When I met you, we were so very young. Still in middle school, trying to be clever and sophisticated beyond our years...succeeding rarely, failing miserably the majority of the time. There were three of us and for the life of me I can't remember who met who first or where or why. We became inseparable. We would walk and explore, lay on our backs and stare at the sky, dream and play. There came a time when I would become shy and tongue-tied whenever you were around. It was awkward and what I know now is that you were my first love. You weren't my first hand holding or my first kiss or my first date, but you were certainly my first big lesson about how issues of the heart can complicate the purest, most lovely of friendships...how convoluted loving someone can be if you allow it to be so...how baggage we never asked for as a child can screw things up completely.
My family had just relocated to that small southern town where you were living. I had decided to reinvent myself for this particular move, the third in as many years. To me, this reinvention was a chance to stop caring. To be more cavalier and less "sensitive" which was a word the grown-ups paired with an eye roll every time my feelings were hurt and I cried. There would be no more tears for the new Tara. I even considered changing my name.
The new Tara had an entire summer to define this reinvention before 8th grade would begin. Somewhere in the meeting of my new friends, I was lucky enough to meet you. You were captivating. I remember thinking how beautiful you were. My eyes would trace the outline of your features...your thick lashes...the emerging angle of your jaw...your lips. Sometimes you would catch me. The old Tara would have blushed under her freckles. The new, less sensitive Tara would just slowly look away as if she hadn't been caught doing anything out of the ordinary. I could tell when this confused you and I could tell when this hurt your feelings, this cavalier attitude of mine. Those times, I would continue whatever it was I was doing and stifle a whole herd of feelings threatening to run amok. I was concerned about your feelings...ashamed of myself for confusing or hurting you...and even more ashamed for being proud that I could pull off cavalier. That shame made me scared that my reinvention was failing...and angry at you for being an in-my-face reminder of what it's like to be sensitive. I wanted so badly to not feel those things. The timing of my self reinvention was bad news for our friendship and worse news for those little shoots of feelings trying to find sunlight.
There were three of us...me and you and him. He never made me feel that little flutter in my belly the way looking at you did...but he also never evoked any of those other feelings above. He was bland...without your thick lashes or love of reading. He was from a stable home where he was treated well, no need to reinvent himself...no wicked step-monster like you or I. He was never accused of being sensitive and actually, he had cavalier down pat. I pretended he was my first love, showering him with all of the adoration I had built up in my enormous pre-teen heart for you. I watched it break your heart and I hated myself for it. You pushed me and challenged my feelings for him and at one point you even tried to make me choose between the two of you. You could see the answer in my eyes and withdrew the ultimatum. What you couldn't see was that although I certainly would have chosen him, it was only because it was the easy and safe choice that would keep me from having to discard my reinvention. My heart was full of you.
We were 12...then we were 13...then you left. You moved away and when you did, you taught me a lesson that almost 30 years later I am still in awe of. You found a way to deal with the hurt and when you moved away, you stayed in touch. You wrote letters to me that were full of stories both real and fiction, poems and drawings and lengthy detailed accounts of what a day in your life was like in your new surroundings. You taught me what grace looks like and what unconditional love feels like. You taught me by example that loving someone does not mean that they have to have a title or role or that you have to have ownership in some way. You taught me that I could be imperfect, wrong and even borderline cruel but that even then there was something worth redemption within me...that I was still worth loving.
He faded into nothingness and 30 years later it is you...your letters, tied up with string that have made another eight moves with me. When I sat down today determined to write a love letter, there was no doubt who it would be addressed to. I was the luckiest girl ever to be loved by you.