According to my mother, visiting your hometown is the best way to test whether the personal progress or emotional growth you think you’ve made is actually real, solid, and there to stay.
That wound you thought you’d sufficiently doused in rubbing alcohol and allowed to crust into a scab that itches for a day or two before falling off… does it reopen like a gaping yawn when you see people from your youth? Do the people from your past make you feel insecure? When you return to the familiar sights, sounds, and tastes, does your so-called “emotional progress” crumble like the flimsy cover of a $9 self-help book?
That balmy spring break night, I was failing the test.
My relatively new boyfriend Stephen and I were at a bar in St. Petersburg, FL, the closest thing I have to a hometown. At the time, I still primarily associated St. Pete with high school, which had only recently vanished in my rearview mirror. And much like my high school years, that particular night found me in an inexplicably awful mood. I was grouchy and snarl-y and was fully convinced that everyone in Five Bucks Drinkery was prettier than I was. My cheap vodka cranberry tasted cheap, which left me feeling profoundly annoyed. (Yes, the name of the bar was “Five Bucks” and I felt slighted by the nostril-biting cheapness of my vodka.)
A couple yards away from our table, a former St. Pete High classmate I’d once found attractive was talking to a girl at the bar.
“She looks like a vegan,” I thought about the girl, taking a sip of the offending vodka cranberry. She had spindly legs and premeditatedly tousled hair and wore minimalist platform sandals, the kind with two neutral-colored thick straps.
I thought of how, when I first saw her conversation partner in high school, I thought he was uniquely attractive. As in, attractive in a unique way. At the time, I’d believed he caught my eye because I was also unique and different.
“I’m not one of the forty-seven Basics who has a crush on [Name Redacted],” I’d thought when I first spotted him, with the simultaneous arrogance and insecurity only a high schooler can roll into one thought. “No, I know how to spot a true diamond in the rough.”
Editor’s note: Yes, I know the term “basic” was not used that way back in 2008. Just allow me to insert current slang into a past thought 😉
Well, as it turned out, Diamond In The Rough was actually pretty damn shiny. A few weeks after first noticing him at SPHS, I realized that he, in fact, had a beautiful cheerleader girlfriend. I had felt incredibly stupid (“Why do you always think you’re the only one who notices hot hipster boys, Maya? God you’re so dumb to not realize he’d have a gorgeous, popular girlfriend!”) and profoundly un-unique, and of course a little disappointed. Not that Diamond In The Rough and I had ever met, but you know how it is to be seventeen.
Seeing this guy at the bar that night, talking to another pretty girl, brought back a resurgence of feeling stupid on top of the fact that I’d already begun the night feeling like a useless wallflower. This was not because I wasn’t totally in love with Stephen, or because I even found this kid particularly hot anymore, but because sometimes a faded memory, brought forward at the wrong time, can still whack you with the emotion you felt years ago.
At FSU, I had made it into a top sorority. I had snagged a Senior frat boy, who was once my unattainable crush. That night, I felt like none of it was real.
I was drowning in high school and Florida humidity.
I was exhausted from making awkward conversation with acquaintances from two years ago, not in a Cool Girl “Omg I, like, totally hate everyone,” type of way but in an, “Am I saying the right things, pulling out clever quips, wearing the right outfit?” type of way. I was convinced the girl in the bar mirror looked hideous. Where was the girl from the mirror at home, who, after almost two hours of careful makeup application, had looked like she might possibly be pretty? I hadn’t choked down nearly enough plastic cups of vodka-cranberry to look disheveled from alcohol, yet I felt acutely inferior. I disliked myself with a ferocity I hadn’t felt in… well, since my newish boyfriend and I had started dating.
Hours later, Stephen and I had left the bar and were strolling down Central Ave when a beautiful girl passed by us in those shiny booty-baring black hotpants that were super in style back then. The ones that generously showed an entire crescent moon’s worth of butt. (Do you remember the 2011 hot pant?!)
She was startlingly sexy, with long dark hair and long dark lashes and not even a scrap of fat in that “Pure Barre ledge” area where your behind meets your thighs.
Stephen and I both noticed the beautiful girl. I practically gave myself whiplash wheeling around to look at her, the perfect cherry on my Bad Mood Sundae. (Not that someone whose body looked like a personal trainer, nutritionist, and plastic surgeon had a menagechild probably ever touched ice cream.)
My boyfriend, on the other hand, glanced at her using the discreet, subtle sidelook that straight men master at some point in their youth.
All the hate I’d felt for myself over the course of the night converged like a tornado making landfall.
“I SAW YOU LOOK AT THAT GIRL!” I snapped.
Stephen appeared surprised.
“THAT GIRL,” I repeated. “I SAW YOU LOOK AT HER!!! DID YOU THINK I WOULDN’T NOTICE?!
I’M NOT AN IDIOT!!!!”
Then Stephen did something I’d remember for years to come. He turned to look at me, and said calmly, almost cheerfully,
“Yeah, that girl was attractive. But she’s not nearly as beautiful as you are.”
I stopped dead in my tracks.
I looked at Stephen. His eyes were awash in the dusty yellow glow of the streetlights. If you look at them closely, you can see intricate threads of gold weaving through the green.
He loves me so much.
It was written all over him. He was looking at me with more than love, though. There was compassion in his passion.
I’d known guys who would have feigned ignorance, who would have said, “What girl? I didn’t notice.” I’d known guys who would have met my tornado with a forest fire, who would have yelled that just because he was taken didn’t mean he didn’t still have fucking eyeballs. I’d known guys who would have apologized with his tail between his legs. I’d known guys who would have given an exaggerated scoff and say, “That girl’s a bit slutty-looking for my taste.”
I hadn’t known many guys. But somehow I felt like I’d known every possible reaction to my attack.
Instead of doing any of the above, Stephen chose to acknowledge a simple truth (“That girl was attractive”) and then beautifully affirm me in a moment of insecurity. To calm me in a moment of crazy. To love me at my worst. And yet, to remain strong in who he was. Stephen didn’t need to snap or retaliate. He was confident enough in his manhood that he didn’t need to wildly assert his right to be a man with eyeballs. But he also didn’t cater to the tornado of insecurity in front of him by telling her that the clearly sexy girl wasn’t attractive or noticeable. Stephen completely diffused the situation at no one’s expense, honoring himself and me and our relationship and the truth and even the pretty stranger.
The story ends here, really.
I’d love to describe a cinematic kiss on the sidewalk or make a tawdry comment about how my man definitely got some that night, but I honestly don’t remember what happened next. I just remember how adored and how safe I felt. Adored and protected by a man who wasn’t afraid of my temper (it can burn hotter than anyone other than Stephen probably realizes), or willing to compromise his calm, or inclined to tweak his truth.
It’s a subtle love story. Maybe you had to live it.
But it was a landmark in our relationship. It was a moment I realized I wasn’t just casually dating a guy I’d crushed on for a while. It was a moment I became privy to Stephen’s depth of character, as opposed to just thinking I had a hot frat boy on my arm. It was one of the many moments I realized my football-and-lacrosse playing, beer-drinking, loud-laughing, traditionally handsome All-American man was perhaps the most unique person I’d ever met.
Most importantly, it was one of the first moments I learned that true love comes hand-in-hand with emotional safety. It was a moment I learned a real man could be true to himself while still protecting my heart. A real man could preserve his dignity while restoring mine.