It’s very easy to believe in something that’s wrong.
When I was really young, I thought a relative had died because he was walking down the street and a brick fell on his head. I thought you could get pregnant from kissing. I thought the girl on my school bus who looked vaguely like Fiona Fullerton from the 1972 film Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was, actually, her.
Later I thought that the instruction “never sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” at an audition, it’s overdone,” applied as much to freshman-year musical auditions as it did to auditioning in New York, because there are plenty of books in the library about how to audition in New York, but none on how to audition in a rural high school gym.
It was 1996. I spent the entire year putting the comedy and tragedy faces in the two circles in ‘96, because theater and musical theater are my passion in the world. That’s from my diary. That exact sentence. Every week I would get my allowance, and every four weeks I would have enough to buy an original cast album on cassette at Sam Goody.
So I went to that audition and sang “If I Had a Fine White Horse” from The Secret Garden, and a senior boy, Owen, noticed me.
It wasn’t completely a surprise. My high school had, at best, 120 students. You sort of knew who you were going to date before it happened. The boy who should have been my high school sweetheart moved away in sixth grade, so I got Owen instead.
Even before we went on a first date, Owen asked me to Prom. Technically, he asked his friend to ask me to Prom, while he stood around the corner and waited for the answer. I said I would have to ask my mom.
We started going out, and at that point I was under the misconception that the only item you could order, when you were invited on a date by a senior boy, was the least expensive thing on the menu. It made it hard, because in the ‘90s Steak ‘n Shake still served a la carte, and Steak ‘n Shake was where we always went, since it was nearly as cheap as McDonalds but the food came out to the table, which made it nicer.
So Owen would order his steakburger, with cheese, fries, and a shake, and I would sit and stare at the menu hoping it had changed somehow, maybe in the two weeks since we’d been there, and then I would order a plain steakburger and water. Fries were extra. I hated Steak ‘n Shake for making fries extra. But I had done the right thing, and I could write down later that I had, when I wrote about the date in my diary.
I liked Owen. He was smart and he was a little weird and he didn’t know quite as many musicals as I did, but he did know some. He liked Super Nintendo and books about dragons. We were pretty much soulmates.
We called each other Cimorene and Mendanbar, after the Patricia C. Wrede Enchanted Forest Chronicles. In a year, this would lead to me proposing an extraordinarily mistaken idea of what I thought sexual role-play was, in which we would actually pretend to be Cimorene and Mendanbar. It had very little to do with sex and was mostly like D&D without the dice. I thought it was totally hot.
But we aren’t there yet. We’re barely into 1997.
Prom came almost immediately after our first kiss in a Walmart parking lot. I wrote in my diary that we were like “two souls dancing,” except we were two souls who danced with three inches between us. At this point I knew you couldn’t get pregnant from kissing, but I still thought that if he accidentally got too excited and ejaculated that the sperm could seep through his rented tux and my fake satin dress. He didn’t actually have to ejaculate, either. I knew all about pre-cum. I read Teen Magazine.
At the end of the year we go out for ice cream and I order a single scoop, because it costs 49 cents. He orders something way better, like a sandstorm, which is ice cream covered with marshmallow goo and malt powder. I didn’t write down what it was in my diary, because I didn’t want to write this date down.
If I had written about this date, I would have had to write that Owen told me I could not come to his graduation party, because nobody likes me. (This is not hyperbolic. I asked him about every single friend we shared. He said none of them liked me. At least I was thorough.)
This is where I should have broken up with him. Or, maybe, this is where he should have broken up with me. But we were in love. That’s what we thought, since it was happening for the first time. When you have no prior personal experience of romantic love, your first experience feels like it encompasses everything. There could be no other love besides this one that we shared, as I licked my patient single scoop and agreed that it was a good idea for me not to attend his party.
Before Owen went to college, he decided to take our relationship to the next level. (No, not sex. We never actually had sex. Not even as Cimorene and Mendanbar.) He presented me with a tiny jewelry box that contained a pair of genuine diamond flakes mounted high on sterling silver claws. They were promise earrings. If you live in the Midwest, you already know what those words mean. By accepting the diamond earrings, we were sort of, kind of, pre-engaged.
This was where our misconceptions started to differ. Owen thought we would get married and I thought I would be on Broadway, and those two things might have been able to overlap but we weren’t exactly talking it through. In fact, we were only allowed to talk for 20 minutes every week, and only after dialing 10-10-220 so it wasn’t too expensive.
This was the second time we should have, by rights, broken up — but we didn’t. Instead, Owen called himself “Mendanbar” on his dorm’s online message board, and I stayed in high school.
And then Owen came back for winter break, and that was when Titanic happened.
I should not have to explain to you why I fervently believed that Titanic was the second-best movie ever made, after, of course, The Sound of Music. I saw that film as many times as it was possible for a person of limited allowance to see it. At one point I saw it with Owen and the rest of his friends, and afterwards we went out to Steak ‘n Shake, and at some point, because my meal was 90% water, I got up to pee.
When I came back, a plan had been put into action.
Owen’s high school friends — now all in college — decided to take care of what they viewed as a problem, specifically, the fact that Owen was still dating me. So when I was in the toilet, they started a rumor. They told Owen that I liked Jack Dawson more than I liked him. (It wasn’t a very well-thought-out rumor.) And when he got angry, and I calmly explained that Jack Dawson was a fictional character and the principle of the thing didn’t even make sense, they started employing other tactics.
I would go to one of their homes to play Balderdash or watch Interview With The Vampire, and the entire group would give me the silent treatment. At one point they told Owen to see how long he could go without touching me. Then they simply went back to their very first idea and held parties to which I was not invited.
Throughout all this, I knew it was somehow crucial that I not let myself be broken by this group of people. Owen and I didn’t feel like Mendanbar and Cimorene anymore, and it troubled me that I didn’t know what we were becoming, but I knew who I was, and that was what was important. My name was Nicole Dieker, I was going to be a musical theater actor when I grew up, there was evidence to suggest I was the kind of person other high school students disliked, and I loved Owen. That was what I believed. That is what I wrote in my diary.
And then, one night in early summer — because we ended up still dating, even through the summer — Owen and I were sitting on my family’s front porch and he started talking about God. He started talking about Heaven. He told me that he believed that in Heaven, God didn’t allow little old ladies to sing in the choir. Because their voices were bad.
And this, of all our mutual misconceptions, was the one that was too much. I listened to him talk and I evaluated our relationship, the whole of it in my head at once, and I thought I am sixteen years old. I am not going to marry this boy. I am going to have a life full of amazing and wonderful things.
And I broke up with him, myself, a few weeks later.