High School Boyfriend

I got out of work at 5pm and stopped briefly in the 4th floor bathroom to give the hair a once-over (I wish I’d showered…), and then shot off a text: “I’m free! Where are you”

I left the building, and quickly got a text response from him, that he was near Columbus Circle. After a bit of confusion and a quick phone call (“Just.. stay where you are! I’ll come to you, okay?”) I met him on the corner of Columbus and 60th.

He looks the same, warm, soft face, brown eyes, scruff and mussed brown hair. I was thrilled that he seemed as happy to see me as I was to see him. Two indecisive people together is a bad mix, but I decided since he is a Scottish boy, I might as well go full pub, and led the march towards Lincoln Park. I got a glass of wine at the bar, he got a Blue Moon. We found an empty booth and scooched in.

The talk flowed easily, as it always does, although I’m always shy about talking too much. Most of our talk focused on acting, on ridiculous auditions, on the difference between London theatre and New York theatre, agents and journeys and meant-to-be’s and not-to-bes. I drank slowly, still not quite over the night before’s overindulgence. He went through two “pints” (who says that? I love it) and then he paid the tab and we went outside so he could “pinch a fag.” (I told him that it wasn’t such a good idea to say that in Hell’s Kitchen).

He was very clear that if I had a “night” planned, it was totally fine. But I didn’t, and he didn’t, and maybe he got bored of me but I don’t think so, and I think we mutually decided it was going to be a full night of friendship.

We ambled down 9th Ave, chatting, trying to figure out the next step. “We should eat… Are you hungry? You’re probably hungry, right?” “I mean, it’s 7:10, we should eat probably, especially if we’re drinking more…” We stopped on 49th and I said I’d be glad to pick a place to eat, but he had to give me some parameters. What did he want to eat? I threw out some options, stay in Hell’s Kitchen, go down to the more neighborhood-y Village (he’d mentioned that’s what he liked about London and disliked about NYC), or we could go uptown to near my place where there were some great new places (he’s staying in Harlem too, so it seemed sensible). “You like beer, right?” He stared at me. “Okay, so we’ll go up to near my place and get beer and food at Harlem Tavern, okay?” He grinned. “Sounds perfect.”

We walked to the uptown 50th St. C, where very quickly we got on a train. As it rumbled up 8th Ave, we talked about high school, folks we remember, folks who have grown up in great ways, folks who haven’t. He, I think, has even less to hold onto from that time… I still feel nostalgic for it (and him, as part of that). Both of us, though, haven’t been back and don’t relish the rehashing of memory—it doesn’t define us and neither of us have gone back since graduating. In fact, both of us made the same pledge to ourselves—that we wouldn’t return until we were important enough to be asked to return to be on the “Alumni Panel” (a program in the Theatre department where they bring back high-performing alums to lead workshops and do Q&As with the students).

Soon, we got off the train in Harlem and crossed the street to Harlem Tavern. I’d been once before, for brunch, and it’s a lovely, lovely space, even on a rainy night. He laughed and told me that I’d made a great choice. They seated us on the covered patio, where we could watch the rain pour just one plastic sheath away. I ordered a Stella, and he got one of the nicer beers on tap. We glanced over the menu. “How hungry are you,” he asked me. “I mean, I’m hungry but like, not…” “Okay…” “No, what are you thinking, tell me.” “Okay, I’m just going to put this on the table and you can take it or leave it…” “Sure, lay it down.” “How do you feel about sharing a pot of mussels?”

I stared at him, the same look he gave me when I asked if he liked beer. I just had a wave of “Oh my god, this boy knows me better than anyone I’ve met in my life.” Out loud, I grinned and said it was the best idea I’d ever heard. So we ordered.

The talk flowed smoothly and playfully. We talked about our parents and aging, about our dreams of travel and culture shock, of feeling out of place, of “radical acceptance,” about my cat and his dream dog, and about kids. “I’m not one of those people that has planned out my wedding, or having kids… I don’t put limits on myself. I just honestly don’t know what’s going to happen, and I just feel like it’s not going to happen for a long while. If I have kids, I’ll probably do what my mom did and not have them till I’m, like, 35. My sister will get married and have kids way before me. My bet is in the next seven years.”

