My parents divorced when I was in college. It was a long time coming and when I went away to school, they lost their last reason to stay together. It was about two years before my mom started dating. When she met Mark, I was home from my senior year of college for winter break.
“Home” now meant my mom’s new house in a different suburb, further north where I’d grown up. It wouldn’t have made a huge difference, as I didn’t stay close with many people from high-school, but there were a couple of people I might have hit up had she not moved.
My college boyfriend and I had just broken up after he got back from a semester abroad. I’d been talking too much about the future, about what we’d do after graduation and assuming that we’d be together, but “the m-word” as my boyfriend had taken to calling marriage, finally scared him off. He wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment and I couldn’t stand the thought of a long-distance relationship with this person who I had come to rely on so deeply throughout the previous three years.
I was heartbroken and lonely, not to mention suffering from the depression that tended to get me during the short, dark, cold days of midwestern winters.
I had a month and a half stretching out in front of me with only my mother for company.
When my mom suggested she cheer me up by taking me on her date with this new guy she was seeing and his son, I couldn’t find a good reason to say no.
So I joined them for dinner and a movie. I don’t remember what the movie was, just that Tim sat next to me in the theater. He turned towards me during the pre-show ads, asking me questions about myself, offering me popcorn and candy, sharing his story. He seemed unfazed by the fact his dad and my mom were sitting next to us flirting and giggling.
Tim was much cuter than I’d envisioned from what I’d learned about him: dropped out of college, living at home with his father, trying to figure stuff out and working in a factory. Coming from my elite, liberal-arts college (read: privileged and a touch snobbish) that hadn’t sounded like the kind of guy I’d be into.
But he was intelligent in a human sort of way. He had a friendly and humble air that I wasn’t used to, and for how cute he was with his dark, curly hair, chiseled jaw-line, and strong build, he put me at ease.
Throughout the movie, he leaned close to me whispering commentary and asking for my thoughts about in my ear, his voice a gentle, low hum. It sent shivers to my toes and I felt my sadness and anger at the recent loss of my boyfriend melting in his presence.
Back at my mom’s house, we all sat in the living room and had a cup of tea, and then my mom and Mark went to bed, leaving me and Tim to our own devices. Tim was planning to spend the night on the couch we were sitting on, as he and his dad lived over an hour away.
I froze for a moment as my mom’s bedroom door clicked shut, wondering if I should go to bed, leaving Tim to his bed for the night, but he didn’t miss a beat before offering to get more hot water for my tea.
I accepted and we sat together late into the night talking. He asked me about my writing and when he suggested we write a collaborative poem, taking turns writing lines, he had me.
We passed a notebook back and forth, our hands brushing, our bodies inching closer and closer to each other until simultaneously, we leaned towards each other for a kiss.
And it was good — really good.
The rest of my winter break I spent most of my time with Tim.
We would take long, cold walks in the woods, bringing my mom’s small dog, Ricca. We’d explore deer paths, walk over frozen ponds and follow animal tracks.
Once we went for a long time and noticed Ricca shivering. Tim unzipped his coat, tucking the shaking girl close to his chest before zipping back up and walking home with her.
The four of us would often have dinner together, sometimes watch a movie, and then they would go to bed and we’d stay up late, talking and making out.
Eventually, he stopped sleeping on the couch and joined me in my bed, setting his alarm for 3 am so he could return to the couch before his dad got up for his 5 am shifts driving for Hostess.
I’m sure our behavior would have been noticed by most…but my mother and his father were so enraptured by their own new romance that they didn’t suspect a thing.
There were times Tim and I would be cooking in the kitchen, my mom and Mark doing something in another part of the house when he’d turn and press me back into the counter for a breathtaking kiss, only to pull back at the sound of the bathroom door opening, or footsteps on the stairs and continue chopping garlic as if nothing.
My sister hated him, and she hated Mark.
She called them small-town, low-class hicks, and not always behind their backs.
My parents’ divorce had been the beginning of the divide between her and I. While I had been closer to my father than her as a child, I began growing away from his elitist values along with my mother, who wasn’t raised that way herself but had fallen into my father’s shadow in terms of expressing herself.
Fancy Italian bistros and French wine bars were replaced with midrange “cute” places. A big house in an upper-class suburb became a modest house in the woods on the border of Wisconsin. And a well-educated, white-collar husband became a blue-collar truck driver, not-college-educated, war-veteran boyfriend.
My sister would become more and more like my father before settling for a middle ground of suburban living with a look down her nose at anyone who took a slightly less traditional approach to life.
I would be amazed at how much I’d missed out on in my narrow view of who was worthy of knowing and what kinds of people had value
Connecting with Tim that winter was gentle and sweet and exactly the sort of friendship with a splash of romance I needed to help me through the difficult transitions that were going on: graduating college soon, losing my long-term boyfriend and my parents’ divorce.
We didn’t know we’d eventually become step-siblings, though I sometimes brought up the possibility. Like a lot of things though, that thought didn’t seem to phase Tim.
I was sad to leave him when I went back to school.
We didn’t talk about the future of our relationship, maybe knowing from the start that we had very different paths. I would end up moving to Paris after college to work as an au pair for a year and then live in various cities throughout the US, trying to find a way to make it as a writer.
I dated other people and eventually returned to Chicago to go to graduate school where I met my current partner.
Tim and I kept in touch here and there throughout the years, but less and less. Since being back in the area, I see him when my mom and now step-dad have the families over for dinner.
I always enjoy seeing him though it’s a little bit sad. I admit I still find him attractive and maybe even sometimes want him to press me into the counter to steal a breathtaking kiss, but there’s no acknowledgment of what transpired between us. Tim flowed into our new dynamic as naturally as he flowed into our previous one.
My stepbrother is the only person with whom I’ve had a romantic attachment and am still in touch and on good terms.
I’ve never been good at that, but my relationship with Tim showed me it’s possible.
Most people know at this point — my mom, his dad, my partner, and my sister — but only my sister has ever felt the need to bring it up, taking any opportunity to scorn me for my distasteful behavior, dating this “small-town hick.”
At this point though, I just shrug it off and am grateful for the new, if a little unconventional, family I am part of.
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