High School Love, aka a Learning Experience. Also, a Trainwreck. (part 1 in a series)

A friend recently said to me: “I can’t talk to you about my problems with my boyfriend. Your relationship is so perfect.” I looked at her and laughed. “Oh honey, if you only knew what I’d been through.” I relayed this story to my mother later via email. She echoed my response, having been there every step of the way. What follows here is a memoir of those relationships, a boy-chapter at a time.

I was a junior in high school when I met Alex. The phrase “high school sweetheart” perhaps could have applied when we first met: Alex was a grade behind me, and so earnest, so dogged, in his attempts to become my boyfriend it was almost painful to watch. Ironically, my mother encouraged me to give him a chance, something I’m sure she regretted later as our relationship took a twisted turn and spiraled quickly downward. I don’t think I realized at the time how bad it truly was—wasn’t everyone’s relationship like this?

Junior year. Other than meeting Alex, the thing that stands out when I look back now is that I had finally made the cheerleading squad. Junior varsity, not varsity, but still, it was something I’d been working hard to achieve. In summary, my high school curriculum vitae went something like this: Not popular. Latch key kid with a single mom and an absentee alcoholic father. I certainly didn’t consider myself pretty and to my knowledge at the time no one else did except my mother. (I can see now how Alex dug his hooks in and got them in deep.) But cheerleading! It was a little glimpse, my own little slice—of popularity, of pretty, of rich.

I took newspaper class that year as well, which is where I met Alex. He was a gangly 15 year old, acne on his face and some funky crooked teeth. His best feature was probably his big blue-green eyes. It was the 90s, and he would show up for class in the baggy jeans and steel toe boots we all favored at the time, topped off with a cheap tee or a flannel shirt if it was cold. Alex took the class as a blow-off, and it showed. There were about six of us who actually did work—obviously, I was into the writing—and six others who didn’t do anything. Alex was one of those.

Alex spent most of his class time flirting with me, relentless in his pursuit. He would tell me later how hot I looked in those cheerleading skirts. No one had ever said those kinds of things to me before. Me, pretty? Me, with a nice ass and good legs? I still refused to go out with him. It wasn’t as if I had boys knocking down my door, but he just seemed like friend-zone material to me.

The thing that finally changed my mind, oddly enough, was the chicken pox. When I came down with it, I was out of school for weeks. Alex called me every day from newspaper class, telling me how much they (he) missed me, giving me the gossip from the day, telling me stories about our poor tortured teacher, who kept trying to make him do some work for a change. He begged to come see me, but I was too vain to let him. He was the one boy who actually thought I was pretty—I couldn’t chance ruining that. Even if he was firmly in the friend zone, honestly, I liked the attention.

When the worst of the spots had faded, I acquiesced. However, I didn’t let him come see me. I was dying to get out of the house, and I was a newly licensed driver. My mother let me take her Acura to see him.

I can’t recall now if I’d been to his house before. I can picture it perfectly now—a modest one story with three bedrooms, a two-car garage that had been converted into what I suppose we now call a “media room”—at the time, remember, the 90s—it was the movie room, or the den. I’m sure that Alex greeted me at the door before his parents or his brother could interfere.

This was a big deal for him.

We crossed the shabby living room to his bedroom, which was painted a garish blue and had the requisite boy posters tacked to the walls with actual push pins. Sports, girls, bands. I don’t recall what we did exactly, probably sat uncomfortably on his bed and talked about school and my recent illness and recovery. I do know that at some point he leaned in to kiss me, and I didn’t push him away or pull back like I had so many times before. You might say I had given in. Or given up.

*

Our high school relationship was just that—high school. It was homecoming dances and prom dates. It was football games and gathering in the school parking lot afterward to talk about where to go next. It was trying my first beer. It was sneaking more and more beers after that. It was my first time to have sex, thinking to myself, “That’s it? That’s what all the fuss was about?” It was growing apart from my best friend Lily, because she was into drugs and I was into my boyfriend and those things didn’t go together anymore. It was lunch off campus for seniors. It was driving our parents’ cars, it was working our first jobs, it was house parties until the cops came and broke them up.

I’m not sure when it all took a turn for the worse. I think it built slowly, Alex’s resentments and insecurities piling up, as the inevitability of what was going to happen to us became apparent. He kept trying to slow things down, to stop that inexorable march of time, to keep us—maybe me?—in this box where he had some measure of control.

I was only six months older than Alex, but I was a grade ahead because of an early start in kindergarten. I made excellent grades, and I knew I was on my way to the University of Texas by October of my senior year. I had made the varsity cheerleading squad. My mother’s boyfriend, a man who would eventually become my stepfather, had moved in with us, which meant I had a father figure for the first time in nearly 10 years. I was still a frightened, insecure teenager who didn’t know much about relationships or how men should treat me, but I was doing okay considering.

