As a prelude to making out, my boyfriend removes the retainer from his mouth and sets it down on the bench next to him. God, that’s sexy! Later, in an act of undying devotion, I return to the soccer field where we’d been making out to retrieve it. Its dark out, but the light of my love leads me to it. I spot the small pink dome resting on the bench. I pick the thing up; it’s like touching the inside of a plastic smile. I carefully put it in my pocket, and walk back to my dorm room.
This is something of a second chance high school - a boarding school, and some kids are here on purpose, but a lot of us ended up here either because we dropped out or were expelled from other schools, or couldn’t get into college with the grades we had. There are a number of 19 year-old seniors, and at least one kid who came here from military school, and still wakes up every morning at 5am.
My boyfriend is a day student; he gets dropped off in the morning, and picked up in the evening. For my birthday, he paints a rose on a canvas that he stretched himself, not a rose in bloom, but one that’s still closed in on itself, attached to a long, thorny stem. Our union was unlikely. I happened to mention in confidence to my roommate Alexia that I thought he was cute, she went and told him, and the next thing I knew he was sitting across from me in the dining hall, where I refused to speak to him. For a week I blatantly ignored him as we crossed paths on the tiny campus, but he persisted in seeking me out. “Why won’t you date him?” Alexia asked. It’s the principal of the thing that bothered me; I told her something in confidence and then she went and shared it. I vowed to never tell Alexia anything again, ever. Besides, I had a strict policy to only like boys who didn’t like me. My sophomore year there was Andrew; he was really sweet, tolerated my attentions with stoicism, and was totally uninterested. He signed my yearbook with: “I’m sorry that not everything turned out the way you wanted.” After Andrew graduated I moved on to Sam, who was on the cross country team with me, and actively disliked me, but this only stoked the flames of my desire. I didn’t like being pursued, and I wasn’t very graceful about rejecting my suitors. The year before, I had flat out refused to date a very nice boy named Fred who had transferred in his senior year. Without a hint of nuance or sugarcoating, I said: “I can’t go out with you.”
So it should come as no surprise that after a week of stonewalling this boy who Alexia told my secret to, I literally dare him to date me. To my shock and surprise, he takes me up on it. To save face, I have to transform my hostility into feelings of endearment and affection. As it turns out, this is surprisingly easy to do, and I soon fall completely and totally in love. I can’t imagine life without him; he’s all I think about.
After I graduate high school, I ditch my plan to work at the summer camp where I’d spent seven summers, and take a job doing office work at an agency that sends people out onto street corners to distribute fliers, just so that I can continue to see my boyfriend on weekends.
Some weekends he takes the train into the city, and some weekends I make the reverse commute. At my boyfriend’s house, I sit at the table with his family, and am included in family functions and outings. My boyfriend’s parents take me into their home every other weekend, put me up in the rec room, and treat me like I am one of their own. His little sister adores me, and on Saturdays if my boyfriend is working, I hang out with her. At my house, I do things on my own; I cook frozen or boil-in-bag dinners, which I eat by myself. My sister, six years my senior, has long since moved out on her own, my father lives in another country, and my mother is never around.
At the end of the summer, I go away to college in another state, and we break up, the distance is much for him. I am devastated; as far as I’m concerned, he is my one great love, and I will never meet another boy like him. It’s not too much distance, however, for me to keep in touch with his family. I send his mother letters from college, and she writes back. She documents the goings on of the household, tells me when her pet bird dies, and when my boyfriend’s little sister starts high school. I send her black and white prints that I develop in the college darkroom, and when I move to Chicago and discover The Reader I clip the Life In Hell cartoons and mail them to his little sister. Over time the correspondence slows, but it never quite stops. I see my boyfriend from time to time, not often, the summer after my freshman year of college I go to his eighteenth birthday party, once when I spend the summer back east we go with a group of friends to hear a singer perform at a coffeehouse. He goes to college and majors in agricultural science, and gets really into organic farming. The last time I saw him, he was working on a CSA in Pennsylvania. He told me about a woman he thought he was in love with, and I told him about the man who would eventually become my husband.
The last time I spoke to his mother was right after I’d gotten married and bought a house. There was something different in her voice, after I’d updated her on my life, she said: “wow, you just really are one of those people who stay in touch.” She’d been going through some papers, and found all the letters I’d sent her over the years. She said she was going to mail them back to me. “Why would you want to do that?” I asked. “Oh, you know, this way you get to read them and see who you were back then.” In my experience, sending back all the letters someone has ever sent to you is something you do when you break up with them, is that what she was doing? My boyfriend’s mother was breaking up with me! I reluctantly gave her my address, and hoped that she would forget about it. A few days later I received a package from her. I opened it, read one line, and stopped. It was embarrassing; the only good thing about having it was that nobody else could read it now. I stuffed the envelope in a drawer and never looked at it again.
A couple weeks ago, as I sat in my cubicle at my recession job – the one I got after I was laid off from my real job, I was surfing facebook when I came across an NPR story about a New York journalist who’d traveled to Pennsylvania to interview a young farmer at a CSA, fell in love with him, married him, started an organic farm with him on the New York/Vermont border, and had written a memoir about their first year running the farm. I didn’t need to read the rest of the story to figure out that the young farmer she was speaking of was my boyfriend. Like the magic that had led me to his missing retainer, I just knew. Something happened to me as I sat in my cubicle, a small explosion that started at the base of my neck, and radiated out and down through my extremities.
By the time I got home to my loving husband, I could no longer form coherent sentences.
“That bitch stole my boyfriend!” I blurted.
“Oh, and what am I?” he asked, after I’d managed to explain myself.
“Yeah yeah, you’re great, I love you, whatever, the point is… that bitch stole my boyfriend!”
“You would not want to be a farmer’s wife,” he argued.
I offered as counterpoint: “You don’t know!”
In the weeks since, I’ve read every interview of my boyfriend’s wife that I could get my hands on, listened to audio tracks of her on NPR, and watched videos of her speaking. I even tracked down a couple photos of my boyfriend online to confirm what I already knew. And because my brain is a jukebox of songs that were recorded between 1980-1990, Prince’s “when u were mine” got stuck in my head, even though the lyrics in no way describe our relationship.
My illogical burst of proprietary feelings for my boyfriend seems to have subsided, and I’ve come to recognize that the attachment I felt was really more to his family. I doubt that I will see him or his family anytime soon. It would probably be weird anyway. If he was to walk into this room right now, all I would really want to say to him would be: Thanks. Thanks for putting up with all my crap. Thanks for breaking through my ridiculous, self-defeating barriers. Thanks for having such a cool family (except for that one time when your mom broke up with me, that was whack.) Thanks for growing up to be a good man who does good things in the world. But mostly, thanks for taking out your retainer - not every guy would do that.