ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE (YOUR DAD)
by Johanna Stein
Just minutes after my friend’s wedding ceremony, the three-year-old’s face screws up into a grimace, and she begins to sob.
I ask her why she’s crying.
“I WANNA GET MAWWIED!”
I am startled by her outburst, but more than that I am entertained, which, due to the fact that I am a horrible person, is often the effect that my daughter’s emotional breakdowns have on me.
Until I hear her response to the groom’s line of questioning.
“You’re upset because you wanted to get married?” he asks.
She sobs heavily. “Y—Y—YETHHHHHH!”
“Who do you want to marry?” he asks.
“I WANN . . . I WANN . . . I WANNA MAWWY . . . MOMMY!”
And that’s when she throws her chubby arms around my thighs, and I don’t even care that she’s getting snot and tears on my three-hundred-dollar silk bridesmaid’s dress/future throw pillows. I just stand there, enjoying this sweet spot of parenthood, and the aroma of the deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hors d’oeuvres now being circulated on platters all around us only enhances the delicious perfection of the moment.
But while I am weirdly flattered by her proposal, it occurs to me that one day she’s going to realize that she probably won’t be marrying me (at least not until the laws around here change pretty drastically), and someday after that, she’s going to throw her arms around some guy or girl the way she’s hugging me now.
That’s the day that consumes me. That day, and every day that comes after.
* * * * *
My own dating history is a dark and meandering story filled with adventure, danger, lots of smeared mascara, and naughty bits in various states of undress. And ever since the day that my own child proposed marriage to me, I have been filled with a need to tell her the entire story: the story of all the men I’ve loved before.
But of course I can’t, because she’s barely out of diapers. At best it would just confuse her, and at worst I’d get picked up by Child Protective Services and locked up for being a pervert, because I’m guessing it’s not appropriate to tell your toddler about the first time you got French-kissed by someone, especially since it wasn’t her dad.
But what if I never get the chance? What if I drop dead from some all-over body tumor that I’ll develop from standing too close to the microwave? How will I teach her what I learned about life from playing Strip Backgammon with my upstairs neighbor?
And if I live through Cancer of the Everything, even if I wait until she’s of an appropriate age (twelve? fifteen? twenty-one? sixty-five?) to talk to her about it, there’s a high probability that she’ll hatemyfrigginguts (mother-hating being a mandatory rite of passage) and won’t want to hear it from me, the way that I didn’t want to hear it from my mom. (1)
And even then, if by some bizarre twist of nature she doesn’t hatemyfrigginguts, I’ll still be screwed because by that point, I’ll be wearing sweater sets and pearls and suffering from a selective-memory syndrome that causes me to replace my personal history with the plot points of Grease (the sequel).
The only solution is this: I must write down deliberately and with absolute and horrifying clarity the story of my former loves, and the lessons that they taught me, all while the memories and shame are still fresh enough to make me hot-faced and queasy. Because if she’s anything like me (and considering the fact that we both love peanut butter, fart jokes, and watching ourselves cry in the mirror, it appears there is some significant overlap), this transcript may help guide her in her own future, and hopefully/possibly/dear-God-please help her avoid just a few of the XXXL-size mistakes I made. (2)
* * * * *
First I will tell her about “Soccer Legs McGee,” (3) the most beautiful high school boy who has ever existed in the history of formal education. His very presence in a room electrified me; it was as though he was the scent of a chocolate fountain, and I was a walking nostril, so attracted to him was I. He was a jock with a bad-boy streak; he loved heavy metal music and often threw parties where there were drinking and drugs, and if you were a girl you stood a very good chance of being felt up. Me, I played cello in the orchestra, owned all the greatest hits of Lionel Richie, and wouldn’t have my first hit of pot until my twenties (and even then it would take four tries to get it right). Yet I had no shame where S. L. McGee was concerned; I sang songs to him in public, gave him unrequited gifts of oversized stuffed animals, and publicly confessed my love to him with a regularity that causes me to thank the heavens hourly that Facebook didn’t exist back then.
Surprisingly, my methods worked. It took a few years, but eventually I won him over and was able to call myself the official girlfriend of Soccer Legs McGee.
Soccer Legs McGee taught me Lesson 1, that, given enough ingenuity and lack of shame, there is no person, place, thing, or goal that is out of your league or beyond your reach.
