Today is Valentine’s Day, which, according to all the heart-shaped paraphernalia filling up the shops right now, is supposed to be a day of love and romance. To commemorate this special day, I’ve decided to share a little story with you.
It’s the story of my first girlfriend.
Her name was Rachel*. She was a short girl, cute as a button with bright blue eyes and naturally blonde hair which she kept cut short. Not exactly what you would call the most attractive girl in the world, nor the most popular, but in a weird way that only made me like her more. She was simple. Homely. I liked that in a girl.
I was 15 at the time and going through what I can only call the ‘awkward phase’ of my life. At the age of 14 my skin had suddenly and rebelliously decided to break out in the worst case of acne I’ve ever seen and this, coupled with the endless bullying I got as a result of it, had turned me into something of a loner at school.
You know that introverted, geeky kid you always see keeping to himself in the corner of the playground? Yeah, that was me.
Fast forward to age 15 and I was quickly finding myself the only one of my friends who had never had a girlfriend. I had managed to kiss a girl once, back in my pre-acne days, but that was three years ago by this point and I’d long burned up all the street cred I’d gained from that.
I was desperate to change this situation and Rachel, I decided, was the perfect means to change it.
She ticked every box on my list of desirable features. She was clever but not in a show-offy way. She was friendly but not extroverted. She was a girl with obvious depth to her and I was sure that if I could just get her to open up to me, we’d get on like a house on fire.
The only problem was… she was one of those girls who always seems to have a crowd of friends following her around wherever she goes and those friends were not exactly on speaking terms with me. Her best friend, Saida, had recently broken up with my best friend, Barry, while her other best friend, Hannah, was the aforementioned girl I’d once managed to kiss, so talking to her was out of the question.
Extracting Rachel from those two was difficult enough. Actually getting her to talk to you once you were alone was next to impossible.
Fortunately, I had a plan.
It was my friend Nick who came up with the plan. You see, he’d noticed that Rachel lived quite close to him and that she always walked home from school.
“I sometimes see her when I’m cycling back,” he explained to me once day over lunch. “She’s always on her own. You should come with me one day and maybe you can talk with her then.”
It was a plan so simple it bordered on the genius. I would walk home with Nick one day, ‘accidentally’ bump into Rachel and then, break the ice.
“Hey Rachel!” I would say, false amazement stitched onto my face. “Oh my God! Fancy seeing you here! I didn’t know you walked this way home! Mind if I join you?”
At which point she would of course say yes and we would then be afforded 10 whole luxurious friend-free minutes with each other.
I planned my moment carefully.
My uncle had recently passed away and I was due to head up to Birmingham for the funeral. For some God unknown reason, I decided that this was the perfect time to ask her out. If I told her about my uncle, this would really give me the sympathetic angle I needed to get into her good books. Pull at her heart strings, that sort of thing.
Have I mentioned yet that I was an idiot back then? It’s kind of an important detail.
So anyway, at first everything went swimmingly. On the allotted day, my friend Nick and I hung back after class until we were sure that Rachel was on her way home. We gave her a 2 minute head start before following her, and then made sure to keep her in sight the whole way.
At a pre-determined spot, Nick wished me good luck before cycling on ahead. Meanwhile, I crossed the road and hurried to catch up with Rachel.
It was at this point that things started to go wrong…
You see, I’d spent so long planning how to get Rachel on her own that, now the moment was here, I realised I had absolutely no idea what to say to her. Suddenly, every idea I could think of sounded forced and contrived. “Hey Rachel!” sounded too casual. “Oh my God, it’s you!” too aggressive. “Fancy seeing you here!” too cheesy. If I sidled up to her and said, “Mind if I walk with you?” she would know that I’d been following her and that would be bad because then she’d think I was some sort of weird stalker rather than the sweet romantic guy I really was.
In retrospect, I totally over-thought the situation.
During the whole time I was catching up with her, I kept telling myself that now was the moment to call out to her. First she was 50 meters away from me.
Do it now!
No it’s too far away.
No, I’m not ready.
Then just 10.
Now you idiot!
But the words wouldn’t come… My heart was hammering in my throat so hard it physically hurt to breath. Every time I opened my mouth, it seemed to be full of sandpaper.
Until, suddenly, I realised it was too late. I was walking so close to Rachel by now that she would have to have been deaf not to know I was there. If I called out to her now, it would seem really weird. So, to my endless chagrin, I found myself slowing down and walking the whole way home lock-stepped five metres behind her, my eyes on the ground and my heart pounding in my ears.
I felt sick. I’d missed my chance. Never again would I have another opportunity to stumble upon her ‘by chance’. I was an idiot.
But, just as I was chastising myself, I suddenly saw Rachel disappear off down a nearby side street. Out the corner of my eye I saw her open the door to a house on the corner and enter.
