During my freshman year of college, I met a guy, who, for the sake of this article, I will call X. I went to a fraternity party, something I did not do often, as I consider myself one of those (admittedly annoying) people who looked down on frat guys. But that night, boy was I happy I made an exception.
After five minutes of half-buzzed mingling, I caught a glimpse of X through the corner of my eye, and suddenly– struck as if by lightening, a force of nature I had never felt, but knew existed because I had seen it, remote and remarkable– I could not breathe. I felt every bone in my body weaken, alerting me to the fact that I had been touched by something wonderful and frightening.
I made my way through the room, but never lost sight of the one face around which the entire crowd seemed to revolve. During one particular stolen glance, I noticed his eyes turning towards mine. He did not move them, but left them there, glaring more intensely with each passing second till he started moving (could it be towards me?) closer…and closer…(maybe his friend is behind me, I thought)…and then he stopped right in front of me, and it was clear, there could be no mistake who he had come for, and everything around us dissolved.
“Let me take your jacket for you” he said just aggressively enough to let me know he was interested, but at the same time in my grasp, as was I in his.
“Oh, I don’t mind holding it” I said, looking down, afraid if I looked straight at him he would see right through me, that whatever mystery I held would immediately be lost. “I’d rather not put it on one of those piles by the couch…someone could just grab it by…”
“Oh, no, I mean, a couple buddies of mine are in this fraternity, mine is down the street, but I know there’s a room here, where I usually put mine down…where not everyone goes. It’s good for safekeeping. Plus, a girl, especially you, shouldn’t have to carry hers around all night.”
“Oh! Yeah! I’d like that!” I said, thinking I may have been a bit too enthusiastic and toning it down a bit “I mean…I didn’t know that’s what you meant. Sorry…I…” I realized I was close to rambling… “Thanks.” There. I ended that gracefully.
He took my hand and we walked towards two mahogany doors which unlocked into a huge, dark billiard room. He laid my jacket neatly on the side of a couch and led me out, locking the door behind him.
Immediately upon leaving, we were greeted by a swarm of fratties…
“X, I didn’t know you knew T, lucky guy…”
“Oh, I well, we just met he said,” protectively pulling me to the side and away from his probing friends…. “But she’s off limits…I hope… at least for the next dance,” he said, turning towards me, as if he had asked a question.
“That’s right,” I said, and we went to the basement where the lights were low and the music was loud, and whatever bodies were moving around us became invisible, not even shadows, and he held me close, and I let my body weaken and lean into his, and our eyes fell on each others’, and though it was dark, our pupils were still darker, and their paths overlapped unmoving, and everything collided at once, so quickly I don’t even remember how we started to kiss, only the urgency behind it.
X walked me back to my dorm that night, but did not come in, a great sign because if he had even tried, I would have shut him down and probably forgotten the whole thing. Luckily, this did not happen. Instead, I began to reevaluate my stereotype of a frat boy, and how X didn’t at all strike me as one, at least, once you got passed his visor (which he wore sideways), his t-shirt (which strategically defined the shadows of his abs), and the mischievous sparkle in his eye (which I learned was not mischievous at all, only a sign of interest and childlike enthusiasm).
We started talking on the phone, and then over dinner, and before I knew it I was going to his football games, and then I was the first person he hugged after a win, or a loss, and his friends knew not to grab my ass anymore…or even look at it (at least not while he was around). Soon, we started going back to his room, where his mom had hung lacey pink curtains which I’d make fun of till he blushed but secretly found so endearing all I wanted to do was kiss him every time I looked at his window.
X was the first person I had sex with…and after the first time, though it continued, I became so vulnerable, so scared of how I felt, of what I was opening myself up to…all the joy…or possibly, pain, I started to think of all the ways he could be using me…maybe to impress his friends…to conquer a girl even he, with his boyish charm and broad cheekbones, couldn’t have at the snap of a finger.
I don’t know what happened to me after we slept together…but it wasn’t good. I was paralyzed by how I felt (what I thought was love…or lust…or something in between which I had never felt before). In order to test just how much he cared, I pushed him away, wanted to see how much pain he would tolerate for me, how far he would go to prove he cared, not that he ever made me feel otherwise…it was my own insecurities, my own demons I was falling victim to. The more I believed I’d thank myself one day, that all I was doing was protecting myself before I let someone in, I mean really in. I never even told him I loved him, even though he’d say it, and even though I knew, deep down, he meant it when he said it.
