Your Boyfriend's Back
In the waiting room at physical therapy, where my teenage son was receiving treatment for a knee injury, I was casting about for distraction, and landed on a thin regional sports magazine. I scanned the table of contents and editor's note. I recall that it was the first week of September: leaves hinting at color change, "School’s Open—Drive Carefully" signs, the smell of pencils and renewal. The editor’s letter, however, was about endings, three recent deaths of adult athletes: a marathoner, a triathlete, and a super long distance runner.
The triathlete's body had landed on a beach, hours after he failed to exit the water and mount his bike during a triathlon in southern New Jersey. He was 53 and had been in excellent condition, previously completing several triathlons. The triathlon community was shocked. An autopsy revealed a heart attack during the swim phase.
He was my first real boyfriend, and he was dead, and had been dead for a few months already.
When I dated Joe, I didn’t know what a real date was, except in theory, in fantasies. I only knew I hungered for it to be me in the passenger seat in those television commercials for men’s antiperspirant, those articles in Seventeen. I was about to turn fourteen in the summer of 1973. Joe lived three streets away in our New Jersey suburb, twelve miles west of New York City. I didn't meet him at the town pool or the tennis courts, but at the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan, waiting for a bus back home at 11:45 p.m. I had just been to a concert at Madison Square Garden with Kelly and Lenore, sisters and my next door neighbors, two and four years older than me. I don’t remember why Joe said he had been in the city.
Kelly noticed him first. "See that guy? He looks familiar. He keeps looking at us," she told me.
I didn’t think he looked familiar, but he had a raffish, scrappy charm, like someone I'd seen in a movie once about Irish farm life—impish, freckled, a fop of brassy red hair, his fists plunged into the pockets of tight jeans.
He wasn’t Kelly’s type. Lenore, as usual, had no interest in him either. They told me these things as if they were making a gift of him, but even at thirteen, I knew when a boy liked me.
On the bus, Joe sat across the aisle and we talked. He was seventeen, had a car, a younger sister, a college scholarship. I fell into his blue-green eyes, their slightly watery quality, welcoming and a little bit dangerous. He seemed polite and articulate and had a mischievous but safe smile. I noticed he was an inch or so shorter than me.
We have to meet him first, my parents told me, this boy who was nearly four years older than me, this boy about to go off to college as I entered high school, this boy with his own car and part-time job who was now calling the white princess phone in my bedroom every night. Of course you’ll meet him, I thought, aware that’s what a real first date would mean.
Maybe they’d hoped to find a reason to dislike him, but there wasn’t one. To everyone who mattered, Joe was just who he appeared to be—the best kind of first boyfriend; sweet to me, smart, nice-looking, non-threatening and pleasant to my parents. He had graduated from some fancy out-of-town prep school and would be going to college in Philadelphia, two hours south. He knew all the cool bands and taught me the words to their songs, and we sang along to the 8-tracks he played, not too loudly, in his car.
He took me to movies, rollerskating, carnivals, bowling.He kissed me good night and any other time he could, too. One night, parked behind the dark reservoir a half mile from my house, he told me he understood that I was younger and that he would never pressure me about anything, that we could kiss and hug forever and that would be enough. I wanted to blurt out that I was young but not so innocent, that I had necked for hours with Carl D. back in seventh grade, and in eighth grade with Randy R. I read novels meant for adults and knew what the word fellatio meant, and once found my older brother’s condom stash in the glove compartment of his GTO.
Joe called every other night from the hallway of his dorm, and came home on alternating weekends so we could watch movies, go ice skating, or out for hot chocolate, always ending up on that winding, rutted road behind the reservoir. His kisses were ardent but stayed tender, his hands strictly on my back. I tried not to look at the place where his jeans bumped up. He pressed me closer, but kept his word. Finally, one time, I took his hand and shoved it under my shirt.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, thinking, Yes, please, Yes, you don’t understand I want to, Yes, let’s get on with it. This was Lover’s Lane, after all. I wanted to be a lover—or looking back, maybe I just wanted to be loved by someone.
"I really like you," he said. "I don’t want to ruin anything. You don’t really know what you’re in for."
He was right of course (I knew it then as clearly as I know it now) and removed his hand. Which is what made Joe the perfect first real boyfriend, and, inevitably, what made me treat him badly. He was too good for me—too good in the shiny, polite, presentable-to-the-parents way, and too good, in the I-won't-push-myself-on-a-much-younger-girl way. For as much fun as we had, for as much as I liked him, for as trustworthy as his word was, finally, it all bored me.
