I was a newly minted high school freshman when my family moved onto his street on a breezy September day. Five sisters carrying boxes up the driveway quickly attracted the neighborhood boys like feeder fish gathering to the dock. They rode their bikes back and forth in front of our new home.
Finally, around dinnertime they approached our front porch and introduced themselves. The sun set while my sister, Jessica, and I made conversation, and my mother shoo’d them away soon after because it was a school night. Inside the house she dubbed them “Beavis and Buttheads,” my brother rolled his eyes, and Jessica and I giggled.
In the days that followed, we met several more boys who lived in the same cookie cutter houses throughout our development, but Paul was the one I liked right away. I thought he was so dreamy, from his wavy hair that he absentmindedly twirled whenever he was concentrating or nervous, to his flannel shirt layered over his Pearl Jam tee, right down to his scuffed Airwalks. He was quieter than the other boys on the block, but he had a great smile and a smart personality.
They all went to the local public high school, but we still went to the Catholic school back in our old town. It was 10 miles away, so our bus always dropped us off about an hour after the boys got home, and Paul was almost always waiting at the bus stop for me. He’d walk me home where I’d get changed and head right back out until dinnertime, and after dinner we hung out until curfew.
At that age, relationships are just everything, and since we lived a mere two minute walk away from one another we rarely spent a moment apart when we didn’t have to.
Toward the end of our freshman year, I found out that Paul was ranked first in his class. I was genuinely shocked. We ran with the pothead crowd, so I just assumed he was as equally unmotivated about school as I was. Plus, we went to different schools and he hardly ever talked about his grades. All these months we were dating and I had no idea my boyfriend was so smart!
We continued to date through sophomore and junior year, and while Paul slowly took more of an interest in picking up extracurriculars to beef up his college applications, I continued to float through school with crappy grades. I wasn’t a troublemaker, so even though there were times I skated right above failing some classes, I was never actually flagged for it. I took no interest in extra-curriculars, and I began to resent the time that Paul gave to his activities and I took it out on him. We argued a lot.
I transferred to the same school as Paul for my senior year. I decided I had enough friends in the area now and I never really felt a strong allegiance to my old school- or anything for that matter. Paul and I were both thrilled to spend more time together, too. We’d been dating long enough to gain a sort of uni-name -- we were “Paul & Jeanne.” Or at least that’s how I saw it in my eyes.
I’m sure Paul felt that same connection with me, but Paul was also cultivating his own life. I was just coasting through mine, waiting for him to be there for me. I didn’t have much to put on my college applications except for some crappy grades and a half-assed attempt at stage crew and art club. We both applied to colleges, and I never dreamed beyond a place I could commute to.
Paul graduated Valedictorian and was accepted to a great school in St. Louis, and although I was sad thinking about life without him in it every day, I supported his decision. We kissed goodbye and he moved halfway across the country.
We called one another as often as we could, and I grew even more resentful of the life he was living. I withdrew from my college after the first semester and decided to take the spring off to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life. I really had no aspirations whatsoever. I visited Paul in the winter and tried to tell myself I fit into his new world, but mostly I was just mean to him because I was angry that he was finding himself while I didn’t even know where to start. I flew back home and settled down for the long winter.
In March, we had a huge snowstorm that dumped 2 feet of snow on our area. I was hunkered down wasting the day away when I got a call from our friend Chris, who was bored and looking for somewhere to hang out.
Chris was like me in a lot of ways in that he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. I met him through Paul and we had become pretty good friends, so I was thrilled to have someone to chill with on this wintery day. We had a few drinks, played some board games, had some more drinks, watched TV, talked, had some more drinks….
I never in a million years would have imagined that Chris and I would end up hooking up that night, but we did. We really were two lost souls and we had found one another that night. It was altogether perfect and horribly wrong.
The next morning, I was horrified by what I had done. A beast of regret filled my belly and I physically felt ill from the shame (and probably the hangover, but definitely more from the shame). The first chance I had, I called Paul and confessed my wrongdoing. I word-vomited the entire story to him over the phone, and he quietly listened and took it all in.
“It’s OK,” he said.
“It’s OK?” I was in disbelief. Why was he being so gracious to me? I was a monster!
“Yea, it’s OK. Remember that girl you met out here when you visited? Emily? I actually hooked up with her back in the fall. Well... she kissed me.”
I was silent for a few seconds. What was I feeling? Relief? Maybe it was relief in that very moment. Thank God, I’m not the only one who screwed up here.
