Personal Archaeology 20: The Relationship, The Old Girlfriend, and the End of the Paper Trail

I don’t know the exact date that Kate and I officially broke up, but it was 25 years ago right before I was about to head off to my sophomore year college, and while I know that the end of our relationship caused me an enormous amount of pain, I barely wrote about it in my personal journal. Which is odd considering the amount of ink spilled writing about that relationship. Of course, she was my first serious girlfriend, so that shouldn’t be a surprise.

My love life in my senior year of high school was really freaking odd. Okay, not odd in a way that would make anyone raise their eyebrows, but because I hadn’t had a single date or even kissed a girl until that previous summer, I spent the time between August of 1994 and June of 1995 making up for lost time. I nursed a huge crush on my next door neighbor, briefly dated one of my best friends, and then embarked on a relationship that would last a year and a half. By sheer coincidence, each of those girls was named Catherine (or in Kate’s case, Kathryn), which one of my friends took a moment to note when she signed my yearbook. Of the three, the middle one, Cathy, is the only one I’m still in touch with*, as Catherine (the neighbor) has seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth** and the last time I spoke to Kate was … well, I’ll get to that.

The beginning of it was one of those innocent flirtations that happen in high school: we were in the same creative writing class. It led to us hanging out, which led to us hooking up. That led to us seeing one another more frequently and then me saying “I love you” and … well, we were boyfriend/girlfriend (as these things went).

And yet, we kept things secret.

I don’t know how much of a secret it was, as I’m pretty sure that people saw that I tended to follow her around like a puppy, but I remember pretty clearly that while our parents knew that we were going out and a couple of my friends did, too (especially Cathy, in whose face I threw it because I was an immature butthead***), she was insistent that we wouldn’t be “out” at school to the point where I didn’t take her to my senior prom even though we were supposedly madly in love. In the long run, that meant I didn’t have regretful senior prom memories, especially considering how the relationship ended.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

You know, I think that’s because of the amount of ink that I spilled over our relationship back then. It’s hard to not just sum things up now because it was so long ago and I feel like I got it out of my system to so many people I knew that it’s, like, so known, even though the two people reading this haven’t heard the story. So let me back up again. We started hooking up, and at one point, she tried to go back to just being friends, but that lasted maybe a week or two. Maybe it was the passing notes in the hallway every day or the very long phone calls, but on February 4, 1995, I was writing “Do I love her? I really don’t know. I think I’m falling for her, but I’m getting scared because I really, in a way, don’t want it to happen.” Two sentences later, I said that I do love her and lamented, “It’s so fucked up, I don’t know what I should do.” A week later, I was struggling with being around her without being able to tell her that I had “fallen completely in love with her”, and then on the 20th, I did it.

Eventually, we would as well, which I wrote about in April, although I didn’t go into much detail about it to say that “it felt right”. But accompanying these journal entries from decades ago are files of bad poetry and entire personal essays that I wrote for classes about how much I was in love with her and how it was all perfect and … I’m getting embarrassed even thinking about it, to be honest.

Don’t believe me? Here’s one of the poems:

I

tried to find the meaning of

LOVE

the other day, but all I could think of was

YOU.

They get worse, and it’s going to be an entire entry or essay or podcast episode some day. But the level of my infatuation needed to be shown somehow, so here you go.

Anyway, there were more than a few things that should have been red flags that our relationship was eventually doomed: the kinda sorta secrecy at school, her disdain for my friends, the age difference between us (she was a sophomore), her wanting to see other people when I went away to college and my wanting to be exclusive, the screaming matches we had in the weeks leading up to college, the jealousy we had whenever either of us hung out with someone else … And my friends tried to tell me, but it just didn’t register. I had spent so much of high school desperate for a girlfriend that when I finally got one, I decided that it was going to be the one because I was sure I wouldn’t get another chance. I had shit self-esteem, and could be pretty inept even though I’d grown a little since my freshman year.

But not that much, really. At seventeen, I was way more immature than my more popular and experienced peers. We both were, really, and I think she knew, which is why she did try to keep me at a distance at first. But once we crossed the “I love you” line and that other particular event horizon, caution got thrown to the wind, immaturity be damned. When it ended, it was kind of a shit show that took a good five or six months. I came home from college convinced that she was cheating on me with another guy and was ultra clingy. We spoke to one another less and less and then she dumped me the day after my nineteenth birthday, but gave me a birthday present and insisted we still hang out as friends (which I somehow agreed to do?). Then we got back together, but she seemed to be interested in me only when that other guy was not around. Plus, I was apparently falling for one of my best friends at college–a crush that went absolutely nowhere, by the way.

The running joke I would have for years afterward was that I stayed with her because we had tickets to a Hootie and the Blowfish concert in August of 1996. True, we broke up about a day or two after it–a mutual breakup that was pretty much “I guess we’re breaking up then”–but I was a hot mess all summer and probably would have stayed with her up until the last minute anyway. So I went away to college and that was it.

HA! If only it were that easy. There was a hook-up before I left for school, drunken weekend phone calls****, a fight over whether I was being a “good friend”, her guilting me into saying “yes” to being her senior prom date. But then I started dating someone else (whom I would eventually marry) and … well, I had my own version of that scene in Swingers where Mike’s ex-girlfriend eventually calls him. I’d stopped calling–classes, partying, and a new girlfriend had taken up most of my attention–and Kate called me out of the blue about a week before Thanksgiving. It was a friendly phone call, but it made me realize that I had to do something.

So, when Thanksgiving break came around, I called her up and told her that we needed to talk. I’d intended to end our friendship in person but she forced my hand over the phone. So I paced around my parents’ basement and said, “I can’t be friends with you anymore.”

That was November of 1996. Soon after, I threw away all of the notes and letters she wrote me, the tapes she made for me, and any pictures of us except for a few that were already in a scrapbook*****. We would hear about one another via mutual acquaintances for a little while, and I dickishly made sure to tell said mutual acquaintances that I was glad that she took it really hard, but life eventually moved on. Then, in August of 2000 or 2001, I was walking down Main Street in my hometown after the annual trip to the Summer Fest, and passed a couple of women. One of them made eye contact with me and we held it for a long time before we turned around and walked away. While I never confirmed it, I’m 100% sure it was her, and even though I was weirded out at first, I mark it as the moment when she went from being an ex-girlfriend to an old girlfriend.

There’s no reunion or reconnecting here, by the way. We haven’t spoken in the 25 years since that phone call, and while I did hear about her through one of those mutual acquaintances and did the requisite social media search******, I let that go and have started deleting and shredding the journals. I’ll probably offload the old poetry as soon as I’ve written whatever it is I’m saving it for. And all I can do while writing this is kind of shake my head in embarrassed amusement.

* That is a whole other story. Maybe for another blog post.

** Seriously. She’s not on any social media. Or if she is, she’s under a married name and I’m not sure what that might be since her mom moved away years ago. I’m pretty sure she’s a Republican anyway, so it’s no big deal.

*** I told you it’s a whole other story.

**** Spending your entire fall semester sophomore year making up for barely drinking your entire freshman year is a dumb idea. Trust me on this.

****** Funny story that wouldn’t fit into this entry: a number of years later, I sent my friend a copy of a book she was interested in reading and she emailed me that inside the book were a bunch of pictures of me with a girl that she knew wasn’t my wife. Apparently, I’d shoved some pictures of myself and Kate into the book at some point (while packing up my dorm room, maybe) and had forgotten they were there. I told her to throw them out.

******* No presence, either. You kind of have to admire that considering how many people over share.

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