I can remember it more clearly than yesterday’s breakfast: “Kiss her; I dare you.” It was said by one of your friends at a house party. And you did, you kissed me on my mouth. We were the same age. You were this boy I barely knew, tall and square, with a sharp jaw. I didn’t mind the kiss at all.
Within six months of meeting we were spending three nights a week together, sharing the single bed at your mum’s house. In the 15 years since we met, there have been bigger loves – much bigger – but you were the first. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the scent of your skin first thing in the morning.
I had never felt such a shock of feelings. I had never wanted to be so near someone. I wanted to live inside your body like a parasite. I loved you, I loved you, I loved you, until it felt like a physical pain to be away from you.
I’d wear your clothes, ones that were much too big for me – they swallowed me up – and your cheap boys’ aftershave, so that I could smell like you. I would walk around school endlessly just to catch a glimpse of you. I was obsessed. Blissfully obsessed.
My mum watched as her teenage daughter grew distant. I still had a baby face and these soft baby cheeks and brows – I could have passed for a child. But when she gently said that I should, you know, “take it slow,” I didn’t want to hear it.
I stopped seeing my old friends. Their text messages would ping up on my Nokia 3310, but I’d glance at them and forget to reply. My taste in music morphed and altered. I wouldn’t go home for days.
My English teacher stopped me after class one day: “I hope everything’s OK?” she smiled. “You and -----, it’s an, erm, an interesting choice of boyfriend.” I didn’t know what she meant – you were lovely. You made loud, hilarious, obnoxious jokes; you were the life and soul. They just didn’t know you.
Of course, what I didn’t want to see then, that I can’t miss now, is the fact that you and I were very different people. I was a straight-A student, with a handful of friends. I was earnest and mousy. I’d get tongue-tied in crowds. I wanted to do good things – I had ambitions to go to university and to become something, I wasn’t sure quite what, but something. I wanted to get away from the estate.
My dad worked as a packer in a factory that processed egg products. “Don’t end up in the egg factory like me,” he’d say. And I didn’t intend to. But you liked the estate. You’d grown up there. You felt right there.
The first time I saw you do something I couldn’t quite stomach, we were walking to the shop to buy food and a younger boy looked at you. You told him if he ever looked at you again, you’d do some very bad things to him. He looked shaken and ran away.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Don’t do that. Why would you want to behave like that?”
And you laughed and said: “Chill out. It’s fine.” And I sighed and nodded.
That was the first chink in my armour. When we met, I’d had principles. I had believed in fairness. I had wanted to be a good person who respected other people. I didn’t want to do the things that other people on the estate did. And you liked those principles, you found them both amusing and, I think, a little inspiring. Slowly though, incrementally, little pieces at a time, I forgot about all that.
You were the ultimate "bad boy". Reducing you down to that one dimension makes me cringe, but that's how it felt at the time. At 15 and 16, you got into fights, you threatened people for looking at you "wrong", and acted like you didn't care about much - except me.
Everyone was too scared of you and your friends – all 20 of you at a bus stop, passing own-brand cider between you, and shoving each other into the road – to ever say anything. I wasn’t scared. “You’ll still be here at 30,” I’d say. “Unemployed. Playing video games in someone’s mum’s living room.”
But then, secretly, slowly, a thought crystallised in my mind: "And I’ll be right beside you…"
Because it wasn’t all bad – those boys were like family. They were rude and obnoxious, they’d constantly mock me for wearing your clothes. But they were also funny. I’d never laughed so much as when I was with you, and we were with them. And they found me funny too; you’d drape your arm around my shoulder and they’d soften enough to let me crack a few jokes. “She’s pretty weird,” they’d laugh. “She’s pretty funny.”
“Just be yourself, Alex,” you’d say.
By the end, I really think I would have turned a blind eye to anything you did. Because of "love". First love, teenage love, obsessive, capital-L-love.
Fast forward 18 months and I thought about that kiss-for-a-dare as you were throwing me out of your house. We’d had another blazing row about another Bad Thing you’d done.
You “didn’t want to do this anymore”, you said, and told me to leave. I walked towards the train station in a daze. I was 17 and devastated. That first love had felt like a rock forming. In the riptide of teenage life, little pieces, sediment, kept getting stuck in the same spot until suddenly there it was, something solid, a love.
I realised that the kiss-for-a-dare was the first little piece. And that everything since had led me to this lonely walk. I thought: "If this is how much it hurts when it’s over, I never want to fall in love again."
I also thought: "How did I forget everyone and everything I cared about so quickly?" The few times I’d tried to bring old friends out with you they’d felt alienated by the violence of it all. And then I’d just stopped trying.
And all those principles – out of the window – all those ambitions, to get good A-Levels and leave the estate, gone.
I called my friend and asked her to pick me up and she did. “Well, it was bound to happen…” she shrugged. And that was it. We were done.
It took about three months for the obsession to ease. The pain of heartbreak subsided, and I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d liked about you. But I also couldn’t remember exactly what I’d liked about myself, either. I had been swallowed up by "us". And I’d wanted it – I’d been all too happy to get subsumed in that little riptide of emotion and drama – of late nights walking the dark alleys between estates. Of loud, angry boys. Of weed and booze and house parties that got out of hand.
I went sheepishly back to my friends – who accepted my apologies. “I think I just lost my mind for a bit…” I told them.
Obsessive or not, though, our 18-month love taught me some very valuable lessons. Being an "us" taught me never to compromise on my principles or ambition, not even for capital-L-love. Our relationship – "we" – taught me to always return my friends’ messages, no matter how "busy" I am. No matter which boy I’m with.
And you, my first love, taught me the value of being my weird – and sometimes funny – self. Even while wearing someone else’s clothes.