Sex + Love

R-E-S-P-E-C-T & How I Found Out What It Meant to Me

Or, why it’s good to be the one who got away.

Illustration by Sonja

Brandon Harris* was my second boyfriend.

Kind of.

Not really.

We had this thing that I’m still not sure how to describe during my sophomore year of high school.

I need to stop and explain that sophomore year was when life started happening to me. Before then I’d never kissed a boy, never ditched a class, only smoked pot once and only smoked cigarettes and snuck glasses of my parents’ wine on very rare occasions. By the end of the year I’d kissed three boys and had sex with one of them; I had a stack of so many blue detention slips from cutting class that I had to serve a Saturday detention; and I smoked cigarettes and pot and drank regularly. In other words, I did a lot of things that I wouldn’t be very proud of later. I wasn’t even proud of them at the time. I was depressed and numb, and I hated myself. I can’t really explain why. Maybe it was chemical. Maybe it was from the boys in my junior high gym class who reminded me every day for two years that I was flat-chested, stringy-haired and freakish. Maybe it’s something everyone goes through.

Anyway, the first time I saw Brandon was rather unimpressive. He was falling down drunk in the bushes at Scoville Park. I didn’t notice how gorgeous he was until a couple months later at a concert/birthday party for my best friend Robin in her boyfriend’s basement. Brandon was the singer of one of the bands and he strolled up to the mic wearing rose-colored John Lennon–style sunglasses and a black trench coat over a T-shirt emblazoned with an anarchy symbol. He didn’t really sing, more like read poetry over the noise. And I felt like he was staring at me, but it was kind of hard to tell with his dreadlocks hanging in his face. His looks and total self-confidence caught my attention, but that poetry full of dark, swirling imagery about shattered souls that I wished I could have written was what kept it.

I didn’t get to talk to him that night because my first boyfriend, Derek, was playing drums in that band and even though Derek and I had been broken up for a couple of weeks, we were will still hanging out as friends.

Friends was all I’d ever wanted to be with Derek, but he’d asked me out in an awkward way when a group of us had gone over to somebody’s house, smoked a bowl in the garage, then got restless and decided to play football, which none of us even really knew how to play because we were the proud freaks and geeks who always got picked last in gym class. But it was a lot of fun and I was pink-cheeked, out of breath and grinning when my mom picked me up. Before she could drive away, Derek ran up to the car equally flushed and breathless and beaming and asked, “Stephanie, will you go out with me?” in front of everyone—our friends, my mom.

I said yes because Derek was nice and I didn’t want to hurt him, especially not with an audience. I thought I could learn to like him the way he liked me. Fake it till you make it, or something like that. I kept that up for almost a month before Robin’s boyfriend (and Derek’s best friend) Will took me down to the hottest room in his basement and grilled me about my feelings for Derek like I was a murder suspect. He didn’t let me out of that sauna of an interrogation room until I agreed to break up with Derek because, according to Will, pretending I had feelings for Derek was only going to hurt him worse in the long run.

I knew deep down that Will was right, but his tactics left a lot to be desired, and I didn’t handle things the best way. I got half-drunk and told Derek that it wasn’t him, it was me. I was messed up and couldn’t have feelings for anyone. It was true at the time, but things changed after his concert with Brandon. A few days after that, a group of us went to the movies. A group that included Brandon.

We saw some Harrison Ford film because it was the only thing playing at the two-dollar theater. It was really long and boring. We left after they blew up a bunch of drugs and acted like it was a big victory.

Brandon and I walked out holding hands.

He had taken my hand at some point in the dark. His palms were really dry and calloused, but as soon as he touched me my stomach flipped in that good way, the way I’d never felt with Derek no matter how hard I tried, the way I’d honestly started to believe I was too messed up to ever feel.

I thought that Brandon would let go once we were out in the light and everyone could see us, because Derek was there and we’d broken up less than a month ago and Brandon was his good friend and there was probably some sort of code… But Brandon only squeezed my hand tighter and that incredibly awesome stomach-flipping, butterflies-and-fireworks feeling spread all the way down to my toes.

Brandon never officially asked me go out with him like Derek had. He claimed me when he took my hand, when he led me out of the dark theater into the light, out of feeling nothing into feeling an intense need to touch and be touched.

I told myself that I didn’t care if we used the terms girlfriend and boyfriend, because we connected on a deeper level. We had really deep conversations about writing and depression and anger. He got me in ways that no one else had, and I felt it in his hungry kisses and the way he scraped his fingernails down my stomach underneath my T-shirt, stopping just above the button on my jeans.

Robin cautioned me not to have sex with him until he said he loved me or at least referred to me as his girlfriend. People said that Brandon used girls, had no respect for them, but I thought that whatever we had was different.

I would’ve had sex with him. I wanted to. Then I went out of town with Robin over a long weekend and when I got back, I found out that Brandon had hooked up with another girl at a party. I told everyone who pulled me aside to tell me about it that I didn’t care. Brandon and I were not officially together, and he could do whatever he wanted.

