What to Do With a Man Who Has a Story, and a Gun

Lisa Romeo recalls her first college romance, when she was willing to overlook a lot — until she wasn’t.

Lisa Romeo | Longreads | January 2018 | 11 minutes (2,767 words)

My boyfriend said it with such confidence, such nonchalance. “Don’t worry. You’re safe in here, and I’ll be back in an hour.”

He shut the bedroom door behind him as he left, and I heard his key in the padlock on the other side — the one he’d installed to keep out his drunk or stoned apartment-mates who kept “borrowing” his cigars, raiding his mini-fridge, and hitting on me.

I was a freshman at an expensive upstate New York college, majoring in journalism, and I’d fallen hard for this guy the first week of September. Though I was young for college — I wouldn’t turn 18 until later that fall — people had always said about me, “She’s so mature, so level-headed,” compliments I shirked away from, instead longing to be a little less sensible, a little more wild. In high school, I had mostly dated self-assured, brainy guys, predictable guys, often Italian and Catholic guys, guys who, if they were girls, would have been me.

I was done with all that, I thought. I wanted something different, someone different.

This guy was short, wiry, pale, certainly older — returning to college at 24 — and also German, Protestant, and had definitely not finished at the top of his high school class. Different, but not a bad guy, not a mean guy, not a guy I couldn’t bring home.

And he wasn’t a guy. He was a man.

A man with a past. A story.


Until the previous summer, this man said, he had been working for the state police as an undercover officer and a rescue diver. Occasionally he’d have to skip class and drive to some other part of the state to testify in a trial or upgrade his scuba training. The glove compartment in his small car held a large gun, and he took me to a shooting range and taught me to fire it. There were certain bars we didn’t go into because he might be recognized by someone he’d arrested, certain phone calls I learned to ignore, a few 3:00 a.m. departures out to the nearby lake to assist on a missing boater call, which I learned not to ask more about.

After high school, he had tried community college, then enrolled in the police academy where he proved himself such an excellent shot, such an excellent diver, he was recruited by the State Police. Before all that, he’d been in love with photography. When he burned out on police work, he enrolled in college, taking core courses so he could eventually study photography in the same prestigious journalism program where I was studying newspapers and magazines. He might have been one of the oldest full-time freshman.

I liked his story. It was such a good story, and I took every part of it as a real story, his real story. Maybe some of it was.


Next to more typical students, my boyfriend was the level-headed mature one; he made sure we drank only a little and rarely got drunk, smoked some pot but didn’t experiment any further. That was fine with me, because partying often led to hooking up without commitment, and I wanted to sidestep the typical freshman friends-with-benefits status and move right on to couplehood. I was keenly interested in finding a real boyfriend with whom I could lose my virginity, and he was interested in making himself indispensable to me, helping me with my job as statistician to the ice hockey team, surprising me with hot chocolate and croissants during a long night of studying, and shuttling me to the stable where I kept my expensive show horse. Dad had arranged for a car service to be on call for those trips, but after our first week together, the drives to and from the stable were a kind of hot date. More than once I settled into the saddle still wet and shaky either from mutual fondling across the stick shift on the drive over, or a quickie in the empty stall at the far end of the barn.

I was a freshman in at an expensive upstate New York college, majoring in journalism, and I’d fallen hard for this guy the first week of September.

My boyfriend’s brother lived nearby but was frequently on the road for work, and by early October his drafty but gloriously empty attic apartment in an old Victorian eight miles from campus felt like it belonged to us. On Fridays, we’d grab clothes and books, hit the grocery store, then stay until late Sunday — cooking in our underwear, taking baths together in the claw-foot tub, screwing endlessly in a queen-size bed, then sleeping cocooned against leaky windows.


We were an odd visual match. I towered over him, and my Mediterranean coloring and thick hair contrasted with his pancake complexion and wispy blonde locks. I knew he wasn’t brainy, but he was, above all, a photographer, an artist, which was a huge turn-on. The real issue, even after dating and fucking and playing house for months, was getting to really know him, getting underneath the stories and behind the confident face that seemed to be masking something. I reasoned police work probably meant he’d learned to hide his real self, and it would take more time to penetrate.

I knew he liked simple but inherently scary things — bow hunting, scuba diving, the shooting range — as well as simple and easy things — family dinners, road trips, photographing nature. Still, under what I assumed was bogus bravado and genuine bashfulness, I sensed insecurity some days; other days, a kind of failure to launch. I attributed some of it to “short man syndrome,” some to having grown up in a family that rarely talked about anything other than the weather, or whether the fish were biting.

