For 21 years I was a non-believer. Love was something fictional, a concept made up in books and movies to make lonely folks feel better about their lives. I’m not talking the love you have for your family, or your dog, or that Kate Spade bag that you bought last month – I’m talking full-blown romance. That unbreakable love between two humans that drives so many people to spend the rest of their lives together. Then he came along.
One fateful day at that coffee shop with the overpriced muffins, I met a foreign-exchange student who would change my outlook on life. We’ll call him Sean.
Growing up I was always shy. I wasn’t the type to have a lot of boyfriends. I barely dated through middle or high school, and mainly just concentrated on my friends and getting into a good school. My quiet personality led to a lot of teasing and rejection, so I ultimately put chasing boys low on my priority list.
When I headed off to college in small-town Pennsylvania I had the same mentality. I spent most of my days working on ways to build my resume, casually dating guys I’d met in class or at some house party. Nothing was ever serious because I didn’t want it to be. If I never let it get serious then I couldn’t get hurt – it was a foolproof armor that kept me safe most of the way through college.
Until I met Sean, of course. He was tall and dark-haired, his thick-framed glasses far too big for his round face. He was confident in his words, which were laced with an adorable accent thanks to his native homeland of New Zealand. He was perfect.
At least so I thought.
As quickly as we’d met, my heart swelled with something completely foreign. Each week we spent together brought me a kind of joy I’d never experienced before. My friends remarked on my improved mood, I radiated positivity — I’m fairly certain I had a literal skip in my step. It wasn’t until a few months later after a night of heavy drinking that I realized what this absurdly happy feeling actually was.
Sean and I had just finished a bar crawl in celebration of my roommate’s birthday (as you do in central Pennsylvania where there’s nothing to do) and had returned to my apartment to sleep off the drinks. Whether it was the liquid courage or a moment of overwhelming emotion I’ll never be sure, but he said it.
“I love you,” he said, looking into my eyes expectantly. I said nothing – paralyzed by a mixture of shock and the sudden realization that what I had been feeling these past couple weeks was actually love. He waited a moment for my response – I was still frozen. He said it again.
“I love you,” he said as he nodded his head to silently confirm I’ve heard him and have not gone into some sort of vegetative state. I nodded my head back, unsure of what my response even meant.
I spent the next week debating with my friends over whether a drunk “I love you” even counts. Consensus: Maybe? Either way, I knew for certain that I was now in love with a foreign-exchange student. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was taking off the armor that had been protecting me for so long. I was beginning to realize that even though that armor had kept me safe from getting hurt, it also kept me from feeling anything.
The problem? He was returning home to the other side of the planet in a month’s time, and without the armor I had spent so many years building – I was completely vulnerable.
That month flew by faster than any I could remember. Each day closer to his last made me sicker and sicker, though on the outside we both pretended like it wasn’t going to happen — like we wouldn’t eventually have to talk about our future on opposite sides of the world. We literally didn’t talk about it, because if we didn’t it was like he wasn’t leaving.
We didn’t have “the talk” until the day he left. Until we were in the train station. Until he needed to get on the train. I finally broke down. Everything I wanted to say in that moment of fear on the drunken night he told me he loved me – it all came spilling out in a garbled, tear-soaked mess.
I told him I loved him, I didn’t want to be with anyone else, and I wanted to make this work even if he was across the world. This time he was frozen.
“We can talk about this tomorrow,” he said. He didn’t like making a scene in public, he said. I cried harder. I hadn’t even noticed the stares of people around us, and honestly I couldn’t have cared less.
He kissed me and got on his train. I watched helplessly from the platform, a street performer ironically strumming a cover of John Legend’s “All of Me” on his acoustic guitar next to me. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to punch him in the face or empty all the loose dollars I had into his guitar case as I cried. The train pulled away.
Just like that the person who had brought me so much happiness was gone, and I was questioning everything. Maybe we didn’t talk about our future because he actually didn’t want one? Maybe drunk “I love yous” don’t count? Something about the way he said goodbye told me it would be the last time I ever saw him. I cried until I didn’t think I could cry anymore. I felt I was paying for all those months of happiness in one lump sum.
I had taken my armor off and gotten stabbed directly in the heart.
The next day Sean told me everything he was too afraid to say to my face. He didn’t think it would work out in two different countries, he said. He thought it would be crazy to try. I pleaded with him in a way I’ve never pleaded with any guy before. I was desperate to keep the one person I’ve ever loved, but it was no use.
As the weeks passed our contact faded — from a few Facebook messages here and there into a deafening silence. I cried a lot. It was such a deep pain. For four months I couldn’t think about that day at the train without my eyes watering. I lost weight because I just wasn’t hungry anymore. I felt like I had broken off a piece of myself and given it to him to take back to New Zealand. I needed to rebuild myself but I wasn’t sure how.
Slowly I picked myself up. After six months I started casually dating again, this time with a newfound openness. I graduated college with honors, and worked to save money. I moved to New York City and got a job. I accomplished every goal I had set for myself back at the beginning of college. I felt so different from that girl now.
It’s been nearly a year since that day in the train station when I got my heart broken for the first time, and even though I still get sad that it happened sometimes – I’m so incredibly grateful that it did.
For the first time in my life I feel light, free from the armor that I spent so long building up and so quickly tearing down. I now approach relationships with a new sense of hopefulness. I have hope that one day I will find that “sunshiney” feeling again, with someone who lives on my side of the planet this time.
Even though my luck hasn’t been the greatest on the dating scene since, I know some day it will be. I know that someday I can give my heart to someone and it will make me happier than anything. I know that accomplishing your goals is rewarding, but it’s even better when you can share it with someone else.
My heart is open now, someone just had to break it first.