What I Thought Romance Meant, Age 12–Present

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Photo: Don Cravens//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The first romantic thing anyone ever did for me was on Valentine’s Day in seventh grade. I had a boyfriend — my first, though not in any real sense. He’d asked me to be his girlfriend, if I recall correctly, a few weeks earlier; I’d said yes, and he’d promptly bolted down the hallway, avoiding me on a daily basis thereafter. He was the first person who ever kissed me, and he didn’t do it well. He gave me a stuffed bear silently outside of the music room of my middle school, shoved it into my hands, and left me again, alone in a sea of other kids. I felt like he hated me, even though he was giving me a gift, so sullenly was it offered. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I whined to myself, wandering toward my locker in the hopes of stowing it secretly before anyone saw me carrying it, because as a truly and constantly shame-ridden preteen I couldn’t bear (sorry) the thought of sticking out for one second, even if it was for something — I got a gift! — ostensibly positive. No thank you, attention!

That phase wouldn’t last, and neither did the relationship. The bear wasn’t the first romantic thing, actually. The first romantic thing was a few days later, when he dumped me over the phone. I didn’t have my own phone, so I pulled the one from the kitchen — cord a mile long, tension that of a rubber band — into my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. “You’re dumped,” he said, breathlessly, like he was multitasking. I remembered all the times I’d heard him chewing on the phone, eating something, not saying anything, over the past weeks of my first coupledom. I like to think I hung up then, that I didn’t give him a chance to say anything else. The truth is I don’t remember. I only remember thinking then, just for a moment as I was dumped and supposedly at my lowest, “I didn’t think I liked him, but now, I think I love him.”

***

Romance is not exactly floating through the air when you’re a ninth-grader, but hormones will do in a pinch. When assigned pairs in sex ed to care for “newborn baby” sacks of flour, a lesson meant to warn us of the dangers of teen parenthood, I was the worse parent by far. My friend Dan (name changed for reasons that will become obvious in a moment), assigned to be the “dad” to my “mom,” drew the baby’s face on the flour. “This is heavy, I need to go to the library, can you take it?” I asked him immediately. I can’t even remember its name. “Sure,” he said, and though I suspect he was more concerned about his grade than the life of this nonliving life, I appreciated the gesture. I wanted to kiss him, but I didn’t.

“I never thought about him like that before,” I said to my friend Courtney in the bathroom just outside the school library, the library where eventually we’d get caught smoking, our secondhand smoke billowing through a vent into the librarian’s office. The library where, on a weekend detention, I was assigned to make a display about the presidency of Richard Nixon and spent hours cutting out the letters to spell “We Love Dick.” The display made it halfway through Monday, and I got more detentions. “There’s something sexy about that sack of flour,” Courtney said, exhaling smoke all over me in the stall we were sharing. I made him take the sack of flour to his lunch table, too. “I don’t want kids,” I yelled across the cafeteria, the first time I’d ever said it aloud. Dan dropped the flour sack in the hallway between the gymnasium and the swimming pool later that day, on his way to the parking lot after school. “I’m sorry,” he said. And he seemed like he meant it. I never kissed him, but I still remember the face he drew on the bag of flour.

***

My first real boyfriend was also the first person besides my parents to buy me a pair of shoes. He took me to a skate shop and bought me a pair of Puma sneakers. I remember feeling the weight of that purchase — he was two years older than me, he had access to things like credit cards. I had no money of my own to speak of, having decided I would, for now, prefer to live without cash rather than work an after-school job, the only one I ever had, at a Little Caesars Pizza inside of a Kmart. I hated that job; I quit after less than a month. I wasn’t materialistic or stylish, I didn’t care about clothes, but the purchase of the shoes signaled the reality of our relationship to one another in a way that I hadn’t felt before and couldn’t account for now. This feeling was backed up and gained more weight when my parents insisted I give the shoes back, that we return them. I refused, of course; their insistence made me like both the boyfriend and the shoes that much more. What an infraction it must have seemed, to them, to have some shit teen kid buying their only daughter footwear. I kept those shoes for a decade, at least, in the back of my closet, and now, they’re part of my imaginary shoe Hall of Fame.

***

Nothing is more romantic than being left alone to write in a room that is clean and moderately soundproof. This is the romance you make for yourself, the busy person, the single person who isn’t single anymore but is still learning how to be together after being alone.

Nothing is more romantic than taking your girlfriend out for Valentine’s Day even if you think it’s a bullshit holiday, even if you’re right.

Nothing is more romantic than admitting you’re not romantic, but trying to be anyway, simply because someone has done you the incredibly romantic favor of liking you, an unlikable person by many accounts, even loving you, for some marked-out period of time on a calendar. A few weeks in seventh grade, a year in high school, ten years in a marriage. “Cool baby,” you say to your spouse of nine years as the infant — a real one, not a sack of flour with a Sharpie face — who just moved in screams in a basket beside you.

You realize now that you desire not just one but two kinds of alone: the alone where you’re alone, and the alone where you, the unit, is alone. This is complicated and hard to manage so you know that it must be true, but even in the dead of night you believe that you can manage.

“Will we ever be alone again?” you wonder to yourself.

The answer, of course, is yes.

What I Thought Romance Meant, Age 12–Present