(I wrote the following essay to enter in the New York Times Modern Love College Essay contest. I didn’t place, but I’m still really proud of what I wrote, so I thought I’d post it here! You can read the winning essay here, which I really enjoyed reading, too)
In fifth grade, my friend told me she wanted to marry her “elementary school sweetheart.” She was “dating” a boy in our class. Even then, I knew dating as a ten-year-old is moronic. I didn’t understand the “relationships” my classmates were in; they didn’t go out, they didn’t do anything. They held hands occasionally at recess or during lunch and maybe slow danced with each other at the school dance or sat together at a basketball game, but that’s as close as they got to dating.
I understood that it was really just a status symbol; the popular kids were the only ones with “relationships,” but that didn’t stop me from wanting one.
My first boyfriend was in seventh grade. His name was Jamie and he sat directly in front of me in Pre-Algebra. He was dating another girl, Cheyenne. She and I sort of became friends as I strove to hang out with Jamie, going so far as to join their lunch table. Eventually, she broke up with him, and the next week I asked Jamie out via note in math.
I tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a scrap of paper that read, Will you go out with me? Jamie turned around after reading it.
“Who is this from?” I rolled my eyes, pointing at myself.
He was hesitant but said yes, and we were official. Cheyenne was hurt, and I apologized but pointed out that she’d broken up with him. Typical Junior High stuff.
Jamie and I sat together during lunch with my friends instead of his. I spent the entire time sitting next to him, holding his hand, and completely ignoring him. I talked only to my friends, happy as a lamb that I finally had a boyfriend.
When I started writing this, I was going to talk about how he wasn’t a great boyfriend, how I had to beg him to go to the winter formal, and how he had a weird, kind of mean sense of humor, but it turns out I wasn’t a great girlfriend either. We only “dated” for about a month. I imagined during that time all sorts of scenarios where we’d go on dates or kiss, but none of them came anywhere close to fruition. We did, however, slow dance awkwardly at the winter formal, while fervently not looking at each other.
Eventually, Jamie and I had been sitting at different lunch tables and not really talking that much for a while, and I’d been considering how to end it with him; lunch tables are very important in Junior High. Then, a mutual friend came up to me and said, “Rachel, I’m sorry, but Jamie wants to break up.”
A smile broke across my face, and I thanked him.
“Well, that was not the reaction I was expecting.”
I thought again about how relationships seemed like they were nothing more than status symbols, and I didn’t want one anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, I had crushes and liked the idea of a relationship, partners who have each other’s backs in everything, but none of them at this point seemed real.
I made the (possible) mistake of always liking my best guy friend. I was a tomboy, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt when a guy friend, whom I’d had more than just friendly feelings towards, told me, “You’re not a girl, you’re Rachel.”
But then I was friends with someone who liked me back.
His name was Chris, and we met my Junior and his Freshman year of high school. He was in marching band with me, and I thought he was funny, cute, and smart. He liked musicals and books, and I liked him almost immediately. We were fast friends.
Senior year, I was the TA for his English class and we carpooled to school. We’d done a lot together in the year since meeting, and even our mothers had become friends. We’d gone on shopping trips, watched movies, gotten dinner together, etc. In September, his English class was studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and writing love poems. The teacher picked his up and started reading, “Long car rides–”
“No!” he shrieked, turning red. I thought about how many long car rides we’d been on; even just coming home from band competitions in his mom’s big truck, it’d been more than a few. I hoped against hope, but thought, No, it can’t be me.
When I asked him about it later though, he sighed, closed his eyes, and said, “I wrote about you…”
My heart felt like a balloon, filling my chest and deflating quickly, taking all the air in my lungs with it.
When I asked him why, he said, “Well, I mean, you’re smart and you’re pretty and if I was going to date anyone, I would want them to be like you.”
We got ice cream on our first date. We dated for almost two years, until right before the beginning of my sophomore year of college.
Chris was a lot of things to me, a lot of firsts: my first real boyfriend, my first kiss. He made me more confident and sure of myself where I’d previously been insecure.
But at some point, as in most relationships, we passed out of the honeymoon phase. He wasn’t controlling, per se, but he wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do, like join a sorority, things that made me feel like he was living vicariously through me. And I felt like he always wanted me to prove myself, prove I trusted him, prove I loved him. We argued sometimes. I always thought it was stupid when people in high school relationships said they argued, like what could you possibly have to really fight about? And it was stupid. We argued about the most petty, jealous subjects like me having male friends or us not being able to make plans because of family or school. One or the other of us always apologized though, and he’d say something vapid like, “I think we’re stronger for this.”
While I was away at college, Chris and I talked on the phone at least once a week and texted almost every day. He came to family dinners at my grandma’s and I went to as many of his concerts, plays, and competitions as I could. I’d visit him at home and we’d spend all day watching movies or playing video games. He would hug and kiss me, and the first time we said I love you, he whispered it so softly, and my balloon heart blew up so big, I thought I’d burst.
I look back to our last summer together with mixed feelings. I was more happy and independent than I’d been in a long time. I don’t think Chris liked that; I think he wanted me to need him more, but I didn’t notice that until later.
At the end of summer, as my birthday approached, I planned a date, which Chris was very noncommittal about. I thought that was strange, he usually had an opinion about everything, but chalked it up to his tiredness from being busy with band and work. The day before my birthday, I was at my best friend’s house when Chris called me.
I answered and started talking about our date, asking about his day, and generally just babbling happily.
“Rachel,” he interrupted, “…I think we should stop dating.” I had a moment of floating disbelief, where nothing felt real, and I stared into space, disbelievingly.
“You’re serious?” I asked, shakily, “You’re not joking?” Sometimes he pulled terrible pranks just like this.
“No, I’m not joking,” his voice shook a little, like this was hard for him, too. He continued, but I wasn’t listening anymore.
“Okay, well, bye,” I said numbly.
The phone call lasted less than four minutes. Four minutes, also known as less time than it takes to order a pizza.
During my relationship with Chris, I never really thought he was the one or anything, but I’d still imagine our future together. I imagined making dinner together or wandering around our neighborhood in the middle of the night to look at the moon. But the person I imagined wasn’t Chris. He was not the kind of guy to help cook or even stay up past 9 p.m. He was not the one and even worse I wasn’t even in love with him anymore by the end; I was in love with the idea of the relationship and where it could go. Also, his mom was awesome, but I digress.
My point is, after all those years of not being in a relationship and witnessing bad examples, I had been in a relationship just to be in one. Not initially, but towards the end, it was still all about the status of it, the idealizing of it.
A few months later, I started hanging out with Rich. We worked together and would get lunch or dinner during the week. We’d sit and talk for hours after we’d finished our food, laughing and sharing stories, until we both hoped the next meal we shared would be a date. Then, in February last year, it was, and again, we stayed long after our food was gone. It just felt so real.
Rich is witty and funny and caring. He’s a great problem solver and an even better bullshitter. He plays with my nephews, jokes with my family, and still talks with me for hours on end. He makes me feel beautiful, smart, and important. He encourages me to do whatever makes me happy and never asks me to change who I am. He loves me and all my flaws and never lets me doubt that. He’s someone I want to share everything with, who I’m completely honest and silly and me around. He is who I imagined making dinner and going on midnight strolls with.
Now, I know that I don’t want to be with someone just for the hell of it; I want to be with someone who unequivocally loves and accepts me.