This is not a love letter. It was at some point, in a twisted way that forms a pit in my stomach and catches my breath, but it isn’t anymore.
The first boy I loved had bad habits like I have neuroses.
He smoked. So much my mother would've collapsed in shock had I let her meet him. Marlboro Reds most of the time. I could pinpoint their particular perfume anywhere, as I still do, walking down the street, catching my breath in a cloud of memories and smoke. Marlboro Reds and USA Golds. The latter he found intriguing for one reason, I’m sure: to open them you slid a shiny American flag on the front of the package. He also claimed they were made locally in North Carolina, something I'm not positive was either true or a real factor in his decision. These cigarettes where the first I ever bought, for him of course, when he was late to meet me and “running low.” I didn't tell him that I don’t like the idea of supporting big tobacco as I would’ve spit at anyone else, I said "no problem.” I walked into the local, run down convenience store he frequented for its proximity to his house and the bar and wouldn't realize until months later this represented one of many minuscule pieces of myself I gave away in lending myself to him.
He drank. Anything. At his parents’ he’d mix a Tom Collins in a tumbler because “dad always has the ingredients in the fridge,” and would offer me wine from his mother’s cabinet. But everyone has a poison and his was vodka. Cheap vodka. Aristocrat. I'll never forget the first time I saw the bottle in his hand, unbeknown to me at the time that drinking he'd joked about for months was not only all consuming of him but of everyone around him. Etched deeper in my mind is the first time I tasted Aristocrat vodka, straight, just like him, out of a styrofoam cup standing alone in his kitchen after we had started seeing each other. To this day I'm not positive it wasn't actually rubbing alcohol and to this day I can’t stomach vodka. The bottle’s red label catches my eye occasionally and I cringe not just for the taste, but for the arresting flashbacks. The longer we were together the more I noticed the drinking, the shaking that came with its absence, and the two different people I recognized with and without alcohol. It had a hold on him I hope to never comprehend.
He slept in. So late the habit often made me question if he was actually a fifteen year old boy pretending to be a thirty year old man. I remember wondering how someone could wake up past noon and still be a productive member of society. Though it didn’t take long for me to realize the answer in my question, you can’t regularly wake up past noon and be a productive member of society. The longer we were together the more I came to accept these hours came with the territory I was exploring. His staying up all hours of the morning, drinking and sending sentimental alcohol-infused texts became commonplace. Texts I always made sure woke me by the distinct tone assigned to only him. My fear of missing some emotional confession clouded any need for sleep and created an emotive high every time his name flash on the screen, usually between two and three a.m. as I drifted out of consciousness before my guaranteed and impetuously penned response.
Those messages were trumped only by the ones asking me to meet him, always if I was “up for a drive.” So I’d drive and he’d drink and we’d talk for hours on end — singing and arguing over TLC versus Destiny’s Child or Backstreet Boys versus NSYNC, bonding over a mutual distaste for Bono and Phish. I’d try to convince him of Stevie Knicks’ brilliance and we’d stop to walk onto the beach, to hidden docks, to park benches. In music's absence I was content listening to the wind and the silence and his voice in a way so cliché hearing it replay in my head makes me nauseous. My recollection is so tangible I can feel his hand grip my arm to stop me in my tracks and see him point to the sky. I can feel the breeze on my cheeks, rose-tinted from the chill as my glance followed his lead to the moon, the tip of his finger teaching me constellations and stars and about the universe — not only the one everyone else existed in but the one we existed in; the silence of our small town’s twilight. Every time I’d drop him off at home, closer to the sunrise than sunset, he’d look over at me, tying my stomach in knots before kissing me goodnight. I’d float home before putting myself back to bed as quietly as possible, strangely content with what I didn't realize were such erroneous circumstances...
"What I learned in our months together was this: I had power. The power of youth, of independence, of being a woman at the beginning of something with nowhere to go but up...he taught me that I was young (but not too young anymore) and desirable, and that these two things were a potent combination-a kind of currency that was mine to wield."