He could, always had, and always would. Over the next two years I watched him date more than one girl at the same time. They knew about each other. They tolerated it and they still slept with him.

But I never did. I didn’t even confront him about what had happened at that party. I’d never told him he couldn’t hook up with someone else beside me, but I realized I couldn’t handle it if he did, so I walked away.

Brandon and I worked together briefly the summer I turned 19. We hung out afterwards a few times, and he told me that I was the coolest girl he’d ever dated.

“We never dated,” I reminded him.

I didn’t totally get how that choice I made when I was 15 had shaped me until this year, more than 15 years after our non-relationship, when I was telling a friend the story of Brandon, who’d just found me on Facebook and had reminded me yet again how cool he thought I was.

“He respected you because you respected yourself,” my friend said.

“No,” I replied. “I’m just the one who got away.”

But inwardly I was proud of that girl I’d been. I had made a ton of mistakes and would make many more, some even worse than the one I could have made with Brandon. However, I’d gotten a little stronger the day I chose my own self-respect over the games everyone else let him get away with playing. I’d gotten stronger still every time I ran into him over the years and he reminded me that, yeah, I was indeed worthy of being treated better. I’d had a hunch back then and I’m glad I followed it. ♦

* All names have been changed to protect the (sometimes not-so) innocent.

23 Comments

  • stephanie4786 September 23rd, 2011 3:39 PM

    They always say the authors write form personal experience, I didn’t realize how personal until this post. It was amazing, just like your book.

  • Rita Unicornia September 23rd, 2011 3:55 PM

    You’re awesome… really awesome… and yes… “Brandon” was right in one thing ”…you’re the coolest person…”!

  • DanielleJean September 23rd, 2011 4:00 PM

    This was a great story.

  • puffytoad September 23rd, 2011 4:01 PM

    This is a really interesting story. In some ways it seems status quo. Similar to “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Like, women need to trick men into commitment before they have sex because only men like sex for it’s own sake. But it’s different. Brandon was definitely a jerk… he knew girls would put up with whatever he did because he was just so cool they couldn’t get enough of him. It’s always dishonest to pretend to like someone just to be able to make with them and stuff, which is probably what he was doing.

    Anyway, it takes a lot of self-respect to say no sometimes. To just cut off ties with some jerk. I dated a jerk. I dumped him but he argued with me and said I didn’t have a good reason to. I knew that my feelings were enough and I just let him say whatever crap he wanted until he went home. That was my second attempt at dumping him. It took me a month to gain my self-esteem back from the first attempt in order to be successful in the second one.

    Respect is important. He had me convinced my feelings didn’t matter and my brain didn’t work. I finally escaped that mindset. Respect is believing yourself before anyone else and doing what you feel you should even when someone else tells you you’re not smart enough to do the right thing.

  • Stephanie September 23rd, 2011 6:20 PM

    Stephanie, you totally caught me. I did channel some of my own teenage experiences in Ballads of Suburbia if that is what you are talking about ;)

    Aww thanks so much, Rita! You, too, Danielle!

    PuffyToad, thanks for sharing your story. You were so strong and you are so right about Respect. You definitely did the right thing!

  • AmandaLouiseHobba September 23rd, 2011 9:33 PM

    Thanks so much for this. I can totally relate – i’ve had a few of these kinds of experiences myself. Most I said no to, one I said yes – worst mistake of my life – but it did teach me a really good lesson, so in some ways it was almost worth it!

  • Morris September 23rd, 2011 11:32 PM

    This storys so sad… you didnt tame the beast you ran away from it.

  • Pyxie Gwynne September 24th, 2011 2:56 AM

    This is so good and I wish there were more girls like you. I had a kind of/not really boyfriend much like Brandon in my freshman year of high school; He was a sophomore and a drummer and made me many mix CDs. I found out he had a crush on one of my “cool-older-girl” friends. I was crushed. The story ends with me moving away and him asking my friends about me the next school-year… because he had like-liked me. They told everyone I went to London. I’m glad I didn’t have sex with him.

    (Also I have a copy of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone! I loved it.)

  • Pax September 24th, 2011 3:31 AM

    Morris- What do you mean that she didn’t tame the beast? I don’t think that you “tame the beast” in this type of situation, but instead, you face it. She didn’t let him get to her, and reinstated that by telling him that they never dated.

  • w September 24th, 2011 7:50 AM

    I’ve been in this situation. reading this makes me feel sort of proud of myself. thank you so much

  • diny September 24th, 2011 11:04 AM

    this is very personal. seems like a friend talked about it to me. i like it that you respect yourself, stephanie.

    xx

  • Sonja September 24th, 2011 5:06 PM

    i love this story too and i so admire Stephanie’s honesty and willingness to share personal experiences. I want to point out that the girl in the left of the illustration is Stephanie herself!!

