Everyone remembers their first big crush.
Mine was Jeremy, a name I had written hundreds of times on my seventh grade binders in big loopy hearts. He’d held the starring role in dozens of notes I passed in class and the daydreams that got me through fourth period science with Mrs. Banks.
Jeremy ― the immortal 9th grader, vice president of student council, tennis player and wrestler with the dreamiest green eyes. He appeared each morning on our school’s television announcements with a smile straight out of Teen Beat.
Every morning, when those school announcements came on, I watched that boxy television set like Peter Jennings himself was delivering the news. Since we weren’t in any classes together, I intentionally moved my locker within feet of his, just to be in his orbit every day.
Seventh grade was a traumatic year. My parents were in the thick of a messy divorce. My mom underwent surgery and then radiation to remove a tumor from behind her eye. My sister, my only sibling, went off to college. And my childhood home went on the market (and was later sold, coincidentally by Jeremy’s mom, a real estate agent).
But even as my world erupted around me, seventh grade was magical, because of him.
He was kind, if not patient. I wrote him a lot of notes, and from time to time, he wrote me back. When my friends cornered him in the school cafeteria during a Halloween dance — at my instruction — and pushed him in my direction so he could slow dance with me, he obliged. My friends and I also conspired about how we could bring him on a triple date to see the Steven Spielberg movie “Always,” and he joined us, a group of 12-year-olds, without much prodding. I spent the next two hours and three minutes with my arm brushing up against his, watching him out of the corner of my eye.
At the end of the year, he wrote “Love ya” in my yearbook, told me I was “sweet and cute” and asked me to KIT (keep in touch) next to his number scrawled on the page. I was gawky with a perm-gone-bad and a mouthful of braces, and when I read those words, it was the pre-teen equivalent of a marriage proposal.
Some called it “puppy love.” But even at the time, I felt as though that cheapened it, made it seem inconsequential. He was magnetic, and I was drawn to him like nothing else in my life.
We loosely kept in touch as the years passed, enough to keep track of one another as he went on to high school, and I moved an hour north.
We traded AOL instant messages around the time he graduated from college and then law school, and I became a general assignment reporter outside of Philadelphia. After he began to practice real estate law, I told him about my hope to become an author one day, and he humored me.
From time to time, when I was back in Miami, I would swing by his place and hang out on his couch.
Throughout those years, even when we weren’t actively talking and as I dated other people, he actively lived in my mind. I thought about him so often he made repeat appearances in my dreams. It was clear, even then, he owned a piece of me, no matter what else happened in my life. But as our lives continued to move at a dizzying pace and became more complex, we drifted almost completely out of touch, and a few years went by without us speaking.
The 12-year-old in me was giddy.
What followed was an avalanche of text messages, not just that evening but in the days and weeks that followed — from morning until we fell asleep every night.
For the first time since I’d known him, his flaws began to come into view. He told me about a dark time in his life a couple of years earlier and how stress had led to a drug addiction and then time in rehab. And while he had been in recovery for awhile, he continued to cling tightly to near-daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings for support.
I told him about my two-and-half-year-old son and my struggles as a single mom, trying to juggle it all, always wondering if I was failing as a parent.
He liked books and politics, and lucky for me, I had just co-written a political book on the 2016 election.
We often swapped songs throughout the day, as if we were making each other mixtapes. They were mostly cheesy tunes from the ’80s when we were kids.
In no time, our texts moved to phone calls and then, just a few weeks later, he boarded a plane to join me in Washington after I was invited to a White House holiday party for journalists. It was our first official date.
The party was accompanied by a weekend of dinners, a long walk along the Lincoln Memorial and even a quick jaunt to New York. We held hands. We kissed for the first time. We shared a bed.
Before he returned to Florida that weekend, he agreed to join me in California for a week-long trip a month later. I was speaking at a book festival there, and he watched from the front row. And after that, we were reunited again and again just about every couple of weeks.
I was finally his girlfriend. We talked about moving in together and getting married. He joined my extended family for a Passover seder. Then a few days later, I had dinner with his parents, his brother and his sister-in-law at their neighborhood country club.
It was full speed ahead... until it wasn’t.
Sitting at a hotel bar in Washington, Jeremy told me he was scared of commitment, and he worried he would end up hurting me ― if not now, maybe years down the line.
He also wondered whether he would be able to leave his life in Florida and stand on his own without the support from his NA group back home.
At the same time, he wasn’t sure if he was good enough for me. It turned out he had his own insecurities about whether he could match up to me, a reversal of sorts from our time in middle school, when I came one degree short of stalking him.
Life sometimes, I realized, has a way of changing trajectories.
“I’m not going to chase you around like a puppy dog,” he said.
