Updated: Feb 11, 2020
I met Wren at a get together at a friend’s house. The friend lived in a nice neighborhood and had art on the walls of his home. His father was an architect, and it showed in the lofted ceilings, spiral staircases, and modern minimalist decor. Wren seemed into it, and I found out later that she was a photographer.
She was tiny. Short and fit without being too skinny to fill out a pair of jeans. Cameras often hung from her neck. She was a bit bashful, but smiled easily and often, both before and after her braces came off. She responded with “Sir” and “Ma’am,” even when speaking with peers. It wasn’t an over the top Southern thing, as it might have been in Houston in 1999, but rather an implicit awareness of gender roles. She was feminine, through and through, and played into it a bit in her phrasing and gestures. She wore glasses with cat eye frames in muted colors that often matched her outfit, with her auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail like Rachel Leigh Cook at the beginning of “She’s All That.” She wasn’t trying to be a model or anything, but she was definitely stylish—knew what she was working with and wore the jeans/band t-shirts/zip-up hoodies or the out-of-season sundresses to flatter her curves. It was effective.
She seemed entirely uninterested in me (all the best ones do!). There were only two girls there to five guys. She was busy flirting with the architect's son and had a boyfriend separate of that. Still, she managed to be both cute and sexy, and I love glasses, so I lingered around, cracking a joke here or there, asking intentional questions when we got a moment without other boys around. I got a phone number—likely on the appeal of my interest in her alone, and we started talking on the phone in the evenings. We talked enough to worry her boyfriend, and there were a couple three-way calls to establish that I was not a threat (spoiler alert...). He was a high school valedictorian on his way to college. I was busy dropping out of school at this point, working at a kosher bakery, driving around and stopping at random basketball courts around the city to test my mettle.
I skipped school a couple afternoons and drove my 1996 Green Dodge Neon across town to pick her up from her high school. She brought a couple friends, perhaps as a buffer, and we got chinese food and spent the afternoon in her living room watching bad movies, inching closer and closer on the couch. Eventually she leaned her head against my shoulder, and I practiced breathing exercises to keep my beating heart from giving me away.
My father’s a stagehand, so I could get free tickets to the Nutcracker, and I invited her. I wore a sweater vest and brought a flower and arrived early. Her dog was an airedale named Duncan, and he was just happy to be dogging his way through life, barking at intruders (me) and taking Wren's full weight to displace him from in front of the screen door. Her father, a short but stout man who might be type-cast as a dwarf in a Tolkien film, shook my hand heartily, and her mother was friendly but ultimately uninterested and never made direct eye contact (I learned later that she had lost an eye when a car hit her while she was biking. Wren had been with her and always insisted we look both ways multiple times before crossing streets.). Her little brother seemed eager to be my friend or rival or something, and his twin sister was super into Lucille Ball and other old-timey actors.
Wren's dress was a pale yellow with flowers on it, light and airy, spaghetti straps and a brown cardigan over it. She had a locket and a shy smile. I don’t know what was in the locket, but I remember wanting it to be a picture of me.
So we went to the Ballet and held hands, and I didn’t fall asleep. We got dinner after the show, and she invited me up when we got back to her house. In her room, with her parents asleep across the hall, we talked about her boyfriend. I don’t remember the extent to which I explicitly asked her to leave him, but my intentions must have been clear regardless. I’m sitting on her bed, she’s across from me on a piano bench. She stood up, walked to me slowly, and playfully pushed me onto my back. Her smile was dangerous, my surprise immense. She straddled me, and we kissed until kissing wasn’t enough.
The boyfriend went away eventually, and Wren and I dated properly. His booksmarts and shared Jewish heritage had become uninteresting, so she left him without ever mentioning our tryst. I may have consoled him on the phone with her muted on three-way or some messy shit like that. Teenagers, man. The boyfriend’s Jewishness had been a distinct advantage with Wren's parents. I remember eating chinese food with her grandparents and them asking her privately whether I was a goy. She denied it, sharing that I worked at a kosher bakery and neglected to mention that I was a card-carrying atheist at the time. That apparently sufficed, and I passed as Jewish at every Passover dinner for the next few years. I even brought hamentaschen from my bakery for Purim.
When I think back on Wren, I’ll be honest that I think more about the sex than the other parts. Our bodies fit in that way where you can sleep intertwined without being uncomfortable and wake up having not moved. We often spent the night together, with me leaving early in the morning, before her parents got up. Sometimes, if I overslept, she would distract her parents in the front room while I snuck out the back (They must have known). Those nights went late, and I remember them mostly in a haze, a lust filled fog with two teenagers playing lovers, learning. She was generous and lively, and I counted myself quite lucky in those moments. The world fell away, and I was just wrecked—regularly. I would wake up looking a total mess (They had to have known), something like Encino Man, unable to find my clothes, languid and gawking at Wren who now looked like Rachel Leigh Cook in that “Brain on Drugs” commercial.
Her younger siblings definitely knew. They would often hang out in the evenings and go to bed before I left. The father definitely knew. He walked in on me asleep in her bed more than once. I remember reflexively throwing the blankets over my head at least once. It cannot have been convincing. Her dog definitely knew. He and I got along well enough, but I was not, at the time, a dog person. Duncan and I would play soccer (which looked a lot like a large dog throwing his head between my swinging foot and a soccer ball with no concern for canine safety or the fine china). And one time he jumped on the bed while Wren and I were fucking and excitedly licked my asshole. I planted my foot in his sternum and launched him off the bed with a backwards kick. He was unhurt but got the point and ran off. It was awkward and could have been super weird, but we laughed and rolled and on with the show.
