One taught me how to grill vegetables inside a tent made out of aluminum foil. Just some zesty salad dressing for a marinade, he told me. If you can chop and turn on a grill, you can cook.
I liked how little cleanup was involved.
One taught me how to make pizza using some weird stone plank he kept in his bottom kitchen cabinet. We’d slide the thing into his oven and I liked that he had his own pizza cutter so much that he bought me one too. He introduced me to banana peppers as a topping. I tried to introduce him to pepperoni made out of turkey and – probably – a ton of nitrates, but he liked the real stuff so my recommendation didn’t take. He did, however, begin to keep Hershey’s Miniatures in the freezer where they belong.
One taught me how to drive. We used his car for my lessons, a gorgeous Jeep Cherokee, and I’d see a glint of sweat form on his brow when he’d glance down at the heels I was wearing to tap his gas pedal. Relax, I’d tell him — though I made sure to say it with my eyes still glued to the road, my hands in that ten-and-two position. At this point you should know I can do anything in heels.
One of them taught me about keeping on my heels in bed. He never actually said a word, but the rest of him communicated all that was needed for the lesson to take hold and never let go.
I like you best in sweatpants and a tank top, one used to say with a smile. His hair was floppy when he first woke up. I loved that about him.
I like you best decked out in lingerie, another told me. I bought a ton of it, but I’ve never been able to wear the same stuff for different men. It feels dirty — and not in that good way.
What I realized only later was that each man was letting me know that he preferred seeing me as nobody else did, that those outfits were for them alone, just like how the hair flop on one felt private for me. That hair flop was just ours.
One introduced me to bands so obscure that I’m still not sure they actually exist. One could rap every single lyric of every single rap song and he would never miss a syllable. One took me to concerts constantly and bought me a huge puffy pretzel in every single stadium. One danced next to me in the sixth row of Green Day and I discovered that night that, for him, dancing meant hopping continually in place.
Not a single one ever so much as suggested that Springsteen is anything other than a genius who was morphed by the heavens into a God.
All of them maybe feared me a little bit.
Most of them told me how they loved my smile. Some paid extra attention to my chest. One dipped his index finger into my dimples sometimes and all of them used to stroke my hair, though never as much as I wanted them to.
One of them complimented me on my nail beds. It was such a bizarre thing to notice that it made me feel remarkably special. He was skilled at doing that.
I left tangible things behind with all of them, emotional relics that hinged simply from an inability to pack effectively. Some had my DVDs sitting atop a TV in the living room and others had a bottle of my perfume on the bathroom sink. I’ve left black hair bands scattered across the eastern seaboard. I’ve lost too many books along the way.
The only thing I asked to be returned was the only thing that I could never actually get back.
All of them told me I give the best presents. To one I gave a beer making kit after a friend of mine slaved for hours over a catalogue so he could give me recommendations on something I had zero knowledge about. To another I gave a picture frame engraved with the first sentence from The Great Gatsby, a sentence that — at the time — seemed crafted exactly for him in exactly that moment. I bought all of them clothes. I bought one a book though he has yet to read it.
All of them imparted me with a new vocabulary and new expressions. One used to say, “You’re dead to me.” He meant it as a joke. I use that expression now – except when I say it, I fucking mean it. One had workout expressions that pop into my head when I feel like I’m about to fall over while I’m planking on a Pilates reformer. I don’t particularly want to hear his voice in my head, but something about it makes me unwilling to fall, even as my arms begin to shake. One watched Sports Center so frequently, basketball terminology became part of the way I communicated and his influence creeps in still. I heard myself recently telling someone we should take a twenty-second time out and the minute I uttered those words, I could have sworn I inhaled the scent of what Pennsylvania summers smell like. All those years later – all those many years later – and a simple sentence transported me to who I was then. I liked that person. She still had some quietness inside.
