J’s third birthday fell in an awkward time of being between boyfriends. It was the first update I’d had without the Student by my side, and I scrambled. I needed someone to share in it with, but it would never be as meaningful as sharing it with the Student who had weathered the storm of my grief and had watched J grow alongside me. Emptiness surrounded me, where he had once stood.
I chose the Rebound that day, but I felt the void, the ache of having let someone in so intimately only to have them break away. I didn’t know how to grieve without him. I was suddenly alone, knees wobbly, uncertain of my capabilities, uncertain of what the future held. I wanted to get away. The Rebound tantalized me with getting away to Pennsylvania. To trees and air and new sights. It would never materialize.
Just weeks before this a friend posted on social media. He was back in the country, in desperate need of something fun to do that day. And so in my zeal and biting loneliness, I invited him to church, I invited him back into my life. The Boy.
The Boy wasn’t the Boy I remembered, the timid, lean, benign friend I’d left behind over three years ago. He had grown, confident, more assertive, sturdier. Something felt hardened in him, a shell constructed after hope deferred. But his skin was the color of a mulled apple cider candle in the fall, and it was almost fall, and his smell and the smell of the air and the smell of hope were an aphrodisiac to me. His head was shaved and he had full lips that would stretch over perfectly level teeth and his smile was intoxicating. He had earrings and he wore a necklace and I didn’t know any boys who wore necklaces and he had a tattoo spread all over his back.
But I had seen the tattoo the year before.
Just before I dropped out of college, the Boy was starting at the same art school on a scholarship. I don’t know how I knew, if he had told me, but I recognized his car in the parking lot one day after I’d left my morning class. My heart skipped. I was dating the Student at the time but some part of the Boy and I remained fettered together, something that was or that could have been, something undiscovered, yet entirely known.
And that meant I would sit in my car which I parked adjacent to his for half an hour? An hour? Maybe it was twenty minutes until I saw him approaching his car, loading his portfolio and I quickly tumbled out of mine and look over with feigned absentmindedness and opened my eyes and mouth in such surprise at such luck at seeing such an old friend at such a time as this. We stood in that parking lot catching up and he showed off his new tattoo on his back and I didn’t tell him or the Student how it came to be that we were able to share in such a moment that day.
But here we were on purpose that Wednesday and we talked incessantly through smiles and reserved anticipation while we made the hour-long drive to church. The Bible study piqued his interest and we all assembled at the House after church and sat in a circle and laughed and read the Bible and shared and questioned and answered and relished in it until it was past midnight and he had to get back home.
I had sworn off dating and makeup just months earlier sometime after that superfluous baptism, but a week before inviting the Boy to church, the Rebound and I had decided to give it another chance. I hadn’t intended the timing of it all. But I hadn’t intended any of the pain I inflicted on the Rebound. I guess that’s the problem with intentions.
I remember regretting my cosmetic abstinence that day the Boy showed up. I remember my heart fluttering, the beginnings of revival from the blow it took months earlier by the Student. I remember exhausting my prayers to God, asking him to take away the longing and the hurt, to just grant me release from the gripping heartache.
And so I needed this to be the answer. I needed this reunion to spark up all the same sensations and buoyancy and love and joy that I’d enjoyed with the Student. I needed to feel again. And both of our imaginations, drawn up over the last three years, brought us together with insurmountable aspirations.
I wasn’t unfaithful to the Rebound. For all I did to him, he would manage to hold the title of the only boyfriend I’d never cheated on. Maybe it was the only gift to him my subconscious could compose. And so I broke up with him a week after we’d just started dating again. The final time, the end of that Summer.
And maybe a month later I was in the church building with the Boy and our friend and they changed into those baptismal garments and they stood together for pictures with funny poses and we realized the friend had put on the girls’ attire. They stepped into the water, it was just the three of us and the afternoon was bright when our friend submerged the Boy. The day the Boy was inducted into the family of misfits we’d created at that little church.
And we stayed up late at Steak-N-Shake and we sat in his car talking for hours at night, and we went on dates that weren’t really dates, and we created memories with our church clan. A friend told me he was like a Christian version of the Student and everything within me wanted to believe her. So I did. I expected a better version of the Student. I was still rebounding but in denial.
But the Boy had red flags. An explosive night in his car before we were dating because I gave a hug to a friend at church. Premature possessiveness. A fight over my going to the Rebound’s apartment for J’s update, again before we were dating. I resented his unfair judgment upon others and laughing ridicule of the Student and the Rebound and any boy in my past.
But the Boy had something sacred which no one else did, and that was prior knowledge. Years ago, we had already exhausted the details of my shattered life. He was my refuge between mistreatment by others. He knew the father. He had sat behind that girl I used to be. He was a friend, a best friend, who saw through it all and found no reason to leave. He himself had a brokenness about him, a reality. He had what that too-perfect boy didn’t have; stains deep within. We were similar in all the right ways, and now he was a baby Christian.
And so that fall, days after J’s birthday, we started dating.