Five Peculiar Stories: Dating Mementos
Nerve’s readers remember the strange souvenirs of past loves.
A bell on a string
There’s nothing less romantic than bad lighting, but in Seoul, it’s a fact of life. People sit and drink outside convenience stores, treating them like they're self-service bars. That’s where I met Nameless. (I’m not trying to protect his identity or be cute; that’s really what he called himself.) Even though he didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Korean, we liked each other immediately. He was an artist, and a pleasant antidote to Korea’s very conformist culture. We started hanging out often; I chain-smoked cigarettes and we stumbled through philosophical conversations, using over-enunciated words and a lot of miming. Mostly, we spent a lot of time doing things that didn’t require talking — we watched films in French (a language neither of us understood), went to modern-art museums, and drank a lot of wine.
Considering how little we understood each other, he did an amazing job of helping me out. And as a foreigner in Korea, baffled by the language (all those circles and lines; I never could master geometry), I needed help often.
For example, I couldn’t find a full-length mirror. I told him — in jest — that my appearance was suffering. About a week later, he called to say he had a “miller” for me. For a minute, I was disappointed by the prospect of more cheap, light beer (Korea only serves a trio of high-school brews), ‘til I realized he was going to bring me a mirror.
Expecting a plain skinny glass mirror with a tacky white frame, I was a little surprised when he showed up at my apartment sweating, carrying a huge object. He’d taken a mirror, and on its surface, reproduced Bert Stern’s photo of Marilyn Monroe, with the pink scarves over her breasts, complete with scar and mole. We had seen the exhibit of the Last Sitting photographs the week before, and he’d said, “You’re beautiful." Those words were scrawled in wood at the top of the “miller”.
The mirror was functional, but it was also the one piece of art in my tiny light-less room. Especially as my time in Korea began to come to an end, I began to place a monumental importance on the mirror. (There was no way we could continue things from a distance, since we could barely even communicate in person.)
But, like the relationship, the mirror was impossible to take with me — it was too huge and delicate. I decided to give it back to him. What happened the night we exchanged the mirror, from my hands to his, is hard to describe. Nameless led a religious ceremony: he burnt money and put it in a plastic pig, and chanted while I performed prostrations.
By the time I handed the mirror off to him, everything felt different. I was moving into a new phase in my life, first on a trip through Southeast Asia and India and then home. In exchange for the mirror, he gave me a bell on a string to hang over my door at all the dirty hostels I would be sleeping at. He promised it would protect me and drive away monsters.
It’s all I have of him now, but I don’t hang it, for fear it would not only keep away monsters but friends. It’s tucked away somewhere safe. I haven't heard from Nameless since, but I always imagine he's hunting tigers in the Amazon with a black-market pistol or on some other strange adventure. — Carly Devonshire
Remember that old Onion headline, "Gay Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back Fifty Years?" Well, the Friday after gay marriage was legalized in New York State was kind of like that. If the Republican senators who jumped the aisle to pass it had been there (or hell, even if the Democrats had), it's hard to imagine them not regretting their decision. The Stonewall Inn was home to shirtless twinks in body oil, drag queens selling ecstasy, and muscle-bound leather daddies. In other words, it was 1982.
Kevin and I used to laugh about that — what other community celebrates its civil-rights victories by showcasing its most-cliched stereotypes? It's a joke we made knowingly, since that night, we broke all the rules of our almost-marriage. We'd been together for nearly a decade, living together for half that. The kind of couple that everyone texts when marriage passes and asks "When's the wedding?" A model of monogamy in a community not necessarily known for it, especially not among young and outgoing gentlemen like us.
But we'd been fizzling — sexless and unhappy — and we were so far into our relationship that we felt the need to be secretive about it. Like I couldn't even tell my friends that the sex wasn't amazing (or happening) anymore, since everyone just assumed things were amazing.
As a last-ditch effort, we'd been experimenting with some non-monogamy, a "don't-ask-don't-tell" model of quiet indiscretions. That night, we took things a step further. We were at opposite ends of the bar, each talking to a new friend, maybe a little more intimately than is ordinary. Then one of us was kissing him, and the other of us fondling, and somehow, Kevin and I ended up side-by-side, walking home, each with a different companion under our arms. I fucked mine in the living room, while Kevin took the bedroom, and then we reconvened for a quiet cigarette by the fire-escape. Still a little drunk and high on sexual adventure, I couldn't tell if what we'd done was an amazing new step for us, a liberated new direction for a rock-solid union, or another last-ditch way to eke an extra six months out of a dying one.
A week later, we broke up. When I was cleaning my stuff out the apartment, I found a tiny rainbow tiara — a little glow-stick thing that they'd been giving out at the parade. My Friday-night lover had been wearing it in his hair, and it must have fallen out. I held it over the trashcan, and then, tearing up ever so slightly, shoved it in my bag. — Aaron Santos
A Parting Gift
A few years ago I moved to Iowa City to start a job working at the local newspaper. I knew one or two people in the area from my college days, but other than that I was pretty lonely. Sensing my growing isolation, my friends took it upon themselves to try and hook me up with a friend of theirs, Michelle. We had met once or twice before, and apparently she had mentioned that she thought I was cute, so they gave me her number and told me to give it a try. I finally texted her, asking if wanted to have dinner sometime, and she responded by saying she liked cooking at home more than going out and invited me over to her apartment for a home-cooked meal.
