So a long time ago I dated a boy named Doug.

I think it began in the eighth grade, when a thing I did was smack people. Yes, I am ashamed. The ways thirteen-year-olds quantify themselves are mysterious and illogical. Anyway, I did it to him too and he hated it.

But I didn’t pay a lot of attention to him. Both of us were interested in other people. Once freshman year rolled around, though, I don’t know how it happened but somebody heard that somebody liked somebody and all of a sudden I get a note from a friend which says, “So, Doug told me he was going to ask you out at lunch…”

Which he did. In German. And I think it was wrong. But it didn’t matter. I said yes.

There was one afternoon, after school, when I was supposed to walk home so my eight-year-old sister wouldn’t be there by herself. I didn’t. I walked all over town with Doug.

And while yes, it was a bit beautiful, and we held hands and talked and it was raining, its very illicitness (illicity?) does not make it a sweeter memory, but rather a darker one. Yes, we had fun; yes, we were hopelessly crazy about each other; but it was a stolen bliss, procured by sneaking around, and that tainted it even as it was happening.

The rest of my freshman year was similar.

There came a day in February when he showed up at school and said, “Yeah, my dad got orders.”

I imagine telling this story to the people I meet who are not from Mountain Home and having to explain that “getting orders” is when the military tells the serviceperson’s family where they will be stationed next. And Doug’s dad got orders to North Carolina, and they were set to leave in July.

We didn’t think about it much at the time. The school year ran out, and I got increasingly more occupied by the thought that he would be gone soon. A lot of people I knew and was close to moved at the end of that school year. But anyway.

Sometime during the summer we talked about it, and decided that we would try to stay together.

My memory of these events is so weird. Everything is colored by everything else and I don’t really remember planning to try a long-distance relationship, only remembering that it didn’t happen despite the plans. Anyway.

Never mind how, but the day before we were scheduled to leave for Minnesota (and he would then leave the day after), I discovered that he was going to break it off. I got mad at him, but then I realized I had one day left with him and I shut up about it, in what was uncharacteristically nonchalant and also a bit more mature than I remember being. Not that it came out of any sort of real acceptance of the fact that it would have to end. I was just sad and selfish and didn’t want to waste any time.

And then the day came, and we said goodbye. A few posts ago I tried to remember the last glimpse I had of him as we drove away. It was buried pretty deep, though I think I have it.

But the thing was, though the physical distance was a sudden and certain fact, we were still very much connected (curse technology and also freshman fixation). We kept “talking,” as this generation calls it, for a very long time.

There was one particular moment when we discovered that we had been in the Mall of America in Minneapolis at the same time and for some reason that sparked an expletive-ridden exchange, though I can’t remember why exactly or who started it. If anyone did.

What I remember is receiving this text:

“Ha I didn’t want to do it this way little whore but go fuck yourself in the darkest pits of hell.”

I’m sure I said something equally nasty back (either that or I said it first and that was his response). But that stuck and was painful.

This is a thing I still struggle with – a thing that Raymond Carver wrote about, as well – whether love, thwarted, can manifest itself in such a way as that (the terrifying fury of a fifteen-year-old boy). Can that be, however frustrated and childish and dark, still an expression of love? I am not sure. I don’t think I have any other comparable evidence.

There is little of which I am certain about the effects my relationship with Doug has had on me, and I am even less sure how to analyze what the relationship actually was. After he was gone I decided that, as stupid as we had been, we had really loved each other. I changed my mind later and decided that there was no way I had had any idea what love was and therefore could not have loved. I am not sure of either now. Can you love someone romantically when you don’t know what it is to love, when you know nothing about it?

I am reminded of a lovely moment I marked in Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters. One of the nuns is talking to heroine Charlotte, saying, “‘I would like to talk to you about your last Religious Knowledge paper, the one on Love, particularly agape, Christian love. I am thinking of entering it in the regional contest for church schools.’

‘I know nothing about love,’ Charlotte said.

‘I never thought for a moment that you did.'”

I didn’t consciously try to love Doug the way I have consciously tried to love other romantic interests since, or at least not to remember it. But if you consciously try, are you doing it right? I think you are. I don’t think love is an unconscious thing. But is it a thing that you have to understand to do?

I don’t know.

Here’s some more cool stuff from the next page of the Love Letters.

“‘Well then,’ Charlotte demanded, ‘how do you love anybody? I mean properly?’

‘We’re taught that we mustn’t become involved with people because this keeps us from loving God,’ the nun answered slowly. ‘To me this is blasphemy. I can only love God through loving people. I think that is what God meant us to do, because that’s exactly what he did. That’s exactly what the Incarnation means. But we must learn detachment, because far too often our love isn’t sharing, it’s demanding. We don’t think nearly as much about giving love as we do about getting. We have to be involved in the people we love, but we have to be detached from our own selfishness. And this hurts…but where did anybody get the idea that it wasn’t supposed to hurt? Think of the Incarnation again, and that the person who walked the earth who was most fully a self was also the only one who completely gave himself. And he never pretended for a moment that it didn’t hurt. And he never lost sight of the joy that it leads to.'”

I did eventually manage to tear myself away from Doug. I have wondered much about the romantic attachments I’ve formed since, about the sexual guilt that tore me apart for a long time and whether or not it will inhibit me in the future (though that’s a bridge I don’t intend to cross or come to for quite a while).

For my birthday before he left he gave me a ring. It didn’t mean anything that rings usually mean, it was just a way to remember him by. I wore it for a while, and then I took it off. I put it in a box and didn’t take it out for a long time. I still have it, but I doubt I will ever wear it again, so why I’m keeping it I don’t know.

I wonder about that too, about how the fact that I still have this ring from a boyfriend I haven’t talked to in a long time, or seen in even longer, and is that wrong, to hang on to a part of my life which is so distant but which has still gone to the fashioning of All Which is Erika.

I think not.

I don’t know who Chuck Palahniuk is, but he is reported to have said that “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I have ever known.”

What worries me about having that old ring in my box still is the possibility of future romantic interests coming upon it and saying, “Um, hold up, what’s this doing here still?” and not being very happy about it. And this can be a metaphor as well – finding mementos of my relationship with Doug in my mental box as they poke around and saying, “Um, hold up, what’s this doing here still?”

But when I think about it I understand how silly that is.

Whoever you love, they are as they are and what they are no matter what you try to do to change them. But even if you understand things about a person that are not particularly relevant to your life with them in it or very up-to-date, they are still a beautiful, ragged, complex WHOLE. Every last bit.

And that is why I keep the ring, I think. That is why I kept a mask I wore to a dance with Matt, and have a silly little cartoon that Stephen sent me for Valentine’s locked in my phone still. Everything I’ve ever done, been or seen has gone to make me as I am at this moment and that process is still happening. I am never the same two minutes together.

And I think I want to love someone who understands that.


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