Sex + Love

Only Make Believe

I was going to have a boyfriend, even if I had to fake it.

Illustration by Minna

Illustration by Minna

There’s this tree in a park by the house where I grew up that’s scarred multiple times with my initials. From the ages of 10 through 14, every time I developed a new crush, I would carve my initials and his into the bark with a little + between them. I feel awful about this, because not only was I wounding the tree, I was doing it under false pretenses. I didn’t even like four of the six boys whose initials I scratched into that trunk. I told my friends I did, and I wanted it to be true, so much so that I went to that park by myself to vandalize that poor tree. I’m not sure if I thought this act of professing my love would make me actually fall in love, or if I was afraid my friends would find out I was lying and then I could point to the tree and sayz, “Would I go that far if I didn’t actually want Sam Kennedy* to be my boyfriend?”

But I didn’t want Sam Kennedy to be my boyfriend. In fifth grade, I didn’t want anyone to be my boyfriend. I still thought boys were gross, mean, annoying, or all of the above. I did not understand why all the other girls in my class suddenly had this need to be paired off Ken-and-Barbie style with those icky/cruel/obnoxious creatures, but they did, and I didn’t want anyone to think something was “wrong” with me. I wanted to be as giddy and carefree as the girls with crushes and boyfriends seemed to be, so I faked it, and this poor tree bore the brunt of my lies.

In eighth grade, when a boy with chin-length wavy brown hair and an adorable smile caught my eye—and proved to be funny and kind, defending me against gym class bullies—I finally understood the appeal of having a boyfriend. I wanted to be around this guy constantly, to go to dances, to make out. When I thought about doing them with him, those things didn’t seem gross anymore—they seemed fascinating. But I was too shy to make a move, so I just crushed on him for over a year and went through total agony when he asked another girl to the eighth grade graduation dance.

After that heartbreak, I restricted my crushes to guys I saw in the hall, juniors and seniors whose names I didn’t even know. Meanwhile, my friends were getting into real romances. My best friend from grade school was having actual sex with her boyfriend. I had always been at the top of my class academically, and I did not like this new feeling of being at the bottom of the social heap. I felt like I was seriously behind and that I would never catch up. So I lied.

My sophomore year, there was a freshman named Derek who told my friend Robin that he thought I was “hot.” I wished I could return the sentiment, but I found him more adorable than sexy. At that point, though, no one had ever openly admitted to like-liking me, and who knew if it would ever happen again, so I told Robin to give him my number. Derek and I were soon a couple, and I discovered that there was a lot to like about him: He had great taste in music, and he introduced me to a couple of metal bands I hadn’t heard of before. He could be serious, and he could also be funnier than just about anyone I knew. We had great phone conversations. I really, really liked him…as a friend.

But I wanted a boyfriend. I thought I needed one. And I believed that if I made it official between me and Derek, I would magically develop romantic feelings for him—even if that had never worked when I carved the initials of my fifth-grade “crushes” into that tree. I’m not the only girl who settled for a boyfriend like this even though it felt like it at the time. In fact, most of my girlfriends in college admitted to going out with or even having sex with someone just to figure it out, see what the big deal was, or like me, to keep up with their friends. We were all in this imaginary social competition that none of us wanted to be in and as a result, a lot of us missed out on the beautiful awkwardness of having first dates and first kisses with people we actually had feelings for. I really wish I’d cared more about myself than other people’s perceptions of me, because first romances should be, you know, romantic.

Derek was my first kiss. It was after a group date with Robin and Derek’s friend Will. We were in the backseat of Will’s car, and as we were pulling up in front of my house, Derek leaned over and laid one on me. His mouth was a lot wetter than the first kisses I had daydreamed about with my eighth grade hallway crushes, and it tasted like an ashtray. I kept kissing him for the next couple of weeks, hoping that some spark would develop. Everyone but Derek could tell I was faking it; Robin said I looked sad when I should be happy, and I was definitely forcing my smiles around him. Will told me I had to break up with Derek before I really hurt him. But that happened anyway; when I finally got up the nerve to break up with Derek, I hooked up with one of his friends a few days later. It turned out I was capable of crushing on someone after all—just not Derek. I never started a relationship under false pretenses again—but in my early 20s I did something even worse.

