The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater
a continuing fiction
© S. Moss-Ward, 2010
All rights reserved. This may not be reproduced, except with permission.
The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater goes like this: if you knit your boyfriend a sweater, your relationship will die. I think it’s a pretty interesting concept, and you can look at it two ways: if it’s true and you value your relationship with the Boyfriend, you probably don’t want to knit him a sweater. But, if it’s true and you want to get out of a bad relationship, then you probably should knit him a sweater. But then you’ve gone and put all that work into a sweater for someone who isn’t worthy, so what’s the point? There are much easier ways to serve the dude his walking papers. “Just say no,” as the anti-drug crusaders like to tell school-age hostages at weekly Assemblies.
I’ve made exactly one sweater in the decade that I’ve been knitting. (Yes, Maxine says I was a late bloomer, having learned to knit at the advanced age of six.) The sweater was for me; I did it during the summer between middle school and high school when I refused to go to camp and was too young to have a job except the occasional babysitting gig, so there was a lot of time to kill.
The sweater ‘s so large it looks like it was designed by Omar the Tentmaker. I knit it that way on purpose, using Debbie Bliss Chunky Cashhmerino that Maxine didn’t want anymore, on size nine needles. It’s mostly green, but there are some blue and purple touches at the cuffs, neck, and bottom-band. I like it because it covers me very completely in my favorite colors, and on days when I don’t want to think about my body, it does the job. I look down at my beefy jeans-encased legs and beyond them, my feet in their fortified shoes— hefty black Doc Martens—and it’s almost as if they’re miniature instead of size ten clodhoppers. They seem miles away, because the green field of the sweater, rolling down to mid-thigh, resembles an airplane view of farmland.
If I had a boyfriend I definitely wouldn’t knit him a sweater. I might, though, knit him other things—scarves and hats, probably. I do have a friend who’s a boy—that’s Ben Golden, my best friend, and the only other person at our lame inner-city charter high school who’s not African-American, Latino, or Asian—and in fact I’m knitting him a watch cap and matching ribbed scarf for his birthday, May 4th. He hasn’t the faintest idea, so this is very cool. I know he’ll be incredibly surprised.
I got him to come to the yarn shop on Hope Street with me when we were out one Saturday, strolling pointlessly in our neighborhood and strategizing about the next debate club meet—we were supposed to generate a list of debate-worthy topics and preliminary arguments, and, as per the edict of Mr. Frank, our coach, present them to the other social misfits on our team. Television is a bad influence. Walmart is good for America. Public schools should require students to wear uniforms. Torture is justified for national security. Whatever…
“Hey Ben, just stop in here with me, ok? I want to look at some yarn.”
He said, “So what else is new?,” and blew a giant bubble of bubble gum. It finally popped and stuck eerily to his lips, until he pulled it off.
“Just for a few minutes,” I said.
He said, “’A few minutes’—famous lost words, Bee. Why don’t I just go over to Gourmet House and order us some hot and sour soup? You can show up when it’s cold and sour.”
He knows my favorite dishes, and that I think there’s nothing more fun than having a two-hour lunch with him in Gourmet House, sprawled in one of the decaying leatherette booths, eating yummy Chinese food and drinking so many cups of tea that if I laugh too hard I’ll wet my pants.
I said I was interested in wool for a project but wanted his opinion. “I’m going to knit something for my dad,” I lied.
“Why?” Ben asked. “Doesn’t he have enough stuff from your mother?” Despite his justifiable skepticism, he allowed me to pull him into the shop.
“What do you think of this?” I said, holding a skein of Noro Kureyon up to his face.
“Weird,” he said. “Those colors….”
“What about this?” I showed him some caramel-colored alpaca and swooshed the yarn across his cheek so he could feel how soft.
“It’s ok,” he said, suppressing a yawn. “What are you going to make?”
“Oh, I’m not sure,” I said casually. “But I find yarns so inspiring.”
“That one’s decent.” He pointed to some plain worsted, lots of colors stuffed into its storage cubbyhole.
“You really think so?”
“Sure. It seems more like the kind of yarn that real clothing is made from.”
I couldn’t believe how unimaginative this sounded, especially for Ben, who always wears interesting tee shirts and creatively distressed jeans. That day his tee shirt said Beer: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore. He had on some very worn Levis with two shredded knees and a lot of white bleach stains, and a cool beige suede bomber jacket he’d found at the Salvation Army store when we’d shopped there last year. It had a long ballpoint pen mark on one sleeve, but otherwise was in very good condition. And, of course, his usual Converses.
I bought four skeins of the worsted the following week. Marine blue. Blue is a good color for Ben, because his eyes are grey and they brighten around blues and greens. That’s what I was knitting when Maxine and I had this quasi discussion about the Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater.
