It is an understatement to say that I was a “late bloomer,” in terms of dating. My introverted nature combined with my weight problem made interactions with the opposite sex awkward, at best, and difficult more often than not. Male individuals were a primary source of bullying for me, including my own father, so I had a difficult time trusting anyone of that gender. As I look back, there were a handful of boys that were nice to me. In middle school, I usually spent lunch period in the library to escape the torment of the lunchroom. Occasionally, however, bullies found their way into my lunchtime sanctuary. I will never forget the day Mike Z., a popular seventh grader when I was in eighth grade, heard them teasing me and told them to “fuck-off” and leave me alone. I never got a chance to thank him at the time. It meant a lot to me, and if the opportunity ever presented itself again, I would, most certainly, tell him.
Later, in high school, there was James – a fellow outcast and nerd. In retrospect, I realize now that he was the first chance I ever had at having a boyfriend. Sadly, though, my social retardation sabotaged that prospect. He was a stereotypical nerd. He wore thick glasses, had braces, and smelled less than hygienic. He took Latin. I took German. The cool kids took French and Spanish. James was a Dungeons & Dragons playing, Star Trek loving, Jethro Tull fan dork, and he was completely unapologetic about it. I, myself, was a “closeted nerd,” with impeccable hygiene, who would vehemently deny my dorkiness when confronting about it. Being the smarty-pants that we were, James and I had several classes together and often talked. I’m pretty sure it was him that sent me an anonymous Candy-gram on Valentine’s Day during our junior year. I never told him to his face, but I made it abundantly clear, through our mutual friends, that I was NOT interested. Looking back, I now freely admit that it was an asshole move. Actually, as I write this, I am laughing and thinking that, if somehow he were to read this, James would surely contact me to let me know that I am out of my mind and he was NEVER interested in me.
Like many people, I also have the “one that got away.” His name was (and still is) John. I kept my crush on him a secret, at the time. Like James, John had had a reputation for being a misfit. In middle school, he’d had a penchant for wearing moon-boots and a puffy silver winter coat all year long. It was also a widely known fact that he talked to himself, loudly, while walking home from school every day. Unlike James, however, John was like the Ugly Duckling. In our senior year of high school, John turned into a very good-looking swan. It was appropriate that we had Mr. Harmon’s Chemistry I together. Along with our mutual friends Jackie and Karen, we had so much fun in an otherwise boring class. There were many days when I found myself laughing so hard I could barely breathe…and that’s an amazing thing to be able to say about a high school Chemistry class. I’m a sucker for a man who can make me laugh, and I’m pretty sure he liked me, too. Still, I was haunted by his middle-school persona. Surely everyone remembered him as the moon-boot wearing weirdo! So, when Karen suggested that John and I go on a date, I dismissed the idea with a “What? No!” I didn’t give a second thought to how John might’ve perceived my reaction. Secretly, I wanted nothing more than to date him…be his girlfriend…marry him! But that was the end of that, and it is one on the list of my life regrets. I have done a bit of Facebook recon (i.e. stalking) on him in recent years, like most of us have with former flames (right?). He is now a lawyer, happily married, has children, and is living in Florida. Good for you, moon-boot boy, good for you…and I really mean that. In fact, if I could ever muster up the courage to attend a class reunion at which he was present, I would tell him he was “the one that got away” for me – a fact of which my current husband has been apprised.
The summer before my senior year, I became particularly chummy with Michelle, a girl in the “semi” popular group – kids that could be likened to the “D-list celebrities” of the high school set. She’d done some modeling and her mom was a sales rep for Estee Lauder. This nerd thought both Michelle and her mom were the epitome of coolness and glamour! I remember shyly asking Michelle’s mom if she thought I was pretty enough to model. “Uuuuh, weeeell, maaaaybe. Yeah, maaaaybe!” she said, struggling to keep a straight face. At least she was trying to protect my delicate teenage self-esteem. My mother would’ve said, “Oh my God! Are you serious?”
