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Monday, September 28, 2015

The First Good Boyfriend

My daughter’s first high school boyfriend smiled wide and showered me with prep-school manners. “Hello, Mrs. Wolff,” he’d say, using my husband’s surname and smiling as if he were about to carry my clubs to the first tee. When he wasn’t working his Eddie Haskell act, he was practicing his best user-boyfriend techniques on my kid, which I learned only after the breakup. I felt dumb for having fallen for the Aqua Velva charm. 

So I thought I was prepared when Katy brought the next one home. They were sophomores at the time. Matt (yeah – a pseudonym) stood in my kitchen wearing dark curls and a casual grin. I girded myself for the Hello-Mrs.-Cleaver routine. But when Katy introduced us, Matt offered only a cool “Hi.” I might’ve been a bothersome store clerk. Suffice it to say he didn’t bestir himself to make a whopper of a first impression. For this, I briefly hated him. Maybe I’d wanted Eddie Haskell after all.

Yet there he was, and he returned over the next weeks and months, squashing the memory of his predecessor. A private school kid from a two-doctor home, Matt spoke his mind and cracked smart jokes. He reserved no special language for adults. At dinner one night, with my brother and his girlfriend at our table, Matt plucked a black strand from his meatloaf and cheerfully announced, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a meal here that didn’t involve dog hair.”

Direct hit to my Achilles heel. I always worry just enough about housekeeping to feel self-conscious with guests, and not enough to make things spotless. But if Matt’s comment was impertinent, it was also guileless. He never saw the daggers I shot across the table.

Katy loved him. Matt put a racket in her hand and taught her to play tennis. She flew south with his family for spring vacation. She bonded with his mother, befriended his sister, doted on his sweet baby brother and shadowed his handsome father in surgery on career day.

During an especially difficult school year, Matt illuminated my kid’s dark moods. And in one moment I’ll never forget, he called me, enraged, to tattle on Katy’s pediatrician. During a sports physical, the doc noted with disapproval that Katy had gained weight since her previous visit. He failed to recall, however, that the previous visit had been because she had begun purposely starving herself and had become frighteningly thin. The weight gain was hard-won and good; the child was healthier. As angry as I was at the doctor, I remember this as one Matt’s finest moments. I loved him for his outrage, and for determination to make sure I knew what had happened.

For a long time, Matt and Katy spent most of their waking hours with each other, much of it at our house. That was fine by me. I’d grown up with three older brothers. Matt’s American boy qualities, his kindheartedness and sarcasm, felt familiar and comforting.

Matt also won over Lylah, Katy’s wise little sister, simply by befriending her. She tagged along sometimes with the two of them, but she and Matt had their own conversations. He advised her about photography, and how, when she got older, she was to demand to be respected by guys.

         At a family gathering in Michigan one weekend, Lylah was feeling fully 13 – awkward, unsure of herself and alone in the crowd She started to notice that she was the only one in the room who didn’t have a partner. Matt watched her face darken and walked her out to the porch. Lighten up, he said. You’re cool. Everyone here loves you. Then he purloined some spiked cider and they sipped conspiratorially, the oblivious adults a few yards away. 

KATY AND MATT HAD BEEN DATING for more than a year when one night she staggered in the door, red-eyed and ragged. At a concert, Matt told Katy he’d grown unsure of his feelings for her. They had been arguing a lot recently. He thought they should take a break.

            It probably sounds strange that this news seemed unthinkable to all of us. They were, after all, only 17. Teen love isn’t supposed to last. Still, what a shock. As my kid went fetal in my bed, the smartest thing I could think to say to her was, “He’s a teenage boy, Katy. They’re barely human at that age. They can’t help themselves. It’s not personal. ”

            This stopped her crying cold. She glared at me with wet eyes. “It’s Matt, Mom,” she said in a clear, anguished voice. Then she resumed weeping.

