When I think of my first love, Josh*, I think of his soft hair. Our early-twenties romance played out in a naive, blissful bubble: we’d met through friends after university, and developed a constant closeness that is only really possible in that no-man’s-land between education and the real world. We would text from our temp jobs, debating silly hypotheticals – Would you rather have bananas for fingers, or bananas for toes? – and lounge around at weekends, cooking lavish breakfasts and watching endless TV. I loved to stroke his fine, silky hair when he felt stressed. It’s the only completely straightforward relationship I’ve ever had – he adored me, I adored him, we wanted nothing more than to be together.
But it’s now been years since Josh and I have spoken. As I watched him tick off life’s milestones through the smoothing filter of social media – cohabiting, engagement, wedding, baby – I felt that wistful twinge of loss we all feel about that one ex. The dull stomach-swoop of watching the life you hoped for, play out with someone else. But for me, that twinge runs deeper, because I was the person who introduced him to the woman he would marry.
I didn’t mean to do it. Or I did mean to, but not in a ‘til-death-do-you-part sort of way. She was supposed to be a diversion tactic, a double bluff – here, kill some time with this person while we figure out what we both want. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
We first broke up after that first spellbound year, when he moved cities to continue his studies. But each holiday break, we drifted back to the safe harbour of each other: the following summer he restarted things, but then bottled it on returning to university. The second summer saw another fumbled reconciliation – I wanted more commitment, he wanted to start afresh, loose and casual. Each time he bowled back into my life, only to disappear again, I felt devastated and foolish. Would I ever be enough for him? Even while my trust in him plummeted, on some level, I always felt ‘we’ were inevitable.
But by the third summer, I was infatuated with someone else. I’d spent months building myself back up after the last split, and had eventually tumbled into a no-strings set-up with a co-worker, fuelled by late-night whisky chats and adventurous sex. I was puffed up with compliments and orgasms. So, when Josh reappeared with earnest looks and heartfelt speeches, reaching for my hand on the Southbank, I recoiled. I couldn’t go through this again – the will-we-won’t-we, the hopes raised and dashed. I wanted to see how my new fling played out.
Josh and I went to see the film adaptation of One Day, watching two lovers botch every chance at happiness. I turned to him as the credits rolled and his face was wet with tears. Afterwards, he wrote me an anxiously scrawled letter full of ‘this time’ promises and sent it in the post. I still loved every inch of him, but after one disappointment, then another, my heart felt buried in scar tissue.
A few months earlier, I’d met Sarah* at a work event. We sat together at a prim wine tasting, bonding over our ignorance. I relished having a new single friend. We began meeting up every few weeks, talking about work and comparing dating notes.
When I think of how lightly, how flippantly I did it, my eyes squeeze shut with horror. Josh took me for drinks at a bar where we loitered on the steps with disposable cups. He wanted to talk about the letter; I had messages from my new crush burning in my pocket. I just wanted to delay the inevitable quicksand pull of our usual pattern of make-up, then break-up – to get a foothold, buy some time. ‘I think you’d feel differently if you met someone else,’ I bluffed, squinting in the evening sun. ‘I might have a friend for you, actually.’ That was it. A split-second whim, as deeply considered as my drink order.
I gave him Sarah’s number and thought little of it. Meanwhile my work fling fizzled; a brief sugar-hit that dissolved like candy floss. Two weeks later, both Josh and Sarah reported back breathlessly. She’s so great. Thank you. ‘You’re a bigger person than me,’ he said, over drinks. ‘I’m not sure I could have set you up.’ My chest suddenly felt tight.
Before long, he was flaking on our plans. I would, but Sarah’s got tickets to… The thing is, Sarah’s just back from holiday, so…. I tried to guess if he really was happier, or if he wanted me to step in. But really I felt powerless, I was the one who had turned down his grand gestures, how could I intervene now? If he was truly invested in Sarah, I’d look jealous and fickle – it would end our friendship. I’d just have to wait it out until they broke up. I typed, then deleted, a series of 2am texts.
As the months crawled on, I waited to hear of a split – willing him to boomerang back to me as he always had – but nothing. I invited them both to birthdays and housewarmings, but they never came. A year or so into their relationship, he invented a fight between us that would sever the last thread of our friendship. Why was I still friends with his sister? Couldn’t I leave his family alone? I was making Sarah uncomfortable. We were friends, I half-laughed. I thought we were all friends. ‘Oh, come on – we were never that close,’ he sniped – the final, stinging shot. I was no longer convenient for their fairytale narrative. I was out – firmly under the bus.
Not long after, a mutual friend handed me a strong G&T and told me they were engaged. I felt a mad laugh bubble up inside me, then tears. Had I really just handed my first love his ideal woman? It felt as arbitrary as a game of musical chairs: I had left my seat vacant, and now I had to deal with the consequences.
As I swiped through their wedding photos (no, I wasn’t invited), I was fascinated by the thought of the speeches. Isn’t it customary to joke about how you met? Was I a punchline, a snarky anecdote? He looked thinner, more anxious. She looked plump and happy, full of contentment. A year later, news of a baby trickled back to me through mutual friends. Every milestone mocked me with its permanency: I felt crushed every time. The worst part was, I couldn’t tell anyone how I really felt. The few times I told the story to friends, I obscured my heartbreak with a comedy routine – what are the chances, right? I didn’t want to admit how careless I’d been with my own happiness.
But the truth is, it still cuts deep. I’ve never quite found the same intellectual click, the equal devotion, that I had with Josh. I tell myself it’s for the best – maybe we’d have gone on rebounding, painfully, for years. Maybe he just wanted a foothold in the quicksand, too. In a way, it was my decision that we wouldn’t end up together. I just wish I was certain that it was the right one.