The longest relationship I’ve had, apart from the 12-year one with my ex-husband, was with my college boyfriend, Jon. We went out for about three years. You can call it two, if you want, since the last year was spent breaking up; like so many couples, we couldn’t quite rip off the Band-Aid, pealing it off bit by bit instead.
I didn’t keep in touch with him after a bad incident that occurred a couple of years after we broke up. I knew by then that he was an alcoholic, and that was confirmed in spades years later when a friend ran into him and he revealed that he’d been caught on his third DUI and was probably going to jail. Last I heard, he was driving his bicycle to work—or was it to the unemployment office?—and living in his late parents’ house. He was later forced by his sisters to sell the house, and I imagine he lived off the money from the sale until that was gone. I picture him now homeless, bottle in hand, very much like the Nicholas Cage character in Leaving Las Vegas, drinking himself to death.
How did I end up in a relationship with such a charmer? What did I ever see in this guy who’s the quintessential loser?
That’s the funny thing about youth. I loved him, and I won’t even equivocate and say, “Or so I thought.” For who I was at the time and who he was—an interesting alcoholic who was still only on the precipice of full addiction—it made sense.
I met him in the first semester of my junior year, when he lived in the party room next door to me. I’d heard stories about him before we met, about how he’d lived in the woods the previous semester, coming to the dorms on occasion to study or get warm. A bunch of us were hanging out in my friend’s room and he came in, plunked himself down, and proceeded to stare at me with his clear blue eyes. He didn’t say much—he never said much—but he was apparently in that room for the express purpose of wooing me with his eyes.
At the end of the night, he found me in our coed bathroom where I was brushing my teeth to get ready for bed. We sat on the sinks and talked for a long time, and then slowly he slid his fingers down his thigh toward me and reached for my hand. I think we were actually a couple from the moment he followed me into my friend’s room, but that electric moment when his hand found mine, surrounded by porcelain and fluoride, sealed the deal.
I don’t feel very much like the college version of myself anymore. Surely if I met a guy like that now, one who didn’t talk and who showed signs of being a dysfunctional member of society, I wouldn’t give him a second look, even if he was the epitome of my physical type: tall, skinny, and blond. Even so, his quirky romancing by the faucets still moves me when I think about it. When I envision his hand and the shape of his coltish knee through the jeans, it still puts a smile on my face.
There’s not much about that relationship that I would go for today. He didn’t treat me well, for one thing, and experience has taught me that I shouldn’t put up with that; a bit of therapy has helped me to understand why I did. But just because I’ve changed and grown doesn’t mean I can deny the feelings I experienced. I knew even then that a certain amount of what I was calling love was infatuation—a girlish feeling that I would die without him. And probably a part of me realized that it was an unhealthy love fairly often. But I can still think of the good times with a smile and, fading though the memories are with time, can still remember what appealed to my 20-year-old sensibility. This was the guy who introduced me to Kafka and to Gogol, after all, and Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap. He was the only guy who ever wrote me love letters, eventually trying to woo me back with them when I finally came to see that he and our relationship were going nowhere.
He’s also the only guy who ever physically hurt me, who committed unforgiveable acts.
I stopped loving him long ago. But I have memories of him that still hold love, little slices of my psyche that warm at the thought of him.