How many people can we hold in our hearts?
When I was 19, I fell in love for the first time.
I thought it would also be the last time.
I thought my college boyfriend – CB, let’s call him – and I would get married and have children and live happily ever after.
We took long walks around campus late at night and named our children. We went two-stepping with our friends. We went to movies in the chemistry lecture hall. We talked about how lucky we were to have found Our Person at college. So sad for all those other people who would go through life unmatched!
(Also, he kissed great. This is important. To me, anyhow. It’s important to me. And he was an amazing kisser.)
(I mean – he was an AMAZING kisser.)
We planned to get married after he graduated, a year after I graduated.
Our parents had met. We had the church and I had the dress.
I had gone through the Catholic pre-Cana stuff, muttering to myself as I signed the papers promising to raise my children Catholic (he was not Catholic), “when they let women become priests.”
The Catholic Church, 35 years later, is still not letting women become priests.
I had a job in Houston, but I was going to move with him to wherever he got into grad school. His parents were worried that if he married me, he might not complete grad school, but I was willing to move for love! And CB was (and still is, I expect) an extraordinarily focused man.
He was so nice. He was a kind person who is still friends today with the friends he had back then. He was a good man.
He did get his PhD. Even if he had been married to me, he would have gotten his PhD. I have no doubt.
At our recent homecoming, I ran into a friend I had not seen in a long time.
“Half my conversations this weekend,” he said, “have started with, ‘I am so sorry for’ – whatever it was. All I am doing is apologizing for horrible things I did when we were students.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Me, too.”
Before I started dating CB, I went out one time with a very sweet guy who took me to Gilley’s.
On the way back to campus, his car broke down. We were in the middle of nowhere, still far from Houston, back when there was space between Houston and Pasadena. I was scared. We were out in the country. It was dark. I didn’t know how we were going to get back. I was sure there was an ax murderer waiting for us.
Even once we found a pay phone, no taxi would come because we didn’t have an address. He finally had to call his roommate to get us.
I would not talk to him again. He called and left messages. I did not return his calls. We had a class together that next year and I wouldn’t even look at him when I walked in the room. There were only about 20 students in the class, so it was obvious when one student was giving another the cold shoulder.
At our 15-year reunion, someone tapped me on the shoulder.
It was Gilley’s Guy.
“I AM SO SORRY FOR BEING SUCH A BITCH TO YOU!” I gasped.
And I meant it. Lord have mercy he was just a sweet boy who was trying to impress me and I wouldn’t even talk to him. I don’t even remember if he accepted my apology, but we did talk for about 15 minutes, so I guess maybe he did? I hope so.
I hadn’t dated much (except for Gilley’s Guy and two guys in high school, one of whom turned out to be gay – Hi Keith!) when CB and I started dating.
I definitely had never been in love. I definitely had not had a long relationship.
I started working after graduation and meeting new people (ie, men), some of whom I thought were cute, and I started wondering if maybe I really wanted to get married.
I decided I did not want to get married.
It was absolutely nothing that CB did. He was a good person. We didn’t have a big fight. One of us didn’t cheat on the other. I didn’t discover he was an addict or an alcoholic or bad with money.
We were so, so young. We had Things, but everyone has Things. We were babies.
I broke up with him a few months before the wedding and – well, it wasn’t an easy time.
I have had long relationships since CB. I have even had marriage proposals. (From men other than Mr T, that is.)
One of the worst things about breaking up with someone is disappointing my family. After I broke up with Tom, the boyfriend who came after CB, my mother said, “Please don’t bring home any more boyfriends until you find the one you’re actually going to marry. I can’t take getting to know another one and then having to lose him again.”
On Monday, when I passed on CB’s greetings from this weekend to my mom, she wrote back immediately, “And I MISS CB, too! I had mentioned to someone just recently how sad it was ‘lose’ him after his being a part of our family.”
Thirty five years and my mom still misses him.
Another bad thing about a breakup is not knowing how the story ends.
Who among us hasn’t googled an old boyfriend to see what’s happened in his life? It’s not just me, right? I’m not the only one who is insanely curious about what happened? Who they married – their children – their careers? Please tell me I’m not the only one.
