My stepdad, David, always made it downstairs for breakfast first. He slurped his coffee, chomped his Cheerios and swallowed some happy pill so that when I came down and gave him a sneer instead of hello, he bounced back with,
"Helloooooo! What a beautiful day, huh?!"
I was sixteen and disgusted that he’d invaded our lives. My dad had died five years before, and David was a thousand times not my dad. David had orthopedic shoes that shook our floorboards when he walked. He drove a saggy station wagon, pumping the gas pedal until I got nauseous. When he took my mom and me out to dinner, he liked to ask other diners what they were eating that looked so delicious.
But the worst fault of his was of course how much he loved and doted on my mom. He wooed her with concerts and bouquets, cruises and a pink woolen skirt suit that I found revolting. I gave him the silent treatment after he moved in with us. In fact, I gave him the silent treatment the day he died too. Which was just a few months after their small wedding. After slurping his coffee and chomping his Cheerios and swallowing his happy pill he took the train into Manhattan and collapsed in a crush of commuters. Heart attack.
It’s only taken me twenty-four years to realize I loved David. Not in the you-are-my-all-time-hero way that I adored my dad. Not even in the thanks-for-making-my-mom-not-so-lonely way. It was a subtler love than that.
I see now that David’s thick soles gave our home a kind of solidity after five really echoey years of grief. David listened to me and my mom will full, rapt attention. He was so excited for me to start the college application process and offered to drive me across all fifty states to visit campuses. He was honest, vulnerable, and persistent. He also wound up being a great dress shopper.
Which leads me to my other lost-but-not-forgotten love, who is still very much alive, so I will call him just J.
I loved J fiercely from the first time I spied him in our high school theater, singing Joni Mitchell and skating across the stage in socks. This was right around the time David swooped in and moved his coats into my dead dad’s closet. Even though my body was slowly changing, I willfully denied any sexual urges or desires. Boys could not be trusted. Men even less so.
J had recently come out as gay, and made it clear that he was graduating early and moving away to study theater. I was mesmerized by his words, his ideas, the sketches and chicken scratch notes in all his books. It was common knowledge that he was smarter than everyone in our school. For one of our statewide history exams, we were supposed to write an essay entitled, The Price of Liberty. J’s essay began “The Price of Liberty is $50 a night, but if you want her to stay til morning it’s upwards of $100.” Though he had to take the test over, I heard our English teacher reading it out loud in the staff lounge, followed by applause.
Our friendship was fast and intense. I had some girlfriends too, but J and I were inseparable. He picked me up for school every day in his smoky Volkswagen Jetta and took me to the McDonald’s drive-thru for hash brown patties, or else surprised me with a pack of flying saucers from Carvel. A few times he even spent the night. The fact that he didn't want to get down my pants was the biggest reason I felt safe around him. Our closeness felt familiar, almost predetermined. He was exactly what I needed from a boy – sturdy, passionate, and completely oblivious to my body.
I didn’t realize I was falling in love with him though. I stared at his long nose turning red in the winter, his sandy-colored eyelashes and skinny, ink-stained fingers. He could digest Faulkner and Joyce in one night then explain it to me in the next. He knew the lyrics to every hip-hop album and made me mix tapes that we blared, shouting along until our lips ached. I loved who I was with him – loud, edgy and unafraid. There were moments – especially when he was lost in thought or curled up on my matted blue carpet when I thought it would be so easy and comforting to tuck myself into his chest and lay there together. I never dared ask.
In the spring of our junior year, J invited me to a ball, hosted by a new gay rights’ organization.
My stepdad David took me to a fancy shop a few towns away where everything got wrapped in tissue paper and the cashier looked like a porcelain doll and only talked in whispers. David bought me a pink strapless dress with rosebuds climbing up the bodice. The night of the ball, my girlfriends came over to blow-dry my hair and spray me with perfume. J even had his Jetta cleaned and the girls stood on my lawn as we peeled off.
Dancing in J’s arms under a canvas tent and a field of stars above was the first time I ever felt sexy. The deejay blared Madonna, and Deee-lite – all of our favorites. We danced until we were slick with sweat and then when they slowed it down with Sinatra, I tipped my head onto J’s shoulder and just swayed. It was so hard not to want more. So hard, in fact, that when J left for college a few months later, I never visited him. I was never invited, and sad but true, I was too timid to invite myself. We’d talked about keeping in touch, but it was clear he wanted to start his life over as a new, fabulously free gay man. I couldn’t blame him.
So on this Valentine’s Day, I don’t need any bubble bath bonbon bouquets. I just need to tell these two men, David and J, I love you. Truly, wholly, and unforgettably.