I would learn the second lesson shortly thereafter, upon discovering that SLMcG and I were a poor match, due to the fact that (a) he hated books—all books—with a dumb passion, and (b) he loved making out with girls who were my locker partner.
Lesson 2, then, is that “Contents Are Not Always As Advertised,” or, more specifically, that personality, integrity, and intelligence bear positively no relation to muscular legs or the ability to grow a mustache in tenth grade.
The next lesson came courtesy of “The Slightly Older Man,” the nineteen-year-old love of my seventeen-year-old life. He was the first guy who thought I was interesting and wanted to kiss me anyway. He was Norwegian, Spanish, and Korean, which made him tall, dark, and hairless. We dated for three months, until one evening when he said he was uncomfortable with our age difference and then drove away with my heart in the trunk of his Reliant K-Car. It was my first heartbreak, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to get over (i.e., several Olympics). But when I did, I learned Lesson 3, that, contrary to popular belief, heartbreak is not fatal; in fact, it’s a necessity of modern life, for if not for heartbreak, (a) there would be no soft rock, (b) telephone psychics would be unemployed, and (c) waterproof mascara would never have been invented. I also learned that Sara Lee Cake tastes best when mixed with salty tears.
There was “The Cherry Picker,” who taught me the significance of my virginity, right around the time he left with it. (Can there ever be a perfect virginity-losing experience? Probably not. Studies show that 92 percent of Big V–losing experiences are awkward, uncomfortable, and involve the music of Spandau Ballet.) I’d never bought into the idea that one’s virginity should be put on a pedestal like some kind of holy grail. As a young liberated woman, I found the idea offensive, archaic, and even a little dangerous. Yet the memory of that afternoon has since been rendered in high-def, 3-D detail with particular clarity on the moment that I looked into his eyes and realized that I would always remember it and what an enormous drag that was going to be. That was Lesson 4, that the worth of most “first” events in life—like the “losing” of one’s so-called virginity—lies in how they translate into memory and that a little consideration on behalf of your future self can save you from a lifetime of forehead-slapping regret.
Lesson 5 came courtesy of “Mr. Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” who taught me the fastest lesson I’ve ever learned: that the first time a guy hits you must be the last. And if a guy does hit you, you must fight back as hard as possible, and when you get the chance, crush his nuts into nut butter. That was what I did with Mr. SLAGIATT before saying sayonara, and I consider myself a better woman for it. As for him, I wonder if he became a better man for it, and if not, then I suspect that he at least became a better soprano.
Lesson 6 was thanks to H-BLART, “The Hot-Blooded Artist,” who was like a character out of a Russian novel; he was a married-but-separated visionary genius who taught me all about art, philosophy, creativity, and what happens when you subsist on a diet of fresh fruit and Ecstasy.
Yes, he was a bit “eccentric,” like the time he karate-chopped a cockroach on my kitchen wall and demanded I leave it there as a “warning to all the others.” And true, he was prone to delusions, like the time he hid in the windmill on the eighth hole of a mini-golf course, convinced that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were after him. On the other hand, he was the first man who ever made me feel truly adored. On the other other hand, he also liked to sit in a dark closet smelling my shoes. (4)
H-BLART’s lesson was that in small doses, a little unpredictability and passion are fun, but in real-life doses, they’re overwhelming and can sometimes lead to legal issues. I don’t know where H-BLART is today, but I think of him often, whenever I am confronted with a new idea or way of seeing the world. Or when I see a cockroach skittering across a floor.
Lesson 7 humped anything that moved. He was a complete dog. In fact, he was The Actual Dog.
TAD didn’t look anything like I imagined he would. I’d wanted a tall, muscular dog, like a Dalmatian or a Great Dane. (5) TAD was a short, scrappy stray, a cross between a terrier and a sewer rat. He walked into my house and into my life and decided that I was the one for him. Me, I figured I’d give him a couple of weeks. In that time:
He chewed up two sets of eyeglasses and four pairs of shoes.
He took a crap on my friend’s living room floor, in the middle of a Sunday brunch.
He bit me.
And he humped. Oh, how TAD humped.
