When Ethan called one evening out of the blue and asked if he could pick me up in a few minutes, I was elated. Absolutely. I’ll be ready in five. My mother wasn’t as thrilled. Ethan and I had split up a few months before, and I’d been broken-hearted ever since. We’d argued, and I was too proud to be wrong. If I had called five minutes after the argument to concede, we would have survived. But I didn’t. And for months I allowed myself to settle into a stubborn silent treatment. My mother was sure that he was to blame. I never spoke up to simply say the truth: I was a jerk. I had earned this.
Ethan and I went to a park and chatted that night, stretched out across the rocks and kicking grass with our feet for hours. Contemplating the stars, our dreams, and the silliness of squirrels, we danced around anything that would have revealed love for one another. We resolved to be friends: we missed each other. He wasn’t forgetting my faults, but he was forgiving them. I adored him and I wanted him in my life.
In the years that followed, we went in and out of each other’s lives. But the stars never aligned. He would show up when I was starting a fresh relationship, I would arrive just as he was thinking of moving in with a girl. If the right moment arose, perhaps we would try again, but it never did. Maybe we were better as friends.
Eventually, I moved away from Urbana with a plan to make things work in the lifeless relationship I was in at the time with a guy named Forest. I knew when I left that I loved Ethan more than I loved Forest, but was inexplicably unable to say so. Too many memories could be ruined by confessing a feeling that might not be shared. So I moved away having said nothing. A few weeks later, as I settled into my new home on the east coast, I received a message from Ethan. He had begun to date my step-sister, Alden. I tried to be happy for them. I wanted him to live whatever life brought him fulfillment, but did it have to be so close to home? And what was she thinking? After years of confiding the details of all of my relationships to her, I felt immensely betrayed.
For a long time Ethan and I didn’t speak. There was a brief attempt at continued friendship, moving into anger-filled silence, into sadness. I still had to see him, of course, at family events and around town whenever I was home, but he was eternally on the arm of my step-sister. Alden and I dispensed with any semblance of a relationship. It hurt to be forced to act with more dignity and grace than a child who didn’t get her way. Eventually, I managed to never be in Urbana when they were. Their relationship fizzled out for one reason or another. I sort of hoped it had been painful, but also hoped that it hadn’t been.
After some time, though, I realized that I didn’t really care one way or another. My own life had been plodding along happily. I graduated college, moved to Alaska, worked in the Bering Sea. My life was filled with incredible people, jobs, and experiences. Ethan wasn’t my whole life. When I thought long and hard about it, I knew I wasn’t in love with him. I didn’t even know him anymore. I was in love with a memory of my high school love, the incredible friends with whom he chose to surround himself and the calm comfort of intimate house parties and late-night conversations. I can still love those memories. But with time I’ve been able to reconcile the difference between the memory and the person.
I think it’s natural to hold on to the memory of the first person you ever felt connected to “in that way.” Ethan—in his command of antique cars and interest in gorgeous architecture, with the way he wrapped his arms around me and made me feel eternally important and worthwhile—was the beginning of a lifetime of love, the introduction to a world of sharing and considering another person. The first realization that you must work to nurture and care for love, and that you must listen to the pain or happiness you bring others in order to do so.