I glimpsed more of the real him, I thought, in the stories he told: arresting bad guys, getting the pregnant girlfriend of a dealer into rehab, finding what (or who) needed to be found in a lake or bay. More than once, when we were blasting west on the Thruway doing 90, getting stopped by a trooper would result in a murmured conversation, a smile, and a wave. Some odd sense of power, of approval, surged through me. That and animal appeal.

I never worried about the gun in the glove compartment.


The snow was thick and heavy the Saturday night in February my boyfriend locked me in his room at 1:00 a.m. — prime time for his roommates to stir trouble. He needed to pick his brother up from the airport. It was 10 degrees and snowing, and I had to be up for a horse show at 5:30. I could have gone across the hall to my own room, but by then I wasn’t spending many nights there, and we loved having sex the moment one or both of us came in from a freezing Central New York night. I was already thinking of the cold welcome shock of his black leather jacket on my breasts, how aroused we’d both be because even if I was sleeping already, I planned to be naked. I wanted to be ready, after he’d shucked his jacket, to push the holstered gun off his shoulder, lay it on the floor under the bed, then move my hand down his torso.

He shut the bedroom door behind him as he left, and I heard his key in the padlock on the other side — the one he’d installed to keep out his drunk or stoned apartment-mates who kept “borrowing” his cigars, raiding his mini-fridge, and hitting on me.

I told myself his locking me in was a sweetly protective gesture. It didn’t occur to me for several more months all the ways in which locking someone in a third floor room, without a phone might be wrong. How would I have gotten out in an emergency? What if — as happened a few months before — a building nearby caught fire and the dorm was evacuated? What if I just needed the bathroom? What if his most untrustworthy roommate realized I was there and decided to flirt with me, or was after the stash of good cigars, and — drunk, high, or just emboldened — rammed his six foot frame against the flimsy door?

All those questions came to me much later. But that night, alone and essentially imprisoned, I felt doubt begin to creep in. Slowly, from that moment forward, I began to doubt my boyfriend, doubt who he was, and mostly, to doubt his story. Would an ex-cop trust a simple hardware store padlock if he thought I was in real danger? Or was this the action of a possessive control freak? Was the gun in the glove compartment, the one often strapped under the arm of his leather jacket, the one frequently in his bedside drawer, even legal? As I waited that night I kept pushing vague suspicions aside, and ignored them completely when he returned, his cold body hot and hard.


“Don’t ever talk about my police work in front of my family,” he often warned. “It might put them in danger.”

We saw his brother a lot, and his parents often enough, since their home was only 80 miles from campus. Eventually, I began to suspect that he was worried if I mentioned “police” it might instead put him in danger — but of what I couldn’t say. Maybe I didn’t want to know. I was in love, with my first real lover, someone who cared about me, someone different enough to be intriguing, but someone I thought I could be safe with, especially in bed. Although before him I might not have experienced the full act, I knew a mind-blowing orgasm when I had one. And finally I was having a lot of them in every way, just about every day. More than that, we were serious about each other, and I wanted to continue making love with someone who said he loved me. I wanted more weekends in his brother’s apartment, wanted to continue having a loyal boyfriend who shunned drugs and drunken nights, wanted to keep being wanted and to want someone so much I could block all the mounting worries. Exposing and stirring up my simmering mistrust might mean I’d have to put and end to all of that, and lose everything.

So I didn’t talk about his police work in front of his family. Neither did they.


When the break-up came, it had less to do with his past, and everything to do with me realizing — just before packing up for home at the end of spring semester, and just after a pregnancy false alarm — that I’d jumped too quickly and too deeply into something that wasn’t really love, with someone I didn’t really know. That, and I didn’t want to think anymore about that gun in the glove compartment every time we went out for ice cream, or feel it holstered under that jacket every time he pressed his body to mine, or worry that while reaching for a condom he might grab the gun instead.

When I began spending too much time worrying where the gun was and hoping it wasn’t nearby, I realized, finally, that there wasn’t anything sexy about a firearm, that breaking free from my predictable choices didn’t have to involve so many unanswered questions, and finally, that stories mattered — that a picture could tell, could un-tell, a story.