But what TAD lacked in, well, just about everything, he made up for in personality, affection, and a Great Dane–size capacity to love. After the two-week probation period I had to admit that I’d fallen head over tail in love with him (the owner-dog kind, nothing kinky/ bestial here), and he became my constant companion for the next fourteen years. When he died I wore black for a week, in honor of the tiny man in the dog suit who taught me that it’s not always love at first sight. Sometimes it’s love at second, third, or fifty-seventh sight; and sometimes you just gotta look past the couch-humping and give love a chance to grow.
Next up was “The Younger Man,” who was young enough (don’t ask how young—all you need to know is that it was legal) that at first I didn’t take him seriously. But he was so diligent and confident and unsullied by other women’s baggage that one day, after weeks of telling him, “Hell, no,” I found myself saying, “Well . . . okay!”
He was fun. He taught me how to shoot a pistol. He let me drive his fast car. He wrote me love letters—in pen. But I missed a couple of clues. Like the fact that my dog growled at him whenever he came over. And the fact that he was forgetful. Like he forgot to tell me when he started seeing someone else.
And that’s when I remembered why I’d turned him down in the first place. I’d thought he was too young, and I was right; in the end, he was as careless with me as I’d been with other people back when I was his age. I don’t blame him for doing what he did (ah, screw that—I’m holding onto this grudge like a family heirloom), but I am thankful that he got me to Lesson 8: Trust your gut. And when your own guts fail you, trust the guts of your dog. (6)
And then there’s Lesson 9, who is the culmination of all the ones who came before. He’s the story that’s still unfolding and the lesson that I’m still learning, and he’s the one who led to the kid and all the lessons I’m learning from her. (7)
Yes, the route was messy. And yes, it contained record numbers of bad hairstyles. But the fact is that it was only through this convoluted, partially clad scavenger hunt through humanity (and canine-ity) that I was able to find my way home. And yes, there may have been a few “additional” (8) lessons along the way (like “Beware of dudes with facial tattoos,” and “Don’t get engaged just because your lease is up”)—those I’ll save for my next book, “Laughing on the Outside, Farting on the Inside,” available in bookstores never.
And maybe in preemptively sharing these stories with my daughter, by the time she’s falling in and out of love/like/loathe/lust, she’ll have learned that, just as everyone who enters her life becomes a part of her story, she is a part of someone else’s story—which is why it’s so important to always err on the side of kindness. And adventure. But not too much adventure. And occasional public nudity. (But with sunscreen.)
If nothing else, my hope is that when she’s fifteen, screaming, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” and slamming her door so hard that my porcelain Hummel figurines (which I don’t collect yet, but I’m assuming that one day I will) fall from the doilied shelf in the guest bathroom, I can hand her this book and say “Oh yes I do. Go read Chapter 12.”
(1) Who, while driving me to the library when I was fourteen years old, stopped at a red light and gave me the only piece of sexual advice she would give me: “Jojo,” she said, “don’t be flattered if a boy gets an erection,” at which point I suddenly and spontaneously went blind.
(2) I shall refer to romantic male-female relationships because those are the only ones with which I have personal experience; I’ve never dated a woman (though I do enjoy the music of k.d. lang), but if I had, you can be certain that I’d be spewing my half-baked theories about that too. In any case, I’m guessing the lessons are pretty much inter-gender-changeable.
(3) Names and details have been changed to protect the innocent, the douchebaggy, and that one guy who still lives in the blue house at 78 Atlantic Avenue.
(4) So, I guess that would make it the other other foot.
(5) That was a time when my taste in men and dogs were at par: I liked them all big, furry, playful, and not too smart.
(6) You may replace dog with friends, family, or high-paid psychotherapist— it’s all pretty much the same thing.
(7) The husband’s probably got his own set of lessons to share with the kid, though if/when he does, I’ll probably skip it due to the fact that he worked at Club Med when he was in his early twenties, and that’s a TMI minefield that I’d rather avoid, thanksverymuch.
(8) I won’t say exactly how many, just enough that if anyone asks, the kid can say that once upon a time her mom had game.
Excerpted from the book “How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane (& Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source)” with permission from Da Capo Lifelong Books.
As a writer, director, and actor, Johanna Stein‘s work has appeared on Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, PBS, HBO, CBS, the Oxygen Network, VH1, the Disney Channel, and all across the Internets, where her comedy shorts, PSAs, and popular Yahoo! web series “Life of Mom” have been viewed millions of times. In addition to her TV and film work, Johanna’s essays have been published in such outlets as the New York Times, Parents Magazine, and the Huffington Post.