing, wondering if he ever thinks of me too, or if he can feel my thoughts. Asking the “what ifs”. But as time goes by, and life’s rough edges smooth out, the memory of our connection gathers dust in the back of my mind.

I met him when I was 13 years old and he was 12. Crazy to think, but true.

I knew almost immediately that I would love him, meeting him the first time as the new neighbor of my best friend, and wanted so deeply for him to love me. And he did, in his own preteen boy way, that lasted for the next decade or more.

I could watch him all day, just watch him move, and it was enough. He played basketball, and would practice jumping with ankle weights, shooting hoops in his backyard to jump higher. He was so driven and determined, so focused, it was captivating.

I can still see him in the highlight reel of my mind.

We would talk on the phone for hours, back in the day when phones were hung on the wall and used “units”. A time well before cell phones and texting. You had to plan a time to call, to make sure that person would answer and not their irritated parent who could not believe someone would call after 9pm!

But that was the best time to talk. Didn’t they know anything?

Over the years, we went beyond the basic teenage talk of “what’s up?” and “did you watch that show last night?” and other conversations about who likes who and what was going on this weekend, just to stay connected. We dug deeper into our hopes and dreams, our plans for the future.

Talking late into the night, sitting in a dark kitchen or hiding in a back room out of earshot, cast just enough of a shadow to make us feel protected enough to share our deepest thoughts. His love of antiques and rebuilding things, my dreams of being an artist and going to college, what type of life we wanted, always with the idea that it would be together.

Once we talked for hours, while I was babysitting overnight, and agreed that we both wanted a big family. Eventually entertaining the idea that it would be so big that we could name a child after each letter of the alphabet! We spent the next few hours coming up with names, for each letter, for a boy and a girl. Twenty-six names, from A to Z, times two.

I wish I still had that list.

I dated some of his friends during high school, usually after a break-up with him or another ruined attempt at reconciling our relationship, anything to stay within his orbit I suppose. Deep down wanting to make him jealous, wanting him to interfere somehow, but instead he would hang back and wait me out.

Maybe he knew too that it was only a matter of time before we would make our way back to each other?

Our love attraction lasted for years, on and off between new relationships, and sometimes during. The saying “like a moth to a flame” describes it perfectly, the more unavailable we were to each other the more we were drawn to one another. I could not stay away from him, or get over him, no matter how hard I tried, or how distracted I became with someone else. It was just a gravitational pull that I couldn’t escape.

I always came back.

Beach days, carnival nights. Sneaking out of the basement bedroom window in my cut-offs to walk the streets with him and his buddies. Sneaking beers or a bottle of blackberry brandy to walk through the woods. Nervous and exciting, innocent and naive. Flashes of those teenage summers still run across my mind, the holiday breaks too.

And all of the times in-between.

For some reason, I always assumed that we would end up together, happily ever after, just like they show in the movies. I think some of our friends, and maybe even family, assumed the same. Sure, we would date other people and have other experiences, but we were meant to be together.

We shared a history of “firsts” and goofy teenage stupidity, we took chances together taking on the world and new ideas, we made some of our best memories together. We shared a thread, from the beginning, that was woven deeply into our fabric and connected us.

In my dreams for my future, we would eventually get married, and have beautiful brown-eyed babies with his perfect teeth, broad shoulders and hearty laugh.

We would build a perfect life together with flea market Sundays, and lazy, lingering weekend mornings in bed wrapped around each other, or exploring the world together and taking on new challenges. Making each other better versions of ourselves everyday.

Laughing at the same jokes and telling the same stories to our children about how we met and the crazy things we egged each other into doing, sharing common memories that date back to that awkward stage of our lives. Stacks of photo albums filled with pictures of us, our families, and the friends we shared from so many years back.

Back to the beginning. When I was 13 and he was 12.

We would be comfortable with each other, in a familiar way, by the time we joined together. Years of growing together, parallel sometimes, would be a gift that would secure a beautiful future. Being with someone who has known you since you were thirteen, watched you grow up and become the adult you will be and love you is a rare gift.

So very rare.

But love isn’t always enough, or maybe first love isn’t strong enough to endure what life has in store. It’s all much more complicated at twenty three than it ever was at thirteen. Other people cross our paths, unexpected events happen, diverting our expected direction and changing our plans to create a new future we never dreamed of or imagined.

But you don’t know that, at the time, with your first love.

We were so very young. I was willing to believe in fairy tales back then.

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What if…

Such a common thought, for most of us at some point in time…”what if?”