So of course I knew a bit of what CB was up to. I can see things online and we have a lot of mutual friends. I knew he had married and had children and was doing the work he had always wanted to do from the first time I met him. But he had never come to a reunion before. I hadn’t seen him in decades.
Am I the only one – even though I am very happily married – who wonders what it would be like to run into an old boyfriend?
Please tell me I’m not the only one who pictures stepping outside of the party into the quiet courtyard, still and lit only by the moon. I’m alone and I look great because this time, unlike real life, I actually did lose 20 pounds before the reunion. I’m wearing something immensely flattering, including high heels that don’t even hurt. My hair looks fabulous – no grey! – despite the Houston humidity and my skin is only 20 years old. I have mastered makeup.
I sigh and look up at the moon, wistfully – holding a glass of champagne? Only I don’t like champagne and if I had a glass of it, it would be in a plastic cup, which isn’t quite the same.
Suddenly, a shadow falls in front of me. I hear a voice. It’s CB!
And – I can never figure out what he says, probably because I’m the one who broke up with him so it would really be on me to approach him except there’s no way I would do that because I wouldn’t impose like that on someone who is now happily married to someone who is not me. You don’t get to have romantic scenes when you’re the one who did the breaking.
But really, the key part of this story is that I look great. Hold that thought.
I met Mr T at our 20-year class reunion.
I love him.
I am happy with him.
He’s a hottie and he’s my friend.
But – I like reading alternative histories.
Not only do I want to know how the story ends, I also want to know how it might have ended. What if I had taken Path A instead of Path B?
At our reunion party on Friday, I saw a classmate I had not seen since we were undergrads. We were not friends, but we both worked in the faculty club. I remembered him because his twin brother was also at our school.
We spent 20 minutes talking. What had happened over the past years? How had the story ended?
He said one of the nicest things I think someone could say about me. He told me, “You were always kind to me when I worked at the faculty club, and I always remembered that.”
Saturday morning, before the football game, I was talking to one of the friends CB and I have in common. He said, “Just so you know, CB is here.”
“Oh!” I said. “Oh.”
I didn’t know what to think.
This was not how I had planned it.
Not that I had planned it – but you know.
I was not expecting this.
“It’s been 35 years,” I said. “That was a lifetime ago.”
Which it was. It’s more than half my life ago.
But do you ever really stop loving your first love, even when you have found your last love?
Every reunion, Mr T sees his first love. He has seen her when he’s had to go to her city for work.
They did not date in college, but were close friends and he was in deep love with her.
He has not stopped loving her.
But he also loves me.
Is there room in our hearts for our first and our last loves at the same time? And maybe even for some of the loves in between?
Are these loves all the paths we could have taken? Would we have been equally happy with any of them?
PS I like Mr T’s first love. I consider her my friend.
I was nervous. What do you say to someone you have not seen for decades who was once the most important person in your life? What do you say to someone you hurt deeply? What do you say to someone who you know has moved on – as he should! – but is such an important part of your history? Someone who shares a biography with you? The older I get, the harder it is to develop deep relationships – we don’t make those emotional connections the same way, I don’t think.
What do you say when you don’t want to think that this person has dwelled on you, because of course he hasn’t, but when you want to acknowledge that you caused pain?
Also, I thought, REALLY? THIS is the year I see him? The year with COVID hair and wrinkles and the 20 pounds not lost and not one stitch of makeup on my face because I decided I am done with all that but perhaps just a little bit of mascara and some light eyeshadow might have made me look not so washed out.
Old jeans, a black t-shirt, hiking boots.
Yes I am superficial and vain. Not vain enough to dress up or fix my hair, but still vain. Lazy vain.
“Do you wish you had married him instead of me?” Mr T asks.
I saw someone come up behind me. (A shadow fell…)
I turned – and there was CB.
“Hi,” he said. “Remember me?”
I didn’t know what to say.
He looked the same. Exactly the same.
Only he didn’t – he was the same man but older – but when you look at a memory, maybe time freezes?
He smiled, so it seemed safe to ask, “Is it OK if I hug you?”
And I hugged him and he hugged me back and I thought, “I think maybe he’s forgiven me” and I felt a weight leave me that I didn’t even know I was carrying.