Girls & How To Say Goodbye To Your First Love For Good

Image: HBO.
The first time I ever really fell in love, I was 19 and it was doomed. He was the roommate of an old friend, at a college that was not my own, the owner of soft brown eyes and lashes that looked like uncut crabgrass. Smart and acerbic, he stood next to me on the subway ride back from a museum; later that night, we snuck away, took a long walk around a lake, and watched the sun come up over the water.

For months after that, we met secretly and exchanged dramatic emails. We also embarked on long stretches of radio silence — standoffs that were usually broken by 3 a.m. phone calls or clandestine rendezvous. We fretted a lot about What To Do About Us. I picked up a nervous smoking habit; he wrote a handful of tortured short stories. We both dated other people until that became intolerable, and just before graduation, we decided to give a functional relationship a shot. Together we backpacked through Italy, took a cross-country road trip through America, and settled in Los Angeles. We rented a darling apartment in a shitty neighborhood, where we lived until we didn't love each other anymore, and then for some time thereafter.

That was many years ago. I have a new life now, with someone else. But from time to time, my mind snags on a memory, and I wonder what story would play out now if I suddenly spotted this man sitting on a park bench, reading a book.

On last night's Girls, Marnie got the chance to find out what happens when your past and present collide. Frustrated with her husband (and so much more than that), she's out for a walk when she passes by a group of guys who don't capture her attention at all — until she realizes that one of them is her ex.

When it comes to some people, it's hard to tell the difference between emotional baggage and unfinished business.

Well, he is and he isn't. Charlie has changed in the intervening years: He's not the fresh-scrubbed tech founder who broke her heart, or the clingy college boyfriend who once doted on her every need. Though it takes most of the episode for Marnie to really understand, Charlie has unravelled — transmuted into the kind of grifter who sells cocaine out of his back pocket and shoots up when he thinks no one is watching.

But before any of that comes to the surface, they are first loves who chance upon each other, unable to resist further exploration. And so off into the night they go.

This "ghosts of boyfriends past" motif is convenient and over-utilized in popular entertainment — and it's not entirely convincing here. Marnie may be majorly in need of a catalyst to help her realize that her hasty marriage really isn't working and never will, but looping Charlie back into the story a full season after he disappeared — especially in the absence of any build up or real explanation — is a bit of a leap. On top of that, this transmuted version of Charlie seems like it was written for the new version of Christopher Abbott — an actor who has moved away from mainstream to more indie pursuits: grittier dramas, Brooklyn-accented characters, and off-Broadway plays. His sudden presence is undeniably contrived.

But there's also something very natural and relatable about the way Charlie and Marnie happen upon one another and wind up back in each other's arms — believing, if only for an evening, that maybe they had what they wanted all along.

It's an easy trap to step into: A year — and a full relationship cycle — after leaving Los Angeles for New York, I made a plan to meet my ex in Mexico for a weekend, to see if there was still anything left for us to put back together. It was my idea, as well as my fault that it didn't work out: In the months leading up to our vacation, which would have marked the first time we'd seen each other in a year, I grew more and more anxious about returning to a part of my life that I had worked so hard to put in the past. We never took the trip. In the end, I felt too vulnerable to revisit our history together. The truth that I couldn't articulate at the time was that it all still hurt too much. In some ways, it still does.

"You were my family," Marnie says to Charlie as they're walking through Central Park in the darkness, several scenes before Charlie wonders aloud if maybe these last few years apart were just a very long, bad dream. It made me think of a winter night long ago when my ex called frantically — ready to get on a plane — pleading, saying he'd figured it out and that we belonged together after all, that we should get married and start over.

Which is all to say: When it comes to some people, it's hard to tell the difference between emotional baggage and unfinished business. But sometimes — whatever loose strings still exist — it's best not to pull at them. When the moment arises, you have to choose to walk away.


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