Once upon a time, when I was newly 18 years old, I eloped with a 35-year-old Scottish man…
I used to tell this (true) story to elicit responses such as laughter or wide-eyed disbelief. I never thought it was a sad story until I told it to a good friend of mine last month and began to cry.
The story goes as this… when I was a junior in high school my best friend was a senior. We went to an artsy alternative school where there were no official sports teams (although there were many intense games of ultimate frisbee) and everyone wore tie-dye and walked shoeless in the halls. The teachers and the students were on friendly basis with one another. As I had traveled to Great Britain and Europe before, and as I carried myself as a mature teenager (or so they thought) and a responsible student, class president, etc. I was invited to go with my best friend and her senior English class on a trip to England over the summer.
On one of our outings we went to Camden in London. It’s a grungy little area with open markets, pierced and dreadlocked people, cafés and other sorts of young adulthood gallivanting. It was just my style.
Another friend of mine and I decided to seek out a cigarette and saw three guys standing outside of a pub. I have always been very brazen and had no trouble walking right up to them and asking one of them for a cigarette. His coy grin and green eyes captured me immediately. They asked us to come into the pub for a drink and my friend said that we had to return to the main group because we were expected to meet with them at a certain time. This meant nothing to me. I figured I could just go back to the hostel later and brushed her off. She left, and so, alone with these three strange men, I went into the pub.
Now, as you can see from my other posts although I was a very beautiful 18-year-old girl I didn’t realize my true beauty and was very insecure. So the fact that I have these men doting on me who thought I was exotic and stunning was thrilling. This didn’t happen back home. I felt loved, I felt sought after. Even today I recognize that they were not sexual predators. That is not the way this story goes (thank God). But after a couple drinks in the pub we decided to go back to one of their apartments just to hang out. I remember feeling so excited, like one of the guys; there was no worry in my mind… Not of being raped or killed or anything else. That’s how teenager Karen lived: extremely impulsive and always on the edge without a second of hesitation. I just know I must have had a guardian angel protecting me throughout all of these shenanigans.
We went up to the rooftop of their apartment, we played guitar in the living room, we joked and laughed and told stories. But at some point the green-eyed Scotsman and I were alone in his friend’s bedroom and he was asking my permission to proceed intimately (albeit he asked in a much more vulgar fashion.) I remember thinking to myself what a gentleman he was for asking for my permission. Out of all the scenarios like this that I’d been in previously, no one had ever out right asked my permission. He was so charming.
I ended up coming back to the London youth hostel that night way after curfew. The group of classmates and teachers that I went with from my high school English class were conservative Christians. I remember walking into the lobby and meeting one of my best friend’s teachers — the leader of the trip — who was so upset her entire face was red and tear-streaked, her eyes bulging. She thought about calling the police; she had already called my mother. She was absolutely, frantically worried sick about me. “What did my mom say?” I asked her nonplussed. She balked at me, “She said that you would be back.” My mom knew me and my adventuresome spirit well. I said “Well, here I am” shrugging my shoulders and then went upstairs to my room. I think I might’ve offered her a simplistic apology, or maybe even an excuse. …But I didn’t feel deep contrition. Certainly not what should’ve been merited now that I look back in hindsight. She loved and trusted me, she cared about me and my well-being. And I trampled all over her concern.
The next morning I remember standing off to the side of the group of other classmates, none of whom I knew well. They were talking about how they would all save themselves for marriage. I didn’t understand this concept. When one of them, kind of the ringleader, said that she would never do anything with a man outside of marriage she looked over at me and sneered. Then all of the other girls followed suit. I rolled my eyes and cast them off as judgmental Bible thumpers. I was as disgusted with them as they were with me.
Fast forward a few days, when the green-eyed Scotsman was returning to his home Edinburgh. We, meanwhile, had traveled up to the Lake District, near the Scottish border and a small group of the classmates wanted to branch off and visit Scotland for a couple days and then return to the main group. My best friend was thrilled at this prospect; she loves cultures, anthropology, and particularly that of Scotland. She had been looking forward to this for months — it was her senior graduation trip after all. I didn’t tell them that my green-eyed Scotsman was there, but acted wholly interested in accompanying them. So we took the train up to Edinburg and stayed in nice hostel. I immediately met up with my green-eyed Scotsman and abandoned my best friend to the rest of the group, who had innocently wanted to see museums and the architecture of the area. You know, normal people stuff. I didn’t go exploring with her even one day, but stayed with the Scotsman the entire time.