I met Simon when I was 17. I’d graduated from high school a semester early and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, with a friend for the summer—my last summer before college—so this could have been the perfect summer fling. There were no parents and no rules, so we did some pretty dangerous and stupid things, like inviting drunk guys we’d just met at goth clubs back to our place.

Simon looked like a tall, skinny, red-haired Robert Smith, and so naturally I was instantly attracted to him. We invited him over and he promptly passed out in our hallway, but eventually he came to my room and asked if we could “just cuddle.” That was all we did, which made me like him more because in addition to being hot, he seemed respectful and sweet. And he was. He was also 23 and a party boy who got me into any club I wanted to go to and took me out to drink in graveyards and to skinny-dip in lakes. Being around him was a constant thrill. Whenever he touched me, my insides did Gabby Douglas–style acrobatics. I hated being away from him, and spent most of my time at his place. It was everything I’d hoped to feel with Derek.

Our “summer fling” lasted eight years, half of which were downright awful. Simon and I also fed each other’s self-destructive habits. He was a big drinker when I met him and I quickly became one. We romanticized William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson and convinced ourselves that heavy intoxication was key to being artists. By 21, I realized that I’d spiraled out of control, and I decided to move back home to Chicago to live with my mother and go back to college. This is a point when Simon and I definitely should have broken up, but instead he came with me. I think I just wasn’t ready to let go yet—destructive as our relationship got, it always had that intensely comforting “let’s just cuddle” side to it. The self-destructive part was not as comfortable, though, and eventually I grew tired of it. I knew I needed to get away from him, I just literally didn’t know how to do it. Derek was the only guy I’d ever broken up with, and I’d only done it because my friends made me. It ended horribly, with me losing Derek as a friend, other people thinking I was a bitch, and me feeling like one. And at this point I was pretty fragile. I was working through some of my issues with depression and drinking, and I felt emotionally dependent on Simon. I didn’t love him anymore; I was using him as a crutch.

By the time we moved to Chicago, he and I were fighting all the time. We fought about the music I liked (“too screamy,” he said), how much he was still drinking (partying was starting to get old for me), and especially about money (he lost his job and quickly spent down his savings buying clothes, electronics, and booze while I paid all the bills). My mom, my best friend, and my therapist spent the next two years urging me to break up with Simon, and a big part of me wanted to, but I didn’t. I cried when I told my mom that I was miserable, and I knew he was an alcoholic and our relationship was unhealthy but I felt like we needed each other. We were miserable together but happy to not be alone. When I broke up with Derek he got drunk and drove Will’s car into a tree; he was OK, but Will told me it was my fault, that I’d hurt Derek and sent him on that downward spiral. I was afraid to hurt Simon like that, and afraid of being alone.

I wish I could say that I eventually found the strength to break up with him, but I didn’t. He went home to Wisconsin one weekend and left me a voicemail saying he didn’t want to come back. I sobbed for an hour, but I went to bed feeling relieved. When I got up the next morning, he called to say he had second thoughts. I told him I didn’t. I felt much lighter than I had in years. I had gotten so used to waking up with a weight on my chest, the kind of feeling I’d had when I had to go to a job or a class I didn’t like, except this was constant, and of my own choosing. Once it was lifted, the idea of being crushed by it again was a hell of a lot scarier than being alone.

That phrase “fake it till you make it” was in my head all the time during my relationships with Derek and Simon, but I thought it meant that if I faked feelings long enough it would make them real. As it turned out, “making it” actually meant discovering my role in these relationships, and figuring out what I really wanted beyond just having a boyfriend. I do wish that when I’d started to get an inkling—when Derek and I kissed and I knew we’d never have chemistry and when I knew deep down that I wanted to go back to school without Simon—I’d been brave enough to stop faking. That’s the biggest danger about faking: It starts to seem so much easier than real life, when the truth is that my real life would have been so much easier if I hadn’t spent so much time faking it.

