My father died before I could ask: do you want to be buried in your parents’ Jewish plot or your wife’s secular yard? Do you want to leave me your wedding ring or wear it into the beyond? Did you have sex before you met my mother?
My mother told me about all those boys she dated before my father won her heart. My father, though: if he did kiss others, he never told.
I like to think I share his high moral sense. My father would never cheat on my mother, never betray a friend, never talk down about any of his friends, though he could be highly critical of their decisions or ill treatment of any of us, his own family members. I have modeled myself along his lines.
Yet the runway goes only so far. If my father did have sex before he met my mother, I am sure he didn’t do what I did: have sex under his parents’ roof, in his childhood bed, with someone he wasn’t married to, while his parents lay in their bed in a room not so far away.
In so many ways Cheryl was my type: tall, thin and angular, lush brown hair. It was her eyes that haunted me: not so much the shape or color, but the dark areas below her eyes, indicating that she didn’t sleep well or enough. Often she smiled with her eyes, and I could believe that she didn’t have the sort of troubles I saw there. I didn’t know the nature or depth of her troubles, only that her mother wasn’t in her life. That something about her mother wasn’t “right.”
We were best friends throughout college. We worked best that way, but there was the temptation to see what else lay behind our ease with each other. During our freshman year, Cheryl kept showing up at the dining hall when I was there with other friends. I knew she was pursuing me because she came to the backside of the cafeteria, the third entrance; a smaller room where people who wanted to escape the central throng and sit only with each other gravitated toward. Cheryl would enter by herself, not looking around, as if she were steeling herself to push through being unwanted. I wasn’t attracted to her then. I wished that she would quit tying her hair in that 70’s college kerchief girls used to wear. It made her appear awkward. It hid how beautiful she was.
It didn’t occur to me then, as it wouldn’t to most males, that she could have judged me for my unattractive habits: showering every other day even in the heat of late summer; wearing the same jeans five days in a row; running my fingers through my beard at supper so that little red hairs mixed in with my leftover veal patty. If she did judge my nasty habits, they never deterred her.
I dated many girls during college. I slept with many of them, too, and sometimes I’d see Cheryl with another guy, or at least know that another guy was pursuing her. At those times I’d feel jealous, and once when it happened, at a mutual friend’s apartment, I moved closer to Cheryl. As we sat on the floor, knees pressed against each other, I felt that maybe we were meant to be more. I loved seeing the look in the other guy’s eyes, the look of envy, the look that understood that Cheryl preferred me.
Each year in college I had a different roommate. In my last year, my roommate Mike slept with Cheryl. He had known her since childhood in our quaint little college town. He knew we were friends and assumed—why wouldn’t he?—that she was unattached. We had all been to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show that night. Mike and I had dropped acid, which had the effect basically of causing me to see transvestites everywhere.
During the show, Mike and Cheryl sat right behind me, holding hands. When we got back to our house, he led her upstairs to his master bedroom. When she descended later, she found me trying to relax on the couch.
“Are you OK,” she asked, her palm on my forehead.
“No, no, no.”
“What’s the matter?”
And what could I say? What would I have said had the acid not been coursing through me? What was the truth: “I don’t want you like that, but I don’t want him to have you either?”
So she left me there.
One night, sometime later, Cheryl drove us into Birmingham, and I treated her to a meal at one of Birmingham’s oldest restaurants: John’s. On the way home she said:
“I love how you picked a place that had history, that meant something to you. So much better than a place like “Bennagins.”
The place where a former date took her.
I felt more for her that night than any other. So I told her. It was so simple.
“I really do love you.”
And then she asked, “Are you sure about this?”
What would have happened if she had just reciprocated in kind? As soon as she asked me, though, I knew I wasn’t.
It was Cheryl who suggested we sleep together in her four-poster bed in the basement apartment she shared with two other guys. From her perspective, it couldn’t have been very good. She never spoke about it, though, and of course, neither did I. I suppose college sex is mainly like that.
I remember a friend from home running into us at the local mall one Saturday. “Buddy, she’s a knockout,” he told me.
I didn’t say much then, and I don’t know what to say now. I agreed with him; she was a knockout. So why didn’t I go down?
Cheryl changed her major more than I did, so we didn’t graduate together. She did come to my graduation and went to the post-party with me. She had met my parents before, and they both loved her. My mother thought she was beautiful, a statement my mother didn’t make about most, or any, of the girls I brought home. We invited Cheryl to spend the night at our house, and after the party, without saying anything to each other about what we were thinking or going to do, we had sex in my old bedroom. Afterward, I retreated to the couch in our den, and the next morning, life moved forward as it always does when two people try but can’t be a couple. We didn’t see each other much after that. Things happened: I went off to grad school, and my former roommate, the one Cheryl slept with, was killed driving home late one night from his sister’s fiancé’s bachelor party.
Cheryl came to see me two years later when she was driving through Knoxville, where I was in grad school. We slept in the same bed that night, and if she had wanted to, we would have had sex again. But we didn’t. I said nothing as I watched her leave my bed the next morning. She was moving on, to Cincinnati, to grad school in theatre. To another man.
Eventually, I met another woman, too. Tall, but not angular like Cheryl. Her eyes aren’t haunted, either, though they are dark. She spent many nights with me in my parents’ house, before and after we got married. Before, we always slept in different rooms because my parents would not have deemed it proper to do otherwise. Even after, we never had sex in that old bed of mine. My wife is an old-fashioned woman.
A few years later, when my brother and the woman he had been living with for several years came to visit, my mother said they could stay in the same bedroom.
“They do it when they’re not here anyway,” she said. “So what’s the difference?”
I certainly didn’t know.
Before or after, my father never commented on what either my brother or I was doing behind the bedroom door with these girls. I wonder what he thought, but like I said, by the time I realized that I could ask him, it was too late. He was resting in another place, content, I hope, with all he had or hadn’t done.
Terry Barr is the author of the 2016 essay collection, Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Hippocampus, Eclectica Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, Bookends Review, Blue Lyra Review, South Writ Large, and 3288 Review. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.