said BOMBER on the license plate, after the “Blonde Bombers,” his mom’s friend group in high school. I was relieved to find the car belonged to her and not his stepdad, who had been deployed to a war zone for a long time. His family was new to town, a group of lazy blondes. His first and middle names were his father’s first and middle names reversed. His dog was named after a character on SpongeBob SquarePants. Our high school friend group did not have a name.

If the Sebring was gone, I knew his mom was pulling a shift at the nursing home. Her bed was a California King. His bed was a twin bunk. My church was the Lutheran church across the street from their front door. When I had to leave an hour earlier than my family for Sunday morning youth group, I looked for the car, and when I didn’t see it, crossed the street. I knocked on the door and descended the stairs, and I arrived back at church in time for the service, opened the green hymnal, recited every creed. My parents never knew. Or maybe they did, and instead of a conversation, let me believe in atonement.

Did they know about the first time—Christmas Eve, 2006—which was also a Sunday? The car was gone, so I crossed the street, a poor decision because of all the days I could have picked, I had to spend most of that one at church, Christmas Eve and a Sunday, the organ-driven hymns, coffee hour, most of the evening, the glow of candles, joy to the world! I sat in the pew with my family and my transgressions, while he slept softly in his warm bunk bed. His family wasn’t that religious.

But our first date had been proper. He invited me over to watch a movie from the eighties—Better Off Dead, his mom’s favorite—and we kept it upstairs. I thought we might spend the evening alone, but his mom joined us on the couch. Before the date, I didn’t know what the movie was about, a breakup that prompts a string of suicide attempts, or that the movie was dark but also a comedy, that it was supposed to be funny and sad all at the same time, that his mom could recite every line from memory. Later, when we got comfortable enough in the basement to fill in the details of our lives, I would learn my boyfriend’s father had killed himself a few years before they moved to town.

I spent so much time thinking about the movie, the whole scenario.

Why was this their favorite, and why did they want to show it to me?

Sometimes, when she was home, his mom would say something like “nice hair” and giggle when I came upstairs to use the bathroom. My boyfriend told me one time when they were shopping for groceries at Walmart, his mom, holding a cucumber, sighed, and said, “I miss my babe.” Then, she bought the cucumber.

His mom seemed unpredictable, yet transparent. I knew a few things about her. She liked to scrapbook. She kept Fiesta Ware and condoms in her cabinets. She missed her babe, her friends from high school, and maybe the place she lived before living in this small town in this old house across the street from my church. I knew what her favorite movie was about.

When I sat with the two of them on the couch for the first time, I didn’t know how it would begin or how it would end. I didn’t know the plot hinged on a breakup, some sad high school kid’s jerk ex-girlfriend who doesn’t even try to let him down easy.

At the time, I didn’t know what I would say.

“I think it’d be in my best interest if I dated somebody more popular,” she tells the boy. “Better looking. Drives a nicer car.”

Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots (Seneca Review Books, 2018)selected by John D’Agata as the winner of the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize. Her work appears in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Passages North, The Collagist, Essay Daily, and elsewhere. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Sweet Briar College in central Virginia.

Photo by Paul Bilger