I did so much more in the eight months after I broke up with Simon than I did during the eight years we were together—I finished a novel and landed a literary agent, I went to school in Los Angeles for a semester, and I had my first real and lasting romance. None of this would have been possible while I was faking my way through my love life. I found that lying to yourself in one area of your life tends to hold you back in all of them, but if you break that pattern in one area it takes a weight off your chest, and you just feel different. You feel like you can do anything you truly want. ♦

* All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

24 Comments

  • Olivia July 29th, 2013 4:44 PM

    Stephanie, I just love you. Thank you for sharing. I’m sure you hear this in various forms all the time, but it’s so wonderful that you (and of course Rookie as an entity and its entire staff) are available as a resource and a comfort to me & other girls who may feel alienated, lost, or defeated by problems society doesn’t always want to address. Gah, that sounds stuffy. I hope you know what I’m trying to say, and know that I’m trying to thank you.

    I’m the oldest in my family, but reading your work feels like talking to a smart, cool, experienced [imaginary] big sister who would never judge me & always knows the right thing to say.

  • Unicorn Heels July 29th, 2013 5:19 PM

    This is what I love about Rookie. I love that you can say this and that we can just read it and feel something. No hiding. It’s just… nice. A good change from the usual internet.

    http://bluejadepress.blogspot.com

  • abby111039 July 29th, 2013 5:20 PM

    Great article <3

  • Rida July 29th, 2013 5:21 PM

    Wow. I have to say that I really appreciate how you and many other writers at Rookie write about things that are real. True stories. I have an English teacher who always tells us that true writing is the best, and that is how it is here.
    I just discovered the Rookie magazine and I’m fascinated!
    thank you thank you thank you
    keep going!

  • kikikaylen July 29th, 2013 6:11 PM

    I can relate to the part of your story involving Derek so much. I just graduated from high school. About a year ago, most of my friends had boyfriends, and partly out of boredom but also out of deep yet confused feelings, I ended up dating my best guy friend. Things quickly shifted into awkward, however, when he started making attempts at romance and sexual references and I realized I only liked him as my best friend. Well, fast forward a year or so later, and I never got over the awkwardness and he wants nothing to do with me and our friendship is ruined.

    This article reminds me that I need to make sure I truly like someone in THAT way when I start a relationship with them and that no matter how many dates I go on, I can’t make attraction and feelings happen.

    • Stephanie July 29th, 2013 7:07 PM

      So true and I’m sorry that you lost your friend discovering that. I know that’s rough! Hugs!

  • Chloe22 July 29th, 2013 6:20 PM

    Omg, crush faking! Pretty much throughout ages 12-14 I was obsessed with getting a boyfriend, even though I never experienced any attraction to anyone of any gender. And still don’t! I never actually got the boyfriend I wanted, which probably was the best thing for me, even though at the time it made me sad. It didn’t help that I had a friend for a while who actually told me to my face that every girl needs a guy. I still love boybands/teen boy pop stars devotedly, but minus the OMG CAN I KISS YOU?! part. I just think 1D’s funny and legit like the music. Since I explained my feelings and approach to the opposite gender to peopl, it feels so much better.
    http://rhinestonemoon.blogspot.com/

  • loonylizzy July 29th, 2013 6:44 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing this – up until recently, when I found a boy I actually liked, I would go after every guy I thought was remotely cute or nice in hopes that I’d end up liking them, and all that ever happened was that they’d end up liking me a lot and I wouldn’t like them, so I’d break it off and they’d get hurt. I’m really glad I’m not the only one that’s happened to, but I’m also glad that I’ve learned from it. This was a beautiful article!

    http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

    • Stephanie July 29th, 2013 7:09 PM

      You definitely aren’t alone. I think A LOT of us go through this and it is important talk about so we can figure it out and get out of the pattern. I’m glad you’ve found the right boy for you :)

  • Ella W July 29th, 2013 6:51 PM

    First of all, I love this article!

