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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Dances on Tables": My English Boyfriend

As I made my way to the restroom in Panera the other day, BAM! it hit me -- the smell of his cologne. Tuscany. I hadn't thought of the name of it in years, and then I smelled it in the air, and the name came to me in an instant; I looked it up online, and there was the familiar rust box with black stripes.

Oh, I wish I could tell you his name too. My English boyfriend from so long ago. It was such a very British name. Four names, actually, since he had two middle names. Here, I'll make up a name to try to give you a sense of it ... Let's just call him Algernon Jasper Julian Thwaite, shall we? Algy, for short.

Algy was suave and sophisticated, with a blond pompadour and a penchant for reading poetry. (In truth, he was as suave as every young man with proper British accent seems to an American college student who is intoxicated with the heady sound.) He drank red wine at dinner and black-and-tans at the pub. He taught swing dancing classes in our college cafeteria on Tuesday nights -- classes that cost 50p per evening, and that upwards of 40 or 50 students would attend regularly for the coolness and fun factor alone.

I love to dance. I loved this class. Very quickly, I also loved the instructor.

We ended up dating for three years. It was easy at first, since I was doing my study abroad year. Then I went back to my US university after half a summer spent writing the longest letters it was possible to send for the price of a single overseas stamp. (Fifty cents would get five 5 x 7 pages, written on both sides with my favorite roller ball pen, to England in a matter of a few days.) We were together for nearly three weeks at Christmas, when I went to visit his family, and then spent the entire spring term connecting through letters. We wrote daily (a page or two each night, until the letter was full, then off it went, and the next one started). He came to visit for the summer armed with a work permit.

Of course, in the interim, we'd made the disastrous decision that it would be okay to date other people if we wanted to, since we were so far apart for such a prolonged period.

In retrospect, dating other people was only a marginally worse idea than dating each other, but at the time, I could not see how bad he was for me.

The great inanity of this relationship was that all the tears and fights occasioned by the jealousies over doing precisely what we'd agreed we should be allowed to do kept us together far longer than we should have been. If we'd simply allowed the thing to wither on the vine, I have no doubt it would have done so. But because we "cheated on each other," we both felt this overwhelming urge to fight to win back what we were threatened with losing -- and so we clung tenaciously to the sinking ship as if it were the only flotation device in the whole giant ocean rather than being the very millstone that was dragging us both down.

Finally, that torturous summer was at an end, he went back to England, and we went back to letters. Letters were far safer because we could control every aspect of our relationship within them: we could each reveal only what we wanted the other to see, and we could frame events through the perspectives that would preserve the illusion, both for ourselves and for each other, that we were still in love.

Of course, we weren't.

Or at least, I wasn't. Not really. I was in love with the idea of being in love. I was in love with the romance of a British boyfriend, with the exhilaration of finally dating someone who was a great dancer and loved to take me dancing, with the eloquence of an epistolary relationship. But romance, eloquence in ink, and memories of a few great nights in London jazz clubs don't keep you warm during a dark midwestern snowstorm. And a boyfriend whose own insecurities tend to manifest in asserting his superiority over other creatures (particularly over his girlfriend, and particularly in terms of the thing about which she is most insecure: her looks) can be a somewhat hard flame to keep alive.

Hence it is not surprising that once I started graduate school, I found myself attracted by other men, other possibilities, other intellects. Over the course of my stormy first year in graduate school, we "dated other people" occasionally, he came to visit from England over Christmas, I told him I could not see him any more, he went back to England, I phoned him to be sure he understood that our break-up was final, and he proposed. Thankfully, I did not say yes.

And then, in the great irony of our lives, the man whom I'd spent three years struggling to date from across an ocean got a full scholarship to do graduate work in film studies at the very university where I was just starting my PhD -- and six months after I'd broken up with him for good, he moved into an apartment two blocks from mine.

Then, no matter what I did, I couldn't get away from him. My friends thought it was hilarious to report back to me things like, "I saw Algy at the bar last night. They starting playing some swing music over the radio, and he jumped up on a table and started dancing!" The truth was in there somewhere, though I cringed to recognize it.

And yet, despite all of the heartache, the tortuously prolonged death of the relationship, I could not get rid of the box of letters. I still have them, packed away. A giant stack of letters, still faintly scented with Tuscany, layered into a box with a handful of poetry he once typed out for me, and a few black-and-white photographs of us that I took and printed myself. I haven't opened the box in years, and I'm not sure I ever will. I have no real desire to relive those years, and yet there is something within me that cannot throw them away either, all those words that were once so central a part of my life.

My one regret is that I did not, Victorian style, request that on our breakup he return all the letters I'd written to him. It embarrasses me to imagine that those gushing words of love live on in someone else's box of the past. And yet, I suppose, that is what composes a lifetime: moments of thrilling back flips on the dance floor, regrets, longing phrases quietly whispered in private letters, and moving on.

It is the moving on that makes us strongest, I think. And it is the momentary susceptibility to the lingering hint of once-familiar cologne that makes us human.


All Adither said...

Beautifully written. It's fun to look back at those experiences, as wrong as some of them were. They make us who we are today.

Aimeepalooza said...

My Brit boy was actually from Wales and it lasted only two letters and one phone call...but I was 15. His name was Garret and he smelled like a teenage boy and had the most beautiful pink cheeks.
The smell of Obsession for men, however, sends me straight back to that relationship that should have withered on the vine but the cheating made us fight to win each other back. Sigh. You bring back memories!

supertiff said...


Mr Lady said...

Please don't ever throw that box away. And when your daughter is grown, give them to her.

My mother had an Elizabeth/Mr Darcy relationship, and my father made her toss the letters. When I was young, she used to try to recite them from memory to me. She did astonishingly well. It was the thing I remember most fondly of her, that hint of humanity, of childhood. It made her a person, not at all my mother.

I had the same sort of relationship with my ex. We wrote not nearly as romantic letters as you two, but still, there were a LOT of them. I'd kept them all until my husband asked me to get rid of them. I did, and I'll always regret it.

PS: I love you. This was beautiful.

Heather of the EO said...

I want to say a million things. This just really hit home for me. I LOVE the last two sentences.

There are people (men) who still haunt me in my dreams some nights. It's not that I want to be with them, it's that they are a part of me, the good and the bad. I carry them and sometimes it's hard to separate my emotions from my memories. sigh...

cy said...

isn't it wonderful to have such a romantic sounding past? i love how all one remembers of past relationships are the good parts (well mostly anyway)...must be some sort of survival instinct.

Jaina said...

Wow. I think that could be a movie plot there. ;) And also, I second Mr. Lady's request.

the mama bird diaries said...

The smell of a certain cologne can take me back 20 years. I wish I had dated a Brit. Or maybe an Australian.

Laski said...

It was very nearly an epic romance. All I needed was the sound of rain hitting windows, the image of foggy streets and lovers in an embrace . . . only to depart in opposite directions.

You nailed it: "I was in love with the idea of being in love."

We've all lived there, have we not. My letter, trinkets of long-lost promises, a clipped dirge (yes, he wrote me a dirge and submitted it to the college paper), a tarnished "promise" ring . . . still sit in a box. A box I just can't bear to toss, just yet.

What Mr. Lady said . . . yes, I think I'll do just that.

MommyTime said...

I love Mr. Lady's suggestion -- so, many thanks.

It's fun that this post is making others nostalgic, in part because some of what I feel about this particular past relationship is astonishment that I could have been so blind for so long to what was not good about it. But I guess that is what makes us young. Thanks for sharing your stories here too.


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