Most of us have had that one college love.
For some, it was unrequited. For others, passionate. It may have blossomed into a relationship, perhaps even a partnership; it may have been a fling. A few will move to new and exciting places — build lives — together; a few more will issue caution. Some still love; some were hurt. Others have done the hurting.
I’d like to imagine that most of us have learned.
I, for one, got my heart broken. That’s my big, formative college experience. I fell in love for the first time with a person who tore me apart.
And yet, I have little advice to offer. I still don’t know how to date in college and I certainly don’t know what the hell comes after this. None of my experiences — big formative relationship or random, meaningless hookups — have prepared me to be of much use to you. They have only prepared me to be of use to me.
So what I have, instead of advice, is a story. My reflections are written in narrative form because — for reasons you will soon understand — I do not care for the intellectualization of feelings. As such, you may or may not learn from, or identify with what I have to say. You may feel with me. You may very well think it’s all bullshit.
It doesn’t matter to me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time at Swarthmore it’s that vulnerability is precious.
So here goes:
It started with a concussion long ago, but the headache still lingers. Even my memories, once sharp, fade into subjectivity, tinted with the feelings that have succeeded them. I often wonder whether I ever truly felt whole with this person, who has left so many holes. I wonder whether love, in fact, works exactly that way, tearing into us as it passes.
That first night we talked and walked around campus, weaving in and out of buildings without direction. The only thing I remember telling him was that I wanted to be like the teacher in Freedom Writers. I was young and stupid. So, so stupid.
But he wasn’t much better. The only remotely memorable thing he told me was that he liked my combat boots, which I wore (not to brag) way before they were stylish and until they were strewn open with use. I mostly remember his tone, though. A kind of amusement over the fact that a fragile, feminine girl like me would dare wear such shoes. It was the first time he ever made me feel small, measuring my worth by an ethereal ideal of womanhood even he didn’t fully understand.
By 3:30 a.m., after hours of conversation and a whole room’s worth of distance between us, I began to think he didn’t like me — that it was all in my head.
That never truly changed, but at 3:45, the doubt was momentarily put to rest.
He asked me out on a date a week later and we split the check, at his insistence. Something about principles. As an upstanding feminist, I’ll tell you that I thought it was great. Benevolent sexism is wrong (blah blah). I made sure I told my friends as much. As a person with real, often uncontrollable emotions in a patriarchal world, I’ll tell you something else — I was baffled by his lack of romantic generosity, in this particular instance and later, beyond it.
For reasons unknown and unquestioned, I liked him so much that I tucked away the first of many disappointments into a place whose depths I’m still discovering.
He proposed to be exclusive over break, which made it a long month, filled with anticipation. I remember feeling unreasonably frustrated that New Year’s Eve, wanting to send him a text message through cellular networks clogged with new resolutions, wishes and promises that weren’t mine. Everything about him provoked a sense of urgency in me. I couldn’t think of anything but seeing him again until I did.
So I rushed to his room the first Sunday back. He sat on his medicine ball and I leaned against his desk; the awkward caution I had known a few weeks before restrained his every movement. I played along for a long while, but we both knew that sooner or later, we’d be fumbling our way through endless nights on his bed.
With time, I would not remember the uneasiness with which we approached each other. Even our bodies started recognizing the bends and folds of the other, and laying together felt almost like laying alone.
One of the few times he attempted anything romantic was when he offered, after much thought and consideration, that we speak Spanish once a week. He told me that communicating in my native tongue would level the power dynamics of our relationship. This was a supposedly sweet, albeit dorky, gesture. I certainly took it that way at the time (1).
The routine we quickly fell into was romantic too, according to him. I thought flowers were better; a spontaneous kiss would have even sufficed. He insisted: “There is nothing more romantic for me to do than to share my routine with you.”
I don’t remember our “romantic routine” all that much, though. We spent a lot of time in my room in Roberts, especially in the evenings. He would often play two or three songs on my guitar (“First Day of My Life” was almost always on the setlist), and then we slept on the full-sized mattress he mocked because it had no frame. He pulled down the shades and I was the big spoon — I don’t remember ever feeling safely wrapped around his arms.
I don’t remember what we talked about before we fell asleep or whether he kissed me good night either. But he made faces at me through the bathroom mirror while I flossed. It made me feel uncomfortable; he thought that was funny. We showered together in the morning and went to Sharples, where he religiously ate a bagel and eggs — he didn’t like them runny.
Sometimes he ate oatmeal and I started eating oatmeal too.
Our first summer apart, he came to visit me in Florida — the antithesis of romance and all things good, which I guess, in retrospect, makes it an appropriate setting. He never looked happier in our relationship than when we reunited with a kiss he stole behind my mother’s back.
“I missed you,” he whispered. He seemed ashamed, or at the very least surprised that he felt this way; even he appeared to be amazed that he’d been able to say it. I, on the other hand, didn’t really question this sudden confession, likely allowing myself to be happy, envisioning the rest of our life together.
