When I was 19, I secretly fell in love with a boy. He was 17. I first learned his body as I watched him walk across the campus green when he didn’t know I was looking—his curly dark hair, his camo jacket with all the pockets, his baggy jeans. I learned his face second, when we became friends; and learned his voice third, by heart, so I could replay our conversations in my mind. But he was more than two years younger than me: given how our birthdays staggered, he was two years, four months, and eleven days younger than me. He would have been three grades behind me, but we met in college after he’d skipped his senior year in high school, and as such, he was a freshman when I was a junior. I turned 20 in late November after my junior year began, and he remained 17 for a maddeningly long time. For four months and eleven days more.
For four months and eleven days as fall semester slipped into spring, I pretended I didn’t love him. Our age difference was too extreme. Had I been the younger, I’d have perceived no problem, but nowhere inside myself did I find permission to be the elder. Rules that I never consciously made slotted into place: I must treat him with humor when we hung out together, with a sisterly affection, as though it were funny that we got along so well. I must tease him whenever possible, but gently, and not in the rude way he got ribbed by my other friends. I must prove to anyone watching that I was merely entertained by him, as if he were a sidekick. Not only was he young—both for his class as well as my social circle—but he was also brutally shy, with a tendency towards arrogance when he did speak. I took both personality traits as defense mechanisms since he was relaxed and almost chatty when we sat together, usually after meals in the dining hall, long after everyone else had grown bored and left. He looked at me then (while I learned his eyes—so clear, so darkly lashed), really looked at me—and I felt seen, maybe because he didn’t look at other people. His usual eye contact was poor, and he leveled his gaze downward when he was hearing someone out, or to the side of the person he was arguing with—and he argued a lot. I began to realize his arguments contained reservoirs of wisdom, but I had to pretend I wasn’t listening as closely as I was. I could not be advised by someone younger than me; and for four months and eleven days more, he was three years younger than me. Two years was embarrassing but bearable. Three was unacceptable. Three was against the rules.
I was no stranger to rules: I had rules for everything, from the symmetrical part in my hair to whether my fingernails were the same length—if I mindlessly bit one short, the other nine had to follow. I was a calorie-memorizer, a clock-watcher, and a schedule-adherer. Daytime routines were strictly ordered, though I never chose my order—it’s more accurate to say order chose me. Rules chose me. As a kid, rules had controlled how evenly I distributed attention to my stuffed animals, and disallowed things like odd-numbered steps. Rules kept track of breaths, bites, and stairs, all of which I counted. Rules governed my middle-school handwriting to the extent that I recopied all my assignments in fresh notebooks every time I reinvented my cursive g, j, p, and q, so that all pages would match. (Once my new handwriting fell on Halloween, and I frantically arranged my papers on my bedroom floor, before dinner, and recopied them as fast as I could with my binder open and my hand cramping, while my mom asked perplexed from my doorway, “They really gave you this much homework? On Halloween?” “Yes!” I wailed, equally stricken about missing trick-or-treating as about my mom discovering I’d done it to myself.)
So when rules dictated who I couldn’t love, I transgressed only in secret and trusted that I was conforming to a higher order.
He had rules too. He wouldn’t sit next to or across from anyone at dinner, if table space didn’t force him to; he chose the diagonal spot. He always had his back to the wall. Preferably, a corner. He didn’t share drinks; he was germophobic when it came to spit. He didn’t use anyone’s name—you knew you were his friend when he said “You,” and pointed to you, even as his eyes were elsewhere. That was his hello. Sometimes I got a very loud “Youuuuuuu!” from the other side of the dining hall if he was already seated when I entered, complete with a full-armed finger pointing, and I knew I was invited to sit with him—or rather, diagonally from him. Confoundingly, shyness and loudness were not opposites; they both defined him and I couldn’t explain why. He might have been awkward, but he was often awkward at the top of his lungs.
God I loved him.
That year in college, my rules were in overdrive. I bought a wardrobe of identical clothes so I differed daily only by color. In the dining hall, the entrée was off limits but the salad bar was not, and neither was the yogurt stand; however, within the yogurt stand, chocolate syrup was not allowed but the rainbow sprinkles were. I showed up in the mornings for coffee and doughnut hour—all doughnuts were safe, for some reason—but avoided the special shrimp nights during midterms and finals, and didn’t touch the holiday buffets. Buffets were served from center tables and the scrum that formed around the turkey and roast beef was intolerable—too many bodies, too many elbows. I wore one pair of shoes, and when I needed a new pair, I was frantic when I couldn’t find the same ones in a store. I was not allowed to cut my hair. I was not allowed to change my earrings. Every moment had rules that marched in in lockstep with the moments that came before and after. My higher order was not divine, it seemed, but rigid—I panicked and realized I was wrong to feel safe. I wasn’t protected inside a church of rules, with all decisions thus rendered holy. I was caught, instead, in a prison.
