We met in school when we were fifteen. He had that great debonair about him even at that age. I didn’t know it back then, but for years I would compare every guy I met to him. Ridden by my teenage angst and constant overthinking on the verge of a sudden meltdown, his confidence in being himself day in day out had me in awe. He had that mischievous smile and deep belly laugh you would only read about in books and wonder if anything like that existed in real life.
Thomas demanded to be called by his full name and no watered-down nickname version would do. His determination impressed me, I hated being reduced to the last four letters of my name but usually let people continue doing so anyway. He read Anna Karenina for its shattering sadness – everything demands to be felt, he would say – and claimed listening to Nirvana made him understand life. I just started immersing myself in alternative music and read every book I could get my hands on. I thought about falling off a bridge often. Not because I wanted to die, but I wondered what it would feel like to fall. He called me kiddo and winked at me in the school hallways and never dated a girl who was acting indifferent towards me. We had an understanding but there was nothing remotely romantic about it. He took me to prom and spray-dyed his hair silver to match the slight silver shimmer of my otherwise black dress. He said I deserved attention to detail. I thought it was sweet, he said it was necessary.
It was the nineties. I never fit in, so I decided, I might as well stand out. I felt so edgy wearing my dog’s tags on my self-made choker necklace. People in school barked at me in the hallway laughing. He wore his dog’s tags in solidarity and the barking in the hallway stopped. We were best friends before it was even a thing to have a male best friend for girls my age. With Thomas, I felt encouraged to fully be my moody insecure teenage self. Frankly, I reveled in it. I didn’t know what I was able to provide for him. In my mind, there was no way to reciprocate, but I ran with it anyway.
I wish I could say we stayed in touch, but we took different directions in life, and just like that he was out of mine. He was always that one who got away, the one that made me think “what if…”. For years, I was struggling in a relationship I didn’t feel seen in and thought about him often. Convinced, with him it would be different, that with him I wouldn’t have to suffer. To suffer was my normal, even though deep down I knew I deserved better. I didn’t know how to be myself anymore. Thinking of him, I hoped he had a happy life. I heard he was engaged.
A few years later, we ran into each other. It wasn’t a meet-cute that rivaled a Hollywood movie, but it was serendipitous at best. Turns out his life was not as happy as I hoped and he ended up un-engaged. Finding myself single again after almost a decade, we seemed at similar points in our life. Maybe for the first time ever.
We thought meeting each other again had to mean something. He said he looked back often and I confessed that I had no idea what he saw in me. In disbelief, he told me I saved his life every day and we left it at that. I sensed, there wasn’t much to add. He was open about the sadness in books or music, but not when it came to his very own. One night, after eating mediocre pizza and watching a movie I don’t even remember, he squeezed my hand and looked at me. He looked at me differently. In some ways, it seemed like he really looked at me for the first time. I was parched and ready to be finally seen. For one summer, we lived in that bubble and anything seemed possible until it wasn’t. That’s the thing about bubbles, they are doomed to burst at some point even if you try to will them not to.
We needed to talk, I told him one day, there was no way in avoiding that any longer. He claimed defeatedly that sex changes everything and just complicates life and added that he couldn’t be what I needed. I didn’t say anything. He sighed deeply and said something about wishing life was as good as it was at fifteen. I struggled to see the truth in that and remember my thoughts bubbling up. I remember wanting to give a speech about how life is what you make of it and that he is using this as an easy way out, but instead I just took a deep breath. Then another one and with that, I put my ego aside. That speech would have served no one. It wasn’t what was needed. I looked at him and had to dig deep to see that boy I met so many years ago. I saw a troubled man who wanted so much out of life, he ended up running from it.
We had tried and failed to live out a what-if-fantasy that felt safe and light, one that started as an understanding. We tried to infuse romance into it. Maybe that was our mistake. Life was easier back at fifteen. Easier, not better. My very own present demanded to be felt, I owed myself that much. I was ready in ways he wasn’t. It was no one’s fault, we realized. It just wasn’t meant to be. He looked at me with that smile, that had me in awe so many years ago. He told me that I was always ahead of him, that I had this zest for life he felt he still lacked. There was no need to disagree with him, nothing to fight for. It all made perfect sense. He apologized for not being honest, for shutting down. I decided that our story didn’t have to end dramatically, that how we left things was a choice. It can hurt and still feel somewhat good.
I squeezed his hand and told him I forgave him. I meant it. I needed to forgive myself too. There was something unspoken about it. A conversation we had in silence along with the actual one. We knew we wouldn’t shift but move on from it. We would always keep the memories. He thanked me and told me he needed to hear that. He said it was sweet, I thought it was necessary.2