When the three days were up they were all packing their things and I told them bluntly that I was not going with them. They stared at me in disbelief. The teacher who is in charge of the smaller group said “But you have to! They’re expecting us!”, and I said “Actually I don’t have to. I’m 18 and I can make this decision.” It sent everyone into a complete tizzy. I remember my best friend being so exasperated with me. She was always the sensible, kind-natured one and she tried to sit me down to tell me that this man was not my true love. That I was making a bad decision. I was unswayed. Her admonition was lost on me. I said “how could she know for sure?! This might be the one!” I loved adventure and my friend’s well-meaning words weren’t going to impinge upon my desire. Little did I know that I was breaking my best friend’s heart and it would forever alter the course of our friendship from then on.
So, the group packed up and left and I too packed up and went with my green eyed Scotsman to stay at a hotel with him. This is the part of the story that I tend to omit. Suddenly I started seeing flaws in my Scotsman. He was 35 but he lived at home with his mother. He had two children. I would never come to meet his mother or his children, and I remember thinking it was getting kind of complicated… that maybe he wasn’t the man for me after all. This was about a month into our fling.
I had tickets to go see Radiohead at an upcoming show in Glasgow that I had planned for months… it was going to be my last big hurrah before returning stateside. My Scotsman accompanied me to Glasgow where he had friends that we could stay with. The night of the concert everyone got completely wasted including myself, and somehow I got separated from him and the rest of the group. Up to this, I remember being so excited to see Radiohead perform; they were one of my favorite bands at the time. But when they started playing ‘Idioteque’, I found myself dancing completely, utterly alone in a massive group of people during a stormy night in Glasgow, and loneliness struck my heart.
It was anything but the joy that I had expected to experience. By the time we met back up I was irate. I’m still not sure why to this day, but it culminated in a huge fight between me and the Scotsman. (My now-husband tells me that I turn into a dragon lady every time I drink which is largely why I stay away from alcohol… that and often times just makes me sick.) So maybe there was no real reason for the fight. Maybe I was lonely and scared and I felt abandoned and the alcohol just exacerbated my ire. Either way, the next morning he tried to be cordial with me and offered me a cup of coffee but I narrowed my eyes in the slits and told him I wanted to pack my stuff and leave.
On the bus ride home we didn’t speak to each other. Not one word. When we got back to his place I had tried to make amends but it was too late. He had snubbed me and was kicking me out of his house. He no longer wanted anything to do with me. When I asked him what I would do he told me to go back to the hostel and figure it out myself. I had never had my heart broken before, and I don’t think I’ve ever had my heart broken in quite the same way since. I was crying so hard my face, my body, and my heart ached. On the bus ride back into the city center of Edinburg we sat in separate spots on the bus not looking at each other. When I got off the bus for the last time and looked back at him he stared out the window listlessly, refusing to meet my eyes. That was the last time I would ever see the green-eyed Scotsman.
Luckily hostels are very cordial and friendly places, so I returned to the one that I originally arrived at with my group of friends. Many of the people staying there worked at the hostel to afford to live in Edinburgh, so although a few weeks had passed I returned to familiar faces. When they saw that I was an 18-year-old with a broken heart and broken dreams they welcomed me with open arms. They weren’t judgmental; they didn’t say I told you so; they didn’t mock me. These acquaintances — strangers just weeks before — understood the utter loneliness and shame written on my heart at that moment. And so they befriended and cared for me.
I re-organized my plane tickets and had another week to spend in Edinburgh before I could get back to the United States. My classmates had already returned a couple weeks before. I don’t really even remember how I bided my time after that happened. Did I go to museums? Did I wander around aimlessly? Did I stay in bed? I just don’t remember. I guess that’s the heart’s way of protecting itself against what could be traumatic instances.