  • Greta September 25th, 2011 9:19 AM

    It’s such a great story! I wish I was as strong as Stephanie.

  • Neada 76 September 25th, 2011 10:09 AM

    So, I adore this article. Twenty years have passed since I was fifteen, but wow–I can relate to that! My bad boy was Peter–oh! How I loved him! But I think we both knew better–we both had issues and monkeys on our backs–but we remained the best of friends straight though college…

    Now, I’m 35 and still a virgin…NOt for lack of options, but because older boys are bigger finks than teen-aged boys. I want someone who loves me and respects me, and I’m willing to wait and work on myself. Love without respect isn’t really love at all.

  • bacon_and_cheese September 25th, 2011 3:02 PM

    I thought this story was like a book I read called Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen. I read the whole article and was fascinated by how you told who you were and how much courage you have to have posted this where anyone could see it. I think it was really cool of you to not do anything you didn’t want to do. You have my respect for doing that.

  • tokyomilk September 25th, 2011 4:03 PM

    I am going through this exact situation right now. All day I’ve been wondering what to do and I literally thought ‘maybe rookie would have some advice…’

    I keep making excuses as to why I should give him another chance but this article is right, I need to be ‘the one that got away’ for my own self respect!

    thank you, this article makes me feel stronger!

    I’m 23 but still need rookies advice :)

  • Neada 76 September 26th, 2011 4:11 PM

    If either your body and mind say “no”, walk away. If both your body and mind say “no”, run!

  • oriana September 26th, 2011 7:13 PM

    This is my favourite post on Rookie so far, really beautifully written.

  • Livy September 26th, 2011 7:28 PM

    Self-respect is so so important. It’s sad, because so many people (girls) that I hang out with have ZERO respect for themselves. Breaks my heart..

  • Stephanie September 27th, 2011 2:19 AM

    yep that is me in Sonja’s gorgeous collage. My friend Margaret took that picture, prolly my fave pic of me as a teen.

    Anyhooo…

    tokyomilk, so glad the piece could help you make the choice to respect yourself. That is a huge compliment.

    And Oriana, thank you! I’m totally blushing. Im in such amazing company on this site

    bacon_and_cheese, Lock and Key is one of the few Dessen books I haven’t read. Now I must read it!

    Neada 76, good advice there!

  • AineFey September 30th, 2011 8:34 PM

    I think this story is fantastic. I knew guys like Brandon in high school. I was shy and quiet and wasn’t really into boys. I was focused on school. But I’m really glad you were able to make a great choice for yourself. Respecting yourself is very important.

    Also, that is a great picture. :)

  • girlhero October 4th, 2011 9:28 AM

    I think it’s admirable that you had the where-with-all at such a young age to realize that you and Brandon were different people who felt differently about romantic relationships. Furthermore, to see that as a reason to break it off with him and then doing so is even more mature.

    However, I don’t know Brandon, but I don’t think he can be demonized for wanting to date or hook-up with many girls at once. If he was being honest about not wanting a serious relationship (which it seemed he was from the article), then I’m not sure he’s really the “jerk” he’s made out to be. He just didn’t want to live monogamously at sixteen and he wanted to enjoy sex with a multitude of girls. PERSONALLY, I don’t think that’s wrong at all- if you’re honest and safe about it. So in that sense, I don’t think not having sex with him means you were respecting your sexual sanctity necessarily as much as it means that you were correctly identifying that Brandon’s relationship dynamic didn’t work for you and you’d rather have sex with someone else later on. so you got out of it- smart yes, but irrelevant to respecting yourself. I also don’t feel, finally, that his desire for sexual freedom is disrespectful to anyone- and if done for himself, it actually shows a degree of self-respect on his part.

    What I found a bit more offensive was the sentence, “…I watched him date more than one girl at the same time. They knew about each other. They tolerated it and they still slept with him.” I may be making assumptions, but this has a real under-tone of distaste for the girls that slept with him. Instead of assuming that these girls didn’t respect themselves and were letting Brandon trample them, MAYBE these girls were incredibly independent sexual beings who wanted a gorgeous, poetic lover. MAYBE they didn’t need Brandon’s monogamy to feel secure about themselves. Maybe to them sex isn’t a mistake when it’s not juxtaposed with a western idea of what a loving relationship should be.

    I understand that these are all really lofty notions, and the reality is probably that Brandon was a jerk who wanted to feel powerful and those girls probably had sex with him because they wanted him to like them. That is a realistic high school environment. Even then, I think this article completely ignores the institution of sexual freedom and writes off the legitimacy of non-monogamous relationships. To me that is a problem because it defines respect as being in the context of a Western moral confine as opposed to respect as a COMPLETELY personal moral confine- and that’s no better than Seventeen magazine!

  • crapcats November 1st, 2013 2:53 PM

    This was such a good story… I went through something also similar around freshman year of high school except now after reading this I feel completely different about the situation. I’m still in high school so I feel as if this taught me a lot.