We met when I was nineteen or so. His fingers stretched over the strings of his guitar like no musician I had ever seen; his tongue glanced across his lips as he concentrated on the beat. I didn’t notice him, not at first. A bit of a diva, I was more interested in holding a microphone and singing with the church band than I was in looking for a relationship. He gave the appearance of caring more about his music than the people around him, just like his mother who played piano beside him. I’m not sure he ever looked my way. I only looked his way because his mother was our leader.
Actually, it was his sister who noticed me first. She was desperate for a best friend, and I was just lonely because I never really hung out with people. One night after rehearsal I went over to her house for dinner with her and her family. He was there, of course, with his mother and father and brother. His mother suggested that we rent a movie, and he drove us to the video store on the corner between the Shell gas station and the liquor store. I wandered the aisles as he laughed and horsed around with his siblings. They wanted me to pick something to watch, but my only real knowledge of them was that they were deeply religious. We rented something silly, something from the line of Beethoven movies with the giant St. Bernard.
It was more fun to hang out at his house than mine; I was renting a small room from a coworker at that point with a closet and a computer desk and a murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day. It was so much fun, in fact, that when his sister invited me to move in with them while we saved to get our own apartment together, I said yes. I don’t remember how it happened, whether it was before or after I moved in, but he asked his sister for permission to take me out on a date. It was very important, he told me later, to ask for her permission, because she had claimed me first. I remember thinking that was an odd choice of phrase–“Claimed me”–but it made sense. She and I were friends before he even knew me, and if things didn’t work out between us, she would lose a friend. I remember that she was like me. Different. A little off the beaten path. A little lacking in friends. But at the time when he asked me to dinner just the two of us, she didn’t matter. I said yes. I wanted more than anything to be a part of their idyllic Christian family.
Our after dinner first date activity was going to see “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” He didn’t tell me then, but he had never read the books or seen the previous movies and picked it for our date because he knew I would like it. I, who had never had a real dating relationship or any kind, automatically assumed that meant he loved me. One more dinner and a movie, and I agreed to go steady. At nineteen, I’m not sure I knew what that meant, the level of commitment I was making. I was certain no other boy would ever love me, and I knew that I was supposed to get married, so I made a commitment for the first boy who asked.
No normal boy my age had ever looked at me. The only date I ever went on was during high school, to the junior prom, and it was the worst night I’d ever had in school. When he looked at me at dinner that night, long strands of spaghetti twirling around his fork and a smudge of marinara sauce on his right cheek, it was like I was being seen, really, seen, for the first time. His gaze was flooded with the possibility of a future that as a young child I had never imagined I would have–a boyfriend, marriage, babies, true love. It is hard now to remember the good times, much easier to remember the bad; the bad is what sticks the most, what hurts the most. I think I thought that because he paid attention to me and wanted to spend time with me that he loved me. I must have believed he was the only one who would ever want to be with me; I must have stayed because I was certain there was no other man who would love me.
His sister got engaged and married shortly after, so it was natural for us to get married too. It all seemed so ordinary, a natural progression of events. At J.C. Penney’s, where we had our wedding registry, there were scanner guns for couples to tour the store and capture the barcodes of merchandise for their lists. He wanted expensive things–the best couch, the biggest television, the softest bed. I was more interested in the smaller things–a matching set of dishes, a blender, towels for the bathroom. Big, loud, and perfect, versus small, quiet, and necessary were our personalities in a nutshell. We were nothing alike.
He was not quite six feet tall, the perfect height for my five and a half foot self to rest my head on his shoulder. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and his lanky body was capped off with a spiky head of hair two shades lighter than mine in its natural state. He was always a pretty boy; he spent more time in the bathroom each day getting ready than I spent in front of the mirror all week and was always encouraging me to do more for my looks–curl my hair, put on makeup. I did what he wanted because I wanted him to love me back as much as I thought I loved him.
The thing is, I never knew what love was.