Don Zolidis on How The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig Brought His First Love Back into His Life

Don Zolidis’ debut, The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig, is not your typical love story: from the first page, you know the titular couple won’t stay together, and over the course of their senior year the unlikely pairing—one a diehard geek, the other the beautiful class president—break up and make up again and again. Playwright Zolidis’s debut was inspired by his own first love, and in the months leading up to publication, he got back in touch with his “Amy.” Here’s what happened.

“So I have to tell you something,” I said to Anne after our third glass of wine. My stomach was busy tying itself in knots. “I wrote a book.”

We were eating at a cozy Mediterranean place in downtown Eugene. I hadn’t seen her in four and a half years, since our last college reunion, and we hadn’t been in love in twenty. We’d already been talking and laughing for hours, the way we always did, but the wine finally managed to loosen my tongue enough to tell her the thing I’d traveled two thousand miles to say.

I started out slow. I told her about how I’d written half of the book in a café in Edinburgh in a one-week frenzy, how it sat unread in my agent’s spam folder for six months before she found it. How my agent told me she couldn’t represent me any more after she’d finally read it. I told Anne about a second agent, a revision, an offer of publication. I told her it was being translated into five languages and coming out in the fall. There was a movie agent involved now, too.

And then I said, “it’s about you and me. And I want you to read it.”

Our relationship in college was tumultuous, to say the least. Anne was my first love, and on our first date freshman year we resonated like a struck bell. She was brilliant and warm, with a kind of fearless curiosity about the world. We talked for hours, the kind of heady, wide-ranging, and thrilling conversation two bookish teenagers dream about all their lives. We talked about religion, about our dreams, about books, about how Led Zeppelin was the best rock band ever. She kissed me first, sitting on the couch in my dorm room under a sky of glow-in-the-dark stars pasted to the ceiling. I fell quickly and hard—the way a first love feels like diving into a deep pool; everything became about her, and everything was wonderful.

Except, often, it wasn’t.

We broke up seven times over four years. Once our freshman year, five times during our chaotic sophomore year, and finally and irrevocably in the spring of our senior year. The first six times she broke my heart; the last time I broke hers.

We had broken up in every manner imaginable. Drunkenly, soberly, in the mornings, late at night. On my twentieth birthday, over the summer, I had driven two hundred miles to see her after finishing a shift as a pizza delivery guy, only to be dumped at three o’ clock in the morning. We got back together the next day. And broke up again a month after that.

Throughout the entire process I was oddly resolved. Even though my heart was getting broken over and over again, I knew that it would work out in the end. It was going to make a great story someday.

Our senior year, however, my faith in us failed. Her mother was diagnosed with liver cancer, and what had been a joyous, carefree love was now confronted with the hard edge of reality. My father told me that this would either make our relationship stronger or it would destroy it.

I ran.

I fictionalized it of course, but I wrote our story into the book. I added things, deleted things, changed the whole story around, but the heart of it was the same: the story of a first love that breaks up seven times. There were conversations in it I remembered verbatim; the first time she broke up with me in her dorm room, holding my hand the whole time, the episode when she ran into a tree branch in the middle of dumping me. I wrote about the way she kind of walked like a duck sometimes. But mostly it was a story about happiness, and the kind of love that seems impossibly wonderful when you find the person whose soul resonates with yours.

The first line was, “I know it says love story on the cover. But the couple do not get together in the end. There is no happy ending.” That part was true. I wrote “dedicated to you” on the first page, put the whole three hundred pages in a black binder, packed it into a suitcase, and had it waiting in the car.

I suppose it’s easy to imagine that your first love was the love of your life. It’s new, after all, and your lives are blissfully unencumbered by children and mortgage payments and the pressure of the “real” world. Surely you are remembering it through rose-colored glasses. It couldn’t have been that amazing, could it? Maybe you’re remembering only the good things, and you’ve forgotten the bad ones.
On the other hand, what if your intuition is correct, and that first love was the best love you’ve ever had? Every year that went by meant that I was losing my memory of her; neuron by neuron, the past was being replaced with other experiences. I was going to move on, whether or not I wanted to. What if you could go back? Should you go back?

