My First Romantic Disaster Taught Me the Most Important Lesson About Love

"I married a guy who exceeds anything the teenage version of myself could have drawn up."

Ice skaters having fun in New York Central ParkStas Walenga/ShutterstockReader’s Digest editors asked the Reader’s Digest contributor network to tell us their stories of first-time love. The following piece was written in response to that prompt. To share your own 100-word true story for possible inclusion in the magazine or on, click here

It is a mild day for the middle of winter and a lazy drizzle is falling over the ice rink in Central Park. Strands of white bulbs twinkle in the mist while the magical glow of the city casts us all in a gentle, gauzy light. It is the stuff of fairy tales, but for me, the night is not destined for a happy ending. I have just lost my first love to another girl. I watch them as they skate around the rink, and even though I’m flanked by my three closest friends, I feel alone.

We met when I was 16. He was the pastor’s son, a guitar player with dark, curly hair. Dark, curly hair at a time when Josh Groban was pretty much everything in my world. So you really can’t blame me. To be fair, beyond being cute, he was also very sweet and most importantly, he noticed the nerdy bookish girl in the corner … me. (This true story will remind you how your first crush felt, heartbreak and all.)

Our church youth group consisted of about 50 kids, just large enough that we could be around each other without actually interacting for a while. Then, as they do in the dizzying years of teenage dynamics, things shifted. Suddenly, his attention was on me.

The story of our growing interest in each other is a montage with only a few scenes. There is the bonfire in the church parking lot on a cool autumn night, where we stood apart from the crowd and felt our way through the small talk that comes in those early days of flirtation. I can close my eyes and feel that night, the heat of the fire pushing against the chill in the air, the shouts and laughter of the crowd far in the backdrop of our conversation. The sense that something I had only read about in books was finally, at last, happening to me.

Then there was my birthday, when he showed up at my job to give me a gift, Hilary Duff’s latest CD. I worked at an after-school program, and in the midst of the boisterous playground games, the kids had paused to whisper and giggle at the fact that Miss Nicole had received a visit AND a gift from a boy. I had shushed them with mature authority until I was finished for the day and could get on the phone with a friend to whisper and giggle about it myself.

Then his birthday party, where the whole group played hide-and-seek in his wooded backyard. It was November, at that point of transition where you haven’t quite given in to a winter coat, but you’re freezing in your long sleeves when dusk sets in. That was the night he took my hand to help me climb over something. A fallen tree? A rock? The details have faded with time. Anyway, he would probably protest this whole story, because I’m sure he was just being polite, but for a girl who had never had her hand held by a guy, it was pretty major. There was, with it, a realization that cool November nights were better if there was a boy around to hold your hand.

Snippets, tiny pieces of memories. And so few. Because the truth is, his interest in me only lasted for a couple of months. At its height, there were those memories, plus phone calls and shy conversations, and absolutely no physical contact (other than the hand; don’t forget the hand!). Then, abruptly, everything stopped. No calls, and at church, no conversation. I didn’t know what to make of it and certainly didn’t know how to approach him about it. So I watched and waited, feeling worried and already approaching heartbreak, butand oh this makes me so sad for my younger selfstill hopeful.

First love. Before it, you are content to live on your own, ignorant of the idea that there is any other way. Then there is this whisper of something, a faint idea that there is something more, that it involves linking yourself with someone else, and that, in this grown-up world, that something is called “love.”

Things had cooled to chilly silence by the time Christmas approached, and when our youth group went ice skating, I signed up to go with friends. I knew he would be there, and my youthful optimism allowed me to believe that maybe things would take a turn back in the right direction. Maybe that night we would get back on track. But then the one thing happened that tells every teenager where they stand: the couple’s skate. People weaved in and out of the crowd, and when the music started, I was where I always had been, standing off to the side, and he was out on the ice.

It was an old girlfriend and they were back together. I never did find out if there was anything more to the story than that. I wondered for a long time if I had made some type of mistake with him, if there had been a misunderstanding that had escaped me. But I never knew what happened for sure.

Now none of that matters. I can hear my husband downstairs, explaining who Michael Jackson is to our two kids. He’s playing them the music video from Free Willy because they are currently obsessed with orcas. I married a guy who exceeds anything the teenage version of myself could have drawn up. Back then, I didn’t know that the whisper of first love was just an introduction to the concept. I couldn’t even conceive of a man who would love me enough to take on infant night feedings, to empty dishwashers, and have patient conversations and share inside jokes. (Don’t miss this happy marriage advice every couple should have.)

I thought I had found love at 18, but I didn’t even know what I was looking for.

I’ve walked past that rink in the park many times in the years since my first experience with love. And even though I’ve moved on, it all comes back to me in that spot. I can feel the drizzle and see the lights. I’m a teenager again. He’s out there skating with her, and my heart is breaking. I turn away to get back on the bus to New Jersey with my friends, refusing to allow myself to cry, and I think in the wisdom of youth, “now I know what love feels like.”

Nicole Burrell is a Reader’s Digest reader from Belleville, New Jersey. She is also a member of the Reader’s Digest contributor network.

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