I’d spent hours at Northgate Mall with my mom, agonizing over this pink-and-white striped Ralph Lauren bikini. When she’d dropped me off at my boyfriend’s house—I had just turned 15 and couldn’t yet drive—she’d reassured me, again, that it fit perfectly. Now as I examine myself in Devon’s parents’ bathroom mirror, I second guess my choice. The bikini does nothing to hide my stretch marks or the way my boobs sag from losing weight too quickly on a crash diet in sixth grade. But there’s no turning back now. I dart through the living room and out to the backyard, where Devon is waiting for me next to his parents’ above-ground pool.
It’s exciting to be alone with him, but I can’t completely relax. I watch Devon watching me as I climb down the cheap plastic ladder snapped on to the side of the pool and float my way into his arms, his band camp farmer’s tan especially evident in the dim twilight. He slides his arms around my waist, hands brushing over my bikini straps before settling on bare skin. Our relationship is still new enough that his touch doesn’t repulse me yet. Moonlight shimmers over the surface of the water, perfectly aligning with my preconceived notions of what romance looks like.
This was 2006, before Snapchat and Instagram. The year my friends and I entered high school and our first relationships that developed beyond more than sitting together at lunch and recess. The year we all began that slow process of unraveling our innocence, shedding the sense that love conquers all and could never hurt us. Before the heartbreaks and cigarette burns and being called sluts, even though we weren’t having sex.
In this moment, though, we make out in the pool, and I decide that I like it (even if, after everything that happened afterwards, I haven’t done it since). It’s September and the temperature drops at night, reminding us that summer is over. I finally work up the nerve to tell him I’m cold, so we get out and sit together on a cheap, rusted metal porch swing. Devon hands me a thin, tan towel that looks like it’s seen better days. I wrap it around myself, glad to feel a bit less exposed, and fidget with my bikini strap, making sure it’s still tied tight, still covering me up. I am here, with a boy who’s given me a rose and written me a poem. A boy who is holding my hand.
He looks at me then in a way that’s new to me now, but will one day be familiar.
“I want to tell you something,” he says. “It’s only been two weeks, but I don’t care. I’m going to say it anyway.”
I wait, my heart thumping with some combination of hormones and anxiety. I try to make eye contact, but instead my eyes flick nervously to the tiny crescent of a scar on his right cheek.
“I love you, Amanda,” he says. The words are obscured slightly by his speech impediment, an almost-accent that causes words to lose their edges, like his tongue is moving through molasses. In a year, for our first actual anniversary, he will buy me an off-brand Build-a-Bear and stick a recording inside. Over the next two years of our relationships, whenever I feel sad or insecure, which will be often, I will squeeze it tight so I can hear those thick words tripping over themselves: “I love you, Sugar Bear.”
I don’t know how you know you’re in love, but suspect that not knowing is how you know you’re not. I’d promised myself not to say it if I couldn’t be sure I meant it, but I hadn’t accounted for the real person staring back at me, expecting a certain answer. I look down at our hands intertwined—his nails bitten down to nubs, mine jagged, spotted with remnants of polish.
Then I say it: “I love you, too.”
“Close your eyes,” my Craft of Creative Nonfiction professor instructs the class. “Now imagine a house. It could be any house.”
Quite unexpectedly, I find the mind’s-eye version of myself standing outside my high school boyfriend’s parent’s squat one-story Flamingo Drive. If you’d asked me before this moment, I’d have said I couldn’t remember how it looked, and yet…
“Now, walk up to the front door, and walk inside. Knowing that you’re safe and you can leave this place any time, look around you. What do you see?”
As anyone hopes on the first day of class, I felt tears well behind my eyelids. As I watched the house unfold in my memory, I discreetly wiped them away.
“What objects do you see?”
The altar at the end of the hallway, photograph of the Virgin Mary. The armchair in the corner where his dad always used to sit.
“Pick one of them up.”
The duck figurine sitting on my boyfriend’s nightstand, nearly weightless, finds its way into my hand. A shudder of intense memory floods through me, moments I thought I’d forgotten, maybe tried to forget.
“Knowing you can return to this place at any time, make your way back outside. Open your eyes.”
We open our eyes, and he sends us home to write about where we ended up.
And thus, the first draft of this essay found its origin story.
Contrary to my typical process, this essay started out shorter than what we see here. It was the first time I’d written about this relationship, and I was hesitant to do so. As I worked to expand the piece, I threw everything in. Subsequent drafts flashed forward and back in time as if I had to write the entire span of events in one essay.
From there, naturally, I had to kill some darlings, cutting out unnecessary references to events outside the scope of this moment, tightening language. Ultimately, I pared back so the story centered mainly around a single scene, with subtler hints towards the future. The piece became part of my thesis, a collection of personal essays exploring relationships and pop culture, and as a result I received a great deal of helpful feedback from peers and professors along the way. This led me to the version you see here, which does a much better job of grounding in scene and hinting towards the future without spelling it out. It leaves, I hope, a sense of curiosity and foreboding about what comes next for our young couple.