"Cause we were just kids when we fell in love, Not knowing what it was, I will not give you up this time." — Ed Sheeran
My partner, Leo, and I have known each other for over half our lives now. We met when we were in the fifth grade. We had a crush on each other even then. Till this day our relationship still feels surreal after three years of being together because so much of my early life had been spent fantasizing being with him. Though we had always been a phone call away and lived not even a mile apart for almost ten years, we always stepped away from each other’s lives whenever we became too close. Till this day we aren’t sure if it was because we were scared of feeling a deep connection with someone who would understand us. Or perhaps we were scared of sharing the traumas and inner demons we were struggling with it. Despite this game of push and pull, the day we finally started dating we realized that we hadn’t been ready before for the serious relationship that we were about to build together. Our previous dating experiences, our past hardships, our childhood traumas, we had to go through it all in order to understand ourselves well enough to be and grow together.
It all started when we were ten years old. My best friend at the time had a crush on Leo and his best friend also had a crush on me. For this reason, neither one of us disclosed our feelings to anyone till the end of the school year when we admitted to each other what we felt. Before then he had secretly left a rose and a small love note inside my wooden desk. He’d try to make me laugh in class and would invite me to play kickball with his friends. We’d always talk about the randomest things and shared with each other the issues that we were going through at home. As the end of the school year approached us, my best friend admitted to Leo that she had a crush on him but he told her that he had a crush on me. Out of anger she told me off and stopped talking to me thereafter.
On the last day of school Leo told me the truth of how he felt while we were shooting hoops together during our lunch break. But after what had happened with my ex-best friend, I felt discouraged to tell him the truth. We hung out the whole day. By the end of the day however I admitted to him how I felt. He then asked for my small yearbook and wrote down his house number for me to call him during the summer.
That summer vacation I called him once. It has been a ten minute phone call and he asked me to call him again sometime soon. For some reason though I never did. But when we started middle school I was sure that he was going to ask me out. I stayed in anticipation but instead we didn’t end up talking for weeks. He later became best friends with a guy that I had had a crush on in Kindergarten. The irony….
Eventually a whole drama submerged about this other guy trying to ask me out, etc, etc. Leo sometimes would ask me about my feelings for the guy and would tell me to date him. By this time I’d lost all hope that Leo would ever like me back again. I moved on and by the seventh grade, the drama fluctuated to me having eyes for the other guy instead. As life may be, it turned out that Leo actually did have a crush on me during the seventh grade and some of eighth. I never ended up dating his friend but in the 8th grade I started seeing a guy that I had had no previous history with. Leo was in most of my classes and therefore had my number because we’d stayed as friends and helped each other with our homework assignments. About eight months into my relationship, Leo texted me his “love” for me. He admitted the feelings he’d been holding back for so long. His “thoughts and desires” to have me. But because I had already been consumed into my current relationship, I shut him down. We didn’t stop talking completely, but Leo kept his distance.
A year later the boyfriend I was with broke up with me. In a matter of days after Leo started to take his shot. We started to hang out after our classes or walk together to school. Sometimes he’d text me during class even though he had always sat a row across from me in almost every single class since the fifth grade. During our homeroom we’d talk or play hand cards games with each other. And during lunch we’d just hang out. As time went by he sometimes would hug me and kiss my forehead before heading home. But after the day I kissed him on the cheek, he stopped talking to me for some time again.
In my junior year of high school I had my quinceñera and had invited Leo to be one of my chambelanes. We became pretty close again but he was seeing someone else. Another guy had started to pressure me to date him and so I moved on again. But after I broke it off with him, I knew that I wanted Leo. Leo and I had become dance partners for our friends’ 16 a few months afterward. It only made me want him more knowing how well we got along. At this point he was no longer with his previous girlfriend. But when I asked him if he was interested in anyone, he said that he was planning on dating a girl who eventually became my close friend in our high school basketball. I stayed quiet and held back on telling him how I felt, again.
By our senior year I was well into the depths of my eating disorder. I stopped hanging out with my friends and spent most of my time alone. Leo was still with his girlfriend at the time. Sometimes he’d ask me how I was but I guess he noticed that I wasn’t interested in sharing much. I had also noticed that he was going through some bad times too. He usually looked anxious and tired. He started to skip school or ditch some of his classes. He eventually started to share with me that he was going through a few problems at home and was experiencing bad anxiety and high levels of depression. Something he hadn’t shared with his girlfriend. Even though I wanted to reach out more, I didn’t have the emotional strength to do so. After high school we stopped talking for months.