A favorite pastime of high-schoolers from my and many previous generations was “cruising” on the main drag of town – in our case Westnedge Avenue. We spent many a night that summer driving up and down Westnedge in Michelle’s black and gold GTO. I was in heaven! I’d finally made it to outer upper echelon of teenage society, and the fringes of popularity were just fine with me! The thing is, I was, in actuality, what is now known as the D.U.F.F. – the dumb, ugly, fat friend. Michelle kept me around because I was funny…well, that and because I worshiped the ground she walked on. That summer Michelle had set her sights on an “older” (as in a year out of high school) guy we’d met while cruising. Being the “good friend” she was, Michelle made it clear to him that he needed to find someone for me. He knew just the guy – Dave. Apparently, Dave had a “thing” for girls like me. That’s right. Dave was a teenage chubby chaser. That was okay with me, though. In my mind, I was “livin’ the dream” that summer, and there was no way I was going to turn away the attention of an “older guy.” We had a pretty good time, the four of us – hanging out at the lake, cruising Westnedge, and playing PacMan at StarWorld. The summer culminated in the moment that every teenage girl dreams of – my first kiss. I was babysitting one evening, and I’d asked the lady I was babysitting for if I could have “a friend” over. I had a well-established reputation for being a responsible, reliable sitter, so, of course, she agreed to my request. I put the kids to bed earlier than usual and called Michelle. Moments later, Michelle, her man, and Dave were at the door. The four of us planted ourselves on the deck, around the pool. I really don’t remember what prompted the kiss. It was probably because Michelle and what’s-his-name were sucking face, as usual. I dunno. The kiss was decidedly anti-climactic, not at all what I’d imagined in my girlhood daydreams. Dave was a smoker, see, and, no offense to you smokers, but it was just kinda gross. When summer came to an end, so did my “relationship” with Dave. Michelle and I went back to school. Michelle’s guy and Dave went back to…to…frankly, to “loserville.”
As fate would have it, Dave and I would cross paths again when I was a sophomore in college. I was working at Toys R Us part-time while going to school, and I became friends with a co-worker named Cheryl. In the course of conversation, I found out that Cheryl was…Dave’s older sister. It wasn’t long before my “summer romance” with Dave was rekindled and, somewhere along the way, he became my first “real” boyfriend. Yes, I was nearly twenty before I had a boyfriend. I told you I was a later bloomer. My parents were relieved by this small indication of my normalcy, but my father didn’t hesitate to express his opinion of Dave. I distinctly remember Dad’s reaction to my disastrous attempt at trimming Dave’s hair. “Good God, Christine! Why did you make that boy any uglier than he already was?” he said. Dad also angrily and quite vocally expressed his discomfort with our open displays of affection, which, Dave complained, made him feel unwelcome in our home. I didn’t feel at ease at his apartment with his roommates. It seemed like we argued constantly.
Desperation drove the relationship to last about six months. I desperately wanted a boyfriend, and I found out, well into the relationship, that he desperately wanted a curvy girl who would bear him a child. He confessed to me that he’d gotten a girl pregnant in high school, but she’d moved away with the son they’d had. His heart ached from the loss, and he desperately wanted another child. What? Nope! No way was I going to flush my future down the shitter to be his baby mama! Needless to say, my lack of willingness to help him fulfill his paternal longing ultimately led to the demise of the relationship. In spite of the circumstances of the break-up, I was devastated. Adding insult to injury, we broke up just before Valentine’s Day. In the dramatic fashion that was a hallmark of my youth, the day after it went down, I felt compelled to drive myself to the frozen shore of Lake Michigan…in February. Why? I can’t even tell you. It’s not like it was some kind of meaningful, special place for Dave and me. In fact, I’d never even been there with Dave. All the same, I drove the entire forty-miles, sobbing violently while listening to Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” on the cassette player of my car. I sat in my car in the parking lot of South Beach and sobbed some more…rewinding and replaying “Slave to Love” a least fifty times. Then I turned around and drove back home, certain that I would never love again. Two weeks later, I met Eric.