In contrast, Alex was struggling in school, nearly failing his junior year, certainly not even thinking about college. His family life left much to be desired. His parents yelled instead of spoke, his father usually in bed by 8 p.m. so he could do his job as a postal worker early in the morning. This meant we all had to tiptoe around the house lest we disturb him and get a good tongue-lashing. Alex’s mother was not much better—she was a substitute teacher and I think sometimes cared more about her kids at school than her own. I’ll never forget the day I won an award for some scholastic achievement—that woman cut the article out of the school newspaper and taped it to Alex’s bedroom door. She might as well have told him, “Your girlfriend is better than you.”

He probably wanted to murder me right then.

It was a powder keg, ready to explode. Alex and I both got jobs at the local grocery store. When I was promoted from bagger to cashier, Alex couldn’t handle it. He was so jealous and insecure that he wanted me to step back down to bagger. According to him, it was because he liked it when I was near him, bagging groceries at his register. I cringe when I think back to discussing the situation with Rodney, our boss. Rodney was a small, worried man, with narrowed eyes and a fluff of quickly disappearing blond hair combed over his head. He studied me as I stumbled through an explanation of why I wanted to move down positions.

He could see right through me. “Is this because of Alex, or is it something you want to do?” he asked.

“It’s not Alex, it’s me. I want to.” I blushed, stared at the floor.

“Sorry, Christianne, you’re a good cashier and I need you on the floor. Alex is just going to have to deal with his issues.”

He was right, but I had no idea how to handle my boyfriend.

His jealousy didn’t stop at the grocery store. It invaded every part of our life as he worked frantically to manage me. He hated it when I cheered at games as it took time away from his time with me. I loved cheerleading, and he was systematically destroying my enjoyment of it. He didn’t like it when I went to work, even though it was time for my shift. One afternoon, we were fighting, and he wanted to finish it. I was exasperated.

“Alex, I have to go. My shift at work starts in half an hour. I’m leaving.”

I stormed through the living room of his house, with Alex in hot pursuit, spitting words at me. It seemed that lately whenever we argued, it involved him telling me that I was a bitch, that no one would ever love me like he did, that I was essentially insufferable. The illogic of him loving me despite my extreme bitchiness didn’t occur to me.

The screen door banged behind me as I strode down the sidewalk, fishing my keys from my pocket. A neighbor across the street tended to his flower beds. Suddenly Alex had gripped me from behind, around the waist, physically dragging me back toward the house.

“We’re not finished talking!” he screamed at me in the relative safety of the front entry way.

Disturbing, again, how at the time, the fact that this was very real abuse hadn’t occurred to me. Disturbing that the neighbor across the street hadn’t noticed, that Alex’s parents hadn’t noticed. My mother knew things were bad, but perhaps not how bad. He was able to hide most of it from her. And she felt powerless to help. Try telling a 17-year-old girl what to do.

As school got worse for Alex, he started skipping. One spring morning, I went to pick him up and he refused to go to school. I sighed, idling in the car blocks from his house.

“Fine, Alex. What do you want to do? I’m going to school.”

“Take me to your house.”

Desperate to get rid of him, and because my parents weren’t home, I took him.

My morning at school was odd. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong. Had my mother come home and found him in our living room? Was I in huge trouble? Had Alex done something awful? Because it was my senior year, I had a half day and was able to come home at lunch. I found Alex in our wood-paneled living room, sitting on the couch with a look on his face I had come to know well—he was, to put it quite plainly—pissed off.

It turns out my boyfriend had spent his morning playing hooky from school and reading my diary. Of course he knew where I kept my diary, because Alex couldn’t stand that I would keep anything from him. My recollection now is hazy, but I’m sure he wheedled his way into that knowledge, much like he did everything else. And because Alex couldn’t stand that I keep anything from him, including my very thoughts, he had read the diary.

The diary was a big blue spiral-bound notebook, with three manila divider folders. He sat with the notebook open on his lap. With that look upon his face. I could see my perfect penmanship within the college-ruled lines, black ink stark on the paper. Now I understood my feeling—that very odd feeling that something was very wrong.

“What’s wrong now?” I asked wearily, dropping my backpack to the carpeted floor with a muted thud.

At this point, I must confess that I had a very high school crush on one of Alex’s friends. His name was Bo, and I saw a kindness and an understanding in his brown eyes that was missing from most of the high school students I knew. I sensed he could see the misery Alex was putting me through, that he thought I was worthy of more. He was with me and Alex one night when I was driving and got into a car accident. Thankfully we were all okay, but the car was nearly totaled, and I was in tears. As my parents dropped Bo off at his house, my mother watched him put his hand on my leg, briefly squeezing it in a gesture of solidarity or hope or friendship or…something, and I think in that moment I fell a little bit in love with him.

I had increasingly become aware I was in a cage and I had no idea how to get free.

This high school crush was more or less detailed in my diary. It was, after all, my diary, and I was, after all, a teenager. It was my safe place. The place where I could be honest. The place where I could think, because Alex was always in my head, banging around and screwing me up. Alex, had, of course, read every word. Alex had destroyed my only safe place.

