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When I was 20, I met my first real boyfriend. I had loved other boys before, but none of them had ever loved me back. Alex* was American, from upstate New York, and both of us were studying French on our years abroad in a provincial town in the middle of France.
Life in this small French town was dull compared to the bustle of Glasgow, but being with him made it fun. We found the one live music venue in town and went to gigs. We went to Paris for a club night and wandered the streets afterward until our train home, rather than spend the money on a hotel.
We hung out and smoked Moroccan hash with his neighbour Catherine*, and she became our third musketeer. We spent all of our time together -- exploring the town we lived in, eating patisserie and croissants, and even visiting her at her parents’ house in London during the holidays. Slowly, Alex and I fell in love.
A few months after we’d met and become friends, we slept together for the first time, both pretending for too long that it was casual when it was anything but. Spending every night in each other’s beds, we fell harder until it became undeniable.
When the academic year finished in May, I went back home to Scotland, and he went to visit Catherine and my flatmate Anna*, who had moved to Paris together, before he spent some time traveling around Europe and came to visit me in Scotland at the end of the summer. We resolved to stay together, with all the optimism and naïveté of youth. We hadn’t said “I love you,” but we both knew it was true.
After that summer, he went back to his Vermont liberal arts college, and I returned to university in Glasgow. I was 21 and lovelorn, living in a miserable, shitty bedsit with a shower in the kitchen and shared toilet in the hall.
I missed him constantly, catching moments on Skype late at night when the time difference would allow. We emailed all the time, and I absently Googled information about visa restrictions and wallowed in my misery over how hard it would be to ever really be together. We were both students, too poor to visit each other often, and I couldn’t see him again in person until five months later, when I went to visit him in the States.
It was everything I wanted it to be. He met me at the airport with a single rose and we were more in love than ever. I stayed a few nights at his parents’ house; we spent New Year’s Eve together with his friends in Brooklyn; I stayed in his dorm on his snowy Vermont campus, and I felt totally a part of his life.
After two weeks had passed all too quickly, he took me back to the airport and as we held each other I finally whispered in his ear, “I fucking love you, you know,” and he said it back.
We both cried and I walked away, back onto a plane to fly 3,000 miles away again, back to loneliness and the pain of involuntary separation.
It was another six months before I could visit him again. He picked me up again -- with two roses this time -- and it was so wonderful to hold him again. Something felt different though, like there was a barrier between us. He still said he loved me, but there was a distance that hadn't been there before.
A few days after I arrived, we were hanging out in his dorm room with a friend of his. This strangeness between us had been bothering me, and when I went to the bathroom something made me wait and listen outside the door. I heard his friend ask, “So, how is it having her here again?” And then I heard my boyfriend say, “It’s good, but I’ve kind of been hanging out with another girl this semester.”
The bottom dropped out of my world. I went to the bathroom and cried numb tears. I didn’t know what to do. I had to go back there and walk into that room. I had to stay here for another three weeks until my flight home.
And so I stopped myself from crying, although it must have been written all over my blotchy face. I went back to his room where he sat with his friend, and I sat silently on the bed because I knew if I said one single word I would lose control and burst into tears. Eventually his friend, sensing the awkwardness, excused himself.
I said, “I have to tell you -- I heard what you said about the other girl when I left the room.”
Alex began to cry, and told me how stupid he’d been, and how he’d fucked up. How depressed he’d been to be apart from me, how he’d been drinking too much and it had just happened. He said it happened twice. He said I didn’t know her. He had always had issues with depression, as have I, and seeing him there, crying just as hard as I was, apologizing for fucking up, I couldn’t help but forgive him.
I didn’t even think about it -- I just instantly forgave him. Although it hurt like hell, I loved him, and he was sorry, and we were here, together, after so long apart.
So I stayed. I stayed another three weeks and it was great. I had my birthday there, and he brought me a cake and flowers and some good weed. The next day we took some acid and spent a gorgeous, sun-filled day in the green paradise of Vermont. We were so in love, and it was so perfect.
One night he went to a party out of town and I stayed home, not feeling in the mood. When everyone was too drunk to drive him home, he walked 10 miles on country roads to come back to me that night. It was the most romantic thing that had ever happened to me. There was no doubt in my mind that we would stay together, his small fuck-up just a part of the past.
The night before I was due to leave, we were lying on his bed when he said, “So, I need to talk to you.” I thought we would discuss the terms of our relationship, make plans for when we might be able to see each other next, or talk about how things would work from this point on. I was so naive.
“I can’t do this any more,” he said.
I melted into tears, and so did he. He said, “I love you so much, but I can’t do this any more.” And although everything hurt, I didn’t try to argue. I understood, right away. It was too hard. This distance, and his depression, and no money, and never seeing each other… everything about it was too hard. I didn’t want to stop being together, but I understood why he did.
So we lay in each other’s arms and cried and slept, and the next day he took me to the airport and we hugged and cried more and eventually I turned and ran away without a word. I cried my way 3,000 miles home.
Getting over him was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, but I didn’t bear him any ill will. I loved him and he loved me, but it wasn’t enough. The circumstances made it too hard.
I did get over him eventually, of course, and we got back on friendly terms. He’s not on Facebook, so we weren’t too up to date on each other’s lives, but we exchanged emails from time to time and were generally happy to hear about good things happening for each other. He got a new girlfriend and it didn’t even hurt.
Four years later, I was coming to America to travel around for three months. I told him I was coming and made plans to visit him in Burlington where he now lived. I had no plans to revisit our relationship, but I thought it would be nice to see him again as friends and find out how he was doing.
But before I made it to Burlington, I went to New York, where I met up with my old flatmate Anna from our days in France.
Hanging out in a Manhattan bar, and catching up on the time that had passed, I found out something that changed my whole perspective on the relationship. Five years ago, in the summer we left France, he had had sex with Catherine when he visited her in Paris, before he came to visit me.
Not just some girl I didn’t know but the girl we hung out with all the time. A good friend of mine, who had subsequently come to stay at my house, at my mother’s house.
She and I had fallen out of touch in the intervening years, but the knowledge that he had slept with her, and betrayed me so absolutely just six months into our relationship -- before I spent a pointless year pining across the Atlantic -- ruined any idea of a friendship with him.
My whole first love was built on a lie, and I didn't really know how to react to finding that out years after the fact.
I thought he was my good ex, the one I was still on friendly terms with. The one who made me feel mature in how I’d handled it, despite how much it hurt at the time. I sent him a furious email explaining that I wouldn’t be coming to visit him and why, piling on the guilt in my anger and disappointment. He replied that he was sorry; he knew he couldn’t make it up to me and understood if I never wanted to speak to him again.
After so many years, there was no point keeping in touch now. In a way, this was an easier resolution to the relationship. No true love lost to circumstance, just a dickhead who betrayed my trust. We haven't spoken since.
I still went to Burlington, and stayed with someone else. Walking along the shore of Lake Champlain in the sunshine, I was glad I didn’t let him stop me, although I worried constantly that I would bump into him. I thought he cycled past me in the street one night -- a boy in the darkness who did a double take -- but I’ll never know.
I still hope he ends up happy.
*All names except mine have been changed.
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