Way back in on the role of friends, I mentioned my Nice Boyfriend from back in my hometown. I haven’t talked to Nice Boyfriend in about six months, and in that time, I’ve been able to reflect on the fact that maybe in some ways he wasn’t so Nice after all.
Oh, I mean, he wasn’t abusive or anything. He’s not the villain of any particular story, by any means. He still was polite to my family, and brought back a simple seashell necklace for me when he went on vacation, and showed up to my high school graduation in a nice shirt and tie. In fact, other than my mother, he was the only person who bothered to go see me graduate. He was a good guy and our relationship was more or less healthy.
But anyway. He was a virgin when we began dating. And, in fact, he was the one that wanted to wait for a while before starting to have sex. While I had no problem with this notion – sex was not something I enjoyed so much as what I figured was expected of me – it made me nervous. I didn’t know how to interpret it, because in every previous relationship, sex seemed to be the guy’s main goal. So every time Nice Boyfriend just wanted to cuddle on the couch and watch a movie, I was baffled. I couldn’t get my head around the idea that he could honestly enjoy my company; I considered sex my way of repaying someone for the inconvenience of being in my presence. For friends, I paid for food, entertainment, and drugs; for a boyfriend, I offered sex before it was asked for, or before I could have the chance to be raped again. I was in no way prepared for a nice guy. I assumed he had ulterior motives, but couldn’t decide what. Was this his way of trying to let me know that I needed to improve my looks or lose some weight before I’d really be good enough? I wore more makeup, cut calories. Was there another girl he was more interested in? I reassured him, repeatedly, that if there was someone else he wanted to hook up with, we could talk about it and work through it.
In other words, he did something normal (and actually quite awesome) and I was so utterly perplexed by it that I acted completely neurotic.
That alone is a sad thing for me to reflect on: the fact that, for a large part of my life, I legitimately felt compelled to use my body as a form of currency. I think sometimes I resent that I didn’t get myself out of that way of thinking in time to salvage that particular aspect of the one non-abusive relationship I’ve ever been in.
Yet, he would also do incredibly frustrating and counterproductive things: things like refusing to communicate, lying about when/if/why he was upset, and getting visibly angry and jealous about my previous sexual relationships. He asked how many partners I’d had before him; I told the truth and said “three” (neglecting to mention that only two of those were consensual). He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day, and the first thing he said thereafter was a huffy Well I Don’t Really Like The Idea Of That. So he wasn’t perfect, and that’s okay. But in more ways than that, we weren’t really compatible in the long term.
So, I’ve been wondering, if that all was the case, why was I so blown away by him? Why, two years later, do I still sometimes think back on a relatively brief (roughly a year) relationship that ultimately left both of us relatively unsatisfied?
Last night, lying awake thinking about someone who had owed me an “I’m sorry” for a long time, I realized the answer to that question. I was (and am) so attached to Nice Boyfriend – or, at least, the idea of him – because he was the first person to ever earnestly apologize for me to anything.
Oh, sure, it’s not like I’d never gotten a “whoops, sorry” when someone bumped into me at the grocery store. But it blows my mind to realize that I was seventeen years old and counting before I ever heard the phrase “I’m sorry” unaccompanied by some caveat like But You Made Me Do It or But I Was Right You Know or But It’s Still Your Fault. The issue wasn’t particularly consequential in the long term, but what he said made such an impression on me that, apparently, I remembered the exact phrasing without even meaning to:
“I’m sorry this decision was so hard for me, babe. There’s no way it should have been. When I think about you and why I love you, it seems pretty clear.”
Seventeen years until I heard my first apology. Can you believe that? I still can’t. Wow.