I told him, maybe on our first date, that I didn’t want to get married. It was my first real date ever, or the first that mattered, and we were at an overpriced restaurant on Charles Street that served undercooked food and he was paying. I wore silver earrings I’d gotten for Christmas and ate nettle risotto while we played at adult conversation and I told him what I told everyone, which was that I didn’t want to get married.
He was incredulous. “What are you going to do when you’re older? Won’t you be lonely?”
I shrugged, a little flippant. I was 16 and I had a recent Yale acceptance and a couple of published poems and the future was a bright ribbon winding abstractly ahead of me. “There are so many places I want to go and so many things I want to do,” I told him. “Marriage would get in the way.”
Of course, I hadn’t answered his question but he didn’t really notice. Instead he asked: “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe South America.”
We went to South America. Eight months after that first date, I moved to Peru for three months with my high school boyfriend. We had fallen in love in the early days of a fresh New England spring while I was at boarding school and he was in Boston. As a California native transplanted, the seasons had a hold on me. The melting river at school, damp April mornings, the lengthening evening light, Boston blooming, and us. The necessary cliché of first love in the springtime is the belief that your feelings are original and that the world is responding to you alone.
And it was. We were not other high school couples. This was something different. Sometimes we affirmed this to each other—no one we knew had ever felt like this.
I had postponed college for a year to get a jumpstart on seeing the world. So did he. It became clear—unspoken at first—that we were going to do something together. During that stifling summer we were inseparable, and we schemed. Then it was September and despite all obvious obstacles, despite advice from both sets of parents, despite our own hesitations (okay, we had none), we were saying goodbye to our tearful families in Terminal C of Logan airport. We had two tickets to Lima and the name of a volunteer organization in Cusco.
We started playing house in the blue backroom of a yellow building on a steep hill in a dusty red-roofed city filled with stray dogs and church-bells and tiendas selling mangoes for three cents apiece.
A Peruvian family lived in the front part of the house but when I think of it, and when I think about Peru in general, I just picture that blue room. There was a double bed with a blue bedspread, a dresser, two bookshelves and a painting of a bright blue sailboat on the wall. There was a ceiling window above the bed and the light that filtered in was intensely blue. Retrospectively, I have the sense of Peru as a blue country because our existence for those three months was so confined to that blue, blue room.
With us, scattered haphazardly about the room, we had enough antibiotics to cure anything except what we actually got, more sunscreen than the climate could have possibly required, an out-of-date Eyewitness guidebook that I had spent the summer memorizing, 22 books (mostly hardcover), minimal clothing, two journals, an empty bottle of DEET 100 bug repellent that had burst in my bag on the plane, and two prep school educations that would prove entirely useless for three months.
I also had, on my right hand, his great-grandmother’s wedding ring. He had given it to me, half-jokingly, because his mom read in a guidebook that it was safer for women traveling in South America to wear a wedding ring. It was too big for my finger and was inscribed, “To Ann, 1917.” I never took it off.
There are easy ways to explain what went wrong. We spent too much time together, I tell people when they ask, or we realized we weren’t that compatible. He was too critical and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. It was just too intense. Those things are not false but the truth is that it happened quietly, in the space of the everyday.
We woke up and we brushed our teeth. We had sex. We had breakfast. We read for a while or went into the city and saw something. We volunteered in the afternoons at a boys’ orphanage, which was not uplifting but totally disheartening. We came home exhausted and napped. We studied Spanish verbs. We ate dinner with the Peruvian family and practiced using our Spanish verbs. Sometimes we went to bars. We made some friends. We kept expenses. We journaled. We brushed our teeth. We had sex. We went to bed.
On weekends we travelled. We took long sticky bus rides to other dusty cities and beautiful, beautiful countryside. Peru is the most beautiful country—rugged and dramatic and rough in its beauty. Once, we were on the bus back from some ruins in the Sacred Valley and I watched the sun bleed dark orange over a jagged peak. It was somehow brilliant and harsh at the same time. I thought then: this country is heartbreakingly beautiful. Then, out of nowhere, I thought that my heart was breaking.
We were suffocating in the blueness of that room. In late October I stopped sleeping for four nights. I stared up at the ceiling window. Above, an electrical wire wavered and I watched it. I held my breath until morning came, blue. Sometimes he napped and I took the bus to Parradero San Miguel where I paid three soles for American chocolate that I didn’t record in our expense books. I watched barefoot children play soccer and listened to the sounds of old women speaking Quechua in the market—harsh, always close to angry. I sat on the curb by the bus stop and sobbed. I came home and woke him up. We practiced Spanish. We had sex.
Eventually I broke down or he did. We acknowledged late one night in early November that we were unhappy. He said it first, after we got in a fight about how I always put my feet on his legs when they were cold and I thought this was reasonable, and I had always done it, and he thought this was unreasonable, and he said it had always bothered him, and I asked him why. He said, “I don’t think I’m happy anymore.”
I felt like throwing up. “Me neither,” I said, and it was mostly true. We were quiet for a little bit. I sat on the edge of the bed, turned away, and asked what this meant. “Are we breaking up?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “of course not. That’s not what I want at all.”
“Then what does this mean?” I asked. “Something is happening right now.”
We floundered for the answer until he said it. “I think maybe this is the moment we realize that first love doesn’t last forever.”
Until that moment, I don’t think I had consciously realized that I wanted it to. After all, I was the strong independent woman who was never getting married. I was going to run around the world writing books. But here I was, sitting on a double bed that I had shared for two months with my high school boyfriend, and I was wearing his great-grandmother’s wedding ring on my finger.
“But I think I want it to,” I said, because it was all I could think to say. I looked at the ring.
“Me too,” he said. And we just sat there.
It really ended then, but of course in other ways it didn’t. We dragged our relationship out much longer—back home and then, foolishly, across Eastern Europe in the winter. We knew it was over but we couldn’t bear to separate and so we booked another set of flights. We traveled by train across a whirlwind of bitterly cold, bleakly beautiful countries with an expiration date at the end of it. Communist architecture in the snow isn’t a remedy for heartache.
In February we parted ways for good. He was going home, and I was going to Florence because I wanted to paint away all of my sorrows and maybe see the beginning of an Italian spring. Mostly it rained and I cried. In the Berlin airport we said goodbye. We were standing there and he kissed me and I slipped off the ring, which I had been wearing despite everything. I handed it back to him. He was crying. I wasn’t. I turned to go but he stopped me and slipped a brown glass ring on my finger. I looked at him and felt practically wild inside, numb and breaking. I kissed him and walked away.
I got on the plane to Florence and my mind was empty for the whole ride. The plane droned and I fiddled with the ring.
From this moment, it’s tempting to flash forward. To my gray time in Italy. To the night, two months later, when I cracked the glass ring. To Alaska that summer, where I got sunburnt and re-learned how to do the basic things that had seemed impossible without him, like putting toothpaste on my toothbrush. To that other boy in August who took me to his house in Maine and taught me to shoot a twelve-gauge at beer bottles off his roof, and also other things like how to be happy with someone I didn’t love and didn’t intend to, and most of what I know about cooking.
But I think this story has to end at the moment when I got off the plane in Florence with my backpack, the address of an apartment where I was supposedly staying, and the name of a painting school I had found on the Internet. I was standing in line for a taxi outside the airport and I looked down at the glass ring on my finger. I thought about the obvious irony of a glass ring, simultaneously so fragile and binding. I thought about how light it was on my finger. But mostly I just thought: how the hell am I supposed to start over from here?