The really great thing about being a person who writes two columns that take place either totally in the past, or focus on my own internal reactions to events, is that I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone. Not if I do it right. From a safe distance of many years I can talk about each boy I’ve ever loved without fear. Because the boys I’ve loved are almost without exception not the boys I’ve dated. That is another column.
When I write about the past, about my fraught unrequited passions, it’s easier to see the person who I have become (am constantly becoming) asserting herself. If I were to write about The Now it would be what it has been the couple of times when I’ve tried it here: An angsty journal entry unfairly trying to fill in the blanks of another person’s experience while at the same time completing removing them -– their essential otherness -– from the equation.* That’s why I’m not Carrie Bradshaw, that and my complete distaste for both puns and couture.
Writing about these boys of yore and sparing the boys of today I can be circumspect about my own ridiculous behavior. Ha, that’s not something I’m great at doing in real time, self-circumspection. Like any good historian, I need distance and time. I do not ever try to figure out who they really are or what they were thinking because that’s not my right. That’s also not what this column is about.
Yes, I squirm at the potential awkwardness of one of those boys stumbling across a column. But, I’m not neurotic enough to think that any one of them would be displeased to find that they’ve worked a groove into the mind and heart of some girl they knew once. It’s an embarrassing sort of flattery, really.
Sometimes they hurt me, these boys. But it was all a very long time ago, and as a rule and almost to a person: They had no idea they had, and I was (and am and will be) a woman who feels a lot, whose feelings careen madly all around inside my body like it’s a curvier pinball machine. There’s a sheet covering it like the one they use on parrots to keep them quiet, you can’t see the brightly colored lights and the all the tricky spots where shiny orbs of instants ricochet around with such intensity that they become permanent memories.
Ian was the first shiny orb of real pain I ever felt and in a strange way he rattles around inside me still. I was 15 and I was ready to fall desperately in love. All the crushes before were leading up, in a strange way, to him. Ian had long, deliciously floppy hair dyed blond and the male equivalent of vocal fry that held me spellbound. Looking back, Ian could have been anyone. I’d written a play**, it had won a contest, and Ian would be playing the part of the central, tortured, Holden Caufield-esque male lead. So of course I loved him: I wrote him.
I think maybe I am being too hard on myself about the ‘writing him’ thing, but it’s something I have to at least acknowledge as interesting -– I barely knew him and I decided I loved him. The bulk of what I heard him say were words I wanted a man to say to me. It’s forehead-slappingly obvious. If you’re an armchair Freudian, a fearful, self-obsessed creature is born! But I want to be truthful and kinder to myself: I grew to know him, and I loved him, I did. He introduced me to music I’d never heard before. He was gross and funny and sleepy and cool and smart, smart, smart in a way that was different from how I am smart, smart, smart. He seemed so grown-up and cool. He could DRIVE. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
Years later, in an acting class towards the end of college, working on a scene from Chekov (because, acting class) my wonderful teacher talked me through the sensory experience of my character in that particular moment. “The windows are open and you’re at the beach and it’s hot, but there’s a breeze, what is that like?” That feeling slipped slowly into place, it was something I knew really well. Then my teacher told me to close my eyes. Warily (because I am a wary person generally) I did. “Now,” he said, “someone you love is coming up the stairs.” In a flash I smelled Ian at a distance, I heard the heavy jangle of the plethora of keys he wore at his hip. In a rush my throat melted and I was awash with tears.
When I thought, at the end of the playmaking process when we first met, that I would never see him again, I realized that I had to tell him how I felt. This was a pretty big first, looking back. What was it about being 15 and in love that urged me to let him know? I never had before. It was a combination of things: lust, a flicker of self-confidence, and self-delusion. Rather than tell him face to face, I did something far ahead of its time: I emailed him a love letter.
And he didn’t email me back.
And he didn’t email me back.
And he didn’t email me back…for most of the summer.
When I finally saw his name in my inbox I was gripped with an unspeakable panic and a delirious sense of hope. This boy whose butt I wanted to touch, he wanted to touch my butt back! I had put myself out there and I was going to be rewarded! I read the email roughly 800 times. Roughly. It’s surprising actually that I don’t remember whole sentences from it now. In a pre-smartphone age, I even printed it up and carried it around with me. I remember the font, I remember the creases in the paper. I remember that I got it in July, the month of my birthday and his. I remember reading it until it said exactly what I wanted it to say: That he liked me too.
But it didn’t say that. It said nothing, really. Nothing other than, “Wow, I’m a nice guy and you sent me a crazy-emotional revelatory email and I value you as a friend so I’m going to be vague and nice and noncommittal because I’m a teenage boy and I don’t want to hurt you but I kind of don’t know what to do here.” I remember the note ended with the promise of a hug when he saw me next. To him it was a conciliatory gesture, a hope that our friendship could continue. To me it was a preface to sexy-in-pants times.
It was the first time I told anyone I cared about them and I had chosen a person who didn’t like me that way. Rather than learning this outright, I had years to quietly ruminate on the reality of what he never actually told me. I wonder sometimes how different things would be if he’d just said, “I’m really flattered but I’m not interested in you that way and I never will be.”
Would I have crumbled? Would I have rallied? Would I have gone on and told more people I loved them and eventually hear that someone loved me back? Was this when I started to believe that my feelings were better left kept to myself? Was this when I kicked my lying into high gear because fantasy was better than the simple, boring, unremarkable truth of being me? It was certainly a pivotal moment. One that, I have to say, had very little to do with Ian himself.
We resumed our friendship after the summer, and my letter was not discussed. Neither was his. Ian began to date a very good friend of mine. I watched their love blossom and pretended to be okay. I wasn’t okay. And I would continue not to be okay for longer than I am proud of –- that’s for next time.
* That's an apology.
** Look, I've accidentally become a writer! It had already happened and I was 15 and it would take me another decade or so to succumb to my natural fate.