It’s not like I didn’t realize this when our relationship began as high school seniors, but until now I’ve never been able to articulate exactly how it works. Neil wants me to be a certain way, and I want, mostly, to be that certain way, so he exposes me to things I’ve never experienced: music, books, art. Sex.
But at this moment, I’m standing on the other side of the ocean, in a gift shop in Strafford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare. I’m with a cohort from Syracuse University. It was my mom’s idea really, this junior semester abroad. I think she wanted me to get away, perhaps from Neil, who has sucked me back every time I’ve tried to break up.
I spin a carousel of blank cards, and suddenly there it is, the one I like. A quiet rush of mutiny floods my veins. I almost recognize the young woman in the Art Nouveau print by Aubrey Beardsley. She looks like the flapper fairies in the storybook at my grandmother’s house. Her strawberry blonde bob is wrapped at the temples with a blue headband. She sits atop a green bluff profiled against the sea. Her spine aligns with a slim cherry tree, dripping its blossoms upon her gauzy dress. A black ribbon cinches a single rose under her bosom.
I walk towards the cashier. Jars of peppermint sticks, lemon drops, and cinnamon hearts line the counter. I raise my coin like the lady on the card lifts her hand towards a splendid blue bird hovering just out of reach. Its tail feathers brush the earth. The register rings. The card is mine. Perhaps a small purchase, but somehow immense. To say more, I must back up.
The first time I tried to break up with Neil, it was because of a girl he slept with at Yale. The second time because of a boy I met at a spring dance at Utica College. We flailed to the rhythm of the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter until flushed and sweaty. His long legs walked me back to the dorm in sweet lilac air. And in the few, fleeting days at the end of the year, we kissed under the stairwell until out of breath.
When the long-legged boy wrote passionate June letters from Philadelphia, it was enough for me to say, it’s over, Neil. In July, the letters from Philly mentioned an ex-girlfriend. By August there was nothing in my mailbox. In September I transferred to Syracuse with a new major, drama, but back with old Neil.
It wasn’t so bad. I didn’t see him much. I didn’t visit Yale anymore. He seldom made the trek to Syracuse, but we were together officially. Like we were married or something. Like by letting him back in my head our identities were merged. Even at a distance, he was ever-present, molding me into the person he wanted me to be. Because he said he loved me, I let him, even if my emotions didn’t match.
I guess we’re all made to follow. Isn’t there someone in all our heads, telling us what to do, who we are? Here in another country, I know in a flash, I don’t want that person to be Neil. By spending a mere 25 pence, I’ve kicked my supreme boyfriend out of my mind. I am no longer his sculpture. I am a separate being, no longer inert, poised to carve my own destiny.
Looking back, I felt so used by Neil, but in truth I used Neil too – our unspoken, unholy bargain – sex for self-worth. It took me years to untangle this perversion of the pattern of Christ.
I can still see the girl printed on that blank card, her hair the color of my own, her hand stretched towards something beautiful, magic, beyond her reach. In a way, she was an image of me, her tart longing for a divine lover, a prince, a savior from a land foreign to confusion and sin.
Why can I finally pronounce what was once a mouthful of stuttering shame? Because now I see things in a different light. Now I have the mind of Christ.