The third time I broke up with him (expecting he’d apologize and come back, begging, as he did the other times—one when I accused him of cheating when he stayed in on a Saturday night to study for a test, another when I became furious because we had plans but he hit traffic on the way back from a football game and didn’t seem remorseful enough for waiting to call me till he got back on campus rather than from the bus), was the last.
It was the last day of spring semester my freshman year, and he hadn’t offered to help me pack (though I’d made it clear my mom and dad were coming and my dad likes to take control of the whole packing saga). I knew I made a mistake, and felt terrible. That whole day I had a pit in my stomach and a fire in my throat, both of which I suppressed with all my might. I hugged my parents and told myself everything would be okay. He would come back. I just know it. Days passed and every call I got my heart jumped at the thought that it could be him bursting at the seams, dying to tell me how much he missed me, couldn’t bare the thought of me being angry at him. Wasn’t that how it worked out before? But he never called. And though I knew I was wrong, my pride prevented me from admitting it, from being, what I thought at the time, was the weak one.
The next semester I expected to come back and be together with him. I spent the entire summer dreaming of the first time I’d see him, how it would be impossible for him to resist me…after all, we were meant for each other, we were like two magnets constantly being pulled together by a force greater than the sum of us. But he wasn’t at school next semester. He was studying abroad…so I spent another four months alone, imagining him, us…how this time apart would make our reunion stronger, filled with more longing. But when he came back, he had a girlfriend. And even worse, she went to our school. I saw them out together, even convinced myself when he passed me that he held her a little closer just to get to me, a sign which, in my mind, meant he still cared.
All this time I had not even thought of, let alone kissed, anyone else. It was only him I wanted. Even if I’d try to like someone else, to even give someone a shot, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with knowledge that it was all a sham. It had become impossible to compete with the perfect image I’d created of him in my mind, an image which I would one day learn was not real, though it felt that way for so long.
One night, when he was separated from his girlfriend of now almost a year, I confronted him in a party…taking him to the side and desperately telling him I had made a mistake, that I loved him, even though I never said it…and that I’m different now. I thought he felt the same about me still, even though he said he moved on…that he’s happy now, and I should move on too. Still, I refused to let myself believe him, holding on to the idea of us like a security blanket that I’d be naked in the world without.
I look back now and am sad for all the time I wasted, all the false hope I conjured up instead of accepting the truth: that it was over. But I couldn’t. Accepting the truth meant having the courage to let myself feel alone, the courage to wait for something better, something so great nothing could tear it apart…not insecurity, not time, not even the needless suffering I put us both through…or the resentment that sometimes builds with time. But how could I? How could I believe in something I didn’t know. X was the best I ever had, the closest thing to love that ever existed in my small universe, and so, the longer we were apart, the more perfect he became…untouchable…a myth no man could compare to…not even himself.
Sometimes, late at night, when I’d think of him…I’d remember little things. Not the things I’d usually think of (the night he carried me across the quad so I wouldn’t ruin my heels on the soggy grass, the day I was sick and he kissed me anyway, his pink curtains)…no, it was bad memories that sometimes creeped up, like how he laughed like a hyena around his friends and at jokes I thought were so dumb only Al Bundy (or a similarly sweaty man with a beer in one hand and his crotch in the other) would appreciate (keep in mind, I hold a good sense of humor in the highest regard).
I’d remember how he looked kind of stumpy in this one pair of faded jeans he seemed to love, and apparently thought he looked great in…and then there were those cheesy surfer necklaces he wore even though he didn’t surf…and the way he hated standing next to any guy that was better looking than he was for too long, would get all fidgety and awkward… and then there’s the terrible music he played during sex…and the way his face got all scrunched up like bulldog’s when he was getting there…and the fact that he didn’t even notice I was faking it…was too caught up in his own pleasure to realize…or how sometimes, I thought more of him than I did of myself when I was with him, said things I only thought he wanted to hear, though I didn’t really mean them.
But I never let these things reveal themselves for too long, scared to tarnish him (the “him” I had created), dethrone him, take him off his pedestal and into the real world where people are sometimes alone, and have not found their perfect someone, where the future is full of shadows and no shelter, a cold and unwelcome unknown…but I needed something to hold on to. I didn’t know how to believe in anything better, and how could I? Can one really believe in something that was never there? Ironically, that was exactly what I was doing, I just didn’t know it. It was only when I started to see Jason that things changed, until two years later, two years of pointless denial, heartache, and delusion.
