I remember the time I took Brianna Woolridge by the hand and told her that I would love her forever. She kissed me on the lips and said the same thing right back to me. We were in the 6th grade.
I’m pretty sure I meant it, as much as a 6th grader can. But it just seemed like something I should say, like something she probably wanted to hear. I know that’s what the guy would have said to his girl in a rom-com. That’s the move: profess your undying love and win her heart for all eternity.
That same year my mom picked up my school binder and it fell open. I had written variations of “I love Brianna” and “Brianna and Stuart forever” somewhere between 10 and 125 times along the inside of the binder’s flaps. “Who is Brianna?” my mom asked some time later. “Just a classmate,” I said. Rule number one: if you’re trying to lie to hide shit, do not, I repeat do not begin your answer with the word just. It is a dead giveaway. “Well… then why do you love her?” my mom continued. Looking back, it wasn’t just emphasis, it was mixture of anger and something else I wouldn’t understand until I was 18 and Becca Donner broke my heart. “What do you mean?” I said, as coolly as a 12 year old can. “I saw your binder,” she said. My mouth was dry. My heart was racing. “I guess she’s kind of my girlfriend,” I said. I gave up the veneer of cool. “Girlfriend?” she said. It sounded like a question, but I correctly guessed by its volume that it was rhetorical. “And you think you know what love is?” she said. “I guess. I mean, I really like her a lot,” I said. She shook her head and walked out of the room. Two weeks later my mom and dad called my sisters and me into the kitchen, sat us down, and told us they were getting divorced.
That kiss between Brianna and me happened around Easter and we lasted exactly as long as the space between then and the summer. Brianna went to camp and met some guy from two towns over and we were over. It hurt for a couple of days but by then my traveling soccer team had started practice. What can you do?
In the 8th grade I told Samantha Llamas that I’d love her forever too. It was during the last dance of the year. We were going to the same high school in the fall and I thought that maybe it might work out this time. We made it through the summer and most of the first quarter, but then my friend Kim caught Samantha making out with our dickish quarterback Brad Slausen behind the trainer’s room before the start of the regular season. “Forever is bullshit,” I remember thinking.
I didn’t have another “serious” girlfriend until my junior year. Becca was a year ahead of me at Grayson and I met her in a science class she didn’t have to take but did anyway. She was ambitious in that way, and smart, too. That was the first thing that kind of caught my attention. She was legitimately different. But I mean even looks-wise, she was a few leagues out of my league. I took her to my junior prom, she took me to her senior prom, and we spent a small fortune on clothing and picture packages in a three-week span. She was my first love.
She went away to college and we actually made it work, for a while anyway. She drove back home for long weekends and breaks. She even surprised me by showing up at our championship game against Finch during my senior year. She had a sign that said Stuart MYcroft instead of Rycroft. It was so awesome. I saw the sign first, then saw her and I remember thinking I had to play this entire fucking game out before I could even talk to her and it was the fucking championship game! Hormones, man.
When she came back for winter break at the end of the first semester we did the whole split-time thing with her family and both sides of mine. Two days before Christmas we were at the pier and she broke up with me. I don’t remember everything, but I will always remember this one part of the conversation. I was trying to change her mind about it. I was saying stuff about how we had already made it this far, and how much I loved her. “I love you too,” she said. “Then why are you doing this?” I said. She looked up at me but then the wind blew her hair into her face. It would be the last time I saw her run her fingers through her light brown hair. “Because I want something else for myself,” she said. I went ballistic. I asked her if there was another guy. I asked if she was cheating on me. I accused her of being selfish, of being a liar. She just stood there and took all of it. When I finally stopped she looked me dead in the eyes and told me there was nobody else. She wanted to double-major; she wanted to take an internship with a medical firm; she wanted to spend a summer in Spain. I knew she was telling me the truth. But it didn’t make me feel better.
It was a shitty Christmas and a shitty New Year’s. You know how in rom-coms the person who’s dumped spends a bunch of time thinking about what they could have done differently? How they could have avoided the break up? I couldn’t really do that. All of Becca’s ambitions were exactly what I expected of her. I mean, I knew some of those things would come up eventually, but I guess I just always assumed I’d be around through all of it. I thought we’d be together forever. Despite how I felt then, I know now that it couldn’t have been easy for her. Knowing her, I assume she looked at her future and split everything into two categories: essentials and non-essentials. I ended up in the wrong column. I really loved her, but that didn’t matter. I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but that’s what else was in my mom’s face that morning before school when she asked me about the binder: pity. She knew I had no idea what love was. She knew that I would one day learn. She also knew that I would one day learn that sometimes love isn’t enough.
I didn’t really snap out of my post-breakup depression until the last week of January. I applied to Drake in the fall and the admissions director came to Grayson for a school visit. She was a woman in her 40’s, very energetic. So she opens the presentation by saying her name, then saying something like “I’m from Drake University, but I’m here at Grayson High. You’re here at Grayson High, where would you like to go?” She let it hang for a couple of seconds. “Well, Drake can get you there,” she finished. I never heard another word she said. Her question unlocked something in my brain. I had no idea where I wanted to go. I only wanted to be with Becca. How did Becca know where she wanted to go? How did she know about the internship and the study abroad and all that? She always knew. What was I even going to major in? I walked out of that presentation in a haze of questions about the future.
I ended up going to Crane instead of Drake because Crane had a solid psychology program. I’m a therapist. Isn’t that obvious, though? Ha. I ran into Becca about two years ago. She was in town for her younger sister’s wedding. It was a Party City of all places; she was looking for bachelorette party stuff, I was looking for Spider-Man favors for my son’s birthday party. She’s a pharmacist. She’s not married. I guess I’m not surprised on either count. She was stunned when I told her I was a therapist. “How did that happen?” she asked. “Well,” I started. And it was in that exact moment when I got hit with the epiphany – when everything I figured out everything I just told you. My path to here started the day she broke my heart on the pier. “I don’t know,” I said. I laughed. “You know how I always liked asking those hypothetical questions,” I said. “Oh my God, yes!” she said. She laughed. “Maybe I figured I’d just get paid to do it,” I said. We hugged. She took her mini-tiaras and pink sashes and left. I purchased Spider-Man plates, party hats, banners, and a ton of candy. I guess that counts as closure?
I married Kelly two years before that. We’re going to be together forever – at least that’s what we promised each other on a beautiful Autumn day. Whenever I listen to my clients’ talk about their relationships, I am made to appreciate what I have with my wife. It’s not perfect, but it works. There’s something else, too. I think sometimes people – myself included – screw ourselves over because we don’t understand what “forever” means. At least not in a practical sense. Love is easy. It’s a feeling you immediately recognize. You can call it lust or infatuation or whatever. You know it when you feel it. The problem with forever, though, is that it’s an endpoint. It horribly oversimplifies the passing of time, and completely overlooks what it takes to get from here to there, like changing jobs and changing diapers, or internships with medical firms and semesters in Spain.