January 11, 2008
By Maggie MacKnight, Bethesda, MD

It was the middle of August, and Abby was packing. Her new life at NYU was a mere two weeks away, away from familiar Bethesda, her family, her friends, her boyfriend of two years. Well, he wasn’t her boyfriend anymore—Abby had mixed feelings about that. She knew he wasn’t her soul mate, so they couldn’t get married or anything, but still. He was special.

She thought back to the beginning of her freshman year in high school, when she rode the bus to and from school with Grace and Couper. A week or two into September, Couper had boarded the bus one afternoon and said excitedly, “There’s this guy in our PE class. He’s new, from Russia, so everyone calls him Russia.” He went on about this guy’s superb athletic abilities, a trait for which Couper had the utmost respect. Abby finally met this illustrious Russian boy a week or two later. It turned out that “Russia” had ridden her bus all along, but he sat up front by himself.

Couper brought the guy to the back of the bus to meet Abby and Grace. He introduced him as Alexei. Abby smiled and looked over his lanky frame, his blond hair and blue eyes, and thought, He’s pretty cute. She had been so interested in getting to know him; she asked him a zillion questions. Do you speak Russian? How long have you lived there? So your parents are diplomats? Where else have you lived? He gave quiet, concise answers. Abby remembered thinking, It’s like pulling teeth getting him to talk. But she wasn’t discouraged. Over the next few weeks, when Abby, Grace and Couper talked on the bus, Abby did her best to include Alexei in the conversation. Slowly, he began to open up, to talk more, and to smile more. He became bolder in his quiet way. Now, whenever the four of them talked, Alexei always looked at Abby, even when she wasn’t the one speaking. At first it made Abby feel a little awkward. She didn’t know how to respond to his attention. But he wasn’t looking at her in a creepy way, just a quiet, interested way, so Abby would just smile at him and look away quickly.

Nothing really happened between them until the beginning of their sophomore year. One afternoon, Abby received an IM from a user she didn’t quite recognize. But her heartbeat quickened nonetheless—it felt significant. The screen name wrote, “Hey, guess who.”

Abby wrote, “I haven’t a clue.”

The screen name wrote back, “It’s that adorable foreigner who rides your bus.”

“Alexei?” Abby typed back, grinning.

Over the next couple of months, Abby and Alexei chatted online almost every day, at first only for a short time, but then longer and longer, sometimes late into the night. He was cute, he was funny, he was interesting, but Abby shoved those thoughts out of her head. If she got her heart set on anything, she knew she’d be disappointed. So, for two months, she just enjoyed his conversation and pushed any thought of romance away.

Once December came, however, she finally let it occur to her that she was falling in love. She felt her stomach tightening whenever she thought of Alexei, wondering if he thought she was pretty, if he liked her. Online, she and Alexei would get into playful arguments. Abby would pretend she was mad at Alexei, and Alexei would send her a link with the accompanying words, “Look at this and tell me you’re still mad at me. :)” Abby would open the link and find a picture of a teddy bear or a sleeping kitten.

For Christmas that year, Alexei and his family went skiing at Whistler. During an IM conversation a few days before he left, Alexei wrote to Abby, “Five whole days with no internet or computer. :(” Abby asked her mom about this, and her mom said, “That was his way of telling you he’ll miss you.”

“Really?” said Abby excitedly.

“Of course.” Her mother rolled her eyes, but smiled all the same.

By the time he came back, Abby had developed a full-blown crush. The first day of school after vacation, he walked onto the bus in a blue Ralph Lauren sweater and a new necklace, and his hair had grown out a little bit. Abby could only think, God, he’s gorgeous.

“When is that boy going to ask you out?” Abby’s mom asked her one day. “I’m getting impatient.”

“I know, but he’s kind of shy. He almost doesn’t seem like the type,” Abby said, feeling a bit dismal at the thought. “But he did say something about a movie he wanted to see,” she piped up.

“What movie?”

“Walk the Line,” Abby said. “I think it’s about Johnny Cash.”

