Valentine’s Day is next month, but I want to tell you a love story.
There’s a boy, yes. And a girl. And they are young, though they feel like adults. They have recently been separated but are now reunited, ablaze with certainty in themselves and their future together. When our story begins, they stand, improbably, in a bookstore.
Spoiler alert: This story has no happy ending. This story ends in a cemetery on a muggy afternoon in August 1986.
I fell in love with love because of Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, which I read at least a dozen times before I myself turned that age. Fifteen year old Jane Purdy is an ordinary girl dreaming of finding her first boyfriend and wondering if she’s found him in Stan Crandall, the delivery boy who rescues her from a near catastrophic babysitting session with the brattiest child in town.
Like the fairy tales with which child me was equally fond, the novel suggested happily-ever-after isn’t only possible, it’s guaranteed. If you know the formula, and if you follow the steps. Stories offered not only a momentary escape but a kind of roadmap toward the life I wanted. However, while Jane desired romance, I desired independence, and so fall 1985, I left home to begin college five hours away from home. I knew no one, not even my roommate who, inexplicably, never arrived on campus.
It was terrifying.
No one knew who I was, so no one knew who I had been.
Which meant I could reinvent myself.
So I did. The End.
Lol, if only it were that easy. But life, like stories, contains obstacles. Detours. Black ice moments when you careen toward certain (metaphorical) death. For Jane, it’s kissing Buzz. Despite their growing relationship, Stan takes Bitsy to the school dance. His motive is reasonable. His apology, sincere. Yet Jane wants him to hurt like she did. She regrets the kiss immediately, but the damage is done. Stan promises to call after work but never does, leaving Jane alone and wallowing in her foolishness.
My moment? Starting my second semester with only $40 to my name (approximately $108 today). In December, I’d had close to $800 in my checking account from paychecks and college loans but had spent some on Christmas presents, some on a road trip to visit my boyfriend who lived four hours away.
The remaining $600?
My father took it.
He said he needed it more than I.
Surprised? I wasn’t. He’d ‘borrowed’ my money on several occasions before–without asking and without repayment–and he often made promises he’d no intention of keeping. In high school, I halfsied on a used VW Bug with a transmission that stalled every time I downshifted at a light and rust holes that unspooled the road beneath my accelerating feet. I loved that car. He promised to restore it. Instead, he sold it and bought a used Rabbit for himself that he eventually gave to my younger brother. The same brother for whom he had started (then spent) a college fund shortly after his birth. I was a girl, you see, and needed a man, not college. After all, he’d done well enough for himself without an education.
Yes, the irony of that proclamation was evident to me even then.
One promise my father did keep: If I were so foolish as to pursue a college education, I would do so with no help from him. It was a challenge I determined to win, so when he drained my account, I did what I always did: I kept quiet and figured I’d figure my way out.
Except this time, I couldn’t. I’d been so focused on enduring winter break so I could return to school and my boyfriend that I’d forgotten I’d need books and supplies for the semester. Until I stood in the university bookstore, awash in shame and fear as my boyfriend easily found what he needed and placed a small (and expensive) mountain at the register. The salesclerk bagged his purchases, each item vanishing like everything I’d worked for and dreamed of until then. I dug my nails into my palms until they bled. I have notebooks, I told him. (I didn’t.) I’ll borrow textbooks from the library (I couldn’t.)
How could I have been so stupid?
Because when you are raised to believe you don’t matter, to look and plan no further than today-ish, you don’t even know the questions to ask, let alone whom to ask or where to find answers. You are driving in the dark with broken headlights and no map–You never even anticipate the craters until your tire blows and your car flips and rolls, metal screaming, down the embankment.
That was me in January 1986, a wreck on the side of life’s highway.
Except this time, someone saw me swerve. Someone pulled over to help. My boyfriend of five months, who refused to leave the store until I told him what was wrong. Who gave me $200 to buy what I needed. Not a gift, he said. A loan. Come summer I’d pay him back. A little each week from my paycheck, whatever I could afford. In 1986, there was no Venmo or PayPal, no online banking or cell service. Only snail mail, landlines, and twice monthly road trips. By August, I’d repaid $180 by tucking a five, ten, or sometimes twenty in my thrice weekly letters. Bring old clothes, he told me on our last visit before school. You’re going to work off the rest.