My good friend and Toys R Us co-worker, Kathy, introduced me to Eric. She knew about my break-up with Dave, and she was committed to making me feel better. I spent nearly every night drinking coffee at Denny’s after work with her and various other co-workers. Eventually, Kathy and I became solid besties and coffee at Denny’s turned into partying at her house most nights of the week with her roommate Kirk. Eric was a friend of Kirk’s and a hot-mess of a man. He was incredibly intelligent, like genius level smart, and a true hedonist. “If it feels good, do it!” was his motto. Eric was from a wealthy family. His dad had died and left him tons of money, which he promptly pissed away in true hedonistic fashion. He’d bought and crashed an ultra-light plane. He’d also bought a bonnet macaque monkey, which he kept in a poorly constructed DIY Plexiglas enclosure that he rarely cleaned. His biggest purchase, however, was a plot of land in B.F.E., rural Marcellus in southwest Michigan, on which he planned to build. As far as I know, the closest he ever got to that plan was dragging a double wide onto the property and living within it in abject filth. Still, I was enthralled by his intelligence and eccentricity. The hedonist in him found the admiration of a nubile co-ed intoxicating, and the narcissist in him felt no remorse for taking advantage of my naiveté. Needless to say, I am not the kind of girl that can have a meaningless rebound fling. When he ended our…whatever it was…to go back to his former girlfriend, I felt rejected and forlorn. But Kath had a pretty wide circle of friends, and one day I met someone that I now consider my first true love, Milan – T.J. to most people.
“You guys should totally go out,” Kathy teased. “Yeah, I’d take her out,” T.J. said. His response stunned me. I thought he was waaaay outta my league and far too good-looking to want to go out with a shy, chubby, suburban white girl like me. But “go out” we did, and it didn’t take long for me to fall hard. It was another “summer” romance, but this one was intense – more like all those teenage daydreams of mine. Of course, this relationship was NOT something I could share with my family. The subterfuge involved, however, was part of the thrill. Though it’s unlikely that my father will ever read this, he would be completely enraged to learn that T.J. spent many a night that summer in his house – sneaking in after the parents went to bed and shimmying down the drainpipe the next morning. Frankly, I’m shocked that the neighbors never mentioned it to Dad. Okay. Now, I know that, if you’ve read my previous blog posts regarding my family (my relationship with my father, in particular), you might be thinking, “Aaah, this was a clearly a case of teenage rebellion – working-class white girl falls for inner city black guy to spite her parents.” This is not so. I truly loved T.J., and I probably would’ve spent my life with him had fate not intervened. He was funny and caring and smart. He was a devoted father to the kids he’d had with his high school sweetheart. He was also incredibly unsure of himself, insecure, and prone to self-sabotage. He couldn’t keep a job, but I saw and loved the potential hidden beneath his “lounge about” exterior. Sadly, his low self-esteem often led him to gravitate back toward the women…or rather, one particular woman…who refused to put up with his inconsistency and had cast him aside. Ultimately, sharing his devotion was more than I could take. I had given him an ultimatum. We needed to be exclusive or be over. He never really gave me an answer, but, one day, his decision became clear. He showed up at the home of our mutual friend Rick’s ex-wife, drunk and passed out in the back seat of Rick’s car. The thing that made me know we were over is the strangest part. I went to the car to talk to him, and I saw that he’d had his hair put into cornrows. Strangely, that was what told me he’d made his choice. He didn’t need to say it. It was her not me. Still, to this day, T.J. was the first man whom I felt ever truly loved me for who I am.