To make matters worse, he had also been seeing someone on the side, someone so different from me it made me question what he ever saw in me in the first place.
We never really said it aloud, but we were breaking up.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he told me that Sunday afternoon before catching a flight back to Florida. “It will all work out.”
I begged him to change his mind in a dramatic scene at the Newark International Airport after he set his baggage on a conveyor belt. “Don’t go,” I said. “Stay here. Stay with me.”
I watched him in the security line, moving slowly toward the front, until he was out of sight.
“Life sometimes, I realized, has a way of changing trajectories.”
It crushed me. I doubted myself in every way after that. All my insecurities ― every one I’ve had since I was that 12-year-old standing by his locker ― surfaced in ugly ways.
How could he walk away from what we had after nearly 30 years? Did he not love me after all? Was this all in my head?
I read a book called “How to Fix a Broken Heart” and then found the man who wrote it and met him for therapy sessions. I also hired a love coach who emailed me tips on ways to get Jeremy back. Still, she cautioned, “The onus is on him. You have to be willing to walk away if he doesn’t meet your standards.”
So, in the painful months that followed, I pushed myself forward because I knew as much as I loved him, as much as our decades-long story was more captivating than if we had met last week on Bumble, it wasn’t enough.
After we broke up, he sent me roses and vinyl records and even a strange paperweight of a distorted face. He told me he missed me and hinted that maybe one day we’d be back together again if he could work through his problems and fears. I wanted so badly to believe him.
It took several years until the sharpness of the break up had finally dulled. Around the same time, he relocated to Atlanta looking for change.
We texted each other from time to time, and he would call me randomly. “I wanted to hear your voice,” he’d often say.
During the pandemic, after we were both vaccinated, he asked if he could come visit me. I changed the subject, like jerking a steering wheel to avoid an accident.
I still adored him. I still thought about him every single day. But I had built a wall by then, desperately afraid of getting hurt again, unwilling to plunge so deep into the water that it would take me months, even years, to recover.
Still, somewhere in the heart where we dead-bolt our secrets, I thought maybe someday there might still be a future for us if he would just let himself love me.
In the fall of 2021, I noted that a month had passed since we texted and promised to catch up on the phone.
I was sitting on the couch beside my mom one evening when my phone buzzed and a Facebook message flashed on the screen.
I didn’t recognize the name, but I opened it up.
A woman introduced herself as a longtime friend of Jeremy’s, who had spent time with him in recent months in Atlanta.
“I’m so sorry if I am the first one to share the news,” she wrote. “He would want you to know, and I think you deserve to know that the time he spent with you was very meaningful to him. He always spoke highly of you and thought you were brilliant and kind.”
She attached a short memorial from a funeral home.
“He loved you,” she wrote in a second message, a few minutes later. “He made bad choices. And he regretted not choosing to be with you. Just wanted you to know.”
I learned he wasn’t able to find his footing in Atlanta. He turned to drugs again to mask the loneliness of the pandemic, of a new town.
To say it wrecked me would be an understatement. I wasn’t his wife, or even his girlfriend anymore, but the searing pain of it all was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
I was mourning our adult relationship, of course, which had come so close to blooming.
But I was also grieving the passing of our youth. I kept coming back to the time — a week before we ended our relationship — when he and I drove together through the Miami neighborhood where we’d grown up. We parked outside his old house, where I’d made my friends walk dozens of times decades earlier, hoping to “bump into” him. Then we drove a few blocks to my childhood home, where he once showed up for my 13th birthday party carting the board game LIFE. We didn’t know it at the time but it was as if the universe was granting us one last tour of our adolescence.
Grieving his death was like breaking up with him all over again, except this time there was no way of trying to salvage the relationship. No advice on how to win him back. The hope, the promise, that it would all work out, as he declared in our final moments together, was gone for good. That’s the part that still jolts me awake at night.
A few months after we ended our relationship, he sent me an email once again expressing that hope we had both clutched .
“I just have to say one thing,” he wrote. “Despite where we are right now, and how bad things have been between us, I have a strange feeling that the glass we share is half full...”
I often think about what could have been, how he was the missing piece I had craved for nearly all my life. But there are times I also wonder if he intentionally tried to spare me from additional heartache, unselfishly, knowingly, cutting me loose because he did love me.
Jeremy taught me that love isn’t perfect. Sometimes, it’s messy and hurtful, and it doesn’t always end the way you want it to. But it’s a love story all the same.
Amie Parnes is a senior correspondent for The Hill in Washington, where she covers the Biden White House and national politics. She is also the author of “Lucky,” the #1 New York Times best seller “Shattered,” and “HRC State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton,” which was also a New York Times bestseller. She was previously a staff writer at Politico, where she covered the Senate, the 2008 presidential campaign and the Obama White House.