Men I Thought I Loved, And The Books They Gave Me


Johnathan and I started dating when I was 16 and continued until right before I left for college. He was immensely tall with the palest blue eyes and I thought his arms were the absolute safest place in the world. Our relationship was brimming with all the clichés of young love. I was convinced he was The One, constantly and desperately craved his warmth, only happy when my head was resting on his chest. We argued all the time and viewed it as an expression of our immense passion for each other. We ended up in Europe together the summer before our senior year and shared many a kiss on the humid streets of Spain. Our name might still be scribbled onto the side of an ancient building in Toledo, HH+JS in a sloppy little heart.

Johnathan lent me many books, but I kept Cyrano de Bergerac. A play, and a beautiful one at that, the story of a man whose looks betray the depth in his heart and mind. I think Johnathan saw himself in Cyrano and that is why he slipped the tattered paperback into my book bag towards the end of our relationship. I finished it in one night and saw him the next day, still shaking over Cyrano’s death and more convinced than ever that love can’t conquer a damn thing.

I met Patrick on the first day of college. A pale, red-headed musician type who could write like Salinger. He was sharp and funny, broad-shouldered and chivalrous. And sad. Deeply sad. Underneath his constant stream of sarcasm hid a history that made my heart ache. We were fast friends and remain so to this day. I tell him everything, he tells me everything. I imagine perhaps one day we’ll end up together because that’s how the best stories go, and he and I have always shared a certain weakness for good stories.

One night during our sophomore year, I fell asleep in his room reading his copy of Franny and Zooey. I’d never taken to Salinger before. Never even dared to dabble in his angst-ridden pages, but it was either that or Patrick’s Hegel reader, and I will always choose fiction over foggy academia. The book was sized for the back pocket of a lanky boy’s skinny jeans and I read it from cover to cover that night. The way faith can tether a person and the pervasiveness of heartbreak felt frighteningly familiar, and the characters leaked into my dreams. They stayed in my head the following day and still linger there, Franny in my likeness and Zooey in Patrick’s.

It’s hard to write about Sean because I never know where to begin. The day we met in college, him in a slurring heap on my bedroom floor, inquiring after my roommate, or maybe years later when we sat in a dive bar in Chicago’s Bridgeport and the Bears won a football game. We took a shot of whisky together and I leaned into him and told him I wanted him to be mine, the drink making my head happily light, my face flushed with feeling. When we dated before, our freshman year, I was flighty and cruel. He was lazy and entitled. That fateful night in January four years later felt like it was finally the right time for us. We moved in together almost immediately and then the fighting started. A year into our bumpy cohabitation I took a deep breath and roused him from his sleep. “I can’t sleep Sean. I can’t do this.” He rolled over to face me, us in our bed in our apartment with the moon so bright it lit the whole place up. I could see his heart break in his eyes and felt my own collapse inside my chest. I had to look away.

Of all the books I borrowed from Sean, Erich Segal’s Love Story meant the most. He handed it to me before he left for Thanksgiving break our freshman year and I read it on the train on my way to spend the weekend with him. He met me at the station with roses in hand and I had tears streaming down my face. I told him I’d just finished the book. “Why did Jennifer have to die?” He hugged me so tight my bones nearly broke.

On my first date with James, I was nearly moved to tears by the courtesy with which he treated me. He refused my vodka-fueled advances, kissed my hand, and walked me to my door. Just a day later, we were spending every waking moment together. We watched television dramas like we’d been dating for years, went to the ballet, took long hikes, and spent the occasional Friday night downing cocktails at his favorite bar. We were smitten but it wasn’t long before the bad bits of ourselves were laid bare. James, as it turned out, had a bit of a controlling streak. He didn’t like how many friends I had or the fact that sometimes I would much rather read than be locked in a silent cuddling session. He was convinced I needed a great deal of fixing and that he was the one who needed to do it. I didn’t get out soon enough and my mindset quickly turned Stockholm Syndrome-esque. He is such a good person, such a beautiful soul, I love him, he must be right. Even when he sat me down to delete all the male friends off of my Facebook, I was under his spell. It wasn’t until the night he went through all of my text messages and presented me with a list of the things he saw that he didn’t like. “There is something very wrong with you, Hillary,” he insisted over and over. I was a sobbing heap on his floor and finally snapped to my senses. “Please, James. Let’s never speak again.”

Towards the end of our courtship, I told James that I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut. It was a hard sort of truth to reveal, especially since I’ve always prided myself on my avid reading. He handed me a copy of Slaughterhouse 5 and I haven’t been able to pick it up since then. I don’t want to enjoy it. I don’t talk to James anymore but just the same I would hate to give him the satisfaction. Somehow I feel like he’d know that I liked the book and I really can’t have that. I might pick it up again in five years’ time, when his name doesn’t burn so brightly in my memory.

featured image – Ella Ceron