I thought about all of this that day at the physical therapy office, the magazine on my lap, my own sweet son in the next room, the unfailingly polite boy who now had hairy legs and who liked a girl but couldn't figure out what to do about it. I thought of Joe and my son and my own awkward teenage self, my brain blinking between disbelief and denial, between nostalgia and now.
I tried to think about what Joe would look like now, and compared that to the tiny, poorly focused photograph in the magazine of him on a bike, wearing a helmet. Perhaps it wasn’t my Joe. But I didn't think M____ was such a common surname. And the age was right. The Joe I remembered had not been athletic. Yes, his arms always felt strong around me, and even then, he’d ridden his bicycle for miles, but a triathlete? But then, I hadn't seen Joe in decades. So much can change.
Joe had asked my parents if I could visit him at college for a weekend, explaining earnestly that I would stay the night with a girl he knew in a sorority house. My parents were informal about rules, but not insane, and said no. I think we both realized that he could go as slow as his word, but in so many ways, chronologically and emotionally, I could not catch up. I said we should break up and we did, ostensibly, but Joe sent flowers, called every few nights, and came home extra weekends. I thought of sneaking down to Philadelphia to see him; after all, Lenore and Kelly and I had disappeared for entire Saturdays, riding the bus into Manhattan, wandering Greenwich Village and taking subways, while our parents thought we were shuffling about Willowbrook Mall, two miles from home. But Philadelphia—and alone? I'd get caught.
I wanted him, when he was home, to be the cool older college boyfriend I envisioned: I wanted to have sex and he again said no. He was lovely, and kind, but I couldn’t yet see any value in that, then.
A year later, I met Sam: only one year older than me, tough and confident where Joe had been soft and mild. Sam was an ice hockey player, a good one at his own prep school, and the electricity I had wanted to ignite in Joe sparked between the two of us with a sharp and immediate zing. Like Joe, Sam had no father. But he also had no car, no part-time job, and no way to take me on a real date, so there was no need to bring him home and hope my parents would overlook his rough Newark accent, scruffy long hair, and the way he seemed to ooze sexuality.
We met at ice rinks, friends’ houses, or the darkened hiking trails near a friend's house. Sam had none of Joe's boundaries about moving too fast, but also no selfish intentions. He was, perhaps, an ideal second boyfriend, someone to feel safe with while at the same time a bit wild as well; and we fumbled through together, comfortable, making awful, tender mistakes.
Yet one night, angry he hadn’t invited me to his school formal (he didn’t own a suit and couldn’t afford to rent, I’d learn much later), I screamed for him never to call again. He’d circle back a few months later, but in the meantime, I fell for another dark and swarthy guy: my father bought me a horse. Poor Sam, who lived to skate, tired after too many weeks hanging on the rail at horse shows, and we fizzled, but amicably. I occasionally saw his picture in the local newspaper, and later I heard he was dating a girl I knew and liked.
Just before my senior year of high school, I heard Joe had transferred to the same local college Lenore attended, and they wound up car-pooling to campus. Soon, Joe and I were dating again. By then I had fewer parental restrictions, and the age difference, seventeen and twenty-one, no longer seemed quite so significant.
Joe would ride his bike to see me at the riding stables, but he couldn’t quite understand why I wanted to spend so many hours there, sweating and dirty, and I had trouble grasping why anyone would want to do anything else. Still, I loved the sound of his bike tires crunching down the gravel barn drive, seeing him and my horse at the same time, and watching the sun glint off his red hair when he pedaled off again. As time went on, though, I rode my horse more frequently and with more intensity, and Joe began biking even more miles, sometimes right past the stable driveway. Eventually, we both simply rode off in opposite directions.
For another year, I'd see him in Lenore’s driveway every few mornings, and she’d tell me once in a while that he'd said hello. After he graduated, I would never see him again. Years later my husband and I would buy a house on the street where he once lived, and I would drive by his old house twice a day, and remember.
When my son and I got home from physical therapy that fall day, I Googled Joe’s name and found an obituary which listed his sister’s name and the college he graduated from, and which featured a much larger and better photograph. The hair was thinner and not as red, but the impish smile and blue-green eyes were clear. It was him, my Joe. He was dead. I was stunned afresh, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been.
He wasn't the first of my early boyfriends to die.
Sam had died in his late teens, the result of complications following emergency surgery after an ice hockey injury. Carl D., the boy I’d first kissed in seventh grade, and held hands with at the mall, had died too, shortly after we’d seen one another at our twentieth high school reunion. I never found out how or why.
