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When a long-ago boyfriend died, I couldn’t believe the pain I still felt

We hadn’t been together in decades. But when I heard the news, I felt like I was 17 years old all over again.
Jamie Beth Cohen and ex boyfriend Jason
The grief I felt when I learned my long-ago boyfriend had died surprised me — but maybe it shouldn't have. Courtesy Jamie Beth Cohen

“The trick is there is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.” — Tessa Fontaine

When Jason died, we had been back in touch for three months — after 15 years of no contact and nearly 30 years after we first met at a party in my brother’s basement apartment. The party was in May 1993. It was my senior year of high school at the private, all-girls school I had attended for 13 years; I was still 17. I was immediately attracted to Jason, a public school graduate at the end of his first year in community college. It was his cool-guy, laid-back attitude that hooked me, but my thing for redheads — thanks, John Hughes and Eric Stoltz! — definitely played a role in the attraction. However, once I started talking to Jason, I realized he was a complete original.

When he asked me for my number that night, I thought I must be high. But I wasn’t, even though everyone else at the party probably was. I graduated high school a virgin who had never tried pot and had only ever had one glass of red wine. I wasn’t high, but maybe I was dreaming? My brother brought me back to Earth when he assured me Jason wouldn’t call. Our friend Dean thought he might, and he warned me: If he did, I shouldn’t call back. 

The basic message from my brother and my friend — both of whom were close with Jason and remained so throughout his life — was that I wasn’t ready for him. And gawd, were they right. How can you ever be ready for your first love? You can’t. It’s like eating fire: The only way to do it is to do it, and most of us can’t do it without getting hurt. 

How can you ever be ready for your first love? You can’t. It’s like eating fire: The only way to do it is to do it, and most of us can’t do it without getting hurt.

The day after the party, I had a double shift at the ice cream shop where I worked. On my way out of the house that morning, I changed the outgoing message on my answering machine — which up until that moment had probably said something like, “Hi, it’s Jamie, I’m not home. Please leave me a message, and remember, a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle!” — to, “Hi, this is Jamie. I’m working a double at Shadyside Scoops today, so come see me there, or call me there if you have that number, and if this is Jason, I’m completely impressed.” There was no way he was going to call, not the very next day, and probably not at all. 

But he did.

From the moment I met Jay, he was completely impressive. Not always in a good way. Some days his poor choices completely impressed me, but that wouldn’t come until later. That day, when I called my machine from work to check my messages — as we did back in the day — I heard him say, “Hi, this is Jason. I guess you’re ‘completely impressed,’ huh?” My knees buckled. I think I fell in love right then and there.

What followed was an exciting and tumultuous summer, one I can recall so vividly and so viscerally that I’m having trouble believing it was nearly 30 years ago. While I can’t remember our first date, I do remember my graduation party; sitting on my parent’s back patio; eating pizza and chips and queso at his dad’s place. I remember that I called Jason from my parents’ kitchen table when I got home from his dad’s house on the night we first had sex — the night I had sex for the first time with anyone — and he asked how I was, and I could tell he really cared. I remember the bowl of cereal I was eating and how the kitchen light was the only one on in the whole house. I remember the rhythm of our quiet conversation, if not our words. And I remember our arguments and the breakup, which lasted longer than our actual relationship, crossed state lines, involved lots of yelling and thrown phones — because you can’t hang up a cordless phone with anger and gusto — and lots of backslides. I remember the ways we hurt each other and others in the process.

Jamie Beth Cohen
Jason (left), our friend Dean and me at my backyard graduation party.Courtesy Jamie Beth Cohen

I learned so much about myself that summer — and in the months it took for us to extricate each other from our lives — that I still carry with me. The lessons about love and life, and struggle and compromise, made me who I am today. At 17, there were many ways in which I was considered wise beyond my years — I know Jason’s dad liked me because I was a teen who read for pleasure! — but there were also many ways in which I was immature due to my upbringing. My relationship with Jason helped me understand the complexities that come with real life outside a sheltered house, controlled by my father’s very strict rules, and a privileged education surrounded by very rich and privileged peers. I learned that being let into someone else’s world on such an intimate level means you may learn things you do not want to learn, you may share things you don’t want to share, you may be exposed to things that scare you, and that you need to know yourself very well — your strengths and your limits — if you’re going to hold someone else’s heart in your hands and let them hold yours. 

When Jason and I got back in touch this spring he had been sick for a while. He said some things that made me realize he viewed our relationship, and especially our breakup, differently than I did. I wasn’t clear on exactly what he was saying; he’d done chemo for a while by that point and he was self-medicating but I did get the sense he had some regrets. I assured him whatever he may have done to hurt me was long in the past, and, more importantly, that I held on tightly to all the good we shared. I’m glad I was able to tell him that, and I wish he hadn’t spent so many years thinking I was mad at him.

Recently, I heard from some of our mutual friends that I was painting an overly flattering picture of Jason — on and off social media — that wasn’t quite accurate. And here’s the thing: They were right. I had a very specific view of Jason and was really only privy to the things he told me and showed me, and I had missed around twenty years of his adulthood, only getting glimpses of what Dean and my brother shared with me occasionally. But I’m not ignorant to the fuller picture. He showed me love, and he cheated on me — though those details were pretty fuzzy even back then — and, in our messy and protracted break up, I know he cheated on other people with me.

With 30 years’ hindsight, I’d love to say this was all small potatoes. That none of us had made binding commitments when we were teenagers, and — given everything I’ve faced in my life since that time — it really does feel small. But back then, cheating, lying, sneaking around — it was everything. We did harm. There’s no justification for that, and I haven’t forgotten it, even if I don’t choose to focus on it now.

I was able to visit Jason once when he was sick. I was in town for a few weeks, and he was between hospital stays. I brought dinner, but he had no appetite. I met one of his sons that night, and he got to meet both of my kids. Ten days later, I was back home, four hours away, sitting on my porch watching my kids play with my husband in the cul-de-sac, when I learned that Jason had died. The cancer had spread throughout his whole body. Dean, who had begged me not to date Jason 30 years before, called to let me know.

Jamie Beth Cohen with old friends and Jason
Old friends reunited: From left to right, my friend Patty, Dean, me and Jason, about two weeks before Jason died.Courtesy Jamie Beth Cohen

I was completely derailed by Jason’s death, this person with whom I had shared so much — but so briefly and so long ago — and it caught me completely by surprise. I was worried my response was silly and overdramatic — something I’ve been accused of frequently over the years — until I broke down crying to a friend, and he very matter-of-factly said, “I think you have some unprocessed grief you need to work through.” He was right. I made an appointment with an old therapist. “This is a love story and this grief is real,” she told me. “A first love makes an imprint that stays with us.” I was grateful for her validation; I think it’s what allowed me to begin moving forward.

The fact is, I’m happily married and have been for 18 years. I had spent decades with only the vaguest notion of what was going on in Jason’s life, and I was not in love with him when he died. Unless maybe I was, unless maybe I still am. 

I’ve been known to say I will always love anyone I’ve ever loved. I’ve known this about myself for a while — that when someone enters my heart space, romantically or platonically, they never leave — but I’m not sure I fully understood the impact of what it would mean to lose one of those heart people until Jason died. Through processing my grief, both in therapy and in writing, I’ve learned that people I share my life with become my family regardless of the particulars of the relationship or how it ends. It gets crowded in my heart, which doesn’t come without risk, but neither does eating fire or falling in love. I don’t know firsthand about eating fire, but I assume it’s as exhilarating as first love, and so, so worth it.