Love and War

 

In the spring of 1995, my nighttime sexual fantasy involved a faceless man who nodded a lot. In my dreams, we were at a restaurant with green velvet tablecloths and a candle in a low dish in the center of each table. The faceless man would reach across the table and cover my hand with his, and we would talk and talk. Later, we would take our clothes off.

I was 16 years old, and more than anything in the world, I wanted to be in love. I thought I was a pretty good catch. I played varsity soccer, had decent-sized breasts, and knew how to make people laugh. In the back of my yearbook each spring, the popular kids would write things like, ‘Call me this summer! We should hang out!’, but my phone never rang. My desperation was palpable. And desperation is never sexy.

Over the course of the three years leading up to this spring, my family participated in a journalist exchange program. When journalists from all over the world came to Minneapolis to meet one another, tour the United States, and make writerly connections, each one was assigned a host family. The host family’s responsibility was to introduce the journalist to American customs and foods, to make him or her feel at home, and to facilitate an obligatory pilgrimage to the Mall of America.

Our first guest was from Algeria. He insisted that we take his picture constantly, often while he completed mundane household tasks. His English was spotty, so he would simply hold up an invisible camera and press down the invisible shutter button with his index finger. We took pictures of him eating dinner, washing dishes, watching TV, and even unloading his toiletries onto the top of the small dresser in his room.

Our most recent journalist, Gordana, was from Bosnia. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of the ethnic war that had been raging in her country for the past three years, so I was shocked by the images Gordana unspooled over dinner: the bombed-out shell of her former newspaper office, the macaroni on which her family was currently subsisting, the slain body of her son’s best friend. Would we, could we ever, consider letting Boris, her 16-year-old, come and stay with us for a year? The answer was an unequivocal yes.

Before he arrived, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how my romance with Boris would unfold. I had read a lot of holocaust fiction, had wept as I read and then reread, had wished I could offer these victims respite in my house. This was my chance.

Boris, I was sure, would be somber. He would possess wisdom earned through hardship that the boys in my high school severely lacked. He would be well-read, of course. Wire-rimmed glasses, I thought. An angular face. Strong hands with nails bitten to the quick with worry.

Perhaps I am not giving my young self enough credit. It’s not that I was stupid—I wasn’t. But I was a romantic desperate for romance, and I was an intelligent almost-woman with immature social skills. I thought the right person could unlock a new me.

Boris arrived on a night in late September. When he stepped off the plane, he was wearing jeans that were too tight (by the day’s American standards of cool), a threadbare T-shirt, and a jean jacket. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail. I was correct about the wire-rimmed glasses, but I hadn’t imagined they would sit squarely in the middle of a face fresh with teenage acne. A face that would not stop talking for the next nine months.

Boris and I saw eye-to-eye on exactly nothing. I liked the Steve Miller Band, the Eagles, and Blues Traveler. He worshiped at the altar of Guns N’ Roses. Boris could play half of one song on the piano, and he was dedicated to teaching himself the rest. Every day after school, he would pound “Moonlight Sonata” (or rather, the bastard cousin of “Moonlight Sonata”) out of our ill-tuned piano. Asking Boris to stop did no good; he simply played more loudly.

It didn’t take me long to hate Boris. I hated his tight jeans. I hated his taste in music. I hated his desire to argue with every opinion I set forth. I hated that, when I went to shower in the morning, I found his long, dark hairs wrapped around the bar of soap. Boris barged into my room without knocking. Once he caught me half naked. I still remember looking down at my bare skin, at the JCPenney bra that covered my breasts in fuchsia flowers and lace. I was mortified. When I told my mother, she seemed unperturbed. Knock next time, Boris. Please? Then she went back to grating cheese.

The year passed in a slow simmer of exceptional angst and unexceptional routine. My mother carefully documented many of the highlights in our family photo album: Boris and I dressed for the Halloween dance (as Dracula and Sexy Cave Woman, respectively), Boris and my brother wrestling on the rug, Boris’ formal introduction to Santa Claus, and Boris sporting a sombrero on a family trip to California. At some point during that trip, Boris swam out beyond the breakers and almost died. My stepfather almost died saving him.