Somehow I hid this. Most people didn’t notice. But when friends occasionally questioned a detail— “So today’s the brown version of your shirt?” —what followed was their shoulder-shrugging acceptance, which looked the same as my acceptance when the boy I loved yelled “Youuuuuuuu!” and pointed to me across a crowded dining hall. I shrugged, even as I got stares. I accepted. Besides, I knew that rules came and went—sometimes all I had to do was outwait them. My handwriting had long ago stopped mattering, for instance. And one day I’d be allowed to wear different clothes. And soon, the boy I loved would be only two years younger than me.
So when he turned 18, I could breathe. I had seven months and twenty days until I turned 21, and I relaxed into the ocean of time while the flowers on campus bloomed and raised their faces to the sun. Seven months and twenty days was nearly forever, and I drilled into our friendship and found a well of intimacy where we talked plenty, and argued more, as we walked to classes. We fought about politics and ethics outside the languages building. We fought about whether caffeine or alcohol counted as drugs. We fought about the death penalty on the steps of the chemistry lab. He knew that when he pissed me off, I’d show up again and again to rework my point—stomping towards him through a lawn of dandelions on the academic quad, my voice raised so he could hear my opinions before I got close—or eventually acquiesce to his, as I slumped on a bench in defeat. Usually people he pissed off stayed gone. He told me stories about people he’d pissed off in his past and I witnessed him pissing off friends in the present—he was remorselessly intellectual and his sense of humor involved ad hominem attacks over dinner, usually to see if his opponent was capable of recognizing an ad hominem attack. The angrier someone else got, utensils flashing, drinks slamming, the more amused he’d be and bait them harder, and the more rapt I became watching it happen as I dug into my permissible yogurt with rainbow sprinkles. His laughter was a single-syllable deep guffaw, a retort itself that made me smile. He lost allies sometimes, which was a shame—his argumentativeness was brilliant but few people understood because they were too busy protecting their egos. He was luring them to grasp logical fallacies and they never did. A new rule slid into place for me: I’d never be one of those people. When his eyes connected with mine, I refused to blink. And he didn’t look away. Regardless of how he argued with me, I wasn’t going to leave him.
This decision became increasingly difficult the more the next years pulled us apart. We finished college, separately, lived in different states, and began to fall out of touch. When I protested and tried harder to stay friends, he grew irritated—though he cited practicality—by the confines of mileage and law school, so I stopped trying to visit and let the distance gather and settle like dust. He pursued his juris doctorate; I pursued my teaching certificate. It occurred to me for the first time that he didn’t love me the way I loved him. I’d thought we were each other’s secret love, but no; only I loved in secret. But I made sure we remained pen pals, a connection he tolerated. I had a kid and got married (a connection I tolerated), but I invited him to my wedding in hopes he’d arrive early and save me from committing to a life without him. He declined.
Our letters became scattershot as the years rolled on, but I still wouldn’t leave him—the rule to maintain even a tenuous bond was inviolable. He’d become a lawyer and was successfully arguing his way through a career, and I’d become a teacher and failed, turning instead to waitressing shifts that buttressed a day of parenting. Every couple of years I wrote to his old email address from my newest one (his never changed, but I was constantly reforming myself with new attempts at identity) and he wrote back promptly, not questioning my new contact information, or which variation of my maiden or married names I was using. After a week’s flurry of catch-up, I’d wait another couple of years and write to him again. In this way I turned 30 with three kids from two men; and I waited two years, four months, and eleven days for him to turn 30 too. I wrote to him then.
I divorced. I remarried. I kept writing. He kept answering. We wrote somewhat more regularly now. Communication was changing with the advent of social media—emails became LinkedIn messages which became Facebook chats which became texts. When I was 42 and he was about to turn 40, we were firmly back in touch… and my world shifted on its axis.
