The first boy I dated I didn’t know I had dated until after we’d broken up, and he said, “When we broke up—” and I interrupted and said, “We broke up?”  He looked a little surprised, in a surely-you-noticed sort of way.  So I clarified: “We were dating?”  He paused.  “Yes,” he said, looking at me.  “Okay,” I said.  He went on with his story.

I met him in my first undergraduate English class.  I decided to skip over the freshman English classes and head right into the big time: English 223, Introduction to the English Language.  Or something.  He was one of the adultish-looking men who sat near me, in the basement of the off-level, peach-colored humanities building.  I was definitely the youngest, a silly teenager surrounded by bona fide English majors.  He was tall and blonde and red-faced.  (“The Race of the Red Men,” he used to say, as if he might begin speaking in barbaric yawps.)  He read Plato and Aristotle in his spare time and asked drilling questions that made his teachers uncomfortable.  I’m pretty sure his assignments weren’t always correctly punctuated.  I got better grades than he did.

“You’re anti-establishment,” I said to him once.  He was totally surprised.  “What?” he asked, his furry blonde eyebrows arched high on his red face.  “You’re anti-establishment,” I said again, more sure of myself, not always the case.  I was 18 and he was 21, and he had lived in Ireland for two years, had hitchhiked.  But right then I saw his youth in Texas unfold so clearly before me, a calculated chronology in which he played baseball and got good grades, worked summers as a janitor at a local university, kept his head down, and earned a reputation for being a Good Kid.  When what he really wanted was to raze Snobbery, ignite Passion, unleash Wildness and Intellect and untrammeled Virtu.  I knew what his parents still didn’t: that he’d rather skip his homework to stage obtuse and discursive plays at the local pond, where, at the climax, his best friend would emerge from the water and the reeds, covered in—could it have been seaweed?  Swamp Man.  And my boy laughing wildly and delightedly from the sidelines.

He asked me once what a word meant.  I moved to pick up my dictionary.  He slammed his hand down on the cover, stopping me.  I was startled.  Was this violence?  He looked hard at me and said fiercely, “I want to know what you think it means.”  I stammered, stringing out what I thought could be a definition.  He relaxed, satisfied.  Oh man, oh man, I was too.  This is (partly) why I went to law school.

Years later, I told him that poetry was any writing in which “every single word is included for at least two reasons.”  He held up a bottle of salad dressing. “This label?” he said.  “Could be poetry,” I said.  “Tangy Tomato Tango—alliterative and informative.  Poetry.  But,” I said, pointing to the bottom of the label, “12 fluid ounces.  Purely informative.  Not poetry.”  He looked so pleased.

He taught me: “If you’re sorry, just change and never do it again.
He called me out: “We can’t be friends unless you believe in me.”
He said: “The best puns are unintentional.”

(And then one day in English 223, when I told the class that the then-recent separation of twins who’d been conjoined at the chest was “heart-wrenching,” he guffawed—an actual guffaw—and almost fell out of his chair, his face wet and redder with laughter, and I realized the class didn’t know what I knew about him and unintentional puns, or about us, and I blushed and felt like he had kissed me.)

He never kissed me.  But one night at the door of my dorm, we stood in the yellow light and he told me how he was glad we were friends but he didn’t think it would go anywhere and could he, anyway, kiss me on my cheek?  I thought about him being so tall and all the moments I’d have to wait between when his head started to move towards me and when his lips actually touched my cheek, and I said no.  This could have been my first kiss.  “No?” he said, taken totally aback.  I patted his arm.  I smiled.  I said, “Knowing you wanted to is enough.”  I meant it.  “I just—but your cheeks are so pretty,” he said.  I turned to go inside.  He called to me, “And don’t tell anyone!”

Sorry, B.

When, two years later, he told me he loved Kirsten and was going to marry her, I was happy for him.  We’d not been dating for a long time, but we’d spent a summer being friends, defining things and drinking the root beer he kept in my fridge because his fridge was too crowded.  “These are the halcyon days,” he wrote me at the end of that summer.  He also wrote, “I could not have learned to love Kirsten without having dated you.  You taught me about simple love, when all I was was complicated.”

When I learned they had three kids and he had become a middle school English teacher, known for his firm and consistent classroom discipline, I felt pleased.  I felt proud.