“A-ha,” I thought. “So that’s where she lives!”
I stuttered to a halt. I stared up at the house she had just entered. Right there in that moment, a brilliant idea entered my 15-year-old head.
“I’ll write her a letter!” I thought to myself. “I know where she lives now! If I write a letter, I’ll be able to say everything I’ve always wanted to without fear of her friends getting in the way or me bottling it at the last second! She’ll find it romantic, of course — girls love that sappy stuff. I’ll finally be able to ask her out on my own terms!”
So I set down my bag, got out my organiser and wrote down the name of the street we were on. Then I looked up at the house she had entered and wrote down the number.
I prided myself on my cunning.
Nick, of course, was less impressed. “You should have just spoken to her,” he chastised me when I met up with him on the next street and told him what had happened. “That’s what I would have done.”
“Yeah but you’ve never had a girlfriend,” I pointed out to him. “So you’ll forgive me if I don’t take your advice.”
Yeah, I was kind of a dick back then too.
Anyway, the next day I wasn’t in school because I had to go to my uncle’s funeral as I’ve already said. I went up to Birmingham for the funeral and then came back the same day.
To my surprise, however, there was a letter waiting for me upon my return. A hand-delivered letter, no less, signed by my friends Barry and Nick.
Straight away, the alarm bells started ringing. Neither of my friends lived anywhere near my house — the nearest lived 30 minutes away by foot – and I could think of no reason why either of them would go so far out of their way unless it was for something bad.
This is what the letter said:
Rob, we have some bad news for you. I’m really sorry to tell you this on the day of your uncle’s funeral, but Rachel knows you were following her! Today, in science, Miss Logan noticed you weren’t here and asked where you were. I was going to explain but suddenly Saida suddenly shouted out, “Rob stalked Rachel last night!” in front of the whole class! Well, you know how Ms Logan is, she always loves to gossip and she wouldn’t let it go until Saida had told everyone everything that had happened! Apparently Rachel she saw you writing something down outside her house. But don’t worry, Nick and I did our best to calm the situation. We said you always walk that way home and it was nothing more than a coincidence but I don’t know if Ms Logan was convinced. Anyway, I thought you should know so you’re not surprised when you come in to school tomorrow. I think there are going to be a lot of questions waiting for you.
Shock and anger were my friends that night. I spent a sleepless night staring up at my bedroom ceiling telling myself over and over how stupid I was.
To my surprise, however, there were no questions at school the next day. There were certainly a lot of pointed looks: a raised eyebrow from Ms Logan and a red face from Barry, who couldn’t hide a secret if his life depended on it. For her part, Rachel disappeared completely into the midst of her friends and wasn’t seen on her own again for well over a month.
And me? Well, I just buried myself in my school work, surrounded by equal parts anger and shame at my inability to talk to a girl. I never tried talking to Rachel about the situation, though. Anything I tried saying to her at that point would only make things worse.
I never wrote that love letter to her.
I never walked that way home again.
But fear not because that’s not the end of the story. As I’ve already said, this is the story of my first girlfriend and, eventually, Rachel did become my girlfriend.
One year later, aged 16, Nick and I were walking home from school one day with one of Rachel’s friends, Hannah. As I’ve already mentioned, Hannah and I had a pretty strained relationship since we’d kissed each other during the first year of school and neither of us really knew what to make of the situation now that we were older. She was a cool girl though.
Anyway, she joined Nick and I on our walk home that day because she wanted to talk to us about Barry. In particular, she wanted to talk to us about Barry and Saida, the girl he’d been having an on-again off-again relationship with for the last 3 years.
“What’s the deal with those two?” she asked us and we just rolled our eyes in reply.
“You know how Barry is,” we said. “It’s complicated with him.”
‘Complicated’ was a good word to use. ‘Gay’, would have been better.
Anyway, this topic led to us talking about each other. And that led us to talking about Rachel. To my amazement, Hannah confessed that Rachel had, at one point in time, had a bit of a crush on me “before all that weird stuff happened last year.”
Well, then it was like the flood gates had been opened. I found myself telling Hannah everything. I told her about my plan and about my would-be love letter. I told her how crazy I was about Rachel.
Hannah waited patiently until I was finished talking. Then she burst out in laughter.
“Just try talking to her next time,” she said between laughs. “You’re not living in the 19th century anymore.”
“That’s what I keep telling him but he won’t listen,” said Nick.
“God, you two are as bad as each other. Here!” she said as she scribbled down Rachel’s number and handed it over. “Call her. I promise she won’t bite.”
Like I said, Hannah was a pretty cool girl.
So anyway, I called Rachel up. It took me the better part of a day to muster the courage and I needed to write everything down in advance so I wouldn’t fluff my lines but eventually I did it.
I called the number. I asked her out. And Rachel, to my surprise, didn’t hang up on me or tell me to get lost. Instead, she said she would think about it.
