In college, there was this boy. He had red hair, so I of course liked him immediately, but he was also sweet and goofy, had a beautiful singing voice, and played the French horn, like me, which is how we met. Over the years, we never quite managed to get it together, but there was a lot of “almost”. I liked him, but he didn’t know it; then he liked me, but I had met my first love; I was single again, but by then he had a girlfriend… you know the drill. Our hearts were two magnets with misaligned polarity – naturally attracted to each other, but destined to repel one another every time we got too close. Maybe if one of us had just flipped the other over we could have made the connection, but we were college kids; what did we know?
Even though we never managed to find our way into coupledom, our mutual attraction and tumultuous relationship was apparent to everyone around us. Plus, we were band geeks, which is like being under surveillance by your incestuous family while starring in a reality TV show. Everyone is up in everyone’s business, is what I’m saying. We got a lot of questions along the way. “Are you two dating?” “Do you like him?” “Is he your boyfriend?” “Is this a thing or something?” “What are you guys?”
When you’re nineteen, you may know in your gut that the appropriate answer to all of these questions is, “None of your damn business,” but the nerve to actually say that is still a long way off. Still, I didn’t have much inclination to get into a personal conversation about a relationship I could barely quantify myself, and even if I had wanted to, there was no easy way to answer. I didn’t know what we were; it was complicated. So one day, in response to the latest nosy inquiry about the real deal with this boy, I simply answered, “He’s my eggplant.”
I have no idea why that particular word popped into my head at that moment. Perhaps it is because I have always considered the eggplant to be a ridiculously named object. How did that even happen? “Plant” I can understand, but they are not the size or shape of eggs, or egg colored, or the texture of eggs, and certainly not egg flavored. “Eggplant” is the exact opposite of an onomatopoeia – it is a thing that does not look, sound, or in any way resemble the word used to describe it. We should have a name for that. It’s an “Offomatopoeia”.
We should have a word for a lot of things that don’t have names, which was kind of my point by calling this boy my eggplant (in addition to the point that the people doing the nosing should butt out). For all of the nuance of the English language – and I do love this language – the pickings are pretty slim when it comes to the stages of romance. Fights will break out over the subtle differences between “geeks”, “dorks”, and “nerds”, but when it comes to love, the best distinction our language can muster is “love”, “platonic love”, and “in love”. No wonder poor Kevin Arnold had to ask if Winnie Cooper just “liked” him, or if she “like liked” him.
In relationships, our descriptors are pathetic. Once there is a level of commitment, it is pretty easy: spouse, partner, fiancé, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other. But there are a whole lot of relationship stages before two people get to that point, and for those our language simply has no label. What are we supposed to call someone we like like, or are just starting to date, or are just starting to seriously date? (Even in describing the relationship phases our vocabulary is pretty limited.) We could call him a “prospect”, but this isn’t the NFL draft. A “candidate”? That’s way too political. He could be a “contender”, but that’s way too Brando. How about a “person of interest”? Sure, if you want it to sound like you’re investigating him for murder. And what about someone we’re just sleeping with? (Or: nailing, screwing, banging, tapping, f*cking, humping – here the vocabulary is practically endless.) There is the term “lover”, but I think Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch pretty much killed that one forever.
We’d probably be better off if we didn’t label things at all, but since we do, there should at least be enough labels to go around. Instead, there is a linguistic shaming of people outside of committed relationships (the single, unwed, available, unattached…), and I for one am not okay with it. Calling the romantic protagonists in my life “eggplant” – which I continue to do – is my one-woman protest (objection, disruption, act of defiance, stand…). What do you say we see if it can catch on? Maybe we can start an uprising (revolution, rebellion, movement, coup…). Or maybe we’ll just get some people to mind their own business. Either way works for me.