Long Live Linen Boy



Neighborhood: Astoria

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

When I stopped dating him twenty years ago, I never imagined he’d end up living up the street from me.

We were two twenty-something Brooklynites having cocktails somewhere near Broadway and Lafayette, sometime in the late 90s, when I told him that the date we were on, our third, would be our last. He stared at me across the table for a long while.

Finally, I said, “What are you doing?”

He answered, “I’m taking a mental portrait of you in case I never see you again.”

He shouldn’t have bothered. Because around five years later, after I’d gotten married and moved to far-off Astoria, Queens, we passed on the street outside my house.

Okay, that was weird, I remember thinking.

Then it happened again a few months later. And again. And again. I’d see him walking to the beat of whatever was blasting through his big headphones on summer days; I’d see him heading into a local wine store. I saw him at my local C-Town once, in 2007, when I was nine months pregnant, and I tried to hide my enormous belly. I’ve seen him, more recently, riding shirtless in the neighborhood’s new bike lane. Just the other day, I quickened my pace when I saw him coming down my block so that I could make it home without having to pass him. That was a close one.

This has been going on for seventeen years.

We had first met at the Nantucket Film Festival. A time before 9/11, before I even had a cell phone. I assume we exchanged numbers on pieces of paper and made plans on landlines. In any case, we were eventually back on the mainland for a first date, on which we climbed down a manhole to tour the abandoned subway tunnel under Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. He wore ivory linen pants for this subterranean adventure, which seemed a questionable choice, and he told me he thought we were attracted to each other because we were “unusual looking.” I was the one who wore linen on our second date—dinner and a movie—and I arrived complaining of being crumpled.

“Oh, honey,” he said, dramatically. “If you’re going to wear linen, you have to give yourself over to the wrinkles.”

He would know!

He became “Linen Boy” in conversations with friends and we went out one more time before he took my mental portrait. He was a dating blip, not even a real relationship. So why has the universe continued to put him in my path?

I dated a lot before meeting my husband when I was 33. And I’ve bumped into other exes over the years. At a Bjork concert at Radio City on my 35th birthday, the guy I dated before meeting my husband was there on the street when my husband and I were leaving. Dave and I stopped to chat, and I learned he’d had a kid, even though he’d broken up with me because he didn’t want to have children. I once went to a birthday party and was introduced to someone’s fiancé, whom I’d met at a Pavement show and had gone out with once. He pretended not to know me, and I returned the favor. But I haven’t given any of these men half as much thought as I’ve given Linen Boy. 

I remember the mint green satin Banana Republic shirt I was wearing when I called it off. It was expensive, a splurge, and whenever I wore it, I ended up with sweat marks in the armpits. I remember he gave me a gift at a restaurant. It wasn’t a mixed tape, but it was something like that…it may have been a handmade card…and he said he knew I’d never make him anything so thoughtful in return. I remember that as I got off the F train we were riding together after I’d ended things, I told him not to be sad. He said that if I wasn’t sad, then I was obviously the kind of person he wished he’d never met.

I do not, with certainty, remember his name.

Mostly, our chance encounters over the last seventeen years make me remember, with prickly discomfort, who I was when I met him. I was young and afraid I’d never find love and I was angry about it. Almost all my friends were already hitched and there was growing consensus that I must be too picky, or somehow damaged. I’d started to believe it myself.

I spent an awful lot of energy looking for love back then when I now realize I should have read more, wrote more, enjoyed myself more. I should have trusted that love and marriage would happen for me…or accepted that if it didn’t, that was okay. My parents had married and started a family young, and the whole narrative of my life from an early age was about doing the same. Surely, by the time I was dumped by the aforementioned Dave, I should have been old enough to realize that I could rewrite the story; I simply hadn’t. The only thing I wanted more than finding someone to have a family and grow old with was not to “settle” in order to find it.

And I didn’t! I waited until the ripe old age of 35 to get married to someone I absolutely knew I wanted to marry.

So why does seeing Linen Boy make me feel strangely embarrassed? Why do I imagine him looking at me and thinking I somehow settled after all, just not with him? Why did I hide my pregnant belly in C-Town? Why do I cross the street to avoid him?

It’s because I carry, even after all this time, the guilt of a woman who said no to a man—a man who then got sullen and then mean and angry. He wasn’t the only man I knew over the years who responded like that to rejection. Typically, when I was the one being dumped, I reacted with sadness and despondency. But an awful lot of the men I dated did not turn inward like I did when dumped—questioning what was wrong with me, worrying I’d never find a soul mate; they were pissed off and not afraid to show it.

As my older daughter enters the beginning of her dating years, I can only hope she’s “picky” and has the confidence to say “no” to male suitors and doesn’t feel pressure to feel bad about disappointing them or required to somehow soothe and manage their anger.

I saw Linen Boy once not too long ago, when I was out walking with my daughter—the child I was pregnant with in C-Town and who is now fifteen. “See that guy?” I nodded in his direction. “I went on a few bad dates with him in the nineties.”

“Well, that’s random,” she said.

“I guess he lives up that way,” I explained, pointing up the street. “For a long time now.”

“Why were the dates bad?” she asked.

“They just were.”

It was probably some kind of “teaching moment” that I missed, but it seemed silly to get into the specifics of linen and weird gifts and being unusual looking, and maybe I wanted her to know that just thinking a date is bad is enough to make it so.

“I have a theory,” my daughter said after a moment. “Why the dates were bad.”

“Why?” I asked.

She shrugged. “He wasn’t dad.”

One of my favorite reads of last few years was You Again by Debra Jo Immergut. It’s about a woman who spots her younger self on the sidewalks of New York out the window of a cab. It’s a conceit that captivated me in a way that even the best book premises don’t. What I wouldn’t give to glimpse my younger self like that and to tell her to calm the hell down, that it was all going to work out. And that “working out” would mean a lot of bad things, including cancer and devastating losses of loved ones, but obviously a lot of great stuff, too. I want to forgive my younger self, for being awful sometimes. But I also want to congratulate her on the times she said the thing that needed to be said even if the recipient didn’t want to hear it.

In lieu of encountering my former self, I’m left with Linen Boy sightings—most recently this past winter when my husband and I were walking home from celebrating our 17th wedding anniversary. When I told him we’d just passed the infamous Linen Boy, my husband laughed and I took a mental portrait of him—my wool-capped, work-at-home-scruffy, newly-Covid-recovered husband, smiling under soft-white streetlights. 

I sort of hope Linen Boy hasn’t recognized me, or that, if he does, he sees me and small glimpses of my life—the pregnant belly, the picking up of dog poop, a stoop perpetually crammed with holiday inflatable blow-ups—and thinks, “Dodged that bullet!” Maybe he goes home and tells his partner, if he has one, that he saw “Unusual Looking Girl” again. Maybe he jokes about how dramatic he was about our split, and how that mental picture he took, is now, twenty years later, ridiculously out of date.

I guess he and I are sort of growing old together after all.


Tara Altebrando is the author of more than a dozen novels for adults, young adults, and children. Her last piece for Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood was published in another lifetime (2005). 

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