I no longer recall the details of our fight. I imagine it went much like the others, with tears streaming down my face, while telling him I didn’t really like Bo, not like that, him telling me that I had broken his heart with, you know, feelings. Feelings that were completely justified for a teenaged girl who was in an awful relationship with a manipulative asshole. All I know was in the end, he forced me to burn the diary. I watched my words burn into ash in the fireplace, and I’m sure I wondered where it would all end.

*

Alex didn’t want me to live in the dorms. As spring turned to summer and graduation was behind us, we fought almost constantly about it. My life had become a tedious routine—fight with Alex, try to placate him, try to simply get away from him, and then wait for the calm before the storm of the next big blow up. There were plenty of times when he refused to get out of my car, or to stop calling me over and over again. Once I took my phone off the hook—I had my own line, as this was way before cell phones—and he called my parents’ line instead in the middle of the night. I was so angry, hurt and confused. The sweet boy who desperately wanted a date with the pretty junior girl in his newspaper class had utterly disappeared. In his place was a jealous, manipulative and desperately unhappy person who thought the entire world owed him something because he’d been dealt a shitty hand. And for some reason, instead of being let off the hook because I was his girlfriend, I was even more responsible because I didn’t cater to his every need, or do exactly as he told me. Like daring to go live in the dorms. I wasn’t even leaving town to go to school. I would be just a 30 minute drive away, but he was terrified of letting me go.

He knew I would most likely not come back.

Somehow I found the strength to move into the dorms, despite his vehement protests. I want to cry for that girl. I want to reach out and hug her, hold her tight, whisper in her ear that everything really is going to be all right. I was a wreck—instead of looking forward to leaving home and starting a new adventure as an adult, the next chapter of my life—I was terrified. I was already lonely. My parents helped me move in, a flurry of activity, and then they were gone, and my tears started. I had no idea how to move forward with my life.

One night my mother came to the dorm to eat with me. I hadn’t made any friends. I knew a couple of girls from high school, but they were rooming together in the other wing of the dorm and didn’t really have time or space for me to intrude in their twosome. I was so messed up from the lies and the manipulation of my high school sweetheart that I had no idea how to move forward with my life. I had no idea I had value as a woman or a person.

We limped along until my sophomore year. There were several break-ups, several we’re-back-togethers—when I could see the disappointment in everyone’s eyes—people like my mother or my brother Dean or my high school friends. I know I wasn’t blameless, but I struggle to figure out what my mistakes were besides being, quite frankly, an emotional mess. That alcoholic absentee father had affected me more than I thought, despite my mother’s excellent parenting. She gave me all the love she had and more. She sacrificed everything to make a cozy, loving, comfortable home for me. But I was completely broken. I craved love from a man, and I believed somewhere deep down in my gut that I didn’t deserve it. When Alex told me things like, “No one will love you like I do” and that he was the only person who thought I was beautiful, I believed him. He fed me those lies for three years. I was damaged—and I honestly didn’t know—and he just kept chipping away.

My mistake was being too weak to walk away and not look back.

I suppose it finally ended because Alex put a stop to it. That was the only way it could happen. Again, it was so long ago now that I can’t recall the details, but I do know he moved on to someone else. By that time, I had more or less moved on too. We were hanging on by a thread, doing that thing couples do when they know they should be done with each other, but try to be friends, or date each other while dating new people, or whatever bullshit story helps them put one foot in front of the other and get through the day. There’s something comfortable about being in a relationship with someone you know as well or better than your own self. The flip side of that is being terrified to put it all out there and meet a stranger.

I was visiting my friend Lily in Dallas. She had moved there with her boyfriend Jeremy after high school. Lily and Jeremy had a roommate, Travis. By Saturday night I was lying in his bed, making out with him, and he fingered the ring I wore on a chain around my neck.

“What’s this?” he asked quietly.

It was a promise ring from Alex, an awful yellow gold thing with diamond chips. I wore it for a while, then wore it on a chain because we were in that no-man’s land of dating, friendship, whatever. “Nothing,” I answered uncomfortably, and tried to distract him with a kiss.

Travis wasn’t having it, though. He pushed away and looked me in the eye—“Do you have a boyfriend in Austin?”

I rolled over onto my back and sighed. “Not exactly. He’s my ex from high school. We still talk, sometimes. You know how it is.”

Travis smiled. Honestly, Travis wasn’t much better than Alex in many departments—he didn’t have a car, he smoked too much—both cigarettes and pot—and he wasn’t in school. Much like Alex, he seemed to be drifting aimlessly through life. But Travis had a wonderful smile, and he smiled at me like I hung the moon, and right then? That was what I needed. “No, how is it?”

I laughed. “It’s a mess. I’m sorry. I should take it off,” I said, and reached for the necklace.

Travis put his arms around me, pulled me close. “You should. Because I want you to be my girl.”

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