I knew this pattern even before my first real boyfriend, because I’d seen my mother go through it several times already. With marriages, the pattern is stretched out, adjusted, like working with dog years: the six weeks becomes a year, sometimes two. But it’s the same. That was why it was always so easy to figure out how long my stepfathers would last. It all comes down to math.
If I did the math with Dexter, on paper it was perfect. We’d come in well under the three-month mark, with me leaving for college just as the shine was wearing off. But the problem was that Dexter wasn’t cooperating. If my theories of relationships were plotted geographically, Dexter wasn’t even left of center or far out in right field. He was on another map altogether, rapidly approaching the distant corner and headed into the unknown.
First, he was very gangly. I’d never liked gangly guys, and Dexter was clumsy, skinny, and always in motion. It was not surprising to me now that our relationship had started with him crashing into me in various ways, since I now knew he moved through the world with a series of flying elbows, banged knees, and flailing limbs. In the short time we’d been together, he’d already broken my alarm clock, crushed one of my beaded necklaces underfoot, and managed, somehow, to leave a huge scuff mark on my ceiling. I am not joking. He was always jiggling his knees, or drumming his fingers, as if revving up, just waiting for the checkered flag to drop so he could spin out at full speed. I found myself constantly reaching over and trying to quiet him, covering his knee or fingers with my hand, thinking it would silence them, when instead I would be caught up in it with him, jangling along, as if whatever current charged him was now flowing through me.
Point two: he was a slob. His shirttail was always out, his tie usually had a stain, his hair, while curly and thick, sprung out from his head wildly in a mad-scientist sort of fashion. Also, his shoelaces were continually untied. He was all loose ends, and I hated loose ends. If I could ever have gotten him to stand still long enough, I knew I would have been unable to resist tucking, tying, smoothing, organizing, as if he were a particularly messy closet just screaming for my attention. But instead I found myself gritting my teeth, riding the wave of my natural anxiety, because this wasn’t permanent, me and him, and to think so would only hurt both of us.
Which led to point three: he really liked me. Not in an only-until-the-end-of-the-summer way, which was safest. In fact, he never talked about the future at all, as if we had so much time, and there wasn’t a definite end point to our relationship. I, of course, wanted to make things clear from the start: that I was leaving, no attachments, the standard spiel I repeated in my head finally spoken aloud. But whenever I tried to do this, he evaded so easily that it was as if he could read my mind, see what was coming, and for once move gracefully to sidestep the issue entirely.
Now, as work on “The Potato Song” broke up so that Ted could go to work, Dexter came over and stood in front of me, stretching his arms over his head. “Total turn-on seeing a real band at work, isn’t it?”
“ Relate-o is a lame rhyme,” I said, “pseudo or not.”
He winced, then smiled. “It’s a work in progress,” he explained.
I put down my crossword puzzle-I’d finished about half of it-and he picked it up, glancing at what I’d finished. “Impressive,” he said. “And of course, Miss Remy does her crosswords in ink. What, you don’t make mistakes?”
“You’re here, though,” he said.
“Okay,” I admitted, “maybe one.”
He grinned again. We’d only been seeing each other for a few weeks now, but this easy give-and-take still surprised me. From that very first day in my room, I felt like we’d somehow skipped the formalities of the Beginning of a Relationship: those awkward moments when you’re not all over each other and are still feeling out the other person’s boundaries and limits. Maybe this was because we’d been circling each other for a while before he finally catapulted through my window. But if I let myself think about it much-and I didn’t-I had flashes of realizing that I’d been comfortable with him even at the very start. Clearly, he’d been comfortable with me, grabbing my hand as he had that first day. As if he knew, even then, that we’d be here now.
“I bet you,” he said to me, “that I can name more states by the time that woman comes out of the dry cleaners than you can.”
I looked at him. We were sitting outside of Joie, both of us on our lunch break, me drinking a Diet Coke, him snarfing down a sleeve of Fig Newtons. “Dexter,” I said, “it’s hot.”
“Come on,” he said, sliding his hand over my leg. “I’ll bet you.”
He cocked his head to the side, then squeezed my knee. His foot, of course, was tapping. “Let’s go. She’s about to walk in. When the door shuts behind her, time’s on.”
“Oh, God.” I said. “What’s the bet?”
“Boring. And too easy.”
“Okay. And you have to buy dinner.”
We watched as the woman, who was wearing pink shorts and a T-shirt and carrying an armful of wrinkled dress shirts, pulled open the door to the cleaners. As it swung shut, I said, “Maine.”
“Delaware.” I was keeping track on my fingers: he’d been known to cheat but denied it with great vehemence, so I always had to have proof. Challenges, to Dexter, were like those duels in the old movies, where men in white suits smacked each other across the face with gloves, and all honor was at stake. So far, I hadn’t won them all, but I hadn’t backed down either. I was, after all, still new at this.
Dexter’s challenges, apparently, were legendary. The first one I’d seen had been between him and John Miller. It was a couple of days after Dexter and I had gotten together, one of the first times I’d gone over to the yellow house with him. We found John Miller sitting at the kitchen table in his pajamas, eating a banana. There was a big bunch of them on the table in front of him, seemingly out of place in a kitchen where I now knew the major food groups consisted of Slurpees and beer.
“What’s up with the bananas?” Dexter asked him, pulling out a chair and sitting down.