I knew Jason since high school. He was the year above me and asked me out a few times, despite the fact that we had never met or spoken before, and though I always thought he was joking (who in their right mind does that?), there was something in him that both intrigued and comforted me. Jason and I became friends…when he graduated, and I was looking at colleges, he invited me to stay with him in Cambridge, MA and to show me around some universities I had applied to. I remember how happy I was to see him, how he had pasted construction paper cut outs of my name on the door of his suite as if I was one of the residents…and how excited he was to introduce me to all friends, who knew all about my anticipated visit.
I spent one night up late talking to Jason, and he told me how he still cared about me, wanted to be with me, and asked if I felt the same way. Even though I did, even though it took every ounce of my concentration and discipline not to say how I have never been as happy as I am with him, that I have imagined kissing him a million different times (on a street-lit corner, against the wall of his building’s abandoned staircase, uncurling his neck as he is huddled over a book and pulling him in)….I said no…perhaps because I was not ready to open those floodgates, perhaps because I needed time, time to mature, time to know that when I said “Yes, I want you, too” it would mean, “Yes, I am ready to begin the most important chapter of my life, ready to be the person I know you deserve to be with.”
Jason and I went to college right next to each other, which meant that I’d call him, selfishly, whenever I needed to see a familiar face, to feel safe again, to be cushioned by that feeling he always provided that no matter what was plaguing me, everything would be okay. He didn’t even mind the times I’d fall out of reach, completely absorbed in my own affairs, trying to fit the random, shattered pieces of my old self in my new, strange, and still hollow life.
I saw Jason again, this time in my junior year of college…I don’t know what it was that made me reach out to him again…I had not seen him for a year, the longest I had gone without contacting him, but I was feeling especially lost, so much so I didn’t know who I was anymore, what was real and what was pretend. All I knew is that when I was with him, I couldn’t hide from myself. Something about him always left me disarmed, brought out the truth, and I needed it now more than ever.
I was living with a friend of mine in New Brunswick, NJ for the summer, taking courses at Rutgers University for credit. The apartment we lived in was, to say the least, disgusting. I called Jason and he immediately drove over to see me. I wanted to go out, and, not having any cups or glasses for drinks, we had to take shots out of Styrofoam bowls. We went out, and I continued to get so drunk, so sad and overwhelmed, I suddenly ran out the bar we were in, from my friends and Jason, not really knowing where I was going or caring. Jason eventually found me and brought me back to the apartment. I don’t know what I was running away from…perhaps I was crying out for help…but whatever it was I needed…Jason gave it to me. I don’t remember much from that night, only that when he slept next to me he held me so gently it was like being wrapped in air. No one ever touched me like that, as if I were about to break and his hands were a light, a warm glow I still feel.
Jason and I have been together since that night. It has been over three years, and in that time I have learned more about myself than I have in all the years I have lived without him. I have also discovered the meaning of love. And not just any love, the kind that fills you like an ocean and grows more infinite, more wild, the kind that becomes a part of you, like an organ, so vital to everything you feel it makes you wonder how you ever lived without it.
This discovery, no doubt the most wonderful phenomena of human existence, has opened up a new world for me, one that is both fragile and strong and so beautiful it is almost too sad, too pure to exist in this world, though I suppose that is part of its beauty; that it does. I understand now that what I felt for X was not love, but merely a function of being lost. I created the idea of what it must feel like to be whole and truly believed, in retrospect, that is the feeling he had given me. I suppose that is the danger of imagination, the danger of time, and the weakness that comes with being human. I know now how well the mind can change things, shape them in order to protect the heart from the many burdens that threaten it: isolation, hopelessness.
I wish I understood these things earlier, really allowed myself to trust that everything happens for a reason. If I stayed with X, I would have never experienced the greatest moments of my life, nor would I have really experienced myself. Whatever I felt for X was a very convincing illusion, a knockoff of a masterpiece, a figure at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum that looks real, but when viewed face to face with the original, is so obviously flawed it makes you laugh and most importantly, feel lucky to be one of the few who can tell the difference.
I hope those reading this who are undergoing an experience similar to the one I had with X have the wisdom to realize it and move on guarded with the faith that whether or not one can define something better, it is out there. Oh, and I promise, you’ll never have to fake it.
Submit your story on making it from heartbreak and back to firstname.lastname@example.org (submissions will be kept anonymous if requested).