And then she said yes. “Yes.” It was such a simple word and yet, I swear that until the moment I heard it, I’d never known pure joy.
We agreed to meet at the cinema for a movie the next day. She said we should meet at 11.
10.30 and I was already standing outside the cinema, nervous as all hell. I waited for Rachel to show.
And I waited.
And I waited some more…
At 1 o’clock, I finally admitted that maybe she wasn’t coming.
Those two and a half hours will forever be stamped into my brain as some of the worst I’ve ever known. They were two and a half hours of paranoia and worry. Two and a half hours of me craning my neck at the distance at every person I saw. Every blonde-haired girl that walked by — was that her? Every car that pulled up in front of the cinema – maybe she was getting a lift?
I swear, even the cinema staff must have thought me some sort of weird stalker by the end.
Now, before you start calling me an idiot, remember that this was back in the days before everyone had a mobile phone. All I had was Rachel’s home phone number but, in order to call it, I would have to use the phone booth across the street and that would mean leaving the cinema and our designated meeting spot! Well, what if she came while I was gone? She would think I hadn’t showed up!
Anyway, when I finally admitted that she wasn’t coming and trudged home, I immediately called Rachel to find out why she hadn’t showed. She told me she’d had a party the night before. She told me she didn’t feel well.
Why hadn’t she called me to postpone our meeting? Why hadn’t she invited me to this party of hers?
“Sorry,” she said. “I lost your number.”
These days, I’m pretty sure I would have taken the hint but back then I was stupid. I asked if she was feeling better now. “Maybe I can come over?”
What followed was one of the most awkward, stilted dates in the history of human courtship. She got me a drink and showed me around. We played with her pet rat for a while, then watched an episode of Daria that just happened to be on TV. I had no idea what to say to her now that I was finally with her. I’d been fantasising after her for so long and now suddenly I was here, with her, inside her house! It was all too much for me. I was as sweaty and nervous as a man facing his first job interview.
I was polite and stiff. Not at all relaxed. When Rachel tried leaning against me while we were watching Daria, I honestly had no idea what I was supposed to do. It was about five minutes before I thought of putting my arm around her and even then I wasn’t sure how close I should be. If I moved too fast she might be angry with me. But how fast was too fast? I had no idea – this was literally my first date ever and, to be honest, I was still a little pissed off about the whole no-show at the cinema thing.
My mind was split between equal parts blind terror and pure elation. “Finally!” that part of me screamed over and over. “A girlfriend. A girl I had somehow asked out and won over, through absolutely no skill whatsoever.”
I wanted to pour my heart out to her. I wanted to sweep her up in my arms and smother her with kisses. My heart swelled with passion and teenage love for this girl I was with. We were completely alone in the house together. She and I – boyfriend and girlfriend.
But I had no idea how to express myself and so I just sat there, stiff-backed with a glassy smile stitched onto my face and together we sat in silence.
When I left a few hours later, she pecked me on the lips goodbye. My first kiss in four years and yet somehow, I couldn’t help but feel I’d blown it.
I was right.
On Monday morning, there was another letter waiting for me. Hannah gave it to me with an apologetic shrug at lunchtime. “Rachel’s too shy to hand it over herself,” she said in a way that held an undercurrent of contempt.
I don’t have that letter anymore but to be honest, I don’t need to. It was as predictable as it was short and it came with not a word of explanation why.
I was dumped. She didn’t want me. Goodbye.
Nick and Barry consoled me the best they could but in truth I was heartbroken. I simply couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. I’d tried so hard, surely that was all that mattered? Sure, I’d made mistakes, but my heart was in the right place. I’d only wanted to make her happy, even though I had no idea how.
A few months later, she then had the audacity to ask out my best friend Barry on a date. She asked him out. And in a moment that almost cost me his friendship, Barry said yes to her. They dated each other for the better part of four months — by far the longest relationship any of my circle of friends had had up to that point. Every lunchtime I was forced to watch them swapping spit together in the school corridors and every night he walked home with her and kissed her goodnight outside the house on the spot where I had once written down her address.
I tried to put on a brave face for the sake of my friendship. I smiled to their faces and wished them all the best but inside I felt like someone had stabbed me. I felt like I were swallowing glass.
In my leaving book at the end of the school year, Rachel wrote the following message to me:
We had a lot of good times together. Sometimes they were scary, sometimes they were bad but mostly they were a lot of fun. I know I won’t forget you.
And I won’t forget you either, Rachel. For all of two days, you were my girlfriend and for that you will always be special to me. You were a girl I chased after for the better part of 2 years. You were a girl I almost lost my best friend over. A girl who broke up with me in a letter.
Happy Valentine, wherever you are. I hope you know that you were kind of a bitch.
*That’s not her real name of course. I’ll be changing everyone’s names in this to protect their identities.