Maybe this sudden act of valor empowered him, because laying in my childhood bed a few hours after, he told me he loved me. He didn’t seem nervous, but I can now imagine all the equations, graphs and pro/con lists that must have been floating around his head right before he made the one courageous leap of our relationship. I answered “me too,” and wondered for a long time after whether I should have explicitly said the word love when I responded. I did love him, after all. More than I could or can eloquently express (2). Part of me still does, I think; it’s hard to distinguish love from hate.
Some time in the early months of that next semester, I decided I would study abroad in Cuba. Embarrassed, I confessed to my mom that I wished he and I could go together. She was confused: “¿Y por qué no?” The worst he could say is no… Right?
I don’t know how the conversation went from four glorious months together in Havana to “I don’t think I love you.” But I think he actually asked me how I could expect him to use the word love if he didn’t know what it meant.
I’m no expert, I’ll assure you. But I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the fucking point. Do any of us really know what love is, what it’s supposed to feel like? I thought. Or do we all just have enough cojones to put our feelings to words, hoping we’ll do our language justice? Even in kindergarten they’ll teach you that love is transient; that it comes in all shapes, sizes and directions. We can and will live our lives redefining love with every new person that we let in… Perhaps the problem was that love is about courage. Fear, not hate, is its true rival.
Of course, I didn’t actually say any of this. Instead, I cried. And cried. I don’t think he had ever seen someone cry like I did then. He looked scared as he safely positioned himself on the other side of the sprawling Roberts room; he didn’t say anything for a long time. He didn’t even break up with me. He just let me lay on my bed as I realized, in between sobs and gasps for air, that I wouldn’t be able to end our almost year-long relationship, despite knowing that he had just irreparably broken my heart.
I racked my brain for reasons to excuse his behavior — he was young, he was immature, he was American, he had never had another girlfriend, he was confused…
I was determined to stay in the relationship. These would have to be good enough. And they were, for a while.
I punished him for a few weeks but quickly realized resentment was exhausting. I forgave him for hurting me, without ever forgetting that he had. I wasted time trying to find more ways to justify the relationship and he, having cleansed himself of the guilt that hung from those three words he could no longer “honestly” utter, seemed relieved we could again return to our infamous routine.
That’s how it went for a while — alarm, shower, breakfast (oatmeal), classes (apart), think about what you might be doing, Roberts, songs, big spoon, sleep. Repeat without enthusiasm but claim that it’s romantic. Still irrationally in love and attempting to forget I am the only one. Go to Cuba, break up.
Life has a funny way of intercepting when it’s time. I wish I had paid her signs more attention.
The year we spent apart seemed, at times, like a long pause in our relationship. I had a couple of lovers I left behind in Havana and bashfully used Tinder upon my return, though I never met any of the men I claimed to like with my swipe.
I knew these attempts didn’t matter; even as my life pressed on, he was always there. I was trying to move on from something that had never ended.
When we saw each other again, I was in denial, and he seemed different. He asked me to a Sharples dinner on the first Monday of the semester and confessed he’d felt that he needed to see me, wanted to see me. Shed of the caution I had once known, he quickly and bluntly asked me what we were doing. I assumed the question laid bare his own answer.
I told my friends, him, I didn’t know what I wanted. I don’t know why, because even after a year, I loved him. And I knew that if I had been forced to make a decision, I would have spent the rest of my life with him.
Maybe he didn’t feel the same way. Maybe he was scared. Maybe it was a mix of both. Maybe (likely) he just hadn’t changed at all. But we fucked on Friday and a text woke me up on Saturday — “I need to talk. Let me know when you can.”
It wasn’t even ten in the morning and I walked to Kohlberg, where he was already diligently studying. I sat in front of him and waited, patiently, to hear what I feared and somehow knew he was going to say.
“I just… feel wrong about last night.” That’s the only explanation I got. The only one I seemed to deserve.
It is a weird weird thing to sit in front of someone you once loved (or still do) and realize — truly realize — once and for all, that they have just hurt you for the millionth time in the exact same manner they’ve hurt you before. It is a heart breaking thing to realize that the person you loved didn’t care enough to not hurt you.
He attempts to say hello for a while and I — my emotional capacity exhausted — ignore him. He is a stranger to whom I have nothing left to give.
I don’t feel bad for myself, so you shouldn’t either. I have discovered, through this process, that — unlike him — I am able to love, even if that ability has the capacity to leave me empty inside, as it has.
There are few good moments that ever come to mind now. This is maybe the best.
We went to the Jersey Shore close to winter time, which is not an activity you question when you’re in love. He surfed most of the day; I read about the Haitian revolution.
An overwhelming feeling of happiness drenched me as he got out of the water and started walking in my direction, surfboard in hand, hair in the wind. It was the kind of perfect moment that needs a soundtrack, inspires poems.
I held his face in my hands and kissed him, confidently thinking that this — whatever it was — would last forever.
1. It was actually the same belittlement I had known from the start, though.. My English, native or not, was and still is not inferior. This piece may, at the very least, serve as a testament to that fact. I hope you agree.
2. Though I could always try in my native tongue.