It was our second year of college. I had gotten a scholarship to a small women’s college in Baltimore and moved in with my grandmother, the other love of my life, to be close to school and help her out when I could since she was getting up in age.
Eddie and my BFF Lauren had both chosen to go the University of Maryland. It was only an hour away, but it felt like a different world. I would go up almost every weekend and stay in the dorms for one night. It was a welcome taste of freedom and gave us the chance to explore our relationship even further.
Eddie and I had been dating for over three years and we were legally adults now. We had a specific plan of action for our future. We had opened a joint savings account to save for it, although I was the only one contributing to that account because he hardly ever had extra cash, trying to put as much towards school as possible to reduce the amount of student loan debt we would have to take on when he graduated. We planned to get engaged during our junior year and marry after graduation. He bought a ring early so that he could make payments on it and have it paid in full by the time he gave it to me the following year. He hid it in a small box inside of a sock in the back of a drawer in his room at home.
Somehow his mom found the ring and his parents went ballistic. He got in a huge fight with his father and his mother drove him to back to the jewelry store and made a very public display demanding that the ring be returned because we were too young to make our own decisions. They claimed that I wasn’t the problem. They liked me well enough; they just wanted him to shop around a little more to make sure I was the best choice for him.
I didn’t understand at all. I knew I wanted to be with him forever and it didn’t matter to me if we were only nineteen. There was never going to be anyone better for me. Waiting just for the sake of waiting didn’t make sense. It was like someone giving you a slice of cake and then trying to take it away saying, “We know you’re going to eat this cake eventually, but you shouldn’t eat it right now. Maybe you should put the cake away for a few years instead and try this tapioca pudding first.” I already knew that Eddie was my cake and I would be happy with cake every day for the rest of my life. Any other guy was just gross lumpy pudding and I didn’t want any. I had always been confident that he felt the same way.
But his faith in us was shaken by what he saw as logic. It started to become clear that he might need to try the stupid pudding first, just to make sure that he could handle cake every day after all.
“They do kind of have a point. How can we be sure that we are right for each other if that’s all we’ve known since we were fifteen? If you bought a shirt when you were fifteen, you probably wouldn’t want to be wearing the same thing when you are forty. Sometimes teenagers make the wrong choice. You know that. If we separated for a little while I would know I was choosing you as an adult and for the right reasons. And it’s not like either one of us had a ton of options in high school, our school was so tiny. We should both see what else is out there so that we can make an informed decision.”
Tears rolled own my face, but somehow I was able to keep my voice steady and speak calmly, like I was brokering a business deal. “Fine. If you need space then you should take it. I think we should make it at least two months. I don’t want you to come back in a week, marry me, and leave again in a few years because you never got the chance to go exploring.” I spit out the final word with sarcastic bitterness.
Out of habit, when we said good-bye I said “I love you” without thinking.
“Maybe we shouldn’t say that right now.” I could hear the pain in his voice as he whispered it and I didn’t understand how he could possibly want to do this to both of us on purpose.
I curled up on the bed in my grandmother’s spare room and gave in to silent heavy sobs. I didn’t know I could feel such intense physical pain just from a single conversation. I thought my heart might literally break from the cramping in my chest.
I grieved for a few days and then I got angry. Really angry. And also pretty shallow. How dare he? Did he actually think he was going to get anybody better than me?
I called my friend Ashley and told her that she better be ready for the most intense shopping trip of her life. I had just withdrawn every penny from our joint savings account (it was all my money anyway) and I was going to spend it all on making myself look fan-freaking-tastic to show him what he was missing. We drove all the way to the state capitol to the fanciest mall I knew and I dropped hundreds of dollars on a new slutty clubbing wardrobe.
I started going to the gym for longer hours every day and I spent more money getting haircuts, waxes, and joining a tanning salon than I ever have. Manicures, pedicures, teeth whitening…I looked hot but I was still sad.
I only had one friend who could possibly understand what I was going through. The year before his long-term girlfriend had left him just before he was going to propose. He had been a close and trusted friend for almost ten years, my best guy friend outside of Eddie. He was away at a college several hours from home. I called him just to talk, but he knew right away that something was wrong.
“Steph? What’s the matter? Does Eddie know you’re calling me?” It was not a secret that Eddie wasn’t a huge fan of our friendship.
“He’s the problem.”
“Did he hurt you? Because I will f—ing kill him.” They really didn’t care much for each other.
“What? No. He wouldn’t. Not like that anyway. It’s just…he’s gone. And I know you know and…” the tears came again.
“Sh—. Look, I’m so sorry. Please don’t cry. I can’t get home for a few weeks because of football. Could you come up here this weekend? We’re having a party after the game and it might help get your mind off of things. I’ll sleep on the floor and you can take my bed. We’ll talk after things quiet down.”
I didn’t know whether to be excited or terrified. There had always been a spark between us, but we had ignored it for years because we were never single at the same time. Until now. I knew what was going to happen if I went. It was a long drive to make by myself, but it’s not like I had anything better to do and the whole point of this stupid separation was supposed to be to test the waters elsewhere.
With just one word I felt like I was betraying my best friend. Because I was, but only because he told me that was what he wanted.
It was time to go exploring.