    Second of all, my life story….

    I have never had a boyfriend. Although a lot of my friends went through the ‘boyfriend for boyfriend’s sake’ phase when we were around 11, I sort of passed through that. At 11, I still thought that boys were smelly and stupid, and I just did not get how to fancy someone. My friends would talk about boys, going ‘oh, he’s so fit, he’s so cute’, but I didn’t understand what ‘fit’ or ‘cute’ meant! I believed that I would never be attracted to a boy.

    I then grew up, and at around 13 I began to intensely crush on this one boy. I thought this was love. However, he never really talked to me, and I had no idea what his personality was like, so after a while I began to question whether I actually loved him, or if I just liked the look of his face. I then (sort of) got over him.

    So now I’m 16, and I’m sort of coming to terms with which type of boys I’m attracted to and what I want from a boyfriend. However, I worry that maybe what I want is not realistic, and that the boy I’m looking for simply does not exist. So now I don’t know what to do. Should I continue waiting until I find the ‘right’ person, who might not exist, or should I go out with people who don’t seem to be the ‘right’ person, but could be once I get to know them better? I just don’t know.

    Sorry for writing this absurdly long comment. If anyone has any advice at all then it would be very welcome!

    Ella x

    • Stephanie July 29th, 2013 7:06 PM

      This is a hard one, Ella. I would say be open-minded–in other words, if someone who you didn’t think would be your type surprises you and you think there might be chemistry, be open to pursuing it–but definitely don’t just out with someone who you know you aren’t digging just to go out with someone. I really think in the case where you want get to know someone better but you aren’t sure if it will go into romantic territory, the best thing is to be totally honest about it, especially if they are expressing interest in you. Like, if I had it to do over again with Derek, when he asked me out, I would have said, “Hey, I think you’re cool, but I don’t really know you very well. Can we just kind of hang out as friends and get to know each other that way?” And if I still didn’t develop feelings, I would have told him upfront. Who knows maybe I would have, or maybe he would have realized that he just wanted to get to know me, too. I think a lot of time we rush into relationships because we think we should when really we just have a total friend crush… Ok, I got a bit off track there, but hopefully some of what I said helped!

      • Ella W July 29th, 2013 7:31 PM

        This is really good advice. Thank you so much!
        Ella x

    • all-art-is-quite-useless July 30th, 2013 12:20 PM

      THIS IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS ME ARE YOU ME?

    • Mayabett July 30th, 2013 8:37 PM

      One or two years ago I was asked out by this guy who was very sweet, but the romantic feelings weren’t there. My friends all urged me to date him and I almost did, just because he was a nice guy, would be a good boyfriend, and I thought maybe I would develop feelings for him. But I didn’t think that was fair.

      I think there’s a lot to be said for your initial feelings for someone. They can change, but I feel that your instincts are always correct.

      Now I’ve been dating someone who I liked from the beginning and wanted to date. And that has made it so worth waiting for. It’s not about waiting for someone who’s “perfect” – it’s about waiting for someone you actually want to date! (P.S. The dude’s my first boyfriend. I’m 18, to give you some perspective, but tons of people have first relationships way later! That’s so fine!)

  • Manekineko July 29th, 2013 7:18 PM

    Ahhhh thanks for this <3

  • Ryebread July 29th, 2013 7:25 PM

    Way to write an article that matches my life at this moment!

    Earlier this summer I broke up with my boyfriend, of one month, because I just had friendly feelings towards him. He was my first boyfriend and after breaking up with him I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. Although, I was worried that I would never find another boyfriend EVER again (I became even more melodramatic than I already am.) But a lot of opportunities opened up for me and I started feeling a greater surge of creativity. This article has brought me some insight and relatability to my life. I am very grateful for it!

