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The Ex-Boyfriend Shirt

My favorite T-shirt doesn’t really belong to me. All I know about the original owner is that he was the college roommate of a man I dated last summer, who stole the shirt on the last day of his freshman year at Penn State. Though I have zero attachment to the Nittany Lions, I immediately fell in love with the raggedy, soft green garment that prominently features the silhouetted profile of their mountain lion mascot.

I’ve worn it weekly ever since.

It was given to me (sorta kinda) early on a Sunday morning after I woke up in this man’s apartment hung over, but buoyed by the hope you have when a relationship is starting to percolate, before either of you has fucked anything up. His body was still unfamiliar and exciting, though the fact that he was emitting the same cocktail of fumes as I was (whiskey, cigarettes, sex, glee) created a false sense of intimacy. Then there were the nice things: He said his morning breath was bad “so don’t kiss me,” but I did anyway. I complained that my head hurt, and he took it in his hands like tiny puppy. Next, both of us agreed water and coffee were necessary, if not a matter of life or death.

So we started to get up. I forced myself to search for the tight, uncomfortable blouse I had worn the night before. Seeing my struggle, he had an idea, another thing that made us feel closer than we actually were. “Just wear something of mine,” he said, casually tossing me the Nittany Lions shirt without much thought. He had no idea he’d never see that shirt again, or that in a mere two months, I’d block him on every single social network.

The Culture would have me refer to this shirt as a “boyfriend shirt.” It’s so ingrained that this exchange — the spontaneous, “accidental” gifting of a T-shirt from a man to a woman — feels familiar even when it’s happening for the first time. Case in point: Before I really knew what sex was, and long before I actually had it for the first time, I had already pieced together a kind of understanding vis-a-vis cultural memes like the “boyfriend shirt” that reinforced traditional, hetero relationship dynamics — and just how powerful they can be.

I can’t tell you exactly where I first saw an image of a woman in a man’s oversized dressed shirt with nothing on underneath, but I know that I felt it on almost a cellular level. I somehow just knew that even though he’s not in frame, her hypothetical hot, rich, successful boyfriend was fetching some coffee and the Sunday Times for them to read in a Tempur-Pedic bed. And they definitely had just had sex (the bedhead is a dead giveaway).

The allure of this branding — what the marketing of women’s clothes as “boyfriend” clothes capitalizes on — is about “the small ways in which we seek to own one another’s bodies, and about the desire for our relationships with others to leave visible marks on us, to follow us tangible out into the world beyond a private encounter,” as Helena Fitzgerald wrote for Rackedback in September. “The boyfriend shirt tells the world that you got to go into a man’s house where all his clothes are, that someone liked you enough to take off his shirt in front of you.”

But to call this particular garment of mine a “boyfriend shirt” isn’t quite right. For starters, I’ve now owned it for three times as long as I was involved with the man who gave it to me, so the shirt is defined more by his absence than his presence. And that’s to say nothing of the family of other tees with similar origin stories it went on to join in my dresser. In this way, it’s really more of an “ex-boyfriend” shirt — one that joined an ex-boyfriend wardrobe, if I’m being entirely honest.

Also — again in the pursuit of total honesty — to refer to the some of the men whose shirts now make up my closet as “ex-boyfriends” is a bit of a stretch. I call them “ex-boyfriends” because there simply isn’t a word to describe them or the nature of our relationships. Very few of them were my actual boyfriends (one I wanted to be, one I didn’t, one definitely acted like he was regardless). When they inevitably wonder, “Oh, where did that shirt go?” they probably won’t think of me or any of the other women they’ve dated since. Instead, they’ll chalk up the loss to their terrible laundromat, get mad for a second and then go about their day.

Still, I love wearing the old jersey of a man who ghosted me and the American Apparel crewneck of a 35-year-old who moved to Asia to pursue his lifelong dream of quitting life. And, of course, that beat-up old Penn State shirt. Unlike people who are capable of years-long, serious relationships and have delicate jewelry from Catbird to show for it, there are no real mementos for those of us (and we are legion) who’ve mastered the art of the “thing” — those kinda-sorta romantic relationships that end before they even start. Though they’re common, the physical proof of these entanglements is hard to come by, and definitely less touching than a hand-knit wool scarf from you got from his mom for the holidays. Instead, you’re more likely left with a contact named “Do Not Respond” in your phone or an extra charger he accidentally left plugged in by your bed.

Or maybe you’re left with a shirt. I recently sauntered home from a guy’s house in a true Golden Boy, worn in to perfection, the lettering that spells out C-O-R-N-E-L-L just starting to splinter in that perfect vintage way. A younger version of me probably would’ve inferred that the act of letting me borrow a possession he’s had since he visited the college campus in 2004 meant something (i.e. feelings). But the older version of me knows better; that the lie of a boyfriend shirt is that it’s a snapshot. It really only tells one sliver of a story, the sexy, romantic part. In this case, he was simply a nice person who wanted me to feel comfortable as I stuffed my face at brunch. He didn’t want to be my boyfriend.

Ironically, the shirt would transform into an ex-boyfriend shirt in near-record time — i.e., we broke it off two days later. Too much, too soon. After struggling to shove it back into my overflowing drawer, I realized I was choosing to start my day navigating through a graveyard of failed relationships. These ex-boyfriend shirts are tiny reminders that casual sex really isn’t all that casual; however short-lived or non-serious the “things,” I know they have shaped me. And I’ve carried the evidence of that with me, in the form of cotton, even as I moved across the country.

Cornell guy didn’t ask for the shirt back — they never do — but this time I decided I didn’t want to hold onto it. I texted to remind him I have his beloved tee, and to let him know that I plan on giving it back sometime soon. This seemed like the nice, normal thing to do. But it’s also not all about him. I simply need to make room for more shirts. Here’s hoping not all of them will be of the ex-boyfriend variety.