A couple years later, when I had moved out of my parents’ house and was living alone (ironically, in my racist hillbilly grandfather’s apartment building and in the same apartment where I’d spent the first five years of my life), I was surprised to receive a call from T.J. We met for drinks, and it was like no time has passed at all. He said he wanted to give things another go, and we instantly fell back into the comfort of our love for one another. He moved in with me, and, almost immediately, the same problems ensued. I pressed him to find a job. He found work, but quickly flaked out on the job and got canned. I found him at the corner bar that day. He looked like a naughty puppy that’d made a mess on the carpet. The final straw was when he “shared” a venereal disease with me. It wasn’t me sleeping around, so, clearly, my beloved was. He confessed that he had, indeed, been unfaithful with the “cornrow braiding” woman…again. “I’m sorry, baby, you just want too much from me,” he said. This time I was angry. “Pack your shit!” I told him. All his worldly possessions fit into two boxes. We put them in the car, got in, and rode in silence. I dropped him at her house. That was the last time I saw him.
After T.J., I felt obligated to live “the single lady” life…for about a minute. I met my first husband not long after my relationship with T.J. ended. We started out as friends. I married him because he felt “familiar” and “like home.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after years of therapy that I came to understand that “home” had not necessarily been a healthy place for me. So, as it turned out, neither was my marriage. For my kids’ sake, I stuck it out for nearly ten years. Then, one day, I realized my marriage wasn’t the kind of example of a “loving” marriage I wanted to set for my daughters. Unfortunately, though, thanks to my dear old dad I ended up having to live with my soon-to-be ex-husband during the process of our divorce. Dad told me I couldn’t move back home until we sold our house. It was then that I began a long distance, online relationship with Graham.
I’m ashamed to say it, but, technically, I suppose you could say I was a cheater. I began a relationship, albeit a “pen pal” association, with another man while I was still married. I think the “experts” call it emotional adultery. Graham lived in Australia, and we connected through an online pen pal message board. We exchanged a few emails and felt an instant connection. We began writing each other more and more until we were emailing daily and realized we were falling in love. That love gave me the courage I needed to endure living with the emotionally unavailable and psychologically abusive husband I had “officially” rejected until I could leave. I love our daughter. So, I won’t go into detail, but it will suffice to say that the experience was incredibly traumatic. Graham and I emailed each other daily for over two years. We learned everything about one another. It’s amazing how close you can feel toward someone you’ve never met in person simply through the power of the written word. After a while, we began speaking on the phone every month or so, and we made plans for him to come to the States for a visit.
In the summer of 1999, I graduated with my teaching degree and was finally able to move my daughters and myself out of my parents’ house and into an apartment of our own. We planned for Graham’s visit to coincide with this event. The prospect of his visit had kept me feeling buoyant through the darkest of times. I will never forget the excitement I felt when I drove to Chicago to pick him up from the airport. It felt like a dream. He stayed with me for a month while he did research on his graduate project at the local university. We knew each other so well, but being together in person wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. Still, when it was time for him to go back to Melbourne, the goodbyes were tear-filled and difficult. He went back to his job and his graduate work, and I began my first teaching job. We still wrote one another but not nearly as often. To me, it felt like he was becoming distant. To him, it felt like I was creating the distance. I was lonely without our constant communication. I decided to start dating. That was when I met the love of my life, my current husband, Michael. Little did I know how deeply my “moving on” would wound Graham. I truly thought that the diminished communication was his way of subtly disconnecting from me. His reaction to my telling him about Michael made it clear that this was not the case. He was angry and very hurt. After that, we kept in touch, but not like before. Over time, our relationship seems to have healed, and we’ve been able to maintain our connection. I still consider him one of my closest friends…no, more like family, and I care deeply about him. I think he’d say things are good between us. It’s funny how love can change shape. I daydream that one day Mike and I will visit Melbourne. Graham will show us the sights. He will think Mike is fun and funny and sometimes seems like an overgrown child. Mike will think Graham is a pretentious, know-it-all old man, but one whose clever, biting sarcasm he admires.