We were friends again. As close as we’d ever been. We swapped torrents of words and grew a new relationship that swelled and ripened into something sweet, expanding like a tomato on a vine as though it had never withered. We had so much to tell each other, so much to discuss. We’d both recently gone back to school—he for engineering, me for writing—and we compared stories. We made each other laugh, we made each other angry, and we trusted each other with our deepest thoughts. I was secretly in love, just like before, but my secret was for a different reason: I was married. There are rules. I had to pretend, as before, that we were merely friends, even though the friendship was intense. He loved me too—and probably he always had, I decided, reverting to my original belief. The proof was in the words, the constant stream of communication, a surge that effortlessly flowed upriver and down at the same time as our responses overlapped. Sometimes we wrote to each other every day. Sometimes we wrote to each other all night long (I crept out of bed so my husband wouldn’t see the light from my phone). When I wished him consecutive happy birthdays on Facebook several years in a row, I was able to count off two years, four months, and eleven days in real time as I had in college. I watched him piss off people in the comments of controversial posts and I clapped my hands, delighted, sitting at my keyboard and imagining his staccato guffaw. And when I finally saw him in person, we were as easy with each other as we’d been as undergrads. We argued as colorfully: still about politics although we are on the same side, still about ethics, and sometimes about each other. It took him a few visits, but he looked at me the way he used to. I forgot my husband after half a minute of those familiar, clear and darkly-lashed eyes. It took me a few visits and a wholesale neglect of my marriage, but I held him in my arms again and kissed his cheeks and wondered, as I had begun to in college, whether he’d kiss me back.
In two years of visits, he didn’t.
And the other day, I finally realized he never would when we were at a bar and he made a comment about not splitting a beer with me because that is gross, and I stopped in my tracks on my way to our table. I felt my eyes burn with tears as I made an instant connection between intimacy and the rim of a pint glass. “Are you really never going to kiss me?” I asked incredulously. He looked away, and my world shifted again. A fault line formed in the earth, but instead of falling into it, I realized I had to climb out of it.
So I’m surfacing from an underground orthodoxy that I was the sole member of, shielding my eyes against the harsh light. This article of faith that we love each other in secret is a false religion. I’ve deluded myself twice. As strongly as we reconnected, my passion is, again, one-sided.
I think I’d made a rule to be in love with him. Rules have a habit of feeling holy, so it fits that I consider love to be a doctrine.
It’s hard to recognize a rule in real time. A rule is implicit. It’s like gravity, or the sky—something that’s always there that isn’t questioned. A rule is like air. Once, about ten years ago, I actively caught myself with a rule when I realized I owned too many books for someone who was constantly trying to be a minimalist—when I scanned my bookcases for titles to get rid of, I’d breeze right past nine Anita Shreves even though the only two of hers I liked were The Pilot’s Wife and Resistance. Same with John Irving, who’d written more stinkers than classics. I was going to hang onto Garp of course, but… Suddenly I gave myself permission to only keep the books I loved, and to hell with the author’s oeuvre, which had apparently been a rule to collect. That day, I got rid of half my books, seven of which were Anita Shreve, five of which were John Irving, and felt like I could fly.
I think I’m recognizing a rule right now. I love this man so much I overflow. My emotional sump pump automatically flushes me when I well up too high, giving me room to fill again, and again, and again. It’s a cycle, and I’m trapped, and feeling trapped is how I spot a rule. My original rule to never leave him multiplied itself as I hammered down one heartbeat at a time, as time passed: Never boom leave boom; never boom leave boom. A heart beats 42 million times in a year, and it’s been 26 years since I first met his eyes. I can do that math—my love grew by a billion.
In three weeks, he will turn 43, and I am already 45. I won’t be 46 for eight months and eleven days from today. These distinctions are meaningless now—we are in our 40s collectively. I can aggregate our years because rules relax. I just split a pair of paintings between two walls in my living room just to see if I could live with it, and I ended up liking the off-kilter look it created. This is why I always miss being medicated for OCD—my obsessions are a quirk, not a diagnosis.
