This summer, after a hazy August afternoon of poolside BBQing and malaise at my uncle's house, my hyper-inquisitive cousin Mikey hit me with a question I've dreaded for most of my adult life: "Hey, Louie," he began earnestly, "have you ever had a boyfriend?"
At 19 years old and a late bloomer, Mikey is just starting to navigate the world of sex and relationships. As his eldest cousin and fellow late bloomer, I know he's asking me about this simply because he's curious, sure, but also because he is gathering information. He's the youngest in line and looks to me and his other older cousins as marker prisms for assessing his level of experience with love and sex; guides to what's "normal" when dealing in the highly nebulous realm of romance. I take that responsibility seriously.
And yet, as it often does, the boyfriend inquiry immediately knotted my stomach. This is partly because I'm a little unsure of my answer. At 28-years-old, I've had a few short-term relationships (relationshipettes?), a stray high school girlfriend (not so much a romance as an ironclad lock on my closet door) and one longer term relationshipy sorta thingy with a guy in college that wasn't really romantic in the traditional sense, more like an all-encompassing best friendship that occasionally flirted with being something more. Succinct, I know! The unwieldy content of this paragraph is one reason I balk whenever this question is asked.
But frankly, my intestines go wonky over the relationship inquiry because deep down I know that, for all intents and purposes, the answer to Mikey's question is a simple "no." I haven't had a boyfriend. Not one that I'd feel 100 percent confident referring to as such. And not for lack of wanting. I'm monogamous by nature and not all that interested in casual hookups. I just haven't found anyone upon whom I'd like to bestow that title just yet. The vague nausea that ensued when Mikey asked me about my boyfriend history however, is a clear sign that, as much as I wish I wasn't, I'm a little ashamed about being the 28-Year-Old Relationship Virgin.
When it comes to romance, 19 is just the beginning, but Mikey already feels uncomfortable about what he deems his lack of experience. As a straight guy, he has men on all sides telling him he just needs to "get it over with" (sex) and a lot of his friends already have serious girlfriends. Moreover, all of our cousins, save my sister Lily and I and including his two older siblings, have paired off.
So it goes without saying: I understand his angst. The social pressure to hit your marks in this arena is something which I deeply relate to. I've had to deal with plenty of thinly veiled scrutiny over my single status in my adult life. Mikey may already be facing pesky peer pressure at 19, but I've got almost ten years on the kid. That's a decade more of unsolicited "Maybe you're just not opening yourself up to love" 's and "have you tried Tinder?" 's.
But his angst is also something that I know is utterly ridiculous. The idea that love happens at different times for different people, that sex and romance are by no means a competition, is an￼idea I could sell to Michael confidently because I wholeheartedly believe it, at least in an empirical sense.
Yet when faced with my own boyfriend history, I'm plagued by that nagging bit of my psyche that tells me I'm defective for not having been in love yet. Relationship stories are part of daily exchanges with friends old and new, with family members (Uncle: "So are you seeing anyone!?") and even fodder for first dates.
Earlier in my twenties, I tried everything I could to hide my relationship virginity, even to my family and close friends. When you've heard enough unsolicited "don't worry, you'll find someone"'s to last a lifetime you'll start doing anything to not hear it ever again. "Thanks, I wasn't worried. Until now!" I'd always want to shout back.
To avoid this awkward exchange, I perfected an elaborate dance. "How exactly do we define 'boyfriend'?" Or "I guess, sort of?" and I'd deflect with with coy smile. Sometimes, I'd qualify my answer by getting out in front of the perceived oddness, acknowledging I knew that nearing 30 without having had a relationship is "not normal." "You know, I didn't come out of the closet 'til I was 17 and then I gained a whole bunch of weight for a few years after that. So when you think about it, I'm really more like a 13-year-old girl," I'd explain nonsensically, in a fluttering, anxious tone that belied my uneasiness with the whole thing.
I think some of my shame around this topic is leftover from being a closeted teenager. Like most queer kids, it took me a minute to come to terms with the fact that I wasn't "normal" by society's (ridiculous) measure and I had to spend time getting comfortable admitting that. No easy task for anybody who's ever come out. Somehow, this relationship thing feels a little bit like that same process all over again: having to share with the world, with as proud a face as you can muster, that your story doesn't dovetail with most other people's.
In practice, I'm cool with that. Aside from fumbling around when confronted with the question directly, I feel pretty solid about how I've handled my singleness in life thus far. It's hardly like I walk around like, "woe is me, I've never had a boyfriend." I've got shit to do! I have however, in moments of weakness, made some dumb choices in my dating life due to my personal tumult with my relationship history, or lack thereof.
For instance earlier this year, I'd broken it off with a guy I'd been hooking up with after resolutely realizing we weren't right for each other. When a wave of insecurity surrounding my singledom hit earlier this summer, I figured, "Maybe I should just make a go of it with [name redacted] just for the experience, just so I can say I've had a boyfriend." In this bout of confusion, I attempted to rekindle things with him, only to have everything I'd known to be true about this guy -- the red flags that steered me away from him the first time rear their ugly head twofold. No dice. No boyfriend. And, I got my feelings trampled to boot.
On the flip side, I've made strides in becoming comfortable with my own personal journey when asked the dreaded question. I've even started to see not having been in a serious relationship yet as a strength. I've had time to figure out who I am as a person and as an artist, to "nurture my own garden" as my mother constantly reminds me. I'm independent, completely comfortable spending time alone and get immense pleasure from taking care of myself. When I do enter a relationship, I'll be doing so from a place of firmly established self-sufficiency, both physically and emotionally.
I've also challenged myself to speak out more frankly than I have in the past about never having had a boyfriend. When the question arises on dates, I force myself to state it with no qualifiers. "I've never been in a serious relationship before," I'll declare, matter of factly. There. It's out. It's the truth and you can take it or leave it.
As I've opened up more, I've also realized that the whole thing is less odd than I once thought. In the moments where I've shared this fact confidently, I've found that plenty of friends and potential mates around my age are in similar shoes. For one reason or another, they haven't committed to anyone yet. And that is totally okay. More than okay, they're often some of the most ambitious and dynamic people in my life.
This notion of sharing in search of solidarity, or coming out of the closet about this, is why I felt compelled to post this story. Mainly because I want to be the role model I know I need to be for Mikey. No matter what his journey is in love and romance, it's important for him to hear about mine from a place of honesty and dignity. I want him to know that it's not about quantity of relationships, but knowing who you are and being cool with that which is the key. And moreover, that it's a great thing if your story doesn't fit neatly into someone else's box. These are probably two of the most salient life messages you could impart to a teenager who looks up to you. They're also the best pieces of relationship advice I could give him.
That's the proud, single person I want to be, anyway.
But that little tidbit of lingering distress still leads me to occasionally jerk my knee and throw one of my uncomfortable red herrings as I did on Saturday with Mikey, who had posed the question with wide eyed innocence. I lapsed briefly into my fixed story that Mikey might think I'm weird if I just told the truth. After some uncomfortable moaning, I turned to my sister and asked, "Have I had a boyfriend, Lily?" "Nope," she answered without an ounce of hesitation or pity. As I stared at my phone for a while hoping the conversation would just die, Mikey quickly followed with: "Cool. Are you on Grindr?"
That's a whole 'nother can of worms, Michael.