I'm talking about first love — that distinct sensation of butterflies fluttering in your stomach and the pounding in your chest that takes over your entire body. These are the feelings I experienced when I first met him.
Thirteen and ready for anything, I was on a bus ride back from an amusement park with the local church youth group who took teenagers to all sorts of places in hopes of keeping us out of trouble. Little did I know meeting him that day would be the deepest trouble I got into that summer.
There I was knees up against the bus seat in front of me, licking a jawbreaker I scored on the boardwalk, listening to a burned CD of all my favorite early 00's pop-punk tracks. My best friend at the time, jabbed my arm, demanding that I take my earbuds out. She was passed along a very important whisper from the back of the bus. Apparently, he wanted to trade seats with her and sit with me for the hour-long drive. I glanced at the popular boy with honey skin and long brown curls, who always had a skateboard in his hands. This was when Avril Lavigne's "Sk8r Boi" was a huge hit, so that was a very big deal. He was a year older than me and had just broken up with his girlfriend a few days before.
Maybe it was the new tank top I bought at Hot Topic or the self-bleached highlights I put in my hair. In reality, I was a shy girl whose only past relationships were with the boys on the posters in my bedroom. But I caught his eye, and now he was walking in my direction. My best friend scooted out of the torn leather seat, and he slid in. We didn't say much to each other. He placed one of my earbuds in his ear, and halfway during the ride, laced his fingers in mine. My heart was on fire.
Once the bus ride came to an end, he asked me a question I was not at all prepared to receive, and one I was never asked before. "Will you be my girlfriend?" I didn't want this new burning excitement to end, so I agreed, and gave him my number, my screen name, and, in a small way, myself.
Our relationship and infatuation grew quickly thanks to weekly youth group activities and nightly long phone calls we sneaked due to my parents' strict no boyfriend rule. When we were together, he always had his arm around me. He taught me how to skateboard and that kissing with tongue was something fun to do. Everything was juvenile at first, but the more we were together, the more addicted we became to each other.
Maybe our obsession with being with one another stemmed from the rocky home lives we had. My parents were freshly divorced for a second time, and my mom had moved out and started living with someone new. I lived with my dad for most of that summer but, bless the man, he had a hard time keeping a rein on his youngest daughter of three dealing with work and a divorce that broke his heart.
My new boyfriend, on the other hand, had an even rougher home life. At least my parents always showed me unconditional love and provided me with things every kid should have, like a warm bed, meals, and enrolled me in school every year. My parents went well beyond just those things, but I can't say the same for him. He was in and out of group homes his whole life. His mom had left him as a child at a fast-food play area and never came back, only for social services to find him. He had seen some horrible ugly things as a child. I would only find out about these things later on when he would share small glimpses with me as our relationship progressed over the years. When I met him, he was in his father's "care" living in a rough neighborhood and sleeping on a dirty mattress.
"His mom had left him as a child at a fast-food play area and never came back, only for social services to find him. He had seen some horrible ugly things as a child."
Though his life at home wasn't one you would recognize from sitcoms feel-good movies, no one would've known. He had all the freedom to hang out whenever and wherever he wanted. Girls swooned over him, and guys thought he was the definition of cool. The summer was his, and he lived in his own world. He wanted someone to be part of that world, and that someone was me.
It didn't take long before I was sneaking out to see him. He'd skateboard to my house after my dad was asleep, and I'd creep out the door with pillows under my blanket. We'd stroll around the streets finding new places to make out. Sometimes he'd steal his dad's car, and we'd take a joy ride around town blasting our favorite songs. We were each other's escape, and I found myself pouring every part of myself into him, way more than my young heart ever could have handled.
After the summer ended and we both went back to different schools, things naturally changed. I wasn't able to sneak out as often, but our phone and instant messenger game were both still strong. He asked me to lie about something happening after school and to take the bus to meet him. I've done this a few times, so it wasn't anything unusual. It was wintertime though, and I had to wait for the bus in the rain. Lucky for me, when I made it to him, the sun came out for a moment, and I jumped in his arms when I saw him. My smile for him went unmatched, and without a flinch, he told me right then and there that we were over.
Utterly stunned, I couldn't say a word, but before I even could, he kissed me on my cheek and told me I'd better head home. He skateboarded towards some friends, leaving me alone with a sharp pain in my chest.
A new sensation for me, just like first love, but this time it was first heartache.
I was devastated, blindsided, and I felt like I had no one to turn to. No one had equipped me to deal with this type of pain. The lyrics in the music I loved were my only guidance, and I slowly withdrew from the world around me.