Everything started out great. She opened the door with a big smile, looking really beautiful in a tight-fitting black dress. She’d cooked a delicious meal and opened up a bunch of wine, and the conversation moved along naturally. I learned that she was getting a master's degree in fashion design. I told her about my job and poured out the second bottle of wine.
And then, at some point, the mood began to shift. Out of the blue, Michelle began talking about how she found horror movies sexy. It wasn't the strangest thing I'd ever heard, so I asked her what she found so sexy. With no humor, she said, "The blood and gore." To her there was something organic about it, something earthy and sensual that was lacking in other kinds of movies. It wasn't so much what she was saying as how she was saying it that began to freak me out, enthusiasm bordering on obsessive passion.
It was making me a little uncomfortable, so I excused myself to use the bathroom. I locked myself in, and started to think of excuses to cut the night short, afraid that I'd stumbled into the home of a mad woman who was going to follow couscous with some light knife play. When I finished, I opened the door to find Michelle standing with her ear to the door.
"Is everything okay?" she asked. By that point, it obviously wasn't. Listening to me pee is definitely a dealbreaker. I got straight to the point and said that I'd had a fun night, but that I needed to be going. Her face went flush, either from the wine or disappointment, and she said, "Okay, but I'll walk you downstairs." I waited as she went into the other room to get her coat, and then we walked together to the elevator.
When we got in the elevator, there was a woman with a small dog. As we headed down, I suddenly heard this strange beeping noise, halfway between a bird chirping and a robotic murp. The woman, the dog, and I all looked over to see that Michelle was making the noise deep within her throat, staring at the ceiling like a mischievous toddler. It disturbed the woman so badly that she ended up hitting a random button and getting off early. When she left and the elevator doors closed, Michelle started laughing. "That girl must think I'm crazy, right?" she said. And I thought: "She's not the only one."
When we hit the lobby we gave each other an awkward hug. Before I left she said, "I want to give you something." She reached into her overcoat and pulled out a tiny mouse skull. It was perfectly preserved, with little iron-stained teeth that wiggled in their sockets. I might have mumbled, “That’s nice,” before I fled. I never saw her again. But, the last time I moved, I found that little skull, nestled among my belongings, and decided I might as well keep it. — Alex Franken
It was Super Bowl Sunday. Neither of us cared about the game, so we went to the mall. Given the unofficial holiday, it was nearly deserted. We were on a mission to find glow-in-the-dark stars, the kind you stick on dorm-room ceilings. He lived in New York City, where the sky is polluted with unnatural light at all hours of the day, and so he said he wanted to hang stars of his own. It was just the sort of whimsy that appealed to me at that point.
We were in the sleepy town where I went to college. He was visiting; we’d met at a party the night before and kissed for a while, and he’d spent the night. In the morning, this near stranger had insisted I come along on his fanciful, mostly futile shopping trip.
After abandoning the mall, we somehow wound up at a Blockbuster — a few years ago, when the chain was beginning to crumble. While at the register he noticed a couple of coupons, which immediately sparked his interest, not because of the amazing rent-one-get-one free sales they were offering, but because of the perfect square size of the page. He started furiously folding, as if by natural instinct. In a minute or so, he was holding a paper crane. He took my hands, and showed me how to do the same. I swear to God, it was sexier than the pottery scene in Ghost. Nothing is hotter than transforming the mundane into the whimsical. And nothing is more mundane than waiting in line at a nearly defunct rental chain.
He insisted I keep both the birds, and they’ve hung out on my desk ever since. He and I saw each other once or twice after that weekend and then fizzled. But I still have the birds, less as a memento of him, and more as a sweet memory of a moment in my life. — Kelly Abrams
The Book of Us
It took a while to grow comfortable telling people that I was dating a poet, since it inevitably incited a wince. But he was actually good, and perhaps more uniquely, prolific and professional. During the time we were together, he was hard at work on a book of poems.
Now, I might not be able to stitch together a sonnet, but I can format documents like a secretarial whiz — which is how I ended up with that lover’s poetry manuscript, which still resides on my hard drive. Every word in it belongs to him, but its page numbers and meticulous formatting are my handiwork, a little song of adoration to him.
Like the stereotypical poet with his head in the clouds, he was terrible at getting things like numbers in their proper places, and so I volunteered. A minor finishing touch on years-worth of writing, it still felt like a special responsibility because while we were together, the manuscript was our survival guide. His future happiness hinged on its publication, and my future happiness hinged on him.
So I paginated.
Coaxing those pesky numbers across the table of contents, chapter titles, and dedications wasn’t low-brow work, either. Whenever he added and removed poems, the volume’s size in constant flux, I had to go back and readjust those dear digits. Yet even when I didn’t have anything to edit, I relished rereading my favorite passages. Most of the poems were lovelorn, in which he cried out for some Southern brunette he had long since forgotten by the time we met. In fact, I browsed the manuscript so often and so closely that after a while I became jealous of that siren, wishing I had my own typed-out proof of precisely what he cherished most about me, itemized and arranged in iambic pentameter.
The book never made it to press, and we eventually parted ways. A few months after, I got my poem. I stumbled onto it on a New Year’s Day, hungover, nostalgic, and searching online for any of his new work. Suddenly, there I was in verse, brunette and bedecked in periwinkle cotton, just as I had always wanted.
And though we haven’t been together for a few years, I still crack open the would-be book every now and then. Not a single syllable in it relates to me or to us, but it lodges a lump in my throat nevertheless. — Cristina Walton