As promised, here is the piece that I wrote about Walt (whom I call Dan here) last year. This was originally intended for a one-woman show, so if I ever do that show and use this piece, please act surprised.
I’m going to change my ex’s name to protect the innocent, so let’s call him Dan. I met Dan through the track and field team at my high school. I think he was smitten by my three-way tie for 8th place in the Portland Metro area for the high jump. He was a long-distance runner. I’ve always felt like long-distance runners are just gluttons for punishment. When we were at meets, I refused to make contact with him after he raced because he would throw up. Every. Single. Time. Without fail, he’d run the 800 and then find the nearest trash can. I can’t say that I was the most proud girlfriend. People would run up to me and say, “Dan is sick. He’s throwing up behind the bleachers.” I’d say, “I’m glad he found a place that wasn’t completely populated with grandparents and small children.”
Barfing aside, people loved Dan. People admired how he would do anything for a laugh and had virtually no boundaries. He was voted class president and even Prom King. But being his “Queen” was challenging. People were always coming up to me and asking “did you hear what Dan did?” Or “what was Dan thinking” or “Did Dan really swim in sewer water.” I was always on the defensive “He didn’t know that was sewer water coming out of the storm drain!” Dan was sweet and although he frustrated and sometimes embarrassed me, he was a pretty good boyfriend. One of my favorite memories was our first big Valentine’s date as a couple.
I used to dream about spending Valentine’s Day with a boyfriend. He’d pick me up in his old-timey car, we’d drive around the countryside and listen to John Mayer. We’d find a riverbank to have a picnic and lie on our backs watching the puffy clouds drift by, debating which animals they resembled. After a while, my fantasy boyfriend would say, “I left something in the car.” Then he’d bring out a wiener dog puppy! I’d squeal with delight and together we’d name the puppy Cheeto. Later, we’d watch Napoleon Dynamite, while reciting lines with the characters onscreen. “Shocks, Pegs, Lucky.”
Hey, a girl can dream.
But that was not even remotely close to what my Valentine’s Day looked like. First of all, Dan picked me up in his mom’s white minivan. My dreams of an old-timey car pickup were shattered. Next, he took me to a Thai restaurant called “Thai Smile.” Contrary to popular belief, this restaurant did not make me smile. After dinner, Dan said he had a surprise in store. Let’s just say that it wasn’t a wiener dog puppy and that now, the word "surprise" gives me anxiety. Dan had planned to take me to a famous local park with a great view of all the city lights, but he hadn’t checked the operating hours and the park had closed at 5:00pm. So we drove around for a while and finally, he spotted a narrow path that he thought would lead us to a scenic overlook. Of course, I was dressed for a romantic dinner, not a hike. In fact, I was wearing my only pair of black ballet flats. If you aren’t sure of the weather patterns of Portland; it rains frequently and it gets cold at night. One of my first steps was directly into a deep puddle. Bye-bye ballet flats. After 30ish minutes of hiking, which for a high jumper felt like an eternity, we made it to the top of the lookout. It was cloudy, I was upset, and my flats were… a goner.
Don’t get me wrong. The effort was there. He thought through this day and tried to make it special for me. But unfortunately, Dan was not a good planner. He probably could have seen the 2.5 star rating on Yelp and he could have checked the closing time of the park and the weather conditions of that night, but there was something about it that was sort of sweet. He felt bad, but he really didn’t need to. I had a boyfriend that cared about me and that was special.
When we broke up 6 months later, there were no hard feelings, no fights. He was going to college 3,000 miles away and I had my senior year on the horizon. We were going to be in different places physically, and also emotionally. We both agreed it was best to end things, but he seemed surer about it than I was, and that hurt. Ultimately, we both sensed it was right to end the relationship in person, rather than a couple of months later with hard feelings and sad phone calls. This face to face break-up was difficult for me. I got physically ill as we said our goodbyes. Of course, my stomach problems might also have been caused by the 2 weeks I’d spent recently on a service trip to rural Nicaragua eating only beans and corn. My stomach was aching and my hands were shaking. The guy who was my security blanket, who made me laugh, who listened intently, and cared for me unconditionally was leaving. As we unwound our connection, I felt sad thinking that maybe he mattered more to me, than I mattered to him.
The whole time we dated, he’d never said: “I love you.” I rationalize that maybe this was because his family was quite religious, maybe Dan was saving those specific words for his wife. But I wasn’t waiting to say “I love you” to a husband down the road. I was saving them because I thought Dan would say them to me first. But, he didn’t. So, I did. I didn’t say them though, I wrote them. When we broke up, I gave him a letter, which explained my feelings like this, I wrote: I think love is about wanting to take care of your partner when they’re sick and missing them when they’re gone, and accepting them even when they swim in sewer water. So, Dan, I love you.
Dan also wrote a letter to me that was incredibly sweet, which made me cry, but he didn’t say “I love you.” His definition of love was different than mine and I was okay with that. But later that night when I was crying in the fetal position on my bedroom floor Dan called me. I was expecting him to say, “I left my sweatshirt at your house. Oops!” or “I accidentally left a burger in your car. Sorry!” But Dan said, “Isabel, I love you.” We didn’t say much more than that, there really wasn’t anything else to say. About 3 minutes later, I hung up the phone and realized that our definitions of love were probably more similar than different. We loved each other and probably had for a while, but we were too afraid to admit it.
So I learned a lot from that high school relationship: don’t swim in storm drains, check the Yelp reviews, and don’t be afraid to say “I love you.”