A couple of months went by, and we hadn't spoken since our breakup. I was doing my best to forget we had ever happened. The funny thing with getting over my first love was that right when I seemed to be moving on, that love found its way to bulldoze right back into my life.
It was New Year's Eve, and a message appeared on my computer screen. It was him. He wanted to know if I had any plans. After I told him I had none, he professed he had missed me and regretted everything, and demanded I see him that night. I should have ignored it, but those butterflies I felt when we first met tickled my stomach stronger than before.
I lied to my dad once again, telling him I would be at a girlfriend's house for a sleepover. My dad okayed my plans, and I headed off to see him. When I finally saw him, every hard feeling I had turned into feathers. We kissed, and I immediately knew we were back to where we were before. We walked around town like we usually did and wrote our names on a bench with a black sharpie declaring our reunited love. But this night was to end differently. He wanted me to spend the night with him, something I had never done before. He insisted we should ring the New Year in together and stay up all night. I agreed, knowing I wasn't ready for our time to end.
We went back to where he was living, a new house where his dad was throwing a party. But his dad didn't want us to sleep in the house, so we resorted to the car for more privacy. We sat in the back seat and played songs until midnight. Midnight struck and, of course, we kissed, but he wanted more — more than I wanted to give. He promised me that this is what people do when they are in love. He had broken my heart before, and I was afraid of what he'd do if I said no. The windows were fogged, and no one could see. I trusted him. I let him take off my clothes. I let him lie on top of me. I let him take control.
I didn't know what this was or what would happen next, but my body froze. I went completely numb. I wasn't sure if it was because of fear or the nerves of letting someone explore me more than I'd ever explored myself, but I know when it was over, I was relieved. He slept soundly, but my eyes never shut that night.
"I went completely numb. I wasn't sure if it was because of fear or the nerves of letting someone explore me more than I'd ever explored myself, but I know when it was over, I was relieved."
When morning came, he took me home. I felt empty, almost like the night was a dream or something that didn't happen, but it did. And it would bear more consequences than I could have ever imagined.
I thought our relationship was back on track, and I was desperate to hear from him after our night together. But he never called. He disappeared from my life, this time taking something he could never give back.
My life spiraled. I was depressed, getting in trouble in school, and resorting to self-harm to find relief from the chaos in my head. Why would he not talk to me? Was our night together not good enough for him? My parents banned me from seeing my friends until my grades got better. The isolation only made things worse. I was in a terrible state, but, of course, that's when first love trickled back into my life.
He came back in and out of my life for three more years, sweeping me off my feet, then slamming me back to the ground right when I was starting to feel safe in his arms again. I tried to move on. I tried to date other people. He even decided to date one of my closest friends in secret. You may think that that would have been the final straw, but it wasn't. He'd show up at my window at night, leaving me love letters, and I'd fall back into him every time. Our relationship just got messier and increasingly co-dependent with every betrayal.
I wish I could say our relationship finally ended in some powerful way where I took a stand and came out on top. But it wasn't that like; it was the opposite, in fact. He got a new girlfriend during one of our breaks, and he wasn't willing to cheat on her with me like he was in the past. He cut me off for good, even after my desperate attempts to get him back like showing up drunk and unannounced at his house in only lingerie.
At some point I came to see that the more he rejected me, hurt me, and made me feel worthless, the more I wanted him. That's when I realized this wasn't first love at all; this was first abuse.
I was broken and destroyed by the hurricane that was our relationship, but I slowly fought to regain the pieces of myself that I once thought I'd never be capable of putting back together. I went to church, spent time with family and good friends. A heart that's glued back together like this still has its cracks, but I swore to myself I'd never let him be the one to shatter it again.
I've kept this promise for thirteen years, the very age I was when I met him. After years of delicately healing my own heart, I felt safe enough to share it with someone new. I met and later married my real first love — a love that is patient and kind. A love that is not obsessive or damaging.
Thirteen years later, with maturity and strength, I have as a grown woman, I forgive him. I know now that falling in love at thirteen doesn't always have to end in life-altering shambles. But falling in love at any age with an abused soul who isn't capable of handling anyone else's heart is how first love turns into something much more sinister.
If I could give any piece of advice to another young girl like me, or what I wish I could have told myself the day a cute boy wanted to sit next to me on a bus ride, is to guard and love your own heart until you find your real first love and don't settle for anything less than that.
This article was originally published May 4, 2020.