As soon as I was off the airplane stateside, I went outside for a cigarette and called my best friend. I expected us to gush over all the details, to laugh about it together, and for her to think of how ridiculous I was but that she loved me and was glad that I was safe. I expected her to heal my wounds. But she was not receptive. I had wounded her so deeply that she could no longer play that role for me. She too had snubbed me because of my actions, and I didn’t blame her.
To make matters worse, when school resumed the teachers had spoken about the trip and what I had done to them to all of the other staff. Remember, this is a small alternative artsy school and the teachers and I were relatively good on good terms… Until the other teachers started lambasting me, asking “how could you do that to so-and-so?! She is such a good person! How could you do that?!” It seemed like everyone in the school was talking about me and looking at me sideways. I was a pariah. I had clearly made the wrong choice and I had indeed already suffered natural consequences for my decision, but the ripple effect reached further than I could have ever assumed.
I protected my wounded ego by laughing it off and claiming that it was no big deal. I didn’t tell many people about the heartbreak. I didn’t tell many people about the sexual encounters. I felt ashamed. I’d made a bad decision, felt terribly isolated and stupid, yet I couldn’t tell anyone the truth. Surely i would get an “I told you so,” or “serves you right.” So I had to make it an extraordinarily funny, mind-boggling story… Because it is indeed mind-boggling. But I shut out all the parts that make it so tragic.
A month ago or so when I was telling another very good friend of mine this story over Scrabble, I saw the hurt in her eyes. She’s the godmother of my son and she leads a very beautiful, peaceful inner life… she saw the hurt even though I was telling the story the same way I always had for the past 10 years. She realized that it was an 18-year-old girl so confused about what love was and so desperate to seek out affection that she would give the best and most private parts of herself away to any stranger that knocked at her heart. She didn’t have to say a word. The way that she was looking at me brought the tears, and for the first time I realized that this wasn’t a funny story. That this was a tragic encounter of a lost, scared girl.
Years later the green-eyed Scotsman would write me an email. He would apologize for how he left me and tell me that he had to leave me before I would leave him because he was falling in love with me and knew that I would return to the States without a second thought. He knew that his lifestyle and mine could never work with his children and his baggage… And in order to protect himself, he had to break my heart before I could break his. Intellectually I knew this when it all happened, but it was nice to see the validation before my eyes. Still to this day when I hear the song “Hold You In My Arms” by Ray LaMontagne, I hear the green-eyed Scotsman serenading me on his guitar.
Today, I write about this because it saddens me that a man who treated me with such casual disregard, after such intimate words and actions were shared, still has a piece of my heart because I unscrupulously chose to give it to him, even though I’m now married and a mother. In fact, all of the men that I gave a piece of my self to still are with me today, something that I can never change.
I want to tell every other woman out there to protect what is most sacred: herself, her personhood, her sexuality, her heart. That the pieces of yourself you break off and give to someone in a fleeting, impulsive moment inevitably stay behind with that person, whether they merited it or not. Even when those pieces now belong to someone else in the covenant of marriage, I cannot return them to their rightful owner. I so wish I could’ve given myself as a whole to my husband. But I didn’t know that then. I could’ve never known that would be a want of future Karen’s. In fact even in my wildest dreams I would’ve never been married. Or a mother.
And I want to tell everyone reading to carefully consider potential ripple effects and implications of their actions. Still to this day my former best friend and i are just that: former best friends. I still love her dearly but my actions did not reflect that, and unfortunately it was unrecoverable. I don’t feel like I can visit my former school to say hi to teachers I loved because of the stigma I still carry. It still hurts my heart terribly to think of how I treated the people who showed me such trust and acceptance and concern.
I’m not saying I wish this debacle didn’t happen. Every story, as you’ll continue reading in this blog, leads me to where I am today. It was the first time I experienced heartbreak; it wouldn’t be the last time that I’d let a lot of people down to pursue my own selfish wants. In hindsight a lot of good has come from this story. But I hope to help my future daughter avoid any situation like this. Or maybe I hope to convince myself that when she does get into situations like this it will all be OK; that God makes crooked lines straight; that I can’t save her from the decisions she’ll choose to make… Even though I’ll really want to.