“Okay, well, if he mentions it again, tell him you think it looks good too,” her mom told her, not even bothering to ask if Abby really felt that way. Abby grinned.
Late one Saturday night, during a lull in their IM conversation, Abby wrote, “I think the Johnny Cash movie looks good.”

“Yeah, me too,” Alexei wrote back.

On a sudden inspiration, Abby wrote, “So, when are you going to take me to see this movie?” She minimized the IM window and pulled up her e-mail, waiting for a response. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few seconds, Abby heard a ding. She opened the IM window again. Alexei had written, “Next week?” with a smiley face.

Abby grinned and wrote, “You’re on.”

For a few days, neither Abby nor Alexei mentioned this proposition. As Abby now wondered idly how many T-shirts to bring to New York, she remembered wondering if Alexei would follow up on it. Deep down, she didn’t think he would. It would be too good to be true—it wouldn’t actually happen. But on the following Thursday afternoon, Alexei asked, “So, you still want to see that movie?”

Abby smiled at the computer screen, and wrote back, “Sure,” trying to appear nonchalant.

“When would you like to?” he wrote. Abby thought for a second. Oh God, she was busy this Friday and Saturday.

“Um, I’m actually busy both Friday and Saturday,” she wrote, adding a worried-looking smiley. “But does Sunday night work for you?”

“Okay,” Alexei wrote back, with a happy smiley.

They exchanged cell phone numbers so they could work out arrangements closer to the actual date. On Sunday morning, as Abby sat in church, she felt as though there were a fish flopping around in her belly. She whispered to her mother, “I’m so nervous.”

After an afternoon of anticipation and trying to concentrate long enough to get at least some of her homework done, it was finally time to go. Abby had straightened her hair and changed into her favorite jeans and baby-pink V-neck sweater. As she and her mom stood in the front hall pulling their coats on (her mom was driving), Abby said, “Please, Mom, just no embarrassing stories.”

“Not to worry,” her mom said. “I’ll just tell him about the time when—”

“No!” Abby cut her off, giggling nervously in spite of herself.

“No, I promise. I will be the epitome of cool.” Abby rolled her eyes and smiled.

And her mom was true to her word. They swung by Alexei’s house. Abby wondered if she should get out and ring the doorbell, but soon the door opened and Alexei came out, pulling on a black ski jacket. Alexei was usually pretty quiet, but Abby’s mom asked him questions and kept him talking. Abby knew her mother was trying desperately to prevent any awkward silences.

The white minivan pulled up in front of Regal Bethesda, and Abby and Alexei climbed out, Abby waving goodbye to her mom. They got in line to buy tickets, and silence fell between them. They just looked at each other every so often and smiled nervously. Finally, when the people in front of them in line were finishing up, Abby opened her purse and reached for her wallet. She’d brought enough money to pay for herself and for Alexei, though she doubted she would need to pay for him, at least. But she didn’t want him to think she was expecting a free ride.

Alexei looked at her and said, “I’ll pay if you want.” Abby smiled at him and said, “Thank you, that’s really nice.” He smiled back and walked up to the window and said, “Two for Walk the Line, please.”

Abby and Alexei then walked further into the building towards the theaters, and they passed the popcorn counter. Abby looked over at Alexei and said, “Would you like anything to drink or something?”

“No, thanks, I just had dinner. Do you want anything?”

“No, I just ate too.” They walked to the usher and he tore their tickets in half and directed them to the third theater straight ahead on the right. They walked into the semi-darkness, and after debating for a minute about where to sit, sat down on the right side in the middle of the theater.

During the previews, Alexei inched over towards Abby slightly, still looking at the screen. She inched herself left towards him, just slightly, until her shoulder touched his. And she stayed there.

