My sophomore year of college, my roommate (and best friend) and I dated our neighbors – also best friends and roommates. We lived in a LEED-certified dorm in a special “green learning” community, so we took environmental classes and composted our food scraps. My roommate, Tasha*, and I were on the enviro boat; that year, we were co-presidents of the student environmental organization. Tasha was more experienced with dating than me. At 19, I had never had a boyfriend and had never been kissed. And after almost 20 years of never having done anything, I was getting stir crazy, aka sexually frustrated.
Our neighbors, Jon and Sam*, were Southern-born high school friends. Both were 21, wore camo and drove trucks. They watched Kevin Smith movies, ate the greasiest food they could get their hands on and refused to drink because they believed alcohol was for the weak. I know, I’m really selling them, but they were funny and unlike any of the guys Tasha and I knew. And Jon, of all things, was a NASCAR driver. So, of course, he was the one I liked.
“Liked” is putting it lightly. I was obsessed. He was attractive – his Hispanic, Native American and Irish heritage made him look like a very tan, green-eyed James Marsden. For our weekly environmental class, I put extra time into choosing cute outfits and made up excuses to talk to him about NASCAR (“So, like, what color is your car?”). I stalkerishly figured out when he had breaks between classes based on when I could hear his front door slam in the hall, so I looked for him out my window as he walked into and out of the building. I’d open the window and play music loudly through my speakers, hoping he’d be enticed by my music. I imagined he’d pause and wonder: “Who’s playing that Death Cab, all alone in her room? Is it a beautiful, contemplative, half-Asian girl in need of some man-handling? I must rescue her. Malia, Malia, let down your hair!”
My crush was infectious. Tasha started noticing Sam, a lanky racquetball player who loved fishing and physics. Before long, the two of us were devising excuses to hang out with the boys. They were intrigued by their exotic, liberal neighbors, and we persuaded them to give us an education in the South. They took us to Cracker Barrel, to a shooting range to fire AK-47s, and camping on the beach. We went to a drive-thru movie theater and crowded into the bed of Sam’s truck. My arm brushed Jon’s, and I goosebumped everywhere, and then died a little inside at how much I wanted to jump his golden-skinned bones.
Toward Thanksgiving, I couldn’t stand it anymore. One night, I took a drive in my Volvo station wagon. Coldplay’s “Lost!” was angstily playing. I ended up on a street called Jon Street and decided the street sign was, in fact, an actual sign. I needed to talk to him.
I asked Jon if he’d go on a walk with me. We strolled around the dorm, me running through a rehearsed speech in my head, and at the end of the walk, I spewed out:
Jon said he liked me, too, but could he think about it? He spent the weekend driving to a race and came back at the end to ask if I’d be his girlfriend (because this was basically middle school, where you skip dating entirely).
And there it was – my first boyfriend. And, as I’d deduced throughout the semester, I was his first girlfriend. WOO, firsts! Whee! So, the relationship began. We shared a first kiss (we watched “Atonement” on my bed, and afterward, he took a sip of water, then said, “Let’s do this”) and first make-out, followed by more making out. We cooked meals together. Jon took me to a big NASCAR race in Atlanta, where we rented radios and watched Jeff Gordon zoom round and round the track. I said I liked it. Jon and I were an obnoxious pair – and set, once you added in Tasha and Sam. We didn’t see much of our friends that semester. We all stayed up late watching horror movies, eating barbecue and catapulting condoms filled with water over the dorm to see how far they’d go. Caught up in the moment, I told Jon I loved him a month in, which I regretted instantly.
After a couple months, the magic faded. The boys were exclusive about their friendship and rarely hung out with others. They used the term “faggot,” which Tasha and I hated, and they snickered when we went to yoga or talked about “An Inconvenient Truth." I was especially tired of Sam, who was stubborn and quick-tempered.
Around Valentine’s Day, Tasha and I persuaded Sam to buy us a bottle of wine with which to cook flounder, since we were underage. He was suspicious.
"You can’t drink it,” he told us. “Swear you won’t drink it.”
