When You Miss Someone
The summer when I was 17 years old, my boyfriend and I left for college in different states. He went to Cleveland; I went to Boston.
I don’t remember the last day we spent together that summer. It would have been mid-August. He didn’t have a car yet, so maybe we were at my house. Or at a park – we went on a lot of picnics back then. Maybe it was something less romantic—a movie, followed by a goodbye kiss in a crowded subway station.
I’m surprised I can’t remember, because I remember deeply so many of our later goodbyes. Maybe I had too much of my own stuff going on: I wasn’t just leaving my boyfriend, I was leaving home for the first time. Leaving my parents, my sister, my friends—everything familiar, for a place I knew nothing about.
I also was a bit confused by the relationship, which as college approached had gotten more and more serious. When my boyfriend told me he loved me, I felt dizzy. Not out of happiness, but out of fear. I said it back because it seemed cruel not to. But I didn’t know what “I love you” meant, because I didn’t know what it was to be in love. Was what I felt for him actually that, or some other form of affection that would wane with time? His love was so effusive, and so captivating, but was it a storybook love, a forever love? That possibility made my heart race with anxiety. I was 17. How could I know that? How could he?
We both started our freshman years. We spoke on the phone every day. He didn’t like that I went to frat parties and told me so. I didn’t like that he was trying to control me from 500 miles away. I told him we should feel free to see other people, and felt his heart shatter through the phone line. But every guy I met, I compared to him. They weren’t as funny, they weren’t as creative, they weren’t as vulnerable.
And so in that first year of college, when true friends were scarce and everything was unfamiliar, I shifted more and more towards him. I realized he was the person I wanted to talk to when I had a bad day. A good day. When I had nothing to say. He built me up when I was feeling low. His own achievements inspired me to excel. His own experiences made me want to have my own. We talked, and talked, and talked, and for months, that’s all our relationship was. There was no quiet physicality to fill the time together. It was just words: confessions, longings, honesty, dreams. He felt right, he felt safe, he felt like a part of me. I learned to trust the feeling, to name it. It was love, and I wanted it to be forever.
As soon as I acknowledged that, everything become harder. My heart opened, and with that, became unprotected. Vulnerable. And needy.
Sometime during freshman year, I saved up enough money to hop on a plane to Cleveland. My parents were opposed, but I did not care. Every ounce of my being needed to be in his presence, even if just for a few days. The excitement leading up to that trip was joyous to the point of being unbearable. My friends cheered me on, counting down the days with me. It was a short weekend visit, and we were two broke college kids. We brought a pizza to the top of a parking garage, where we sat on the concrete and looked up at the stars. We spent a lot of time in his room, which felt like a fantasy world we created for ourselves. The only enemy was time. It ticked away too quickly. And then the day came for me to board an airplane. To leave.
The sadness rose from my unguarded heart to my uncontrollable eyes. Tears flowed; my breathing quickened. This was before 9/11, when people could go to the gate with you. From my seat on the plane I could see him standing at the window, his hands in his pockets, watching me, not knowing I was watching him, but so touched that he needed to stand there until my plane taxied away. I wasn't alone in this particular kind of grief, and sharing that pain brought us closer together.
The goodbyes are the hardest part of love. In the best of circumstances, they do not last long. But when they do, the togetherness becomes a drug. Every goal I had outside of school centered around the next time I could see him. There were the trips home, which we were grateful for, but home meant parents and rules. Those trips to Cleveland were what I lived for. To be all his, for him to be all mine, if only for a few days, was worth the heartache of being apart.
Yet over time, I became so tired of the goodbyes. Each visit reinforced the fact that the parting would come, and my heart would break, and I would spend the next few days, weeks, in a funk, regretting that our lives had to be lived apart and resentful that time was moving so slowly. When would we finally start to realize the dreams we made of a life lived together? Over the years, so many roadblocks appeared. His degree took five years. It took him another year to get a job after graduation. Our lives were moving in parallel, and I was desperate for convergence.
And then, at age 23, he got his dream job in Detroit. I knew I was ready to leave New York City. We moved into his one-bedroom apartment and everything I’d spent all those years hoping for came true. I fell asleep each night with his arms wrapped around me, and a level of safety and contentedness that was once a rare gift was now mine in abundance. We grocery shopped and learned how to cook. I helped him pick out a couch. We went out with friends as a couple; we took weekend trips. It was payoff for a dream delayed by years when we had to do the hard work of growing up, becoming independent, and figuring out who we were when we were apart, so we could be our best selves when we were together.
A year later, he proposed. A year after that, we were married. The relationship no one bet on at 17 (including me) had carried us through to the ultimate expression of love and commitment. How did we get there? How were we ever smart enough to hold onto something that required so much work?
After nearly 25 years of marriage, I think about this often and am grateful that I had the courage, and the naivete, to follow my heart when I had no way of knowing if that was brilliance or foolishness. Through those hours of phone calls, those spectacular hellos and heartbreaking goodbyes, we were both somehow smart enough to know that all the hard work was worth it. That what we had was special, and rare, and was worth the incredible effort it takes to keep a long-distance relationship alive.
Is this everyone’s story of first love? In most cases, no. But it is mine, and there was a time when I worried that my story was too boring. Did I experience enough? Did I need to get my heart broken in order to truly know what love is?
The truth is that even true love will break your heart in a myriad ways, and we had our ups and downs, our stops and starts. But we always came back to one another. We were magnets that only attracted to each other, souls that spoke the same language without having to utter a word. Today we have a beautiful, blessed, together life. Two kids. A dog. A future filled with plans. And our goodbyes are the everyday variety, the ones that don't last long enough to even register, let alone break your heart. It's the payoff for a leap of faith, for years of not listening to others and instead trusting our hearts. For having the courage to face those goodbyes, and putting in the work to create the foundation of a relationship that can endure.