When I met Mike, I felt like I’d been through the ringer. It was my ad on Yahoo Personals that led him to me. The only reason he was on the site was because his roommate had, without his knowledge, placed an ad there for him. His reply was intelligent, honest, and funny – all the things I was looking for. We exchanged phone numbers via instant messenger, and he called me. The connection was instant. We talked for hours. At the end of our conversation, I agreed to meet him at my favorite restaurant, which wasn’t far from his apartment. I’d been through numerous blind dates, at that point, and, frankly, I wasn’t very confident that this one would be any different. But it was. He was handsome and funny and charming, just like he was on the phone. I felt comfortable with him instantly like I’d known him for years. In fact, I felt comfortable enough to invite him back to my apartment, something I’d rarely done on a first date. He was a perfect gentleman, though, thus confirming my instincts about him. It might sound like a cliché or some kind of fiction, but we’ve been inseparable ever since that first date. In fact, not a single day has gone by, since the day we met, that we haven’t spoken to one another, even before we lived together, and, even after we were married, at times when we were apart physically. That’s pretty remarkable for someone with my relationship history. It takes someone with an extraordinary capacity for nurturing to heal an animal as badly wounded as I was. It took time and great patience. He worked diligently, with surgeon-like skill, to heal the wounded hearts of my daughters, too. He was always there for us, and that proved his commitment to them. Ultimately, he earned their love and trust, too. I couldn’t have found a better father or a better husband. It was clear. The remarkable part, though, was that he, like me, had been through more than his share of heartbreak, mistreatment, and pain. The odds of us finding one another, in the whole wide world, and being able to overcome the wounds of our respective pasts were pretty slim. Yet, we did. We’ll have been married for fifteen years in September.
Last winter, Mike had to travel out-of-state to train for his new job. He and I were apart for some of the longest periods of time we’d ever experienced since that first day we met. During this time, I happened upon and fell in love with a song by Nathan Sykes (featuring Ariana Grande) that had recently been released. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, music has always had a profound effect on me, and the lyrics of this song were like a window into my deepest feelings at the time:
From the way you smile to the way you look, you capture me unlike no other. From the first hello, yeah, that’s all it took, and, suddenly, we had each other. I won’t leave you. Always be true. One plus one – two, for life, over and over again. So, don’t ever think I need more, ‘cause I’ve got the one to live for. No one else will do, and I’m telling you, just put your heart in my hands. I promise it won’t get broken. We’ll never forget this moment. Yeah, we’ll stay brand new, ‘cause I’ll love you over and over again.
Because, as I mentioned, I was a late bloomer, I spent the majority of my youth mentally dating celebrities. That’s not just a meme on Facebook. It was my childhood/adolescence. I had been a bride at least a dozen times, in my mind, by the time I was eighteen – Mrs. Davy Jones, Mrs. Donny Osmond, Mrs. Peter Frampton (“oooo, baby, I love your way”), Mrs. Shaun Cassidy, Mrs. Tony Geary (the famous “Luke” of General Hospital), Mrs. Tom Baker (the late 1970’s incarnation of Dr. Who – eeew, I know, right?!), Mrs. Gerry Cooney (Irish-American boxer from the mid 80’s), Mrs. Paul Hewson (Bono), Mrs. Rik Mayall (obscure British actor/comedian – yeah, I had a “thing” for UK guys), and on and on and on. So, the reality of romantic relationships presented a difficult learning curve for me. I realize that no one really knows what they’re doing when it comes to love. We nerds, however, find it exponentially more baffling than the average person. We have enough trouble navigating friendships, acquaintances, and…well…pretty much any kind of social interaction. Deciphering the mysteries of romance is, to us, what translating Latin is to most people. Love and relationships are like a foreign language. It took me decades to find a person whose “language” I could speak and who could speak mine, and it was only then that all the walls finally came down. I finally felt loved the way I needed to be loved. In the words of Bryan Ferry, “To need a woman (man), you’ve got to know, how the strong get weak and the rich get poor. Slave to love.” In other words, you have to be vulnerable. You have to open yourself up completely to know real love. I feel lucky to have found it, but there’s still a small part of me that wishes I didn’t have to have taken such a circuitous path. After all, I did grow up watching all the John Hughes movies. With that being said, now lemme say this, “Hi, I’m Christine. I’m a nerd, and I’m proud!” – just in case you were wondering.