So are his. He picks the barstool in the corner when we go out, but he doesn’t become agitated when someone walks behind him anymore. He’s relaxed enough to drink beer and pretty much lives off of coffee, though he still believes both count as drugs. He calls me by my name, not “you.” (He does not, however, share drinks—some things never change.) I’ve loved him for my whole adult life, both closely and from a distance; so I can love him for the rest of it. I know how to love him when his eyes are meeting mine while we’re sitting together, and I know how to love him when I have to rely on my memory of his voice when I’m alone. Loving him might not be my rule—it might be my law. How can I not obey? Here is a moment from our last visit. Watch:
It’s a humid Baltimore afternoon. We’ve had lunch at a hole in the wall near the courthouses downtown on Fayette Street, where he had a morning hearing with a client. I’m sweaty—my blouse clings to my chest and the sun is resolute. He’s still wearing the pants from his suit but has taken off the jacket and tie and is in a t-shirt. It’s time for him to leave and I hug him goodbye on the crowded sidewalk, feeling how hot he is too. He hugs me back for the briefest moment, then walks away from me still talking, as he does. He has an achingly charming habit of continuing to speak after he leaves. Not over his shoulder issuing final admonitions. Not concluding whatever we’ve been discussing. No, just talking, like I’m still walking next to him. Loud as he is, his voice is deep and I have a hard time hearing lower registers these days, so whatever he’s saying is lost as we part and carried far from me along with the other pedestrians and the relentless traffic. But I watch him walk away because it’s funny to see him carrying a conversation that’s one-sided, complete with a head tilt and hand gestures, even when he’s far enough away that no one in my position could have still heard him. I appreciate that sometimes the one-sidedness is on his side.
Standing in the sunshine on the sidewalk, already missing the press of his body as the throngs of lunchtime people part around me, I ask myself: How can I not love him?
His 43rd birthday will realign our ages, but he’s predicted for years that he will die at age 43. Such a prediction is typical of his noisy self-aggrandizement and thus easily dismissed—tragedy and self-importance go hand in hand; and for some reason, claims of dying young speak more about egoism than declarations to live forever (“There are more birthdays behind me than ahead of me” is what he announced when he was barely out of college). But now it’s reflective of middle age and a spate of injuries, which he offers as proof that his days are numbered. I am worried. My rules generally dictate that I shouldn’t foist myself on someone who’s dying, just as I would not follow an animal that drags itself under a bush. Death is sacrosanct. I respect it. I’m calm at funerals. I’m a rock for my friends when their parents die. I help with estates. I’ll bury your dog. I won’t cry. But I want to stay as close to his side as I can. I do not believe he’s dying—his injuries are challenging but far from fatal—but I am no expert and I also don’t care: I want to be with him in either event. Passion isn’t necessarily a reciprocal concept, but friendship is. I can be friends with him, and stay near.
And stay married. He castigates me when I mention leaving my marriage. I once heard those words as a part of our secret pact; now I hear it as a warning that if I leave, I’ll be alone. He will not be there for me. This is hard to accept, since I was once sure he was mine for the taking if only our timing lined up, but he is not mine—not on any timeline. Not in four months and eleven days, and not in seven months and twenty days. Not in college. Not now. My husband is mine though, on every day of the year, and has dutifully and patiently waited for me. I know my husband noticed when I crept out of bed the last few years, even when he pretended to be asleep. I know it hurt him. I want to explain my strange attachment, so I told my first husband, just as practice. He was unsurprised—he always knew I loved another.
In three weeks when my friend turns 43, a new clock will mark time as we wait to discover if he’ll make it to 44. In the same way that I realize I am bound to stupid rules of my own making, I hope he realizes his death march is a mythology he’s told himself. He recently sent me a screenshot of a text between his mother and him, where she nagged him to find a girlfriend and he responded, “She’d have to be an undertaker,” and I realized I was supposed to laugh. I didn’t find it funny, partially because I was annoyed his mother doesn’t know I exist, and partially because of his insistence on his mortality. But then I found a birthday card in a joke shop that said on the front, “Happy birthday from your…” and on the inside it listed all kinds of relationships, with the instructions to check all that apply. Partner in crime, favorite cousin, random uncle, mistress. The card was cute, and I found myself grinning at some of the options. Bookie, neighborhood idiot, carpool driver. Undertaker.
This could be his last birthday; then again, he could have fifty more. This could be my last birthday. None of us know. The key to this occasional prison might simply be a willingness to change. An ability to pivot. It only takes one degree of adjustment at a time to throw my trajectory into an orbit instead of a collision course. I’m circling now, a satellite, ready to look down on what’s a rule and what’s love. Undertaker. I chuckled, finally deciding to find it funny and knowing he would too, and I bought the card. I checked the box. And in three weeks I’ll send it to him.
Joanna Franklin Bell
Joanna Franklin Bell is a writer living outside of Baltimore, MD. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College and a BA in English from Dickinson College. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Baltimore Magazine, Scary Mommy, Motherwell, P.S. I Love You, Elephant Journal, and Medium. Her short story won an award in Single Dad Laughing, and her somewhat silly but emotionally deep young person’s novella about a cat is an audiobook on Amazon and a free digital download on Smashwords.
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