So, of course, when I was pushed for why I didn't have a boyfriend, like all good Southern girls in Christian schools, I lied. The summer after 8th grade, I attended a tennis day camp. I stayed with my aunt and her husband and three boys, and in the morning, someone would drop me off at the other horrible private school, and I would practice drills and learn strategy and work my ass off in the 90-something North Carolina heat. In the afternoon, someone would pick me up, and I'd raid my aunt's refrigerator for a sandwich or leftovers.
A high school student, Justin, assisted with the camp, a whip-thin boy with sandy-blond hair and visible biceps. His calves were smooth and toned, and he smiled easily if shyly. I liked Justin and found him easy enough to talk to and to joke with. After camp, of course, I never saw him again.
But, when I returned to school, and the lack-of-boyfriend taunts started again, I lied. I said I'd met a guy at tennis camp and we'd dated all through summer, but, alas, he'd gone off to boarding school in Virginia somewhere, and we'd broken up.
"But couldn't you just call him and see if he'd go to the Homecoming Dance with you?" asked Amanda, with her friends standing around and snickering.
"Yeah, maybe," I said, looking down and blushing.
The summer after 9th grade, I went to a science camp and I met Lance, another counselor, this one a college student and much older than me. He taught me to play poker (for M&Ms), and we would walk to the gym to swim in the free periods. After camp, this time, we wrote to each other quite a lot. And, when the questions began that fall, I had tangible proof that I had a guy in my life. Lance, who sends me letters in the mail. Lance, who promised that one day, maybe he'd visit.
Again, the girls told me I should ask him to a dance, and I did in my next letter. He wrote back reasonably quickly that, sorry, he couldn't. Too much to do with school, but he was very flattered and wished he could. We stopped writing shortly after that. I had violated the friendship, I think, and he started to realize that I was a 15-year-old girl.
But that winter, I began preparing to apply to the North Carolina School for Science and Math, a boarding school that would get me away from my father and away from that horrible school. It terrified me at the same time I longed for it. One of the hoops I had to jump through was to take the SAT. My mom drove me to New Hanover High School the morning of the test and I lined up outside with the juniors and seniors and waited for the doors to open.
I started talking to a guy named Tim, a cute senior with a 5 o'clock shadow at 8 in the morning. It was always easier to talk to guys -- there was nothing to risk. Tim was wiry and had thick dark hair and a pointed chin, and he was worried about doing well enough to get into UNC-Wilmington. When we were finally allowed into the classroom, I wrote him a note on a slip of paper that just said "Good luck!" with a smiley and my name. He looked at it and smiled at me from across the room.
And, as soon as I was out of the test, I promptly forgot about him. Until he showed up at my tiny school, more than an hour away from where he lived, during my basketball practice. And there he was -- tangible proof that I had attracted an actual living human male. Tim and I talked for a while -- he'd tracked me down based on my name and where I went to school. I gave him my phone number, and for the next three months, he and I dated.
He drove the 45 minutes to my house from his every weekend, taking me to cheap restaurants and, often, to the movie theater where he worked after school. He told me about his dreams of becoming a pilot. We drove to Topsail Beach when it was warm enough, and we made out in his car when it was dark. His perpetual scruffiness (he was Greek, and extraordinarily hairy) abraded my cheeks and neck, and he apparently tried to examine my tonsils regularly with his tongue. But I put up with it, with just not quite getting why girls wanted to kiss guys, because I could stop lying. I didn't even have to lie to myself -- here I was! Normal! With an actual human boyfriend!
After 3 months, Tim's father, a Vietnam veteran and campus police officer, told him that he could not longer keep driving to see me. Or so he said. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said he couldn't see me any more, and that it wasn't my fault and that he wished it was different. It was too expensive. The long-distance bills were too much, and the gas to put in his Dodge Dart hatchback. He was supposed to be saving money for college, and he was supposed to be working and not taking time off to see me.
He was sorry. And he kissed me hard and sloppily and I got up from the front steps of my house where we had been talking, and he got in his car, looking at his feet, and he drove away.
I ran upstairs and threw myself dramatically onto my bed, sobbing loudly enough that my mother could hear. She came up to see what was wrong, and I choked out through my sobs, "Tim. He, he broke up with meee." My mom rubbed my back and told me he was a horrible person for doing this to me. If he really wanted to see me he'd have figured out a way no matter what his parents said. That sort of thing.
In a few minutes, I was fine, and I felt a weird sense of relief that I wouldn't be spending any more time on Tim's bed watching him play with his shortwave radio, or in his car under a bridge trying to figure out if I should let him put his hand in my pants. Or if I should try to put my hand in his pants. It was all too confusing.
I didn't think about Tim again for a couple of years, except to fondly remember him as the person who proved to the rest of my school that I was normal. Or normal-ish, anyway. I was a senior in high school by this point, and he was 19, a sophomore in college at UNCW. I was watching the evening news while my mom cooked supper in the other room.
"A small plane crash on Topsail Island kills local college student," said the anchor as the screen showed pictures of a crashed single-engine plane on the white sands of the beach. "Tim Duncan of Wilmington was killed as he was flying to Myrtle Beach this afternoon," the anchor continued, and my world went white for a long moment. I hadn't thought of Tim in a couple of years, not really. I hadn't loved him. I hadn't even been sure that I'd liked him. He was convenient, and I had a good time with him, but that was it.
And here he was on the screen, his high school picture flashing up as the anchor went on to describe the crash. I called to my mom and told her what had happened. She put her arm around me.
"It's really weird, isn't it?" she said softly.
I just nodded. I wasn't even sure how I was supposed to feel.
Two years later, Tim was a macabre story I told to my roommates, about my first boyfriend who was dead. Until I met Sheila, one of Tim's best friends from high school. She was in Philosophy 101 with me, and she recognized my name when the professor called the roll.
"Did you know a Tim Duncan?" she asked.
The question hit me broadside, and I blinked at her. "Yeah, I dated a guy named Tim when I was in high school."
She breathed out a sigh and smiled broadly. "He was one of my best friends in high school," she said. "He talked about you all the time. He was really in love with you."
"Really?" I said.
"Yes! He was so upset when he had to stop going out with you."
"Yeah, I was too," I said. "I was really sad to hear what happened."
Sheila turned serious. "He was on his way to pick up his fiancee from Myrtle Beach," she said. "And something happened. Nobody knows what."
"I knew he always wanted to be a pilot," I said, not knowing what else to say.
"Yeah, that was his dream, and he was on his way."
"Thanks for telling me you knew him," I said as shouldered my overloaded backpack and headed out of the classroom. "I always wished we'd kept in touch."
"He would've liked that," she said.
And that lie. That one didn't even feel like a lie. It just felt like a kindness, not to protect myself, for once, but to connect, just a little, with the guy who gave me a little bit of breathing room in a claustrophobic life.
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