One of them taught me how to smoke from a bong. One of them taught me how to make coffee. One explained patiently that I never cook pasta long enough. One told me I was the most forgiving person he’d ever known.
They all taught me about patience and the undeniable necessity of thinking before speaking. They showed me how differently men express anger and I learned the quietest of the anger was what felt the scariest. All of them cooked me breakfast and I realized as we sipped coffee together how much I liked it when the rest of the spinning world was outside and it was just us that existed, at least until our coffee went cold. All of them showed me what it means to crave someone, to feel the pull of wanting. The earliest of them never felt my fear because I had less of it then. The later ones sometimes pretended my fear wasn’t there, probably because to do so felt easier.
One showed me what life would look like if I took the traditional road. Even as the stops we made felt nice in the moment, I knew nice would never be enough for me. I also knew such a discovery meant that I was different and I knew different wasn’t always better. One dangled a far more erratic life before my eyes and I’m still unsure why I grabbed for it with both hands. One of them had hands I liked to hold while I fell asleep. One understood that I didn’t particularly enjoy touching when it was time to actually sleep, though he and I both enjoyed how I’d rake my hands over his scalp come morning.
I still have letters from most of them. They live inside a drawer I rarely feel the need to open, but I know they’re there. The stuffed animals they won for me are perched on a ledge in a corner of my house. My guess is they’re dusty now, and only part of that is symbolic. I have tees they left behind that I still sleep in now and then and a purse or two that I once unwrapped near Christmas trees on cold mornings when I sat cross-legged on the floor in pajamas. I have emails from every single one and texts from a few and dreams about only three. If I concentrate really hard, I can recall what they all sound like when they are happy.
I trot them out in stories sometimes, though rarely to one another. I spoke to one just the other night and he told me it was time to “rearrange” my taste in men. I didn’t tell him that he’d all but curated that taste of mine once – long ago – but I could hear through the silence that he already knew and his advice was also a bit of penance for the past.
Not a single one ever caused me to question my kindness or my intelligence or my sense of humor. All of them caused me to wonder about my ability to shut off my natural instincts, to rearrange what was logical into an order that felt consumable. One used to reach out and touch me lightly when he talked. I know what you’re doing, I would think. I’ve read those psychology texts, too. But I never actually said a single word.
To this day, I would recognize all of their coughs, even if I heard them while I was under water.
One showed me a way to exfoliate that I have since adopted. One taught me how to drive a stick, though I was never really able to pull it off. One guided me the first time I ever went skiing and just laughed when I tried to break up with him as I lay frustrated on a snowy mountain. One finally taught me how to do a push-up that didn’t make me feel like a fraud.
For better or for worse, I associate certain TV shows with all of them and certain times of year with some. Depending on the kind of day I’m having, a crisp autumn night with The Daily Show playing on the TV can cause me to start shaking. On other days, I’ll turn on an old episode of The Sopranos just to feel whole.
I teach you things, right? I remember asking one of them this question. It felt very important that the answer was yes, that he acknowledge and specify the new things I brought into his life like they were tiny gifts stuffed inside of a stocking that he could take out and examine one at a time. I liked knowing my presence had caused someone to change, even if it was just a little. I needed to know my impact was quantifiable.
I’m still reminded of some of them often. I’ll hear about a new book being adapted for the screen or a song we once listened to on repeat or I’ll read an article I think one should see. To some, I will reach out. To others, I just tuck the information into a section of my mind that, if it had a color, would be a pale silver like an old photograph. Sometimes I’ll text a message in my mind where I can’t cave and hit send. Only with two can I actually text something their way and not hate myself immediately.
The blueberry flavor at Dunkin Donuts has been made into a munchkin. Do with that information what you will.
That’s one of the texts I didn’t send. That’s one of the texts I’ll never send.
I always have the nicest time when I’m with you, one said, and the memory of his voice now feels like a song, his compliment both my favorite lyric and the finest parting gift I’ve ever received.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter