It shouldn't have happened at all.
I was 30 at the time and his mother's college instructor. Trish, my student, was hilarious, bold, and didn't seem to care what others thought of her. I liked her from the start.
We kept in touch after our last class ended. Trish told me stories of her misbehaving children. Her son, I learned, threw tantrums, punched holes in the wall, and refused to help around the house. I suggested boot camp.
Trish and I visited Washington, D.C. together that spring. We had an amazing time and agreed we should do it again. She asked me if she could bring her children, Norman and Mary, along.
Norman, who turned out to be in his 20s, didn't throw a tantrum or punch holes in the wall when we met. He was actually incredibly kind, gentle, and funny. He told me he was polyamorous and that he wanted to go to Amsterdam to be serviced by prostitutes.
"Norman's actually a virgin," Trish revealed that night. "He just wanted to sound cool in front of you."
A week later, Trish tried to show me a picture of her son.
"Trish, I've seen your son before."
"No, wait, I have a REALLY handsome picture of Norman... hold on," Trish scrolled through her phone. "Here. Isn't he handsome? Can you believe that girls don't find him handsome?"
"He's... OK," I said hesitantly.
Her face fell. "Just OK?"
I didn't want to insult Trish or make her think I was interested in her child. "Well, he's OK. But he's very thin. Girls may not like that."
Trish's family was always in financial chaos, partly due to her expensive cigarette habit. When we returned to Trish's house that night, Norman was extremely depressed and suicidal. He said he wanted to jump off a bridge.
"I'm tired of being poor; I'm tired of being hungry," he choked out. My heart broke for him that night.
I began buying Norman groceries and tried to help him quit his own cigarette habit, explaining that he would have money for food if he did not waste money on cigarettes.
"He really wants to quit," Trish told me.
Ever the Aquarius, I became more determined than ever to help Norman. I fed him and gifted him with inspirational movies like Good Will Hunting and The Pursuit of Happyness. I bought him four months' supply of vaping liquid to help him stave off his cigarette cravings. And I took him on another trip — to New York this time.
New York was amazing. We watched Misery and Les Mis on Broadway and visited the Statue of Liberty. Norman and I talked all night over hookah (perhaps that wasn't the best idea when I was supposed to be helping him quit). He told me secrets he had never told anyone else about himself, things that he had long buried and haunted him to this day.
I fell in love with his professed values and beliefs. How could such a wonderful human being be relegated to his mother's cold, lonely basement? I wondered.
"The world has always been so down on him," Trish would say.
"I really felt a connection with her," he told his mother the next morning. I told her I felt a connection with him, too. She cried and hugged me.
A few weeks later, I invited her daughter to accompany me to Russia. When Trish found out, she demanded I take Norman instead.
"I'm not comfortable taking a guy with me; I don't want to sleep in the same room as him," I told her. She suggested booking an additional hotel room. "That's expensive," I said firmly. "I'm not taking Norman."
At first she became angry. Then she was passive-aggressive, telling me to "do what I want." Finally, she used the one thing she knew would work on me: pity. She spent the rest of the night texting me sad stories of Norman.
The next morning, I caved and agreed to take Norman to Russia.
If New York was amazing, Russia was downright magical. Delicious food, breathtaking architecture, and the urban oasis that was Moscow consumed the two of us. By the end of our trip, we couldn't take our hands off each other.
When we returned to the States, Trish was our biggest cheerleader. Triumphant over her successful matchmaking, she jumped in and saved the day every time we fought. She taught us to look past the little things and accept each other, fully and completely. I took her words to heart.
Even when she became strangely paranoid (according to Norman, she'd accused Mary, her own daughter, of trying to break us up), I ignored the red flags. After all, she was my friend and had been such a big help to our relationship. Who cares if she was a little nutty?
Well, it turned out I should have cared, for she would soon turn her paranoia on me. When Norman invited himself to California with me months later, Trish immediately accused me of trying to take her children away from her. Norman cowardly went along with her crazy accusations and broke up with me, saying I was "causing too much drama with Momma." To this day, he still has not come clean with "Momma" or admitted that it was he who invited himself on that trip.
Hurt and disgusted, I left town. Then I received the strangest call: Trish wanted to know why I wasn't visiting her at the hospital. (Um, because you're insane and accused me of insane things) Nevertheless, she was super-nice and apologized to me, telling me how much she valued my friendship and how she thought Norman had made a huge mistake by breaking up with me.
And just like that, Norman returned to me. We spent another beautiful three months together. We went to the beach at night. He cooked me veggie burgers in the rain. We took impromptu trips to my hometown. Then "Momma" became jealous and paranoid again.
One afternoon, I drove him to the public notary to fill out some paperwork for school.
"I would like you to know that I don't appreciate being stuck here while you guys are gallivanting around town," Trish texted.
I could tell that Trish was becoming increasingly irritated by my influence in her son's life: now that Norman had quit smoking for three months, he'd become very self-righteous and was nagging her to stop wasting their money.
"Stop smoking!" he'd scold the rest of his smoker friends and family members. "You'd be able to pay your mortgage if you quit smoking."
I told him he may want to tone the high horse down.
Two weeks before his 25th birthday, Norman moved out of his mother's house. By then, I had fixed his teeth (he had ten untreated cavities), purchased him an entire collection of new clothes, put him through a semester of school (he'd earned a 4.0 GPA), gave him a new phone, and spent thousands of dollars on his food. We woke up together every morning and whispered in bed.
He told me that he'd never had a real birthday before. At most, Trish would buy him some ice cream — in the flavor that she personally liked — and call it a day. I decided to make his 25th extra-special by surprising him with a graphics card and processor, and all the parts he needed to build his own computer.
The day after his birthday, "Momma" sent him a nasty email about me — full of more crazy, untrue accusations — and Norman promptly moved home.
Disappointed, I tried to be supportive of Norman's decision. He and I went to Walmart to buy groceries with his $88 paycheck. He was proud of himself; he wanted to show me that he was still going to keep up the progress he'd made.
"It's about time I buy food and practice self-care like you taught me, right?" he asked, flashing the grin I had come to love.
When she realized Norman had spent his paycheck on food, Trish became visibly annoyed. She said he should have saved that money for her gas and cigarettes.
"What's wrong with spending my money on food?" he asked, looking at her from across the room. My heart broke for him all over again.
The next day, I told him I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't watch someone I cared about be treated that way, even if it was by his own "Momma." He immediately took her side and scolded me for getting on her case.
And just like that, Norman and I broke up again.
He's now back to smoking cigarettes and dropped out of college for the third time. I imagine "Momma" is thrilled — now he no longer has the high horse he stood on before. I, on the other hand, was left heartbroken.
I had come so close to touching — or maybe even fixing, in a small way — his tormented, beautiful soul, but in the end, it's almost as if I was never in his life at all.