One night, I was driving home from her nice neighborhood at 5 AM, and I got pulled over. I hadn’t been speeding. If anything, I was going too slow. I asked the officer why he had pulled me over, and he said there had been some car thefts in the area and since my car was registered to another part of town, he had pulled me over just to check. I remember thinking that it made little sense for me, potential carthief, to be driving around in a car registered to me, on my way home to the place it was registered, regardless of the time of day. But I didn’t say so. I was breathing slowly like someone who had awoken from a dream, and though I knew it to be real, I couldn’t argue with how downright dreamy my evening had been. I said my yes sirs and no sirs. I took the warning with a smile and drove home under the speed limit entirely immovable from my bliss.
Outside the bedroom, Wren was lovely. Kind, thoughtful, and affectionate. She had interests and talent and was willing to adapt to my moody teenage impression of a curmudgeon. She was insecure, sometimes about her photography talent but mostly about her intellect. She had no real reason to be. She wasn’t the strongest student but from my perspective it was much more about motivation than any innate ability. I think her father had been told he was gifted during his youth and then, mistaking his drive for intellectual aptitude and comparing it to hers, concluded that things must be harder for her.
He was a bright man, definitely, and generous. But he seemed to treat me as if he and I were in some club of smart folk. Not at first, of course, but then we played chess. He set up a board, and we made one move a day (or whenever we walked by the board) for a month, using a quarter placed on one side of the board or the other to indicate whose turn it was. I instinctively understood how important this game was. It was chess. Just a game. But one where a loss can feel utterly total. When you best someone in chess, you’ve bested their mind in a game that includes no random chance. It’s definite. So I had to win. Sometimes I would go to Wren's house before she got home from school and study the board. Everytime I came back to look at it, another move had been made. Eventually, I told my Dad about the game, and shared that I felt I had this guy beat.
My father commented that he wished he could see the board and help. So I set it up. From memory. All of the pieces and whatnot. He asked how we had gotten to that point, and I played the whole game backwards to the beginning and then walked it back forward to the current move. Like I said, I knew how important the game was.
Eventually, as the game got closer to its conclusion, we sat down and played face to face. I was nervous and sweaty but felt confident. He moved, and I moved faster (but honestly much slower than I wanted to. I was double and triple checking), and eventually he saw the writing on the wall and maybe 20 moves before it was over-over it was over. He said “You’re a better chess player than I am,” with a big grin and shook my hand as he resigned.
I wonder what it will be like to judge my daughter’s mates in that way. He seemed proud of me, or proud of Wren about me, or something. An odd feeling but definitely nice. Later he would teach me to do a brake job on my car and sell me a mattress at cost from his mattress business. I think he understood that, aside from my bakery paychecks, I was living in poverty. He offered to feed me everytime I came over. Gave me money when Wren wasn’t looking, gave me a spare key to Wren's car, took me with them on trips. Years later, when I moved back to Houston, he sold me and my pregnant girlfriend (not his daughter and now my wife) our first grown up bed. I still think about dropping by his home when I’m in town.
During my relationship with Wren, I was having a rough time. My father was in jail for the early parts, and I was dropping out of school in the later parts. We were dating when I got my GED and when I applied to community college (she was still in high school). We were dating through my first year in college and up until I transferred to UT in Austin, a three hour drive from our homes. We broke up then but didn’t really break up. Still talked on the phone every day. Still visited and things fell into old ways in new locales. We only really broke up when I decided I wanted to date this girl from my math class who had “Katy” written on the calculator I spied over her shoulder. Katy was a footnote. Wren and I got back together, but I don’t think she ever recovered from my having taken her so thoroughly for granted.
We were together for another half year or so when I found out she had been cheating on me. I don’t blame her. We had no business being together at that point. It was a form of cowardice from both of us. I couldn’t be alone, and she couldn’t tell me how hurt she was or later how boring I had become. That was an ugly day. I creeped on an email inbox left open and found some photos. I woke her up to ask her about it. I left, caught a bus, walked around in my neighborhood aimlessly. On the phone with her, I cried and screamed and read massive clandestine email chains and worked out twice a day. I was in college, so I had plenty of time to perseverate on my pain and my triceps. I drank Ovaltine out of quart sized mason jars instead of eating. I watched the film Closer and identified to a degree that I cannot help but roll my eyes at now.
Years later, I’m not sure when, Wren and I hooked up again. In retrospect, I am not pleased with the quality of the consent I was given, and I feel gross about it. I am not even sure I wanted to be with her. I knew she was still dating the boy she had cheated on me with, and I cannot deny the weight that held in my mind. I wish I had a different true sentence to write here, but I do not. It felt desperate.
I know that time is not exactly linear. Or maybe more that it is sequential, but not an indication, inherently, of progress. The last moments of something do not always matter more than the moments prior. And a relationship does not need to end in marriage or death to have been worthwhile. I don’t think she knows, but I always thought she was lovely, and she definitely deserves to be happy. Our relationship was meaningful and worthwhile to me. I hope she can say the same. She’s married now. Her husband is handsome and rakish. She looks like a stylish version of her mom and not Rachel Leigh Cook but still very pretty. I can imagine her life now. I can imagine her flourishing in Austin with quirky art folk, loved by all. I can imagine her becoming whalishly pregnant and being a calm, measured mother. The kind that is fundamentally consistent and reliable and unflappable. Mostly, I can imagine her being happy. So I will.