“I’m interested,” Maxine said. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“That depends what you mean by ‘boyfriend,’” I answered. “Ben is a boy and he is my friend. Just. A. Friend,” I emphasized.
“Oh…Ben.” Maxine sighed. “Don’t you think he’s a little, um, limited?”
“No I do not,” I replied, feeling suddenly agitated. I mean, what right had she to imply anything negative about him? He was always very polite when he came over, and a few times had helped her do stuff in the house, like carry heavy boxes to the attic, when Guy wasn’t home.
“Ben and I are number one and number two in our class, in case I forgot to remind you,” I said. “He’s really smart.”
“Yes, that’s definitely the case when you go to a very small school and you’re a big fish in a little pond,” Maxine said. “Your father and I saw this as a definite advantage over sending you to Moses Brown or Gordon, where you’d have to claw your way to the top. Now you have a good chance of getting into a decent college.”
I stopped knitting and looked at her. “Thanks for the validation, Maxine,” I said. “I always thought you sent me to the Vincent A. Cianci Academy for Creative Community Service because you didn’t want to cough up a big-bucks tuition for private school.”
“Well, that too….oh damn, I dropped some stitches.” Maxine held up the Icelandic shawl she was knitting in several natural shades of fingering-weight wool and stretched it out with her hands. It was cobwebby and beautiful against the light. Then she pulled it off the long circular needle and ripped out a few inches, her lips pursed and brow furrowed in concentration. For a long time neither of us spoke. “There,” she said, at last. “It’s ok now.”
We smiled at each other, and I felt suddenly kind towards her, to my surprise. Maybe it was because it’s so pleasing when a knitting mistake can be easily fixed. Unlike relationships, which demand constant work.
“The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is just a crock,” Maxine said. “Because after all, it’s just one of those folklore things, and if I may say so myself, I knitted a sweater for your father before I’d even known him six months”—they’d met in their freshman year of college—“and look what happened! Twenty-eight years later we’re still together!”
I knew that sweater well. It was a Fair-isle pattern in various browns, rusts, oatmeal, grey, and black. He still wore it on special occasions to please her, but it was getting way too snug around the middle and clearly was no longer comfortable.
I did not think it useful just then to mention that earlier in the week I’d accidently encountered Guy in Starbucks, having an earnest conversation over lattes with a woman who wore an extremely short black leather skirt, a tight red sweater, and black lace stockings that ended in black high heels. Ben and I had cut AP English on Wednesday and hopped off our usual bus way early, at Thayer and Waterman, instead of Rochambeau and Hope. We desperately needed caffeine and liked the Starbucks environment, where you could sit and talk for however long, and there was good people watching, mostly Eurotrash students and self-important types from Brown.
When I saw my father sitting on a slowly-twirling barstool at a counter next to this sex bomb, looking like he wanted to, ugh, climb into her heavily lipsticked mouth, I latched onto Ben’s arm and tried to move him past the sugar/milk/napkin station really fast so we could get the hell out, but Ben was in a cranky mood (it was the late-afternoon sugar slump, I swear) and said, “What the fuck, Bee?” and just then Guy looked up suddenly and saw us. He stopped twirling his seat and stared. I stared back. He was wearing a blazer, buttondown shirt and tie, and had on his grey dress slacks. In other words, not his usual teaching attire of baggy corduroys worn smooth in the seat and knees, and a stretched-out, gut-defining turtleneck going thin at the elbows.
For a few flashing seconds his face was absolutely awry, as if someone had pasted his shaggy eyebrows on upside down and squeezed his neck until his eyes popped and his grey-brown hair fizzed out from around his bald spot, but he swiftly composed himself and said, in his booming, faux-hearty voice, “Oho! Who have we here?”
I swear to God, every head in Starbucks turned from their coffees, laptops, conversations, newspapers, and books, and looked at me, looming there like a giant hairball in my enormous sweater, my hand gripping Ben’s arm like he was a little kid having a meltdown and I was his mother dragging him to his room for a time out. It was like the world just stopped. I could feel myself start to sweat as if the coffee bar had suddenly become a giant sauna, and I croaked out, “ Uh, hi Dad.”
“Chantal,” Guy said suavely, to his cocktail waitress companion. “This is my daughter, Barbara. And her friend, um,…”
“Ben,” I supplied. Ben smiled and said “Hi!”
“Very nice to meet you, Chantal,” I said.
“Chantal Remercier is a visiting professor of French Literature, from the Sorbonne,” Guy told me. “We’re discussing an important translation project we may undertake.” He smiled grimly and looked at me in a manner both ominous and shleppy.
“Oh,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Professor Remercier.”
“Not at all,” she said except it sounded like this: Naht et oll.