It was the kind of kiss where our teeth bumped against each other but I pretended they didn’t. It was the kind of relationship where we danced around his kitchen and it felt like a movie, but only the insipid variety I was too lazy to get up and stop watching. He was the kind of person who asked for an itemized list of why I loved him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t.
After all, at the end of the summer I was flying across the country to go to school, and we would — with luck — never see each other again. Did it really matter so much that he started conversations by texting me babe-exclamation-point or that he had shockingly archaic views on reciprocating oral sex?
I dated that boy for three months in high school. I left the relationship as apathetic about him as when I had entered it, with a vague skepticism toward the benefit of labeling a relationship in the customary way — that is, to use the terms boyfriend and girlfriend.
Never again, I vowed, would I change my relationship status on Facebook. Never again would I be afraid to tell a boy I wasn’t interested. Why couldn’t everyone simply let their feelings fester in a petri dish until they formed an organic, amorphous semblance of a relationship? Why did people rush to stamp themselves with a brand of ownership?
Then I met another boy. It was the kind of kiss I felt in my stomach walking back to my room; it was the kind of relationship where I fell asleep with the phone next to my ear as we spent the summer apart from each other.
He was the kind of person who called me “honey.” It was a long, complicated saga of a relationship that eventually failed spectacularly, but only in the mundane fashion of tears and pining and watching the little green circle appear next to his name on Facebook and waiting for a conversation that wouldn’t start.
We never “dated” and so I was never broken up with, but perhaps my showerhead, a witness to my despondency, would beg to differ.
The hopelessly tangled marionette wires of our no-strings-attached affair seemed to reinforce my crusade against traditional, labeled relationships.
If I had a boyfriend I disliked and a lover I truly cared about, what utility did those words have? I practiced saying the words “my boyfriend” in front of a mirror. It was like my tongue was curling around a lemon drop, my face puckering away from the sordid reality of the word.
We use labels for linguistic convenience. I don’t have to say, “I’m vaguely involved with a guy and here are the exact constraints of our relationship for you to peruse.”
I can simply say, “I have a boyfriend.” And yet, we’ve managed to distort the term from an innocent identifier to an engorged, greedy behemoth of a word by continually feeding it connotation after connotation of what a relationship needs to look like. Now, when I have a “boyfriend,” I can easily feel contractually obligated to carefully drop his name in conversations with other men, to love him to the moon and back and post occasional statuses to that effect, to hold hands in public and look respectably abashed about that apparently uncontrollable urge.
If you’re not willing to take up that yoke of public spectacle, why bother using the word at all?
Labels are inherently for other people. Attaching a word — “relationship” — to a swell of emotion — “the way I feel when I think about this person” — is redundant inside my own head. They feel self-gratifying and attention-seeking.
And yet. I’ve met a third boy. It’s the kind of kiss that invites wandering hands; it’s the kind of relationship in the stage after sending each other emoji hearts, but the stage before diminutives and good-morning texts. He is the kind of boy who can beat me at hangman. Heady snippets of our conversations make my friends squeal as I breathlessly retell them.
He is not my boyfriend. I am not his girlfriend. But. The sharp, jagged edge of that looming label is softening around the edges, melting wax dripping and reforming into a seal I’m not afraid of using.
Were all my carefully constructed critiques simply the embittered result of two failed relationships, and not as representative of universal truths as I had convinced myself they were? I feel almost as if I’ve failed myself: the moment the right man sauntered into view I leapt from my moral high ground, abandoned my principles and fell tumbling into his arms.
In two months he and I might no longer be speaking, and I’ll crawl back into my cave like a recalcitrant, misanthropic crab, shedding labels as I go and convincing myself I’d never voluntarily use one anyway. I don’t know. But maybe, just maybe, my stodgy, cynical heart is weakening just enough to allow these harmless expressions of emotion to worm their way inside.