We talked for a couple of minutes about how we both just missed each other so damn much and we both had screwed up but it was going to be better from now on, and we were both going to do better, and we’d call one another more often and we’d make more of an effort, and yes, these were just small mistakes and we loved one another very much because we were “Paul & Jeanne.”
So we said our I Love You’s, and we hung up our phones, and I sat. And I thought. And the thoughts, they began to fester. And they began to boil. And then the boiling, festering thoughts were bubbling over the sides, and I snatched up my phone and angrily called him back up. He answered and I practically yelled into the receiver, “BUT YOU LIED!”
Then, “Jeanne, you cheated a lot worse than I did.”
Which was technically true. Paul and the other girl had just kissed, or rather she kissed him. What Chris and I did…. well, that was grown-up cheating.
“But I called you right away! I felt so guilty, I couldn’t bear another second not admitting it to you! You had me fly out there and meet her as your friend and you lied!”
“Well, technically,” he said (because Paul is a technical sort of guy) I never lied. I just never told you.”
“But that is a lie! That’s a lie by omission!”
And our conversation went on much like that for the next several minutes, and when it was all done, we were all done. We broke up. No more “Paul & Jeanne.”
For an entire year, we barely spoke to one another. I held on to the idea that I was allowed a pass because, although I cheated worse, I came clean right away. I clung to the concept that this made me the better person in the end. I kept that little ball of anger close to my heart and I stoked the fire for a very long time.
He came home that summer and we avoided one another. Our mutual friends, many of whom still lived on our same street, were torn but did a great job of not ditching either one of us. The following fall, I went back to college, but decided to go away to a state school. I threw myself into off-campus housing with a group of girls who were all friends with one another, and I found some really great friendships there.
I didn’t pick a major because I still didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do, but I took art classes I loved and I slowly started forming an independence.
That winter break, Paul and I reconnected and were able to have a civil conversation. It felt good to talk to him again. I missed him, and not in a boyfriend way, but in a friend way. We stayed in touch when we both went back to school that spring, and talked on the phone almost weekly. We joked around about being Saturday Phone Call Buddies, catching up while hung over from college keg parties.
I learned to listen more to what Paul had to say rather than putting up a wall of resentment. He had his own life, and that was OK. I didn’t need to latch on like a barnacle clinging to a passing ship. I could just be inspired by him and his achievements.
There were times I felt pangs of jealousy as he told me about girls he was dating, and I probably gave too many details about my own love life just to incite jealousy in him, but that slowly faded away. We formed a friendship that was probably deeper than the relationship we had while dating one another. I loved him, but I didn’t want to date him, and he felt the same way. Paul had become my best friend.
Several years later on New Year’s Eve, I invited my younger sister, Joanna, and her friend to a little get together at Paul’s house. Joanna and I had formed a pretty great friendship recently. During my semester off, I got a job working at a toy store. I hooked Joanna up with a job there as well, and we formed a tight bond.
Sure, we were sisters and have been friends all our lives, but when you come from a big family, there are natural cliques within during the younger years. Joanna and I were just in different phases of our lives for a while, and it was only recently that we reconnected as young adult friends.
So, this particular New Years, I wanted to hang out with her. It was a fairly small group there that night playing games and drinking and just waiting for the big countdown. There were lots of laughs, but I noticed that Joanna and Paul were particularly friendly with one another. Wait a minute, I thought to myself. Are they flirting??? Holy friggin crap -- Joanna and Paul LIKE each other!
I know you might read this and think this is absolutely crazy, but the story takes a seemingly weird turn here! I convinced Joanna to go out with Paul, and although at first she was like “No way! That’s your old boyfriend!” But she couldn’t deny that they have a connection.
At this time, I was dating my now husband, who is actually an old neighborhood friend. What can I say besides we all found love in our own group of friends! In fact, Joanna and Paul just got married almost two years ago. I stood up as her Maid of Honor, and at our wedding, Paul was my husband’s Best Man.
The reality about my relationship with Paul is that we probably should've broken up about two years before we actually did, but of course we couldn’t see beyond our pairing because we were terrified to find our own selves. Paul took the leap first, and he has always acknowledged that he felt an obligation to that beautiful, genius brain of his! That sense of obligation is what drove him to better himself.
I, on the other hand, had always thought of myself as average. I’m not dumb, but I’m no genius, and at that time I didn’t have the self confidence to see any real value in myself. I clung to Paul because Paul made me something. With him, I was “Paul & Jeanne.” He helped me to know that I could be just “Jeanne.”
I am forever grateful that he always saw the value in me, as a singular person, as someone that he wanted to know and be friends with. And now I’m thankful that he’s my family, too.