I’ve had too many to count of these unsettling commentaries running through my mind over the past year or two. If I’m honest, I’ve had that commentary running through my mind for years, always looking for the hidden answer, the deeper meaning or secret message.

Like a game show, I always wonder ‘what was behind door number three?’ What did I miss?

The internal conversations of “what if” range from small scenarios, maybe tiny bits of conversations that went wrong, or smaller actions that became something bigger and harder to live with than I had ever imagined or expected.

What if I had done it differently? What if I had said yes instead of no this time?

When the idea of getting divorced was first brought up, said out loud in an almost business like way as a solution to our stalemate, it seemed surreal. The room seemed to get bigger and I felt smaller, quieter, my brain was filled with cotton dulling the sounds and senses of it all. I was numb. It felt as if it wasn’t really happening to us, I was just witnessing a movie or a scene from a play from another seat, in another room.

Maybe it was all a dream? Or a nightmare?

It didn’t seem like something we would really do, considering our level-headed decision making history. We had done so much together over the last twenty five years, experiences that challenged us beyond our imaginations sometimes, and still managed to stick it out to figure out solutions together, as a partnership. This was just an idea, right? It was a test for both of us, a game of chicken really, wasn’t it? Was it really so broken that we couldn’t fix it this time? Were we really that far apart in our goals and future plans?

Shouldn’t someone say something, back pedal, stop us from doing this? But nobody did.

Once the big decision had been made, agreed upon in theory, my mind began to spiral around the events that lead us here. The most current events, not the long list of small slights and disappointments that built up our resistance to one another over the years, like bricks building a wall.

That’s when a new set of “what ifs” began.

What if… I had just agreed to make the move for his new job? All that I had researched about the new location – the housing, the schools, the neighborhoods – proving to me that it was not the right fit for us as a family, put in a box in the corner of my mind, ignoring the deep gut feelings that I had about how our kids would (or wouldn’t) adjust to another move because the timing was completely wrong for all of them.

What if… I had disregarded the disappointment and hurt that would come from my extended family to find us moving away again? What if I had just thrown it all to the wind, blindly trusted, and jumped in with both feet?

What if… I didn’t think about anyone else, not even myself, and just did it?

What if… I had done what I had always done in the past, just trusted that it would all work out for the best, for all of us? What if I had just chosen our marriage, our partnership, over the perceived well-being and happiness of our entire family? Would it have saved our marriage? Would we be blissfully happy in our new location, glad that I was talked into it, with everyone seemingly well-adjusted by now?

What if… I was wrong about my theories, my research, my fears?

Did I put too much stock into some of the reasons not to go, some of it just fear of another change, did I devalue the importance and weight of our marriage?

What if… after that ugly night, when he told me all of the things he hated and disliked about me, I had gone to him and tried to “fix it”? What if I had told him that I would try harder to be a better partner, to be the kind of wife he wanted and deserved, and I would do whatever it would take to keep us together. Even if that meant moving.

What if… I had accepted his offer that we could continue “doing this” for twenty more years? No apology offered, no excuse for his ugly rant tearing me apart, just accept it as our way of life and love and moved forward to the finish line.

What if… I put it out of my mind and pretended that it didn’t really happen?

What if… I had accepted his now obvious peace offering on Christmas day, a trendy designer workout bag and matching top, as an unspoken apology and just moved on? What if I had continued to shop for a Christmas gift for him even while hurting, and gave him a similar fence mending gift?

Would that have been enough to stitch us back together? Would we just pretend that he hadn’t said any of those hurtful things, and just kissed a bittersweet thank you on Christmas day to move past it all, both of us accepting it as one bad night brought on by stress, travel and work.

Would he have continued to commute for us, his family, as a peace offering until we were ready to move?

What if… I had told him from the beginning, from the earliest days of our slowly growing apart, exactly how I felt when he treated me like I didn’t count? What if he had told me how disappointed he was with me and my apparent shortcomings then?

What if… we had figured out how to really communicate with each other years ago? Would we have stayed married this long because we could work things out and understand one another, or would we have divorced years ago realizing that we weren’t really right for each other?

Maybe we would have come to the conclusion that we had different expectations of marriage earlier on, and acted upon it, before we spent twenty years trying to hold it together.

What if… we had just broken up at the end of that first summer or first year?

We never would have gotten here, to this ugly place of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises, and maybe we both would have had happier marriages with other people? Maybe we would have taken completely different paths that made us each happier, and feeling more secure, more fulfilled, more loved. Maybe not.

But, what if…?