After I learned of Joe’s death, it was tempting to wonder what it meant that the three boys who had been so pivotal in my introduction to the opposite sex were all dead, all gone too soon. I made feeble attempts to joke about it (Must be bad luck to date me!), commiserated with Lenore in mock melancholy about the misery of growing older. But mostly I asked myself, did it had to mean anything at all? After all, none of them had been in my life at the time they died; they had not even been in my memory for years. Still, Joe’s death shook me. I decided it was all just too sad, unbelievable, and upsetting to think about, and so I made up my mind to put it all out of my head.
Instead, within a few weeks, I could think of nothing else. I realized that this happens and often doesn’t mean anything; that for a long time, we don’t hear of someone, or don’t think of something, and then something happens, and bam, we see reminders everywhere. Or, perhaps, we go in search of them.
At the age of 49, as the mother of a teen and preteen, was I in need of reminders about being fourteen, fifteen, sixteen? Was Joe lingering in my head because I’d been married for twenty-one years and, while every day I felt loved by my husband, some small part of me also craved some small part of the fluttery, stomach-jumping discovery reserved for early infatuation? Did acknowledging the absence in this world of the three boys who vouchsafed my first experiences of requited romance seal the lid on a lost innocence and hope that I could no longer visit, perhaps even in gauzy memory?
As it happened, the answer was both simpler and more complicated than that.
A month after I confirmed Joe’s death, my son arrived home one day from the prep school where he was a sophomore with a copy of the bi-annual alumni magazine. Late that night, when the house was quiet, I made myself a cup of tea, and sat down with a few magazines in my lap, that one on top of the pile. For the hundredth time, I silently blessed this school where my son, who had struggled mightily through middle school, was now thriving. I thought about how the school's environment and principles—which promised to teach young men to think of others first, and to locate and share their own unique gifts—was shaping this young man under my roof, and how grateful I was.
When I opened the magazine, I saw a photo collage first, and the first face I noticed was Joe’s. He was smiling at me, from an alumni gathering months before, his arm loosely around another middle-aged guy. The caption read Graduates of the class of ’73. Until that moment I had not remembered that Joe had attended this prep school, the one that hopes to build "men for others," where—because I liked the Jesuit philosophy—I had sent my own son. Now, I remembered. And there Joe was, his name in the caption, but not preceded by the word late. I knew that print magazines, even now, are still assembled weeks, sometimes months ahead. Even so, I spilled some of my tea.
Then I set my cup down, paused, and reconsidered.
This man who had perished on his way to a long bike ride had been a boy once, a prep school student just like my son, walking the same corridors my son walks each day, in his sport jacket and dress shirt, khakis and tie, absorbing the same lessons about humility, kindness, and respect. I realized Joe had probably not been quite so "perfect" in the rest of his teenage life, in ways beyond what it meant for him to be a perfectly harmless first boyfriend. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the part of Joe I got, was, both in memory and in reality. What mattered was that I could picture my own son one day visiting at the house of a girl he likes, and that they might think him pleasant, and harmless. Not simply because he’s my son, but because he is, I think, like Joe, a boy who might care enough to tread carefully on a young heart. Because I hoped I'd raised a boy who might keep hope and innocence alive in a young girl's heart, who would keep bicycling out his driveway every day one summer to compete for that heart, even if he already sensed he'd lost it, to a horse.
My husband Frank eventually won my heart, not least because he, too, moved slowly, even in our 20s, insisting we forge a friendship first. By then I was no longer in such a hurry myself, having placed a series of not-so-nice dates, guys, and heartaches on a high shelf, vowing to find a nice guy, a good guy, a slow hand. By the time we had a son in high school, I had had occasion to cycle back through my memories of teenage boys and had mused, in some subconscious way, about the ones I hoped our sons might one day resemble.
Joe, Sam, and Carl: I had been lucky with all of them. All now, gone. Unlucky, untimely deaths.
But Joe’s death had hit me the hardest. We might not have even recognized one another had we passed in a bus station, now. I feel a loss not so much of him, but of us, and of an open and hopeful me, in my mind still bright and shiny and young: a girl who had believed love was always around the bend, that sex could be sweet, and that in the right boy’s hands, her heart might be safe.
I can’t get a stupid altered song lyric out of my head: Your boyfriend’s dead and you're gonna be sorry.
And I am.
Lisa Romeo lives in New Jersey, where she works as a freelance manuscript editor and writing teacher. Her nonfiction appears in mainstream and literary venues, including the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Under the Sun, Barnstorm, Sweet, Under the Gum Tree, Sport Literate, and in anthologies including Feed Me! (Random House) and Why We Ride (Seal Press). She is a founding faculty member of Bay Path University's MFA, and serves as creative nonfiction editor of Compose. Connect on Twitter @LisaRomeo, or via her blog, which features writing resources, author interviews, and guest posts. She has work forthcoming in Hippocampus.