Everything happens faster in college—semesters, making friends, falling in love. There's the option of hooking up every night, or there's the bookish life of study, study, study. Or there's me: confused and somewhere in between. The thing I love about being here, though, is that I can control who knows what about me. I get to escape the labels of high school, where one minute you're the girl with all the curly hair, and the next you're the girl no boy would dare hit on. When I arrived on this big college campus, no one knew my history, and that was fine with me.
Then I met Aaron. We were introduced in September by friends in our dorm, and we've seen each other every day since. Two nights after he kissed me for the first time, he asked if I'd ever been in love. We were lying on my bed, alternating between kissing and talking. I'd been dreading this question, and I hadn't expected it to come so soon. I froze, squeezing my eyes shut. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to," he said. I shook my head. It was probably as good a time as any to tell him that there were things he should know about me before we went any further. He could still say no, that this was too weird, too complicated to get involved with.
Yes. I have been in love. And it wasn't some silly high-school relationship. If my previous boyfriend had been into drugs or gotten me pregnant, I might've chosen to keep it to myself. But a story like mine changes a person in ways that never go away.
Nick and I dated for almost two years, I began. My eyes kept tracing the black-and-white posters of France on my wall while I fumbled for the words. "It was Thanksgiving break … He was out driving with some friends … He was killed in a bad accident."
Aaron gave my hand a hard squeeze, and we just lay there, the ghost of Nick floating somewhere in between.
Nick was the perfect boy for me. We were that sickly-sweet couple who never fought. Seeing him made me smile, pure and simple. I once made him promise me that he would never get seriously hurt or die, and Nick never broke his promises. Maybe that's why, even now, some part of me still thinks he's OK.
The other two boys in the car were fine, eventually. Nick had been driving, and his side took the worst hit. His parents called me at 1 a.m., and I rushed to the hospital. I shut down after the fifth time his mother told me Nick was a strong boy and was going to be all right. My father held me close and said he'd always thought of Nick as so grown up, but that lying there on the gurney he looked so young. That was when I decided I had to go home. A few hours later, I got a call saying that Nick was gone.
In the weeks after he died, I stuffed two years' worth of our e-mails and IMs into a drawer. His texts are still on my phone. There are some I go back to over and over, some I can't bear to read. It was agonizing to change my relationship status on Facebook. For months I left it as "in a relationship"; finally I just removed the option completely.
A year later, I'm still trying to move on. And the good signs keep coming, telling me that maybe I was damaged, but not irreversibly. I've found Aaron, and there are so many things to thank him for. When he wanted me to meet his family on parents' weekend—and I didn't mention mine—he didn't push me. I didn't want to explain how attached my family was to Nick. How over the summer my younger brother, nestling into the couch, told me that it was his favorite spot because it was where Nick used to sit.
I now hold people closer and try to live without regrets. But still I worry. "He is Aaron, not Nick," I often tell myself. Something so horrible happens only once in a young girl's life, if ever. It couldn't happen all over again. Could it?
I try to imagine what it must be like for Aaron. One day we'll be all over each other; the next I'll hold him at a distance. I think he just accepts it as part of what makes me who I am. What he can never understand is that I wasn't always like this, that I'm a more somber and mature person than the Sara who came before.
Aaron will never know me as that girl in high school whose boyfriend died. His opinion of me didn't change when I told him. Maybe I should let that story grow up with me, rather than hold it so tightly as a secret.