First love can be a bittersweet and intense experience, especially if it is unrequited. It can also change us in ways we may not grasp until much later.
I discovered love for the first time when I was seven years old. He was a distant cousin — one amongst many thanks to my large close-knit family in Lahore, Pakistan. We gravitated towards each other, despite the fact that I was the younger, studious little girl while he was a rambunctious boy. We spent our time mostly play acting in our world of Star Wars, space travels and building blocks.
We were sitting in the dirt one evening when I looked at him in wonder. In my seven-year-old mentality, I realized that I loved this little boy. I wanted to marry him so that we could always play together and build castles and spaceships.
From that moment, I knew he was THE ONE. And I didn’t tell a soul.
In my little girl mind, I needed to become just like him so he would love me back. To do that, I had to change certain things about myself. I had my long, beautiful curls cut off in favor of a short haircut like his. I begged my mom to buy me the same shorts and tee shirts that he wore. I trailed behind him like a little puppy, clinging to his every word and imitating his gestures.
I had no idea if he felt anything for me apart from being protective (he once kicked a much older boy cousin in the shin who was bullying me) or maybe amused affection. In my mind, there was no doubt that my happily-ever-after with him was imminent. Maybe not immediately, but it would one day materialize
One day did come, and it wasn’t what I imagined: without any warning, he stopped talking to me. Bewildered and hurt beyond belief, my little romantic heart that had been so full of love and innocence tasted the first morsel of heartbreak. I remembered feeling that someone had stabbed me in the chest. Although my feelings were a whirlwind of jumbled, adolescent emotions, the pain was real. How many times have we heard that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference? And indifferent I was not. I was angry with him, and I stayed angry for years.
Something changed when I was fifteen years old. That summer brought a big family wedding. As fate would have it, our families ended up spending time together, and slowly but surely, so did me and my cousin. I don’t recall exactly when the awkward silence between us broke. I finally had the courage to ask him why he had stopped talking to me. He explained that some family members had started teasing him about it. He felt that he was getting forced into the idea of marrying me.
I was so ecstatic for the rekindling friendship that I did not question him why the thought of marrying me was so horrifying. Instead, we discussed our hopes and dreams, our career goals, and ideas about faith and life. This time, I decided to woo with my femininity and started dressing up. Even though Pakistani society considered my green eyes and fair skin to be a sign of beauty, I never had any illusion that it gave me any advantage. And alas, I wasn’t what he wanted.
Imagine the day when he confessed that he was in love with a girl that embodied his ideals. His exact words were that I was like a “Volkswagen” – cute and reliable – but that the girl he loved was a “Mercedes.” He could not stop thinking about her. For a second time around, he felt I wasn’t good enough. And like before, he ceased contact with me.
What was WRONG with me? Was I ugly? Did I have some invisible repulsion that I could not see? I alternated between feeling angry, sad, and humiliated. I wanted to forget him and for the pain would go away.
We met again at a social event several months later. I was supremely relieved to discover that finally, after ten years of being in love with him, I could look at him neutrally without wanting to either throw myself at him or cry. Both of us were changing. We were moving towards adulthood. He was no longer the person I knew and loved.
I wish I could say that I moved on, found the love of my life, and forgot about the past. Alas, that is not my story. Shortly afterwards, I did get married to someone that my family chose for me. The marriage lasted several years and ended due to reasons both simple and complex. This unearthed unresolved issues about my past. The little girl in me blamed myself. Plagued with self-doubt, I felt unsure if I was lovable.
I realized that I had to forgive my first love — my cousin — as part of my path towards healing and self-realization. I still don’t know if he ever had romantic feelings for me. Perhaps as a young boy, and then as a young man, he did not know how to deal with uncertain and muddled emotions except with anger and retreat. Today he is happily married with a family. We are polite to one another. It is possible that he has no idea the turmoil he created in my life. But most importantly, I realize that knowing how he felt about me would not change mine.
My ten-year love saga brought agony and eroded the kind of confidence youth often provides. On the surface, I had everything going for me based on society’s criterion of looks, education and family “status.” I was forced to reconsider the worth of many things because of the loss of the one thing I wanted so badly. I discovered the hard way that you cannot force someone to love you, no matter how much you try or how wonderful you are. You absolutely cannot put the reins of your worth through the eyes of someone else. In the end, his rejection made me a more humble and considerate person although would take year to come to that realization.
When I think of the anguish I suffered due to my unrequited love, I don’t consider it as foolish or something that I blew out of proportion. I was very young and my love was one-sided. Regardless, the experience was real and it affected me deeply. Today, I can honestly say that I have let go of my anger and resentment.
My journey is my own. I hope my future path will bring someone who can appreciate me at face value. I intuitively understand that I have taken the ashes of my first love and scattered them to the wind. This has power over me no more. What an immensely satisfying feeling.
“Hina” is a pen name for the author, who is a US-based physician with two children. She enjoys reading, watching movies, traveling, daydreaming, and stimulating conversation. Hina aspires to be a budding writer. She considers herself a” humanist” and is passionate about the rights of the differently-abled (whether physical, neurological, or emotional) and the rights of women and children.