            When it comes to parenting, you never quite get ahead of the lesson plan.  Just as soon as you learn to handle toddler ear infections like a champ, here comes the issue of how to hold the line on TV time. Talking my kid through a morass of middle-school drama left me in no way prepared for stitching up the first real tear in her heart.  Nor had it taught me to guard against the unexpected threat of other people’s children clawing their way into mine.

I fed Katy lines about girls and boys, what each is emotionally ready for at what age, hoping to give her the 30,000-foot view. I believed everything I said. It was true. It also was lame. She’d see the wisdom of these words if she had her own kids some day. For now, she wasn’t just some statistically average high schooler having an average bad experience. She was herself, feeling the only broken heart that counted.

I mustered anger at Matt on her behalf, even sending him a sarcastic email. “At a concert? Really?” To which he responded, reasonably, “Would there have been a good time?”

For a long while I kept so busy nursing my daughter’s lovesickness that I didn’t even notice the ache in my own gut.  Then, slowly, it started to make itself known. Out of the blue, I’d suddenly hear Katy in my head, saying, “It’s Matt, Mom.” And then would come the jab of loss.

It was Matt – not some generic boy putting us through predictable paces. He was gone. He’d broken up with all of us. How had I become so attached? How had he ceased to be simply another kid making my house noisy and become a whole person, someone I could grieve for, apart from what my daughter was enduring?

One day, shortly before Matt and Katy stopped dating, a member of his family found a fawn alone by the side of the road and brought it home out of concern that it had been abandoned.  Katy asked me to stop by and see it. It was the size of a healthy house cat, spotted and wobbly on stick legs. Wide-eyed and skittish, its fragility made my head hurt. It needed to be with its mother – who might well have been close at hand before the humans intervened. It was so sweet, but its survival seemed so tenuous.

            For a week or so, Matt’s family kept the deer in a makeshift pen in the yard and cared for it as best they could with Google-gleaned feeding instructions. Then a holiday weekend came, and Matt’s family went on a trip, leaving him at home with the fawn. No sooner had they gone than Matt discovered parasites infesting the baby’s coat.  The sight was a horror. The fawn weakened and cried, and there was no clear route to help. The infestation grew worse over the hours.

Wildlife agencies won’t intervene on behalf of whitetail deer; the law prohibits anyone from doing so. Maybe a kind-hearted vet would help, but it was a holiday. Veterinary offices were closed. The animal’s suffering was unendurable.

Matt strode miserably off into a wooded area with the fawn. With the blow of a shovel, he delivered it from further suffering. Afterward Katy and Matt showed up on our front porch. For several long, dismal moments, I hugged him closed. I yearned for whatever maternal magic might erase the trauma. He looked lost and sad and angry, and very young.

            Soon after came the breakup at the concert. Then a brief reconciliation. Then an especially painful final blow involving a cell phone butt-dial and a conversation that was never meant to be heard.

           Then life went on, as it does. Other boyfriends came and went. One of them was a good-natured gym rat who posts Instagram shots of his meals and his muscles.  Great kid. Katy and I agree he’ll make someone a fine partner some day. And now she’s with a grownup boyfriend. They have jobs and cars. They’re on their way to whatever happens next.

            A while ago, Lylah sat down at the dinner table and started to tell her dad and me a story. She had just run into Matt at a diner. They talked; it was nice. He was still Matt, six years older, still handsome, funny and smart. He suggested they all get coffee sometime soon – Lylah, Katy and Matt. They really should do that, Lylah agreed. And she meant it, even if she knew it wouldn’t happen.

Just for a moment, the missing-Matt was back. There he’d been, her ex-big-brother – close enough to touch, but a cipher just the same. “It’s so strange,” she said, “that your entire relationship with someone can depend on their relationship with someone else.”
            Matt taught us that our family could expand and contract on very short notice.  We made room for this boy to become another kind of man in our house, and he filled a hole we hadn’t even known was there.
Then he vanished. He’d been a heartbreaker and path-changer. He was Katy’s first good boyfriend.  He was Lylah’s one shot at a big brother. And I still can’t shake the feeling that he was the son who got away.

Sandstrom, a writer and illustrator, is the former Book Editor at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.