One day during my freshman year of college I found Leo’s mom walking around our neighborhood. She’d told me that he had ended up going to UC Merced and was studying Mechanical Engineering. However, apparently he was having a bad time in college. I ended up texting his old number…turned out he still had the same one. We texted on and off, but it was never anything continuous. During that summer after my freshman year I decided to do a sprint triathlon after recovering from the eating disorder and had posted it on social media. Little did I know at the time that the resilience I portrayed in that journey is what made him know that I was the one for him. That Fall Semester he told one of our mutual friends that if he could be with anyone in the world, it would be me. He had started to text me more but because I was still so focused on myself and my recovery, I kept forgetting to respond.
That winter break he came back down to Los Angeles and asked me to go on a “non date with him.” I brought my best friend with us. Despite the time that had passed, by the end of the night we were holding hands and talking about our dreams and aspirations for the future all while my best friend was living her best life on the side.
That following week we went on a real date. And another. And then another. A few days before having to head back to Merced, he asked me to be his girlfriend while we were shooting hoops together. I didn’t see him in-person for a few months after that. We held our long-distance relationship for over two years until he came back to Los Angeles after graduating with his degree in engineering.
Now, the WHY of everything. A long-distance relationship takes patience; we’d only see each for a day every one to three months. All of our communication consisted of texting, calling, and video chats. We always felt that void of not having each other in person. And this void led us to lots of emotional pain and anxiety. We never cheated on each other, but we did hang around people that made the other insecure. We’ve both miscommunicated our thoughts, made wrong assumptions, placed impossible expectations, and continued to play the push-pull game with each other’s feelings. What made it more difficult was our mental health problems. Some of our outings made him anxious. I often needed my space. Him being alone in Merced only made him cling on even more. And we had issues like this continuously but never chronically. The worst came after my father was diagnosed with cancer.
Between seeing a therapist to unravel the trauma from child sexual abuse, graduating from college and moving back with my parents, starting to work full-time, applying and getting rejected to most of the grad schools I applied to, becoming a caregiver for my father, my mom having a surgery, and then COVID-19 pandemic a few months after, I became a toxic person that clung onto Leo for safety and stability. He was my go-to for everything. For every cry spell. For every panic attack. For every problem, every issue, almost everyday. He eventually tried breaking up with me because he felt suffocated with my drama. But, I don’t know if it was the pity he felt, the fear that I’d have a break down if he left, or because I’d ask him to give me a second chance to work on myself, but he stayed. I know, not the best cards to play with.
He was going through his own things too. He lost his grandfather the week my father was diagnosed. And me being emotionally unavailable made him feel more lonely while at Merced. His panic disorder and depression grew as I became less and less available to him. He withdrew from his friends and spent most of his time alone in his room. He was still in school when the pandemic hit and graduated without the hope of a job. He’s been unemployed ever since. He eventually had COVID-19 and the stay-at-home for 3 weeks only exacerbated his anxiety and panic disorder. He had difficulty leaving home, couldn’t drive a car out of fear for weeks, and when we did go out to the park or the beach, we often had to come back home immediately because of his panic attacks. He started to withdraw from me and would become very impatient whenever I was having my own issues or was emotionally unavailable for him. Not to mention other chronic issues that he was still facing with his family.
I don’t have a definite answer to what made us decide to stay together. Because honestly, this past year has been the roughest we’ve had. However, whenever he and I talked or when I was in his presence, I often felt this peace deep inside despite the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. And he’d always tell me that he felt the same. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to be with him despite our challenges because he felt like home. No matter where we were, what we were up to, who we were with, he felt warm and safe. He made me feel stronger, even if I only had his presence through a phone call. And when I admitted this to him, he said that I had always felt like home to him. Which is why he’d always confided in telling me his issues ever since were kids. And why he kept coming back to be a part of my life. And why he had clung to me when he felt alone in Merced and had placed so much energy in making things work.
We later realized that the pushes and pulls had been learned from our parents. They had never learned how to build a foundation based on love and security. How to share a home that felt emotionally safe. How to give and love fully without expecting anything in return. Or even how to trust each other. In knowing this, Leo and I have been trying to work on unraveling our ingrained habits from our parents and building something together that we’ve always wanted. And even though in this current stage of our lives I’m home caring for my parents and he’s at his home supporting his younger siblings, we lean on the future to make it all worth it.