Question marks

The first time I met him, I knew I was in trouble. He had fantastic curly brown hair and gorgeous brown eyes, and he charmed me by doing handstands at the beach. It was Labor Day, and this stretch of Humboldt County sand was nearly empty except for a woman who wore fairy wings and hopped through the surf while another person photographed her. I had, on a whim, taken the afternoon off work to come here and meet this boy from MySpace. He had emailed me while I was at the office, given me his phone number, and said that he was tired of studying and could use an outing. Work was slow, so I called him; ten minutes later I was on my way to the beach.

We’d been exchanging emails for a few weeks by that time. He was into scuba diving, and the starfish photo on my MySpace profile had caught his attention. At first I was wary of his messages. He kept asking how I was doing, and telling me about his day, and sometimes inviting me to go on a random trip with him and his friends. I tried to fend him off, but his persistence worked. He seemed friendly and interesting, and—like I said—he was extremely cute. Our Labor Day meeting at the beach turned into a seven-hour date as we decided to get an early dinner, then some ice cream. At the end of it, I walked him to his motorcycle and he said that he would give me a call sometime. He left me with a ridiculous smile and a head full of fantasies. I hadn’t had a crush like that in years.

Every couple weeks after that he would call me, and we’d do something together like visit the aquarium or meet for lunch on the university campus. (I was no longer a student, but I worked nearby.) I was terribly attracted to him, but far too shy to do anything about it as I waited for him to make a move. It seemed obvious that he was interested in me too. Nevertheless, we spent the next few months spinning in a whirlwind of mixed signals. Our conversations were usually stilted, which I took as a sign not that we were incompatible, but that there was an exciting tension between us. He had a passion for life that I admired. I wanted to partake of his spirit, and to get close to that soft hair and beautiful skin. Each time we got together, though, nothing happened and I left feeling frustrated.

Our impasse continued for a remarkably long time, even throughout a winter vacation that offered a prime opportunity for things to move forward. He was spending the holidays at home in Mendocino County, and invited me to stop by on my way north from my own holiday in Sacramento. A couple days after Christmas, I met him in his hometown for dinner and the usual restrained sort of conversation. Things got interesting a couple hours later, when it began to snow as I was driving home. I was only a dozen miles outside of town, so when I called him worriedly from the road, he suggested that I turn around and spend the night at his parents’ house. They had a hot tub that we could use.

I hoped for some excitement, but nothing happened in the hot tub except that we came within a few inches of touching each other as we sat side-by-side gazing out at the winter sky. I was absolutely bemused. He was shirtless; we were alone and shielded from anybody’s view; he’d invited me here and given me an old T-shirt to wear. I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing and then we both went to bed. It was clearer than ever that he liked me, especially when he persuaded me to stay in town a little bit longer the next day so we could hang out. Still, we parted without so much as a hug.

However, being in the hot tub had evidently given him new ideas. After we’d both returned to Humboldt, he invited me to soak with him in one of our town’s private outdoor hot tubs. I guess the backyard of his parents’ house hadn’t been private enough because here, at last, was where I first felt the touch of his hand. He then bought me dinner; it was the first time he’d paid for one of my meals in all the times we’d gone out together. Later, after meeting up with a study group, he came to my apartment with a pint of chocolate ice cream. We devoured it, and then he wrapped his arms around me as we sat on the couch and talked until midnight. There was no kiss at the end, but I was thrilled.

I hoped that now we’d both feel more free to share ourselves with each other. I wanted to be part of his life, which was full of engineering and math and outdoor recreation—somehow, I found the combination fascinating. He was laid-back but ambitious; smart but not esoteric. He showed me how to play Guitar Hero, beer pong, and disc golf. We had a lot of outward differences, but we both knew that life was beautiful, and I thought that might be enough to build on.

Unfortunately, we managed to date for five weeks without establishing any common ground or becoming emotionally close. His roommates were very friendly, but they must have been perplexed whenever I came over to hang out quietly at the house. There seemed to be no clear role for me in his life, and the uncertainty of the whole thing quashed my ability to demonstrate a personality. I didn’t know how to act when I was sitting on the couch with a boyfriend who hardly even touched me. We went to a concert one night, and as we danced near each other, I wanted to put my hands around his waist but didn’t feel that I should. Our time in the bedroom was a bit of a different story, but still an awkward one.

The only time he ever held my hand was while he broke up with me. It was meant to be comforting. I think he knew that I’d be disappointed, and surely he was disappointed too. We were lying in bed on a Sunday morning. He rubbed my fingers with his thumb as he looked at the ceiling, telling me that I wasn’t his soul mate but there must be somebody else out there for each of us. The truth was painful to hear, although it had been obvious for some time that the spark between us was deathly weak. I should have been relieved that my months of unfulfilled yearning were over. Instead, I indulged in bitterness for the next few weeks and insisted that I was too wounded to hang out with him as a friend, although he seemed to want to. He was only the third guy I’d ever dated. Severe disappointment was to be expected.

With a little more perspective now, I can say that he was probably just as unsure as I was about our compatibility, and hadn’t wanted to lead me on by being too affectionate. Despite all appearances, he wasn’t a thoughtless boob of a boyfriend, and I wasn’t a bore of a girlfriend. He was actually a pretty great guy; we just utterly failed to draw out the good things that we saw in each other. Inevitably, our attempt at intimacy became a question mark that grew bolder and bolder until it couldn’t be ignored. It was the first experience to teach me that sometimes anticipation is sweeter than reality. Some people are meant to be remembered as little more than question marks.

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