For a young girl, learning how to control your face is as satisfying as what I imagine learning how to aim your pee is for a dude. A simple act that ushers you into adulthood by leaving the messy spillover of childhood behind.
I figured that out in sixth grade when I got my first crush -- a skinny brunette with a bowl cut named Luke. He was perfection and I didn’t want anyone to know how much I worshipped him. Too bad it was written all over my traitorous face. Why couldn’t I have got cystic acne instead?
As the only black kid. On. The. Entire. Island of Santa Catalina. I didn’t have much by way of prospects.
Like everybody else, Luke was white but naturally tanned in a way that read “ambiguously ethnic on his great grandfather’s side.” He also wasn’t a sun-streaked blonde like all the other older boys my friends (read the girls who let me hang out with them as long as I didn’t say much) and I watched loiter in front of the new KFC. So I figured he was mine for the crushing, an obvious choice really.
When did I realize I liked Luke? Once I noticed with embarrassment that my mouth refused to stay shut whenever he popped a wheelie in my general direction. I don’t mean to say I ever spoke to him (I didn’t). What I’m saying is I literally could not keep my lips from flying apart and spreading across my face in an involuntary smile so fucking huge you could see it from space, or at the very least from across the street where Luke and his boys where trying out different curse words.
“Fucking A” was one of their favorites.
I had no control over what my face would do when Luke showed up. Whether he popped his head into Mrs. Paul’s classroom with the AV equipment so we could watch “The Bloodhound Gang” or if he stood up in the sand one night while a bunch of us sat around staring at a bonfire, a grin would crack across my face like lightning thankfully without the thunder.
But to me the thing was just as loud. And the crazy thing is I wasn’t even smiling at him. I wasn’t trying to flirt or look coquettish, mainly because I didn’t know how but really because I knew without asking that Luke would never actually “go with me.” He was as unattainable as unattainable could get, which, by the rule of adolescence, made my uncontrollable feelings that much more intense. The harder Luke ignored my very existence on planet earth, the faster my world began to revolve around only him.
Still my face couldn’t help itself. Like a moth to a flame, my smile had a morbid mind of its own, threatening to commit social suicide every time the coolest guy rounded the corner. It drove me nuts not being able to hide my feelings. Feelings I hardly understood seeing as how I hardly knew the kid.
To make matters worse there was this woman-child named Natalia who I’m convinced was not, in fact, an 11-year-old but a 67-year-old irascible truck stop waitress reincarnated for the sole purpose of pointing out how naïve I was. She was the first to notice how awestruck I looked whenever a whiff of Luke floated in on the mid-morning playground air.
“So you like him, huh?” she asked in a loud declarative statement.
“What? Me? Lu-- Ha! Not even. Ha, ha! No way. Wha--” That’s me, playing it cool.
“Yep,” she nodded. “It’s trés obvious.” The French was a nice touch. Then she smiled at me like how a snake would before unlocking its jaw to swallow you whole. “Soooo, do you think he like likes you back?”
The rest of the girls in Natalia’s coven leaned in for the kill, looking up from their origami fortune tellers to watch my future unfold right there on the black rubber puzzle pieces meant to kept our heads from splitting.
“Weeell? Do you?”
“I, I, I--”
If I’d died right then like I wanted to my tombstone would have read, “Here lies Helena Darreen Andrews the unfortunate victim of fatal embarrassment by the monkey bars. Done in by a smile.”
Instead I kept laughing it off, hoping everyone would forget that the joke was on me. After that, I tried my best to keep my lips sealed -- literally. Not looking at Luke seemed like the most promising option, but now that everyone knew about it, my crush had reached pulverizing proportions. Just the thought of Luke, who again I barely knew and never spoke to, sent me smiling.
So there it was like a bright pearly beacon of patheticness, which is actually not a word but sums up perfectly how I felt so often on Catalina: As if I wasn’t a word. Oftentimes I felt like I was on the outside looking in, floating above the town like a superhero or a friendly ghost. Either way I was untouchable. So when it happened, the whole involuntary smiling thing knocked me right out of the sky.
I was having an involuntary physical reaction to the people around me as if they were allergies. But since there isn’t Benadryl for your awkward stage, I had to tough it out, developing something of a resistance over time. Me smiling at Luke? It connected us in a way, even if he’d never ever in a gajillion million years be allowed to know it. That crush was like getting a flu shot, which I will never stop believing actually gives you the flu no matter what Google says.
At 11, I’d already started building up an immunity -- an armor -- that would protect my own feelings or trick the Natalia’s of the world into believing I didn’t have any.