He agreed with me. “Yeah, we know better now than to make those kind of plans.” Earlier we’d talked about how hindsight is 20/20, but both of us have had to go through the process of allowing the path we didn’t expect to become a path we embrace. He told about a mutual friend, who all through college told him, “Man, we were meant to go to Juilliard.” To which he responded, laughing, “Man, if we were meant to go to Juilliard, we’d have gone to Juilliard.” Which is exactly how I feel. He agreed with my assessment that life at our pre-eminent boarding high school set us up to think that if you work really hard, if you’re really good, then you will get big parts and you will be a star. We learned that there was a system of work & reward, and they told us we were the best and so we thought the best would come to us. Because that’s what fair is.

But that’s not what life is. You are constantly finding yourself on a detour or seeing a vista you never thought you’d see, every day another step farther from the path you thought you were “meant to” have. And every day, he and I both agreed, you have to find a way to justify it and accept it and allow it to be yours, and therefore, “meant to be.”

In the talk of kids, and how we liked them but like… not now… I brought up L for the first time. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t come up earlier, but now that she’s super functional and doing so well, the horror days of the hospital seem less urgent, less an everyday part of my life. But I wanted to tell him, so I segway-ed by talking about how I felt like I got a real glimpse of what taking care of a child was like when L was sick. Extreme illness turns people into children—that’s just the way it is, no judgment, just the truth.

I told him how great I was the first three days when I could mother in a controlled way—asking the doctors questions, getting her food, carrying her bag, helping make decisions—but when the emotional stuff started, I felt ill-equipped. What do you say to your friend who is sobbing because she can’t act for two years and she is vomiting and shitting simultaneously and she cries every morning because she can’t believe this is her life and if someone doesn’t fucking text her back they are no longer her friend? What do you say? How do you take care of someone who is (understandably) irrational and extremely upset (the steroids and meds she’s on are really why this happens, although depression and knowing you have cancer doesn’t make you a ray of sunshine at all times).

The way he looked at me when I talked about this was so kind. He just looked at me, almost in awe, but mostly just as though he was completely hearing me and wanting to hear me and wanting to know more. He didn’t interrupt, he just heard. That’s rare. Truly. And he said it was “amazing” I was able to do that. And I shared how amazing it was to see my group of friends, my little circle of “other” family, step up and really be incredibly strong for this one member.

Anyway, it was a really good, good talk (and the mussels rocked too). Around 9:50pm, he paid the bill (despite my arguing—it really was insanely generous), and he got a text from the friend he’s staying with. He looked up at me and asked what my night was. Again, I smiled and said that this was what my night was. “What do you want to do? What does Sam want to do?”

After some fudging back and forth, I said, “Well, my apartment is covered in laundry, but if you want you can come over and meet my cat.”

He smiled and said, “I’d love to meet your cat.”

So we left Harlem Tavern and walked the block to my apartment. “Okay, after this I swear I will stop, but I just want you to know that I live alone so it’s kind of messy and don’t judge me—“ “You really have to stop with that. I don’t care.”

So I brought him into my cove, and immediately we dropped our bags and gave some attention to Franny (he is a huge Salinger fan, so when I told him the name he put his hand to his heart and sighed, “That’s amazing.”) I cleared some drying shirts off the couch and pushed some things to the side, and we sat down on the rug. Boys love this rug. I can’t explain it. My other ex-boyfriend did the same thing, running his fingers through the shag saying, “I love this rug, seriously, it’s amazing.” Um, I guess?

We continued to talk and play with Franny, who was doing her best to entertain us—running back and forth, rolling on her back, pouncing and nibbling and preening. I appreciated how much he seemed to like her, and it didn’t feel weird to just sit quietly and watch Fran watch us at moments. I got us some water, and he stood to look at my bookshelf and walls.

