That year, I read Romeo and Juliet for school and was fascinated by the similarities between the young lovers’ tragic story and ours. Just as Romeo and Juliet had been kept apart by their parents’ prejudice, we were being kept apart by my parents’ refusal to accept our love. We didn’t want to die for each other, but we were so focused on our love that nothing else seemed to matter: not family, not society. We thought of little else but seeing each other. We constantly made plans for a happy future in which we would no longer have to hide our relationship. We’d get jobs and move in together. We’d be financially and emotionally independent from our parents, so their approval would no longer matter. We still emailed each other almost daily and tried to see each other when we could. I’d say I was going to a friend’s house to study after school, when really I’d be going to see Ariel. We’d hang out at friends’ houses when their parents weren’t home rather than in public places to avoid being seen. Totally consumed by our relationship, all through class I’d think of her, and scheme up ways to contact her without being caught. I wrote notes and emails, used pay phones and passed on verbal messages through friends—anything that couldn’t be tracked on my phone bill. When we did manage to find time together, we’d kiss and cry, swearing we’d always find a way, despite anything that might happen to us—our love could overcome anything. One day, Ariel wrote me a note that said: “Will you marry me?” It was illustrated with a cartoon frog drowning in hearts. I laughed, but I also felt incredibly warm and loved. I understood the message: Even though it wasn’t possible according to the law or our families, we’d find a way to be together forever.
Ariel was my first love. I’d had nothing else to compare it to, but our love seemed to contain everything in the world that I’d ever need or want. I had no idea what the future held, but I knew—or thought I knew—that we would always be together, and that it would always be just like this. Because I wanted her so badly, somehow want became need, and that became enough, in my mind, to sustain our love into the future—and beyond. My feelings for her were so intense that they were the core around which I built everything else; I structured my whole life—my whole self—around being with her. And the fact that ours was a FORBIDDEN LOVE only made it feel more important, and therefore worthy of being protected. I felt like I had a single, righteous goal in life: to defend me and Ariel against the forces that would rend us apart. It was love or nothing.
Three years went by like this; eventually Ariel graduated from high school and entered university, which made it harder to get together. A couple years later I joined her at the same college, which I thought would allow us to live a “normal” life like a “real” couple out in the world. In a way, I was right: Ariel had a car, which gave us a little bit of freedom. Sometimes we’d skip classes to wander around the city and talk. On the other hand, I still lived with my parents. Now that my schedule was no longer as uniform as it had been in school, I could be a little more independent from my parents, but all those years of hiding our relationship and fighting with my parents had made me withdrawn and depressed. This manifested in ways I couldn’t seem to control or change: I was struggling with my schoolwork. Because Ariel and I were so used to spending all our time crying and scheming, there seemed to be less to say to each other now saving our relationship was no longer the main topic of conversation. I wasn’t allowed to go out at night, so I couldn’t join her at the bars and rock shows she liked going to. We were both experiencing new things and meeting new people, and we started to have less and less in common. In retrospect, I also wonder if, after so much passionate intensity at the outset, our relationship had simply burned out. It was exhausting to maintain that level of emotion for so many years, but without it, I was unsure what our relationship was based on.
Then, one day early in my freshman year of college, I got a call from Ariel. “Can we meet?” she asked. Her voice sounded flat. She picked me up in her car after I finished class and we drove around the block. “I don’t think we should be together anymore,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. After four years of battling the world around us to stay together, after defying orders from the closest people in our lives just to see each other, she wanted to end it. What had happened? I couldn’t understand it.
“Why?” I asked through my tears. To this day, I can’t remember her answer, because my brain was short-circuiting from the trauma of the moment. Finally, I stopped crying, and she touched my face and simply said, “Goodbye.” I got out of the car and waited for her car to disappear over the horizon. Then I crumpled to the ground and cried in the dirt for hours. Everything I’d fought for over the past four years had collapsed and was crumbling around me. “Forever” had been a lie.
The next year was a haze. I had believed in Ariel and me so much that I’d damaged my relationships with my family and friends and neglected all my other interests. I couldn’t even remember what I was into anymore—I barely even knew who I was without Ariel. I had assumed we’d be together as long as I lived, and I wasn’t prepared for the possibility that there was something after “forever.”
About six months after the breakup, I attempted to shake off the fog. It was my first year out of college, and it seemed like I should be trying to move on, to forge a new life for myself. I forced myself to attend a school-sponsored camp. On the first night, I got a little drunk and a met a guy who seemed interested in me. We kissed, and I felt relieved. Getting together with a new person seemed like what a normal, functioning human would do after a breakup. It was easier, at least, than continuing to dwell on how dead I felt inside. After a couple of months, though, I realized being in a relationship I couldn’t truly be in was cruel, and I broke up with him.
Then one day, after about a year of mourning, I ran into some of my old friends at school, and I was surprised to realize I was happy to see them. When they asked me to have a coffee with them in the sun, instead of saying no and disappearing home like a hermit crab, I said yes. We chatted about trivial things—classes, professors, old school friends—and it hit me: I was finally through to the other side. It hadn’t taken a huge lightning bolt or a love-savior of some kind; I just felt, all of a sudden, more like a normal person who could push on to the next minute, and the next, without wanting to curl up into a ball and die. It was a small victory, but it was something: a little green shoot peeking out after a desolate winter.
Our breakup feels so distant now, but I remember how acute everything felt then, like thousands of knives attacking my heart. Today, though, I can see everything that was wrong with Ariel and me. The fact was, I didn’t know how to be in a relationship. I had no idea how to make an effort to get to know a person beyond attraction and fierce excitement. I didn’t know that to nurture a relationship I needed more than just an iron will and the bravery to face up to others. Though we always talked about forever, I didn’t know what that actually meant: all those dramatic, soul-shattering emotions weren’t enough on their own to keep a healthy relationship going. In some ways, I didn’t know Ariel really at all, and I didn’t know myself. I don’t blame my inexperienced self too much for this; all I knew at the time was us, a unit that had been formed in the most difficult circumstances. All I knew about love—or thought I knew—was “forever,” but now I know that “forever” isn’t about time—“forever” is a feeling. And there’s an after. ♦