Eventually, the Minnesota days grew warmer. At school, the teachers opened the windows to let in the spring air and the students collectively stopped thinking. One morning, in the midst of a lecture on imaginary numbers, a paper slid out of my trigonometry textbook and onto the table in front of me. It was a simple, 8½ by 11 sheet, folded neatly in half. I opened the paper and there, neatly typed, was a poem. To me. A love poem. And it was beautiful.

Rarely in my youth did a romantic gesture surprise me. I spent so much time envisioning all possible romantic scenarios in my head that by the time something actually happened—a first kiss, a slow dance, a hand groping my thigh in a darkened theater—I had already rehearsed the moment so many times in my head that the real thing wasn’t startling or even all that interesting. But I had never, in my wildest dreams, imagined a poem falling out of my trigonometry textbook in the middle of class for all to see. The poem was signed, simply, “B.”

It is wildly obvious to me now, when my 35-year-old self looks through the eyes of my 16-year-old self, who that poem was from. But I tell you, honestly, my 16-year-old self had no idea. My friends and I contemplated it at lunch. During English class. On the way home in Katie’s mom’s minivan. My mom and I discussed the mystery writer while she stirred onions and green peppers in a skillet on the stove. From time to time, she would wipe her hands on a dishrag and say Read that line again, as though clean hands would help her better absorb the mysterious poetry.

Two weeks went by. The enigmatic suitor did not reveal himself. Nor did he send another poem. Until one spring day in late May, 10 days before he was scheduled to exit my life forever, Boris casually announced to me that he had, in fact, written the poem.

“No you didn’t,” I said.

“Yes, I did,” he said. “I love you.”

Bile rose up the back of my throat. There was a water wheel inside my stomach, the paddles lifting bits of recognition up and plunging them back into the abyss.

“You don’t love me,” I said.

“Yes, I do.”

Here was another clear point of disagreement between Boris and myself.

“You don’t even know me,” I said. “And you hate me,” I reminded him.

“I do know you,” he replied. “I’ve been living with you for a year. I don’t hate you. I’m in love with you.”

The conversation was vaguely familiar to me. I had seen similar ones in the teen movies I liked to watch. At this point, I was supposed to realize that I was in love with him, too. Then we would lose our virginity together on a camping trip or in a friend’s boathouse. But I didn’t love him. And I felt disgusted by the prospect of Boris loving me.

For the next 10 days, I avoided him. When we were in a room together, I felt nauseated. Around this time, my mother had a biking accident and requested to stay in the hospital with her morphine drip a few days longer than necessary. Though they had been trying to hide it for months, it turned out that my parents didn’t tolerate Boris much better than I did. They’d replaced the window in his bedroom after he broke it with too much headbanging, scolded Boris for repeatedly falling asleep with his
pillows pressed against the space heater, and turned the water off when, after an hour, he refused to get out of the shower. Nearly 20 years later, our disdain sounds petty, as though we weren’t giving Boris a chance. Believe me: As liberal, white, privileged people, all of us wanted to somehow heal whatever wounds he carried with him. But I think we expected the war to surface in Boris as grief or sadness, a sort of tremulous melancholy, not as a replication of the dissonance and violence he’d experienced, sieved through an intelligent mind and hormonal body. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Boris’ behavior was simply the normal “acting out” of a 16-year-old pulled from his country and plopped in the middle of a family of equally obnoxious, odd, and troubling personalities.

Either way, this experience was one of my first (and most painful) of the abstract made real. War and Love, two words that had pulled at my heartstrings in sad, exciting, melodramatic ways, had been married and made flesh within my house. The result made me sick to my stomach.

I don’t remember Boris’ departure. The image I carry with me is a different one.

The high-school gymnasium is dark. Orange and black crepe paper flutters from the doorways, and TLC’s “Creep” blasts from the speakers. I am trying to dance in such a way that my breasts protrude, my black leotard doesn’t ride up my butt, and the chicken bone in my ponytail maintains the correct jaunty angle. Boris stands near the doorway, shifting his weight side-to-side, shoulders stooped a little under the weight of the Dracula cloak. And I am deeply ashamed. Not, as I should be, for letting him dance alone in the dim gymnasium. I am ashamed because I think the popular kids, the ones with whom I so desperately want to be affiliated, might look at him and see the taut, shimmering thread that connects us. I think they might look at him and see me instead.

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