Which is how I ended up in a cemetery hauling rocks and pulling weeds on a muggy, gray sky mid-August day while he, its part-time groundskeeper, trimmed headstones. Overtime at his full-time refinery job had recently taken precedence, but he wouldn’t renege on promises he’d made to the cemetery’s caretaker. Nor would he renege on those he made to himself: to work and save as much as he could over summer in order to prioritize his engineering coursework come fall.
You see, the $200 he gave me wasn’t a rescue.
It was a roadmap.
He wanted me to find a long term happily-ever-after, not a short term happy ending, and he knew I needed directions.
What’s the difference?
Consider stop signs. They mark places in our travel but neither predict nor control it. Some drivers brake completely, while some of us roll, then pause. Some of us inspect the intersection and oncoming traffic before proceeding. Some of us blow through at full speed, heedless of other travelers. An ending is the sign itself: one episode finished, another about to begin. A happily–ever-after is the ability to deliberately or intuitively call on everything you learned from all your other stops before you accelerate, before you decide where and how to navigate. It’s the confidence gleaned from knowing, You’ve done something like this before. Now you can try to do better.
Progress, in other words. Not punctuation.
That’s where Jane gets it wrong. That’s where Fifteen is misleading. After she and Stan reconcile (he had appendicitis, not cold feet), she returns home cherishing their first kiss and his silver ID bracelet now clasped about her wrist. “Smiling to herself, Jane [turns and walks] toward the house. She was Stan’s girl. That was all that really mattered.”
Jane has achieved her happy ending, but not necessarily her happily-ever-after. She has no guarantee their relationship will last, nor that it will be perpetually happy. Life happens, and she is only fifteen, yet she idles at the stop.
Attaching our happiness to something–or someone–external is foolish and counterproductive. It robs us of agency in our own life stories. Makes us subservient to the whims of others who may–or may not–prioritize our well-being. I lived that way as a child. I sure as hell didn’t want to live that way as an adult.
So I paid my debt, I kept my promises, and I hauled rocks until my palms blistered and my back ached. When we returned to his parents’ house, his dad corralled us into hauling billboard salvage from a nearby farmer’s field, 24′ x 2.5′ steel sheets that bowed like smiles as we wrestled them into the wagon, after which we cleaned up and headed to the fair downtown.
That day is one of my happiest memories.
I promised you a love story, and here it is:
When you love someone, you don’t give them what they want.
You give them what they need.
That day in the bookstore, I wanted to figure a way out of my mess. I needed to figure out a way to ensure that mess never happened again. That’s why he didn’t just give me the money. He knew I needed to learn how to take care of myself– independent of him, our relationship, and anyone else–and he loved me enough to teach me.
I am forever grateful.
Because here’s another thing about love:
Sometimes, you have to learn to love yourself before you can love others.
Before you can see yourself worthy of another’s regard. See yourself worthy of big dreams and all the mileage needed to reach them. Whatever and wherever they are.
In the eight months following that awful day, I learned to budget, live within my means, and prioritize my goals. I opened my own accounts, saved more than enough money for school, and took control of all my university aid and paperwork. Late August, I began my third semester more confident and focused on the road ahead. I hadn’t yet reached my destination, but I had my toolbox packed and contingency plan drafted for the inevitable road block.
And I knew how to change my own tires.
If that’s not happily ever after, I don’t know what is.
As for my boyfriend, dear reader?
Years later, eventually, I married him.
But that’s another story.
7 thoughts on “Here’s Another Thing About Love”
How to tell a writer you loved their story? I loved your story.
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Thank you 😊
This is wonderful and hit me on so many levels.
FYI â I often erase blog posts from other writers (I tell myself I just donât have time to read them all) I never delete yours.
I am actually printing this one out. The boy giving her what she needs not just what she wants it the complete OPPOSITE of my main character in my story. This has helped me see him more clearly. Funny how putting yourself out there helps so many people in so many ways.
Thru the Window
Brenda Rech, writer
I really struggled writing this one and am thrilled & humbled that it resonated with you, Brenda. Thank you ♥️ Please do share your story when it’s reader ready! I’d love to read it!!!
Loved ❤ ❤ ❤ this story! It's one my 18-year-old self should have been able to read. She probably wouldn't have understood and used it as a roadmap, though.
Thank you 😊 And I hear you! I didn’t get it all the way then either!!!
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