One spring Saturday at his parents’ house, he and his father went shooting while his mother, in fragile health, napped. I claimed I had to stay back at the house and study, but within minutes was casting about his childhood room as if I had a search warrant. High school yearbooks, Boy Scout badges, and police academy textbooks sat piled on a closet shelf next to a file folder holding current firearms and scuba diving certifications, hunting and fishing licenses, expired Police Benevolent Association courtesy cards, and half-filled applications of indeterminate date to various police departments. These things told me everything and nothing. His night table held condoms and a box of bullets. I rifled through dresser drawers and under-the-bed boxes and turned up nothing more interesting than an ankle holster, nothing that could either definitively indict or endorse him.

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Then I found the small batch of photos, held by a nearly dried out rubber band. First, there were a few shots of him with a bunch of other scuba divers at night, looking tired; family holiday pictures; him with a group of guys in hunting garb. But then there appeared a single photo of him, taken head on. He was wearing a cap, badge, and uniform shirt, standing against a milky background; it looked like some kind of personnel file photo. I flipped it over and read, on a typed label, his name, a date about a year in the past, the word “Guard,” and the name of a nearby shopping mall. I turned the photo over again, and looked more carefully until I saw it — the words “Mall Security” stitched across the chest pocket. Snippets of past conversations fluttered through my head, him claiming he’d never work guard duty, that even cops he knew who moonlighted as guards were somehow not real cops.

I put the photos away carefully, in precisely the order I’d found them, and scooted quickly to the dining room table, spreading out my books. I made no plans to confront him. No matter how much or how often he said he loved me, I was suddenly and coldly aware that this was a man, nearly seven years older than me, who traveled through life with a gun, and liked the idea of locking up someone he believed belonged to him.

I glimpsed more of the real him, I thought, in the stories he told: arresting bad guys, getting the pregnant girlfriend of a dealer into rehab, finding what (or who) needed to be found in a lake or bay.

When the break-up came, I told him it was because of many factors, none of them having anything to do with my feelings for him. I wanted to concentrate more fully on my studies, wanted to take extra courses in anticipation for a future semester abroad, wanted to travel constantly to horse shows all summer and spend more time with the riding team next year, didn’t want to hurt him by not being available. He seemed to believe my story.


All summer, at my parents’ house four hours south, red roses would arrive, with cryptic cards: “I can never say goodbye,” “You know we belong together,” and worst of all, “See you in September.”

Yet he didn’t return to campus that fall. He did show up unexpectedly at my apartment a few times, but left when I asked him to. Periodically, until I graduated, we tried to be “just friends” — sometimes ending up in bed, sometimes not — which lasted only weeks each time. I kept expecting him to make a scene, demand that we date seriously again, insist that — I don’t know, something. But nothing like that happened.

Ten years later, I spotted him one night from across the bar at a ski resort. I knew, from his stance, his gestures, and even without hearing his voice, that he was telling some kind of unbelievable story to a group of younger people. There was a familiar bulge under the left armpit of his leather jacket. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me.


For years, decades after, I thought of the strange way I’d acted with him, the worrisome way I’d put myself in such a vulnerable, perhaps dangerous position. I’d missed so many signs, foolishly ignoring that warning voice in my head in favor of that ping in my heart and the exquisite, painful pull of my pelvis.

When I began spending too much time worrying where the gun was and hoping it wasn’t nearby, I realized, finally, that there wasn’t anything sexy about a firearm.

That girl eventually figured out that she had the right to demand to truly know a lover. She got smarter faster, and in a fundamental way that had nothing to do with college: she acquired a certain kind of radar, the kind that dings when something, anything, suggests people are not who they say they are.

After college, she picked men whose stories she vetted. A couple of them broke her heart too, but for reasons that were real. That girl is now sending her own sons — not quite kids, not quite yet men — off to college, to the world, and tries to explain: some people they’ll meet, some lovely, alluring, sexually attractive people, will be pretending, will be lying to others because they are lying to themselves, may even be dangerous; that listening to people’s stories is crucial, and when those stories have plot holes, it’s important to listen to our own bullshit detectors, to get out before they fall too far in.

I want them to know, and I want to remember too — still, in year 28 of a good marriage — that stories matter, and that sometimes stories are a lie. Like the gun on the table in Act One that never goes off during the entire play.

* * *

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, forthcoming from University of Nevada Press, May 2018. Her work is cited in Best American Essays 2016, and published in the New York Times, Brevity Journal, Under the Sun, and other places. She teaches in Bay Path University’s MFA program.


Editor: Sari Botton