We swore it was expressly for cooking. He bought a bottle of Barefoot Pink Moscato (not good cooking wine, I’ll note). Tasha and I fried the flounder, but there was wine left over. We poured it into one glass, which we shared. Worrying Sam would be upset, we filled the Barefoot bottle halfway with water and dotted it with red food coloring. Voilà. Instant Pink Moscato. Sam would never know.
The disastrous Valentine’s fell on a Saturday. Jon usually traveled on the weekends to race, but he stayed in town for the holiday. We made plans to go to the state forest and make dinner, but a couple days before, a high school teacher I hadn’t seen in years emailed to say he’d be visiting and could I do lunch. I figured it wouldn’t be a problem to run out for an hour.
Jon was furious.
“Valentine’s Day is called Valentine’s Day because it’s the whole day,” he said. “Valentine’s isn’t just dinner!”
Then he started in on how he’d “given up his weekend” for Valentine’s, and how could I leave? Blah blah.
I canceled so he’d calm down, but neither of us was in a great mood for the rest of the afternoon. Storm clouds rolled in (actual ones).
Meanwhile, Tasha was sick. Couldn’t-get-out-of-bed, coughing-stuff-up sick. Consequently, Sam was heartsick and in-the-pants sick because she couldn’t hang out and be romantic. He was sick enough to take a drink.
Jon and I were in his apartment, when Sam strode in with a bang. In his hand was the bottle of Barefoot.
“What the hell is this?” he spat, waving the bottle in our faces. “Jon, drink this.”
I stared, horrified, as Jon took a swig of pink water from the bottle. He made a face and looked at Sam.
“Dude,” he said. “That’s not wine.”
“You’re damn right!” Sam sneered. He began to laugh maniacally. “It's not wine. It’s NOT WINE, DUDE.” Then he swung around on me, bottle out. “And YOU!”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he said. “I trusted you. I trusted you.”
Jon was laughing, too. They adopted the same choppy, hyena laugh when they both found something sickly funny.
“I put my TRUST in you. ‘It’ll only be for cooking,’ you said. And then you stab me in the back? How the fuck am I supposed to trust you again, huh? How am I supposed to believe anything you say ever again?”
I was speechless and wished desperately that Tasha was there. I knew that Sam was mostly angry that he wasn’t getting any action on Valentine’s, but I felt like I was the only sane person in a room full of whiny, crazy babies.
“IT WAS ONE GLASS OF WINE,” I said. “We did cook with it! And then we shared one glass! What’s the BIG DEAL?”
I was sputtering and furious at everything and everyone in the room. I moved to leave, but Sam blocked me.
“You’re leaving?” he snarled. “You are a coward. A COWARD. I can’t believe you. You take one step out of that door, and I swear–.”
Jon finally spoke. “Okay, dude, maybe you should chill.”
“What is wrong with you??” I said, and I slapped Sam’s arm out of the way. I ran for my apartment, and I could hear Sam bellowing insults at my retreating back.
In my apartment, I slammed the door shut and went directly to Tasha to vent. Valentine’s Day was ruined from that point on, and my friendship with Sam never recovered.
I’ll spare you the rest of our relationships. Tasha and I went on to break up with the boys several times throughout the semester, with one particularly nasty incident on a class trip to Washington, D.C., where the boys got into a juvenile screaming match in a hotel lobby, and Tasha and I ignored them for the entire nine-hour drive home. We probably should have called it quits on Valentine’s, but it’s hard to ignore your neighbors. Plus, we knew they’d graduate in May, so things would have to wrap up, wouldn’t they?
And they did. They were unhappy with us – called us heartbreakers. Sam was especially bitter, and Jon more sad. He didn’t understand why we’d dated without marriage in mind, and I didn’t understand why marriage was the goal. But we changed them for better or worse, and they changed us, too. Sam went on, ironically, to become a heavy drinker, and tales of his wasted escapades crept back to Tasha and me. Jon married his second girlfriend, which I like to think (selfishly) might not have happened if I hadn’t flung myself at him that winter afternoon. And I was left with a Valentine’s story I wouldn’t soon forget.
Happy Valentine’s, friends.
*names have been changed