All during the movie, Abby tried to concentrate on what they were watching, but kept thinking to herself, Is he gonna put his arm around me? Will he kiss me? Although he kept his shoulder against hers, he didn’t do anything else to suggest that he was interested in her. Abby started to wonder if he was just being cautious, or if he just wasn’t interested in her that way. Abby told herself sternly, Just watch the movie. Don’t think about that now, or you’ll start acting weird. You can think about that tomorrow.

The movie ended and Alexei turned to her and asked if she liked it. She did, but it was a bit sad. They stood up and Abby put on her new winter-white coat. When they got outside, though, it felt almost warm. In any case, it was warm for January. They stalled a bit outside the theater, not knowing how to proceed. Abby said, “Do you want to get ice cream? My treat.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” said Alexei. They walked partway around the block towards Haagen-Dazs, where Abby bought them sugar ice cream cones, hers with chocolate and his with vanilla. Abby said playfully, “Oh, chocolate is way better,” glancing at his ice cream cone.

“Nuh-uh, vanilla is,” Alexei said earnestly. Abby giggled.

They walked around the little city for about half an hour, eating their ice cream and telling funny stories and laughing. Abby noticed happily that there were no awkward silences. Finally, Abby said, “Well, how about I call my mom, since we have to get up early tomorrow.” Alexei smiled at her and agreed.

Abby’s mom picked them up quickly and asked lots of questions about the movie, which lasted all the way to Alexei’s house. As soon as he was safely inside his house, Abby’s mom said, “Okay, how was it?”

Abby gave her the play-by-play and said she’d had fun, but she didn’t know if Alexei liked her that way, because he didn’t put his arm around her or anything. Her mom thought about this for a second, then said, “You know, I think he’s just being cautious.”

“Okay, good,” Abby said, grinning so widely her cheeks hurt.

And the rest was history. A week or so later, Abby and Alexei went to the school talent show together, and afterwards, as they waited for their ride, Alexei put both his arms around Abby’s waist, keeping her warm from the penetrating February wind. As Abby’s mom pulled up, she thought Alexei would break away from her, but he didn’t. He held her hand all during the car ride home. A few days after that, school was cancelled for snow. Alexei IMed Abby and said, “Do you want to go bowling?” They met outside Abby’s house and trudged up the hill through the snow to the bowling alley, where Abby beat Alexei two games out of three, even though he would deny this later on. As they walked back down the hill, Alexei stretched out his arms oh-so-casually, and then put one of them around Abby.

“Smooth,” she grinned at him.

“I do my best,” he said. At the bottom of the hill, as they waited for the signal to turn to “Walk” so they could cross the street and walk up into their neighborhood, Alexei cradled Abby in both his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder, comfortable in the combined warmth of his body and her coat. It didn’t get much more perfect than that.

On Valentine’s Day at school, Alexei shyly handed Abby a carnation-o-gram and said, “Will you be my girlfriend?” She smiled and said, “Of course.”

They were together from then all the way up to the end of senior year. Despite its sweet beginning, theirs was by no means a fairy tale relationship. The initial infatuation wore off after a few months, and even though they became close friends as well as boyfriend-and-girlfriend, the not-so-nice sides of their personalities slowly unearthed themselves. At first, Abby couldn’t imagine being angry at Alexei, but she spent her fair share of time upset with him. But they made it through and still loved each other.
In May of their senior year, they had the inevitable conversation that Abby had known would come for so long. Alexei had to go back to Russia to serve in the military. Abby wanted to be a doctor in the US. They needed a break to figure out what they were going to do with their lives. Maybe, if they couldn’t live without each other, they’d reunite.
Abby pored over her bookshelves, wondering which books she couldn’t live without in New York. She knew that they wouldn’t reunite; at least, she couldn’t. He meant the world to her, but she knew she couldn’t live her life with him. Some of the things that had caused problems in their relationship were too big for her to ignore. Who knew, maybe she would find a guy in New York City. Not a perfect guy, but the one that was perfect for her. And she would live happily ever after, madly in love with him. But she knew a part of her would always belong to Alexei, even if she never saw him again. Her mother had told her once, and she believed it to be true, that you never really get over your first love.

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