The most important kind of love

My college sweetheart and I broke up when I was 22. He was the first person I ever loved and who said he loved me in return. “Do you think you’ll marry him?” my mom had asked.

I hesitated a moment before answering, “Yes.” Even after dating for a year, I wasn’t sure how he felt.

Before he said the L word, we had spent a beautiful summer together. We had bonfires, road trips, long afternoons spent daydrinking in Philly. We were young, and we learned how to cook together. We’d share recipes via e-mail and print them out at the university library before painstakingly following them step by step in his off-campus house.

One evening, we sat down for our meal and he looked at me. “I’m so glad you’re here. I miss you so much when you’re not around.” He started to cry, which made me reach out and grab his hand. “I can’t believe I’m crying over the mashed potatoes.” We both laughed.

I tagged along for his family trip to the Delaware shore. We slept in, made sand castles at the beach, floated on rafts in the ocean. One night he took me for a midnight walk while the full moon illuminated our path. We put our toes in the water, and he kissed me. He pulled back and looked like he was going to say something. He smiled, laughed nervously, then kissed me again.

“I love you,” he said. I had already known.

“I love you, too.” Those words had been ringing in my head for months, but this was the first time I had said them out loud.

He was leaving for a 2-week trip with his friends the next day. I followed his car and we pulled off the highway before the road split. I hugged him and found myself growing teary-eyed. “I’m going to miss you when you’re gone.”

He recoiled from me. “Don’t try to make me feel guilty for leaving.”

I stepped back like I was slapped. “That’s not what I’m trying to do,” I said. “I’m just going to miss you.”

“What, like you think I shouldn’t go? You’ve known about this trip for a while now.”

This is what the remainder of our relationship would look like. Sometimes he loved me, sometimes I was a burden. I never felt safe with him. Since we had a long-distance relationship, we relied on the phone for day-to-day communication. Texting, “I love you” was a risk. Texting, “I miss you” could start a fight. “I don’t have time to miss you,” he replied once.

I am 34 years old now. I wish I could go back and meet my 22-year-old self. I would take her by the hands and say: This is not love. I wish I had loved myself enough to leave.

When he broke up with me, I worried I’d never find someone again. Growing up, I had never imagined I would be in love more than once. In all the movies I had seen, love was essentially a plot killer–the characters fall in love, get married, the movie ends.

It took 11 years to fall in love again. I was 33 when I met a country guy from Maryland who was sweet to animals, worked with his hands, and loved telling me the history of the Eastern Shore. I could tell when his feelings for me deepened because of the way he kissed me. He would bring his hand up to my chin and lean his head against mine so our foreheads touched. He told me he loved me when we were lying in bed together, and then he started to cry.

This is why tears won’t ever mean a thing to me anymore. It doesn’t matter that they cried. What matters is what they do next.

This man was the opposite of my college boyfriend in that he was very communicative. He told me he loved me all day. It was constant. At one point I wondered if I was being lovebombed, but he stayed consistent.

Except I started to catch him in lies, and they all seemed to be centered around one girl. He’d profusely apologize and beg me to believe that nothing was happening. “I cannot lose you,” he said.

I wish I could go back and meet my 33-year-old self. I would take her by the hands and I would tell her: RUN.

He was cheating on me the whole time. He lied to me from the first date.

The breakup was public and devastating. I would never see him again. For weeks, I would wake up at dawn and it was the first thing I thought about. It was like waking up and realizing the nightmare was real. Sometimes I would fall back asleep and have vivid dreams where I’d re-live the moment when the other girl confronted me.

The timing turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

A few days after we broke up, I finished out a toxic job and walked out the doors for the last time. I packed my bags and moved back home to be with my family. I began working more hours at a job I loved. I pulled my books out of their boxes, ran my hands over them, and started to read again. I began writing every day. I picked up Portuguese classes with my former tutor and struggled to form sentences in a language I hadn’t spoken in months. He smiled and patiently guided me. With my last teaching paycheck, I got my hair done and was able to smile again when I looked in the mirror.

I told everyone the story of how we ended, from friends to strangers. I said, “He cheated on me” again and again until it stopped cutting me like a knife. Their eyes would meet mine. Sometimes they’d tell me their stories, too. Sometimes they’d say, “Fuck him.” They pushed me forward.

I thought it would be safe to get a manicure. But when she came around to massage my shoulders, I shocked myself by starting to cry. When is someone going to touch me again?

Except I kept moving forward. Even if it didn’t seem like it at the time–even if sometimes it doesn’t seem like it now. I went for walks in parks along the water, I listened to the birds and the waves, I thought to myself: This is my new home. There was a lot of silence and stillness. Sometimes all I heard were my feet crunching over the pebbles in my path.

One day I saw a white dandelion floating on the breeze, and I caught it. This time–unlike all the years before–I didn’t wish to fall in love with someone else. I want to learn to love myself again.

A few days later, I woke up at dawn with a pit in my stomach. I knew if I fell back asleep, I would have one of those nightmares again. I kept myself awake for almost two hours trying to fight it off. Before I realized it, I drifted off to sleep.

And I had the most beautiful dream. I was walking up the stairs of a building, higher and higher, until I got to the top. There was a room with floor-to-ceiling windows, and the sun was pouring in. I stood in the glow of the orange light and felt in awe of the view. I was there by myself, and in that moment, I was enough. I can go anywhere, I can work anywhere, I can do anything. I felt a sense of immense opportunity. My heart felt so full that it could burst.

I woke up with a feeling so pure. I felt like the world opened up again. Starting over meant the chance to follow my own passions without having to consider someone else.

This is what it’ll mean to love myself again: diving headfirst into the things that light my soul on fire–giving myself a chance at 34 to create a life that I love living, not a life that I need to escape.

All this reflection and peace is giving me time to consider what’s next. All I want is to be whole again. All I want is to be in the light.

– – –

I had the same realization when I was 22. One year after the breakup, I left the country for the first time. I took my new passport and got on a plane by myself, and I didn’t come back for a few months. This was the first of many trips; it ultimately changed the trajectory of my life.

Now it’s time for another chapter.

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