My dad always said (half-jokingly) that I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 30.
At the age of 7, I had no objections to this rule. Boys had cooties. I was not about to wilfully put myself in close proximity to contagion.
At the age of 12, I still had no objections. All the boys in my grade were at least 4 inches shorter than, and several GPA points behind, me. And, if I was going to be the first woman in the NBA, there’s no way I was going to have time for a relationship.
At the age of 15, this rule was…concerning. The boys had grown some inches, some muscles and some brain cells. One guy in my freshman Latin class, in particular, caught my eye. His name was Merrill. He had the height. He (sorta) had the brain cells. He had a bright red Jeep Wrangler. I was smitten. But with my dad’s rule lurking in the back of my mind, I kept our interactions limited to the classroom, the hallway, the cafeteria, and the parking lot. When I finally did invite him to my house, it was after school when my parents were still at work. As we lay on my bed, his tongue in my mouth, his hands trailing down my back, my body a current of pure electricity, I knew I had to keep these encounters an after-school special only.
But, as I learned that year while reading The Outsiders in freshman English class, nothing gold can stay. One weekend, Merrill asked me out and offered to pick me up at my house. And I, like a fool, said yes — overconfident in my ability to sneak past the prying eyes of my father and into the front seat of a bright red Jeep Wrangler without introducing him to the driver first. And so I watched Merrill walk the 100 feet from the driveway to The Purple Front Door, like an unwitting lamb to the slaughter. I watched in horror as my father raised his steely eyes, appraised the sacrifice that had been laid before him, and cut him down question by question.
Where do you live?
Where are you taking her?
How long have you been driving?
Do you have insurance for that thing?
What is the second person imperfect conjugation of “esse”?
Merrill shifted nervously back and forth, hands alternately clasping in front and behind his back, trying to assume the appropriate posture for ritual slaughter by interrogation. After 10 hour-long minutes, my dad finished toying with him and allowed us to go, with the clear understanding that I would return by 5pm, that seatbelts would be worn, and that there would be no fellatio or concubitio in vehiculum.
When I saw Merrill in Latin class on Monday, he looked at me with wide eyes and said, “Your dad’s a scary dude.” Needless to say, me and my Latin lover didn’t make it past second semester. And when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in my sophomore year of high school, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between my dad and Gandalf in the scene where he fights the Balrog.
“YOU… SHALL NOT…PASS!!!”
By the time I went off to college, I had been on only a handful of dates and no prospective suitor had made it past the threshold of The Purple Front Door.
Then along came Henry. We met during my sophomore year. He was double major in physics and computer science. I was an international studies major with a focus in political science. We just made sense.
As with most college romances, those initial months of infatuation were giddy with weekend sleepovers and between class quickies. But as time wore on, his interest didn’t wane. He sought me out in the library, invited me to hang out (just hang out) in his room, made an effort to get to know my friends. He didn’t hide from me or hide me from the people in his life. He invited me into the misfit make-shift household they had created on the second floor of Gifford Hall. And he asked me to stay.
Walking back from the Fitness Center one night, I finally worked up the courage to tell my parents about Henry. I often went there when writer’s block struck, pounding out mile after monotonous mile until something shifted and I uncovered the core argument for my term paper or composed the perfect concluding paragraph. Walking back to my dorm that night, high off the rush of finding my thesis statement, something else shifted. And when my parents called that night to see how things were going, I found myself saying, “So, there’s this guy…”
A few weeks later, Henry and I were seated across from my parents at Two Brothers Tavern. The arrival of a potential suitor on the scene was apparently the only excuse my dad needed to make the four-hour drive for a quick weekend visit. Henry was exceedingly polite and visibly tense as my dad inquired about his New England upbringing and grilled him on the finer points of string theory. As I placed my hand on Henry’s knee, I felt his leg bouncing uncontrollably. I reached for his hand and felt his sweaty palms alternately clenching and releasing. I prayed for the beers to arrive before he passed out or pulled a muscle.
The beers eventually came. The brunch mercifully ended. And Henry somehow convinced my dad to “permit” me to date before I was 30. That summer, when he came to visit me in New Jersey, Henry was welcomed with open arms and only mildly appraising looks, ushered across the threshold of The Purple Front Door…and into the guest bedroom. There were limits to my dad’s magnanimity and I wasn’t about to test them.
Henry eventually crossed the threshold into my childhood bedroom and, slowly, over the eight years that we were together, his presence spread throughout my parents’ home. There was the picture of us in Maine displayed on the kitchen counter next to the wine rack. The picture of us dancing at my best friend’s wedding nestled into the frame of my mom’s bedroom mirror. The toy VW bug that he had given me for my birthday, prominently displayed on the dresser. These totems still remain in situ nearly five years after Henry and I broke up. Memorials to the son they never had, and the son-in-law they’d never dreamed of.