He stopped at a laminated article my mother had sent, on the wall by my desk. “What is this?” “Oh my god, have you never seen this?” It’s an article and photo of my mother and I at a pro-choice rally when I was 5 years old. My mom had been an escort at a clinic for a number of years, as in New Hampshire (where I was born), it was pretty dicey and there were continuous hecklers and protestors outside all the clinics. I’m holding a sign that says, “Stop the Violence Now,” and my mom is quoted as saying, “I want my daughter to have choices over her body, when the time comes.” Sometimes that freaks people out, but he seemed truly taken by it—proud of my mom and impressed by the whole thing. Of course, this talk led to some talk about politics and the coming election (our political views are very much in line with each other) and the fear of a Romney-Rice ticket and what that might mean.

At my bookshelf, I pulled out a few choice plays and he gazed over my book selection (we are both big nerds). “You know, I always read books with a pencil now because of you.”

And then I showed him my quote cabinets (in the process of recovery, I made a bunch of papers filled with meaningful quotes, because I love quotes and I’m a nerd to put on my cabinets to help me think actively about my food choices and to remind me of my feelings in the process of eating). And I said to him, “I put these up here, and there used to be more, all over, when I was in the process of beginning to recover from… um… various different… um, eating disorders.” And we began to talk about my ED process.

I didn’t have the words to explain it to him, because I didn’t want to use words that would be misconstrued. I wanted to explain to him that my ED was a symptom of my depression (and I did us those exact words) and not a sudden change in my body consciousness or anything like that. “It was like, if I was controlling my eating then it meant I didn’t actually have to feel my feelings, you know? Like it was numbing, which is managing those feelings, but ineffectively. I actually, like, should be feeling things. And that’s why I say breakdown (which we’ve been talking about), because I really had to completely lose it in order to start feeling again.” “It’s like having an addiction to drinking, you can quit drinking. Cigarettes, you can quit smoking. You still have to eat, you know, so for me it’s about finding a way to eat that fits my life… Like in order to get sane about food it takes conscious effort.” He seemed to really want to understand, asking, “So, you want to be thinking more? That’s why the quotes?” “So, did you um, eat too little, or too much, or?” “All of the above.” And whenever I apologized for not having the words to explain it, he shook his head, saying “No, don’t worry, I just want to understand.” I made it clear to him that I was lucky—“It all started at Williamstown, and I have such a good group of people around me that like, within two months, literally every person had come up and been like, ‘hey, do you wanna talk?’”

“So I remember, after we graduated, you um, you went off… didn’t you, like, weren’t there meds?” “Oh, yeah, I’m back on them now.” “And that’s good?” “Yeah, it’s great. I think it was stupid to go off them in the first place. I have really come to realize that like… this is my life. Everyone has their things, you know? And mine is that I’m just going to be depressed. My whole life. It’s not like suddenly I’m 18 and a grown up and all of that genetic structure will go away. So it’s just managing it in a way that lets me live my life, and I’m doing that, you know?”

He was so generous with me. I’m not sure I’ve talked to anyone about it quite like that. And it was so brief of a discussion, and I assured him that I was doing incredibly well and that I’d said farewell to my nutritionist a couple of months ago (“I hated her.” “Why?” “Well, I don’t know, I just felt like she was my therapist but only wanted to talk about food which I just didn’t want to talk about, especially literally twenty minutes after therapy. I had a job and school and shows and like 3 doctor appointments a week, so it just wasn’t fun. But she’s the one who suggested all the papers.” “The quotes?” “Yeah, the quotes.”)

His phone rang—his friend. I don’t think either of us wanted to part, but he felt a responsibility, and it was already 11pm. We chatted a bit more, talked about accents, his accidental bump up to first class, and then when another lull happened, he looked at me. “You’re tired. I should go and meet up with Sam.” I acquiesced, and drew him a map to get to 116 and Broadway. We hugged, and very quickly, he was gone.

It was… wonderful. I surprise myself with the people I still feel connected to, even after all these years. And who’da thunk the high school boyfriend, my first everything, would feel just as familiar, perhaps even more similar to me, five years later on a rainy night in NYC.

He can move back to the States any time. He could grow into an amazing friend.

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