Our lives diverged after college. She moved to California after backpacking through Europe, then went to Oregon for graduate school, then to New Mexico for a job before moving back to Oregon for another job. I went to New York City to try my hand as a playwright, then took a job teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire before ending up in Texas. At every five year reunion we gravitated to each other, spending hours walking through the bucolic Minnesotan summer. The long, absorbing talks were bittersweet, of course; a memory of what we had lost. She never joined Facebook or any other social media, so those reunion walks were the only times we caught up on each other’s lives.

At our fifteenth reunion I asked her if I could write her a letter, like we used to do. Whenever we were apart in college, we wrote long, rambling, ecstatic letters to each other—pages and pages of handwritten stories about our lives, our dreams of the future. I hadn’t written a letter in fifteen years. The first letter I wrote her was fairly quotidian—about my dreams of becoming a writer, about the pond in Boston Commons I happened to be sitting near. She wrote back to me about her dog, her job as a professor, her new house, her boyfriend. In the second letter I managed to tell her she had been the love of my life, and I asked for her forgiveness. She wrote back and told me I had been the love of hers and she forgave me.

The letters stopped after that.

“It’s about you and me. And I want you to read it.”

She took a moment.

“First, I want you to know that I’m really, really happy for you,” she said, reaching out to touch my hand. “But I need some time to think about this.”

This was the point where my imagination failed. I thought about the run-up of course, how I would mention the book, how I would tell her about it, but my mind went blank when I tried to picture what she would say. What does one say to this?

And frankly, it was a little bit creepy, wasn’t it?

Oh, hey, my ex-boyfriend of twenty years ago just showed up on my doorstep and said he’s written a book about me and it’s being translated into Russian and Portuguese! That’s…interesting. Time to get an unlisted phone number again.

I stayed with Anne for three days. We talked long into the night, raiding her extensive wine cellar filled with Oregon pinots and California cabernets. It was a far cry from the five-liter boxes of Franzia wine we used to guzzle in college. We sat next to each other on her couch, two forty-one-year-olds trying to figure out how we had turned from being teenagers into people verging on middle age. Her playful border collie stretched himself over both of our laps, demanding belly rubs.

We reminisced about a love half a lifetime ago, trying to piece it together, like a combined archaeological dig. Anne dug into her CD collection and found the music we used to listen to: Us3, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin. But mostly we talked about the relationships we’d had since. Anne had never gotten married, never had children, and was emerging from the wreckage of an abusive relationship. She told me how she had felt like it had shrunk her, that once she got free she was finally able to feel like herself once more. She said she was never going to let that happen to her again. From now on she was going to choose happiness. I told her how I’d decided to leave a marriage that had turned sour.

The book sat on her counter. She said she’d read it after I’d gone; she didn’t want to miss the time of my visit reading it. Fair enough. I wasn’t sure I could bear watching her read it, anyway. She started to read it the day I left and sent me a text saying she thought it was funny I thought she walked like a duck. I was visiting a school about two hundred miles away, and we spent the night texting each other back and forth. Finally, I wrote, “Hey, is it okay if I cancel my plans tomorrow and come back?”

“It’s a pretty long drive.”

“I’ve done it before.”

We went through two bottles of wine the next night. She had read about half of the book by that point. At about two in the morning, I was holding her hand. The idea that was in me, that I hadn’t ever really acknowledged, that had begun on the day in Scotland when I sat down to start writing our story, bubbled up in me.

“I want to love you again,” I managed.

The tears were streaming down both of our faces now. “I want to love you again, too.”

“But maybe you should finish the book first, just to be sure.”

We made plans. Even though I lived two thousand miles away, we were going to try to make it work. We chose happiness. Life was too short to spend another twenty years wondering what could have been. I had turned our lives into fiction. And now, twenty years later, the first line of my book was fiction, too. The couple does get together in the end.

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