Illustration by Taira Rice.

Illustration by Taira Rice.

It was like a light switch had been turned on. The night of Emily’s* party, the first Friday of the ninth grade, was the night that everybody suddenly started making out with each other. Our classmates’ tonsils were now in vogue, and we had to find out as much as we could about them, as soon as possible. Maximizing contact time was important but, just like the Pokémon cards that we were so fixated with just four years prior, collecting as many as possible directly correlated with your coolness. That also happened to be the night that I got left behind.

I had always been sure that I would be different. I was pretty determined that my first kiss wasn’t going to be normal; it was going to be perfect. It wouldn’t happen in the floodlit back yard of a house party after tipsily taking a drag of my first ever cigarette; it was not going to be with a guy I sat next to in chemistry, who was checking out my friend five minutes before; and it was definitely not going to be in front of Emily’s mom. I was going to hold out. Using the impossible (and in hindsight, highly questionable) standard of the kisses I’d seen in anything Disney, it was going to be flawless, foot pop and all.

Skip ahead six years, and a week before my 20th birthday I’m frantically sharing saliva with my summer romance Ryan, because I’m terrified to leave my teens without having kissed anyone. The perfect moment had never come. What actually took place was an expertly refined movie kiss on his part, sledgehammered by a jerky, novice, tongue-y mess on my end.

That experience is a pretty accurate metaphor for my dynamic with my first real boyfriend. Four weeks into college, I embarked on my relationship debut with Paul, my first-semester crush. He was studying the same subject as me, and, in short, was everything I had been waiting for. We had so much in common: We’d volunteered at the same charity, we both worked for poetry magazines, had the same taste in music and movies, heck, our birthdays were only a week apart. I was completely enamoured with him, and couldn’t believe my luck when I found out he liked me, too.

Like most people our age, Paul had had girlfriends and casual hookups before. I, on the other hand, was just a month out from the kissing incident. I told Paul that this was my first relationship, but neither of us really anticipated how big of a deal these different jumping-off points would be. I felt like I had to learn fast, mostly because I was really embarrassed to have had so little experience at 20.

I started to understand that the longer you hold out for perfection, the higher the bar is set. I’d anticipated a relationship for so long that I thought it had to be beyond perfect to justify the wait. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure, and there were times that Paul understandably buckled under the heat of it. When he came to stay with my family over Christmas break, he was in a constant state of anxiety, knowing that after such a long wait, they were all expecting the most amazing guy in the world to walk through the front door. My inexperience also meant that I was prone to catastrophizing. Every argument or cancelled plan seemed to me a warning sign that things were going downhill. I had always envisioned a relationship with no disagreements and no tears: this wasn’t that.

Still, I was so paranoid about coming off as emotionally immature or “too into it,” that I constantly forced myself to be more casual—especially since Paul had a laid-back approach to dating. I was beyond psyched, and up to my eyeballs in dear-diary moments—our first kiss, our first date, defining the relationship, going Facebook official—and he simply wasn’t as excited as I was. Things that were secretly super-special for me were commonplace for Paul. It took me a while to accept that his lack of excitement and anticipation for many of our milestones wasn’t a reflection of my worth or special-ness, just the milestones weren’t novel in and of themselves. But the discrepancy in our attitudes still hurt. “I don’t really want my Facebook friends knowing about my personal life” shattered the 14-year-old inside of me who was itching to make her dating debut known to the world. “I guess we’re kind of a couple now, right?” was met with an unspoken, But you were supposed to officially ask me to be your girlfriend! I knew it was totally juvenile, but I’d never had the question posed to me before, and it kind of seemed like the most exciting part. In my desperate effort to exhibit maturity beyond my experience, I tried to put myself in the mindframe of someone who was a little more chill about the milestones. I played emotional catch-up and kept my excitement between me, myself, and my diary.

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that some chill is also necessary to maintain a relationship-life balance. Being a fetus in romantic terms meant that I got super attached to Paul super fast; think texting 24/7, word-vomiting about him to anyone who would listen, sometimes getting super jealous, and accidentally prioritizing him over all else. As a result, I still don’t feel properly settled into college or have a solid group of friends, and as I became wrapped up in Paul I also found it hard to remember to stay in contact with family and friends from home. When we’d fall out, or go on a break, I had no one else to turn to. Our relationship quickly became unsustainable, we were codependent, and I learned that it’s really useful to have a network of people to support you. One person can’t be your everything. I was filling in the holes in my romantic knowledge as I went, but earlier this year, things fell apart. We were far too intense, and I decided I needed more experience before settling into a serious relationship.

I wish I could rewind time and tell the 14-year-old at the house party not to worry too much about her “firsts” being perfect. Perfection is rarely achieved first time around, it’s usually attained only through lots of trial and error. And maybe relationships aren’t even really about perfection as much as they are about learning to love someone in a balanced and mutually supportive way, and being fully yourself—inexperience and all. I wish I’d allowed myself to make mistakes and get messy and do a few slightly regrettable things back then, like most teenagers do. People can’t just fast-forward to romantic maturity without gaining experience first, and I was wrong to think that I could exempt myself from that process.

I was so excited to enter into my first relationship at 20 that I didn’t consider my own needs, or how to communicate them clearly. I thought being with someone who’d “done it all before” wouldn’t pose a problem for me, but I often pretended I was more experienced than I really was in an effort to appear knowledgeable and mature, without actually giving myself time to gain that knowledge and maturity. But a lack of experience isn’t anything to be embarrassed about, it’s just something to be accounted for, and adjusted to, so that you can actually experience every last moment of those firsts. ♦

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.