We were both young…
Taylor Swift, “Love Story”
I’m sixteen — or maybe I’m fifteen and about to turn sixteen, I never can remember correctly — when I first meet him. It’s early October and my parents are set up at an outdoor antique market in a place I’ll call simply “the grove.” The wooded area has been mostly cleared for the aisles and aisles of booths — tents to shield us from the sun or rain and tables set with jewelry and glassware, books and metal children’s toys — but you’re still surrounded by nature, secluded enough to make you imagine you’re in another world, a small corner where the past mingles with what is now present.
I remember I’m sitting in my parents’ booth when I glance to my left, towards the space where my parents’ friend — another antique dealer — is talking to a tall, blond-haired boy who seems to be my age, but, no, I have to be mistaken. It was rare to see kids my age hanging out there on the weekends, and I’ve never seen him before. I’m mildly curious, wondering who he is, then thinking it doesn’t matter before going back to my book or talking to my parents or whatever it is I’m doing at the time.
But it would matter. Because soon she’s leading him over to introduce us.
That was the beginning.
It’s the following summer. My parents are setting up for the weekend among rows of postcards and antique tools, vintage dresses and art-deco furniture. I spot him as I’m driving through the gate, pausing to roll down my window and ask how he’s been. They’ll be there every weekend for the summer, he says; we spend that Saturday and Sunday finding little excuses past each other’s way, saying hi and smiling and making small talk. When we pack up the car on Sunday afternoon, I realize I’m disappointed to be leaving.
It’s late July. I’ve just returned from a ten-day school trip to France, and when Mom suggests we go antiquing, I jump at the chance, though she and I both know it’s just to see him. We head directly to their booth to say hello, but he’s nowhere in sight. People ask me about my trip and I pull out the pictures I’ve brought with me, excitedly sharing stories. Mom points out that he’s talking to someone a few feet away, and when he sees me he runs over. He’s grinning; I can’t stop smiling. He keeps one of the pictures, a picture of me.
I’m suddenly glad to be back.
August. He has two tickets to Hershey Park, a local amusement park — do I want to go with him? We arrange to meet and it’s so uncanny to see him outside of the grove, so surreal to be with him away from the only place I’ve really known him. We ride roller coasters and play arcade games and eat overpriced food. We’re becoming comfortable with each other. He puts an arm around my shoulder teasingly as we joke and laugh and walk through the park; I take his hand to pull him along.
How was your date? Mom teases when I get home.
We’re just friends, I try to convince myself.
But it was my first date. And it was the first time I felt the beginning touches of love.
We’re walking down one of the aisles at the grove, our shoes kicking at the dirt and pebbles as we pass people I’ve come to recognize, people he’s practically grown up with. We stop to talk to one of the dealers for a few moments before moving on. As we walk away, he calls after us: “So is she your girlfriend or what?” We laugh, but don’t say anything; I can feel the blush creeping into my cheeks.
“What do you think of that?” I ask, hardly daring to look up at him.
“What do you think?” he counters.
The shyness that I’m used to is absent as I take a breath, barely believing the words that escape my lips. “Well, I know I like you.”
He takes my hand, and when I look up at him, his smile is matching my own. It’s the first time I’ve ever been so honest about my feelings for someone. It’s the first time I’ve realized how much that matters.
He spends the night on a Saturday on the pull-out couch in the living room because it’s easier than driving him back to the grove so late. We’re watching the Yankees with my dad; we’re laughing with hushed voices as we feed my dogs bits of an ice cream sandwich after everyone has gone to bed; we’re facing each other on the pull-out, dim light from the kitchen edging into the living room as we talk for hours about our families, about our memories, about who we are and who we want to be.
My brother and his fiancee come in the back door from wherever they were, peek in at us. She tries to shoo him away, but my brother has that grin on his face that I just know is going to be trouble.
“So are you two a couple yet or what?”
I burrow my face in the pillow.
“You are? Good.”
Summers spent in the field outside the grove, writing I love you in the snow on my lawn in winter. Driving to and from each other’s hometowns, stomach in knots at the anticipation of seeing him (“Mom, I feel like I’m going to be sick.”) and the heart tightening with regret when it’s time to say goodbye. Hellos and goodbyes mark the four years of our relationship — holding onto the promise of our next hello when goodbye means going off to college, goodbye as winter break ends, goodbye until the spring.
Then the last goodbye.
Not the last, not really — though it’s symbolic, though on that day it felt permanent and for what it meant for our relationship, it was.
This is the end.
It took me a long, long time to understand why we didn’t work out — why we couldn’t work out. But we were changing, growing up from that young love we had known, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I believe he recognized what was coming way before I did. I was changing, as much as I fought against it; I was ready to fly and he couldn’t — wouldn’t — come with me.
There are more details here — more moments that fill in the gaps, the words that complete this chapter of togetherness in our individual life stories — but those details are his and mine and ours, belonging to us and the people who knew us both then, kept in memory, stored away as our personal history.
When I do look back on our relationship, on those summer days spent zipping down the aisles on the golf cart in the grove, when something was just beginning to blossom, though I hardly knew what it meant, I think of it all with a smile, without any regrets, not even for the heartache. Because he taught me so much about myself — how to be brave, how to be bold and honest and to shed the shell I hid in, and to always let the ones you care about know what you feel for them, how important that really is. And maybe he didn’t even know it, but he taught me what it meant to love — what it meant to love someone wholeheartedly and that I was capable of having that returned.
When we separated, I thought that it would be impossible for me to fall in love again. I thought that I didn’t want to. The heartache I felt ran deep and the scars felt deeper still, and it took me a long, long time to heal — to be able to look back on those memories with a smile, to wish him genuine happiness and to love what we had without loving him anymore.
It was especially hard, not just because he was that first love, but because I had been surrounded by loss then — permanent losses — and, somehow, I think I wrapped them all up together in my mind, like one vast void of abandonment, an emptiness in my heart that I wondered would ever fill back up.
But it has.
With friends and family and the pets I adore and, someday, with someone else — someone who will change my life just as profoundly, who will pull me back when I push away, who’ll encourage my dreams just as I believe in him, who will be there right beside me when I’m ready to fly again. We’ll be able to appreciate the past while being grateful for our future, understanding that this is deeper, that somehow this will be lasting, that somehow this is what we were meant for: each other.
Because a life story has more than one chapter.
And a love story doesn’t end but grows as it rearranges, changes…
Leading new love back into your life.
Leading you right into theirs.