    Thanks again Stephanie!

  • Mellen July 29th, 2013 7:56 PM

    “When I broke up with Derek he got drunk and drove Will’s car into a tree; he was OK, but Will told me it was my fault, that I’d hurt Derek and sent him on that downward spiral.”
    I can totally relate to this. When I was around 15 I went on a couple of dates with one of my friends and after deciding I wasn’t ready for a boyfriend, I broke it off with him. Later, his sister told me that it was my fault that he was suicidal. I think that’s possibly a contributing factor to why I’m still faking it at 24.

    • Angeline . August 4th, 2013 9:36 AM

      I just saw this comment after posting my own story sort of similar to yours. I was never with this guy though and we’d only known each other for a month but apparently it was enough to warrant a “It’s your fault he’s suicidal” from his best friend.

      I’m so incredibly sorry that it’s still affecting you nine years after. Things like that are never the fault of one person and because of that I think from the moment the friend said it, I knew it was crap. I completely understand though why it still hasn’t left you. I don’t think it’ll ever really leave me either.

      (I’m sorry if this makes you feel worse. Not my intention.)

      x

  • elliecp July 30th, 2013 3:53 AM

    Thankyou so much for making this…it is relevant to me in so many ways and its so nice to not feel alone in things I have done.
    I went out with my first boyfriend because I wanted to have one…and I was worried I’d be thought of as frigid if I went another year without doing anything with a guy. The problem was I didn’t find him attractive whatsoever….I didn’t like his personality, and to be quite frank found him quite revolting (literally revolting sums up my feeling towards him) now I look back and realise I wasted my first kiss with someone I didn’t like, and it’s something I remember with disgust instead of with happiness.
    Never fake your feelings…things will happen when they’re right, forcing them doesn’t make anything happen the way you’d like it to.

  • indyea July 31st, 2013 10:34 PM

    Totally what I had with my first boyfriend. I was into him as a good friend, and I really wanted a boyfriend, so when he asked me out I said yes.
    It lasted for 3 months and I felt bad for everything because he was so so so into me and I just wasn’t that into him. He was lovely and sweet and nice for my first kiss, but there was no romantic feeling on my end.
    It’s sad because he was a good mate and had brilliant taste in music, and now we don’t talk (promising to be friends after the breakup didn’t work for us whoops).
    I really wanted a boyfriend, and a first kiss, and I got them, and it wasn’t great because I wasn’t really that into him. I don’t totally regret it but I do regret how it ended.

  • Angeline . August 4th, 2013 9:31 AM

    There’s a lot I can say about this article but I just wanted to point out one thing that resonated with me the most:

    “…he was OK, but Will told me it was my fault, that I’d hurt Derek and sent him on that downward spiral.”

    I was recently blamed by this guy’s best friend (let’s call him Zach) for making him suicidal. This guy and I were never together and we’d only been talking (via text – we’ve met in person just twice) for a month. I knew that it wasn’t my fault but that moment was when I realised how ugly of a person Zach was.

    I’d heard bad stuff about him before but it didn’t prepare me. Zach is my “friend’s” boyfriend. They’ve been on and off for more than a year and their relationship though nowhere near as destructive as yours and ‘Simon’, is quit unhealthy

    I don’t know where I’m going with this comment exactly but I guess I needed to share. I can’t imagine what would have happened if Zach had blamed someone else more unstable of what he accused me. You never do that, whatever you feel towards a persn. I’m not the most secure person either but I guess I’ve seen enough to know that it wasn’t my fault and I’m sort of relying on that knowledge to help ME from going into a downward spiral. I’m an overthinker and things like this would and most likely still affect me greatly. That’s probably why I can’t stop thinking about it.

    To anyone who reads this and can relate, know that you should never put the blame on yourself. It’s so easy to let comments like Zach’s consume you, making you rethink who you are but don’t let it. You don’t deserve that.