Love For A Season
My prom dress was too big to fit into the car. I worked my hands around the silky tulle of the rhinestone-studded gown and gathered the fabric into my lap. But as the car picked up speed down the hill, the boy in the driver's seat took hold of the manual handle, cranking down the window. "Here," he said. "You can let go." He motioned to my hand, which was tightly grasping my dress. I let my fingers release the now-wrinkled fabric and watched it billow freely toward the window. My open palm followed the free pieces of silk and my arm glided out of the window as we picked up speed in the cool May evening. I was on my way to prom with a boy I loved. I could let go.
And in that moment, it seemed as if that boy sitting next to me in the car would always be right there, always making sure I could feel the breeze. I had seen this in my favorite films. Once the couple becomes a couple, the movie comes to a close, and we get to assume the happy ending. Harry finally tells Sally he loves her at the New Year's Eve party. They get married and have a coconut cake with chocolate sauce on the side. Lloyd Dobler holds Diane Court's hand until the plane signals a ready "ding," and he holds on as they take off into their future. We get to assume they will always keep their hands in one, tight hopeful fist, and the plane will keep flying.
During my senior year of high school, I had grown accustomed to keeping my hands in a tight fist, to gathering up loose ends and making sure nothing else could be lost. Seven months before, the journalism staff at my school stood in our newsroom and stared stonily at our principals and school counselors as they told us our beloved teacher had committed suicide after months of little-known personal battles—none of which we would ever understand. Three months later, we lost another member of our small journalism family to a sudden, unexpected death. She was 18.
I was 17. And, as is sometimes a safety net with grief, I assumed a role within my grieving cohort. I was The Strong One. From the moment we heard "suicide," I decided to be The One Everyone Could Count On and The Girl Who Never Cried. As the editor-in-chief of our staff of students, I felt required to combat grief with the grace of someone whose maturity reached beyond my age. I kept myself an available and dutiful caregiver. I turned my grief into energy expended for others' pain, but I kept my own sealed far from where it could be examined. I tried desperately to avoid being vulnerable and frightened of the future and confused at the past.
But now, there was this boy, sitting next to me, taking me to my senior prom. With him, I could cry and be angry. I could not know all the answers. I could subscribe to teenage clichés and ride in the car with the window down. I could be 17.
And on the days I was reminded of what I had lost, the boy in my life did his best to keep me smiling. As I left a classroom that now held fewer desks and chairs, this boy waited with his hand extended, to help me get to the next step in my day. He gave me reason to drive to school in the morning so I could later find notes tucked under the rusty windshield wiper of my beat-up Toyota Camry. Once, he deftly discovered my love for old romantic films and scrawled out a line from An Affair to Remember: "Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories." He drew out the final weeks of senior year with these simple acts; he kept me smiling.
Those memories closed, and after graduation, the boy I loved in high school told me he needed to move on alone, to add dimensions to who he was. I let this feel like one more loss; his absence from my life was one that didn't make sense. A friend tried to pacify me, saying this boy was a "season person." He wasn't meant to be mine for longer than the few months that he had stayed close.
There is never a good way to lose someone. Whether the loss is sudden or gradual, physical or spiritual, we feel it with the whole of our lives. "A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty," Joan Didion recounts in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. But eventually, our worlds change, and at some undesignated point along our timelines of grief, we catch up and accept that change.
College offered me the chance to make space for myself somewhere new and uncharted. I spent those years trying to create distance from who I had been—the girl who had been to more funerals in high school than dances. I met people who listened and helped me speak secrets aloud for the first time. By graduation, I was an out queer woman, a journalist, a feminist and a future New Yorker. I was happy.
Four years after prom invitations and scrawled-out notes on car windshields, the boy from high school showed up on the front porch of my childhood Missouri home. As we sat together, wringing our hands and sloshing our coffee, we tried to find the words that could bring us back to the common ground we shared as teens. But we could not be 17 together again. As we sat and tried to make sense of our respective lives, I was just as thankful for this boy as I had been as a high school senior grappling with loss. Now, my fears looked like tall New York buildings, high rent and a new job. These were grown-up worries compatible to my now grown-up life.
As I looked at this man, I saw a boy whom I had needed when I was 17 and scared. I could not love the man who sat in front of me. Instead, I could love the boy who loved me for a season in my life. I was a woman who had loved a man when she was a girl and he was a boy. I was a lucky girl to have known that boy. And I hope that somehow, at some point in life, he'll think back to those last few weeks in high school, and I'll be there, letting my prom dress flow out of the open car window.
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