The crush I ended high school with was a kid who looked like he'd stepped out of a catalog. We were good friends — talked on the phone, knew each other's families, spent long evenings together after class — but when we hung out, I sometimes stopped listening and stared at his mouth instead. The closer we got, the better it felt to admire him. I got to mix the comfort of our intimacy with the constant hope that he'd lean over to kiss me. It was one of those childish instances where the word crush seems literal, where you feel the pleasure of taking your heart in your hands and making it bend before it breaks.
As our spring semester drew to a close, I sought more and more of those sweet, pressure-filled moments. One night, we sat on his porch and found our way toward evaluating each other.
"You're very handsome," I said, and held my breath.
"Thanks," he said. "You're not attractive, but people really like you. It’s great! They're drawn to your personality, not your looks."
I remember everything about this. I was looking at him; he was looking over my head; it was warm outside; the neighboring houses were dark; and he said this to me easily, sincerely, as if it were the compliment I'd been waiting for.
"Thank you," I said.
Who cares. Who cares, right? We hear little evaluations of ourselves every day we live. By 18, I'd already heard a million comments from family, friends, strangers, and middle-school rivals about the way I look and act, and I'd probably delivered a few thousand cutting remarks to others. Most of these words are said and forgotten in the same second. Some are filed away for occasional review. And some, the smallest ones, stick at the front of your brain.
It was the first time someone else had voiced what I'd always felt privately about my face: that I was ugly, but interesting. Ugly, but fun. I drove home that night repeating his line: "You’re not attractive, but …. " But! That "but" cranked the vice of my crush. He'd seen me for what I was, I assured myself. He appreciated whatever I had to offer. He deserved to be the object of my affection, because if no one else would ever be attracted to me, at least this boy knew me well.
We kept meeting up for our marathon conversations, where I would press on my old hopes like bruises. I really did feel I owed him gratitude. In our small town, he seemed like the best option: a good-looking boy who spoke to me honestly.
After we graduated and lost touch, though, what had felt like a compliment started to nag at me. "You’re not attractive …. " repeated in my head. I studied my face — small eyes, blunt nose, swollen cheeks — and agreed. Of all my self-criticisms, this was the only one that had been independently verified: I was ugly. It was a fact. Someone had told me so.
I polished my personality and tried to resign myself to my looks. Why shouldn't being a good conversationalist be enough? It was, until the inevitable moment came when I admired someone's gorgeous face and then remembered that they weren't admiring mine.
Years passed. I started dating, fell in love, made a home with a wonderful man. My boyfriend would tell me I was pretty and I’d think, Liar! It wasn't helping my relationship to be so hung up on some ancient slight.
So when my high-school crush got back in touch, going for coffee with him seemed like a good chance to heal an old wound. I fantasized that when we met, this kid would be blown away by my sudden good looks, which had developed … when? I reviewed myself in the mirror as I got ready to go. Never? I changed my shirt three times, put on eyeliner, washed it off, and considered rescheduling for a better hair day.
I didn't. We met. My hair looked like hair. It didn't matter, because he didn't notice; he was coming to chat with an old friend, not study my features. On my part, I looked across the table at the person I'd adored, and discovered someone who had once been pretty rude.
There are bits of high school buried in me: the nervousness I used to get at the lunch table, the fear of speaking in front of a group, the wish I had for approval from boys who didn't like me. I met with my old crush because I wanted to dig one of those things out, but I couldn't — it existed long before 12th grade. I always worried about the way I looked, always assured myself that I had a winning personality. I always took too long to realize that I should move on.
The evening looked a lot like the one we'd had a decade before — warm air, a seat outside, the two of us together — but the present-day man I saw felt so much less important to me than that 18-year-old boy I remembered. Checking the time on my cell phone, I remembered that there was someone waiting at home who was smart, funny, shockingly handsome, and truly kind. All the time we've been together, he's met both my confident talk and my secret teenage desperation with decency. If I'm going to hear one outsider's voice for the next 10 years, let it be that one, the one filled with love.