My Aunt Lucille was the most sophisticated woman in our family. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister and her entire life seemed one big cosmopolitan adventure. The many years she spent in Atlanta and unencumbered by children only added to an already formidable metropolitan mystique. Her husband Uncle Kenny was known best for his Caribbean complexion, not because of his lineage but due to the countless hours spent each summer sunbathing in his back yard swaddled by the sounds of The Carpenters and Bee Gees emanating from his Sunbeam AM/FM radio. A visit to their home always felt like a vacation. Green PVC corrugated panels covered the roof of their suburban back patio from which the emerald hue gave off a tropical flavor that to a ten-year-old must surely have been what Miami or Bermuda was like.
Several years after my uncle’s death, of skin cancer coincidentally, Aunt Cile began spending time with another man. Rumor had it that she would have married Warren at the drop of a hat; he possessed that level of refinement she found so appealing, a mix of college professor and retired accountant. But for reasons that remain unknown their near decade long relationship never moved beyond the conventional ‘dating’ stage while their religious leanings and I think particularly their stage of life made it unthinkable to live together. Yet even in their late 60’s they carried a social calendar most couples half their age would have envied, they were inseparable and if not attending any number of family gatherings they could always be counted on for hobnobbing and painting the town – and doing it all as if they were teenage sweethearts.
Yet as I reflect back on it now, during those years and as close as they seemed I can never remember them alluding to each other in all that time as anything more than ‘my good friend’.
Like it or not we operate in a world of labels. Culture has done its best to package every part of the human experience into something that easily fits in the overhead There’s little that isn’t stamped with a title, diagnosis, or classification. Designations seem almost vital to a properly functioning society and there may be no greater evidence of this than in the area of romantic relationships. I remember many years ago engaging in a sober and serious discussion with a girl I had been seeing and deciding in an almost business-like fashion, as if closing a deal, to move from just dating to actual ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’. We may have even shook hands. Before that important classification was established we were confined to a status of merely ‘hanging out’.
I believe we view titles, particularly those ties to relationships, as important because through them we are granted permission to set expectations and then provided the necessary grounds to hold the other accountable when boundaries are crossed. For example, is it still cheating if we are ‘broken up’ at the time? Without certain lines of delineation relationships go off the rails into a world of chaos and uncertainty.
The bequeathing of a high school graduation ring was once the universal sign that a relationship was official – now this revelation comes in the form of a Facebook status. Today no relationship is deemed truly legitimate until its condition is reflected on one’s profile page. But it should be understood that such formalities aren‘t without certain advantages.
For the vast majority of teenagers and even twenty something’s who view commitment in any form tantamount to the removal of a bodily limb these labels offer a level of assurance and certainty to those poor girls who are so desperately looking for it. Labels, for better or worse, are signposts used to navigate our lives.
Yet it’s these same labels that the Queen and I currently wrestle. Though still ‘dating’, it feels we’re getting to a point soon where the title of of boyfriend/girlfriend goes from exciting and cute to embarrassing and sad. It’s a fact that there comes an age where these adolescent name badges start sounding down right ridiculous. And it’s with this understanding that I suddenly have a greater appreciation for why my aunt and Warren handled things the way they did.
But the more I consider why this particular label bothers me the more I start to understand why. The boyfriend/girlfriend dynamic in general has been reserved for the young. It’s a rite of passage for a couple to first meet and then luxuriate in the relationship water this is boyfriend/girlfriend. But with this borderline religious sacrament comes the understanding that to be a boyfriend and girlfriend implies a certain level of frivolity and even irresponsibility. Boyfriends and girlfriends will and often do brainless things for no other reason than because they are young and in seemingly in love. That’s why it’s universally preferred for teenagers to date instead of marrying – if for no other reason than they have yet to extinguish enough of their youthful stupidity. What right-thinking adult wants to be associated with that?
But while that’s expected of the young, where does this leave couples like my aunt and Warren, and even better, the Queen and I? We are well into our forties now, divorced, and parents. We’ve moved beyond the games of adolescent and twenty something dating but unlike my aunt and Warren we aren’t yet to the point where we simply don’t give a shit. I’m pretty sure that if either of us introduced the other as merely ‘my good friend’ it would be a long ride home later that night.
The Queen and I are currently in what I call ‘the gap’ or even better – the ‘no man’s land’ of dating. It’s a place many older dating couples probably find themselves – between juvenility and senility – a place where no dating relationship title or label seems wholly adequate for the job. ‘Boyfriend/girlfriend’ as has been argued is just too jejune and ‘partner’ is just too stale, politically correct, and well, homosexual.
As insignificant as this all may appear – and definitive proof we have too much free time – it is something she and I have talked about more than once. As my Aunt and Warren probably wondered, what label fits two people in our stage of life? And it bothers me more for another reason – our kids. What teenager seriously wants to introduce someone to ‘mom’s boyfriend’? – The trailer trash undertones are undeniable. The thought alone makes we want to grow a mullet and hang a rebel flag from my front porch.
But on another note, if her sixteen-year-old son starts seeing someone maybe we can double date.