Every little kid falls in love, I think. Well, maybe not “love”, exactly, but every kid gets that first crush, or that one obsession that lasts longer than the others. And that crush is special. It’s still not love, but maybe it’s deeper. Purer. It’s been said that love is caring about someone more than yourself, but to me a crush is caring about someone instead of yourself. There’s something beautiful about that, even if we’re supposed to grow past it eventually.
I still remember mine. I have some pictures of us in first grade, class photos of everyone lined up on the risers, the only backdrop a shelf of books in the library. When I look at them, I honestly can’t imagine what it was that first attracted me to her. Big, flowery dresses, wild, frizzy hair that couldn’t be kept down even though there must have a half dozen bows in it trying to, and what must have been the thickest, goofiest looking pair of glasses her parents could find to put on her. Not that I was a particularly dapper looking gent, myself, mind you, but of all the girls in that class, of all the girls in that picture, I can’t imagine why she was the one I lost myself to. Must be one of those things you can’t tell just by looking.
We didn’t live in the same neighborhood, but somehow we did live close enough go to the same school, elementary all the way through graduation. Because of alphabetic order and how similar our last names were, every class that we were in together those first six years, I sat one seat behind her. Same thing when we misbehaved and had to sit boy-girl-boy-girl at lunch or walk some place in line. Thanks to Zenith and later gifted and talented programs, we had a fifty-fifty chance of having the same teacher. All but one year we were in the same class, and she started out in mine that year, too. I remember taking it as a sign we were meant for one another. I thought if fate wanted us together, nothing would keep us apart.
I remember the first time I was I was irrationally jealous, too. She was a cheerleader for our school’s Pop Warner team. Well, pepette. I think they had cheerleaders, but she wasn’t old enough or wasn’t good enough to be one of them. Something. But all of both the cheerleaders and peppettes were supposed to “adopt” a player for the season and take care of him. You know, make signs, bake cookies, that kind of stuff. I got a girl named Tiffany, while she was the pepette for Nick, my best friend that year. Pro wrestling was like the big thing back then, and at lunch we’d always hide from the coaches and fight, irresponsibly using the signature moves of our favorite muscle-bound heroes. The first day I found out who she had adopted, I challenged Nick to a match and was a little rougher than usual. By that I mean, I nearly knocked him unconscious—on accident, I said. Then we nearly got in to a real fight, but by the end of the day, things were better, and by the end of the week it was all but forgotten. It happened again when she went out with another one of my friends, except this time it was playing soccer/rugby and I tackled him when he didn’t have the ball. Other times I just made it obvious I was upset about something. I never actually said what I was upset about—couldn’t—but any time anyone else was with her, I had an intense and immediate dislike for them. I know she wasn’t “mine”, but somehow I felt like she was only meant for me.
In junior high, she and I had different classes most of the time because I was in athletics and that screwed my schedule up. But I still saw her, still watched her. I was probably the only one. She’d had to get braces over the summer and started having really bad acne. If that wasn’t enough, she started putting on weight, too, and was actually bigger than I was, even though I was taller. But I didn’t care. I still loved her, and if there wasn’t anything I could do to stop myself, there was definitely nothing she could do to stop me.
One time, my friends finally dragged me to one of those Tuesday night dance things junior highs always do. At least I think it was Tuesday. Anyway, my friends finally convinced me to go, and I went. I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the opposite sex and couldn’t dance at all, though I’m certainly no better now. I didn’t like dances, but I went anyway, and ended up spending most of my time talking to those of my friends who also weren’t dancing at the moment, eating all the snacks I could get my hands on, drinking punch. And watching her. The dance was in the gymnasium and she spent most of that night sitting in one of the chairs near the main doors, alone and looking miserable except for when her friends came to check on her and ask her how. Not once did I see a guy go over to her and ask her to dance. And like I said, I was watching.
It was getting close to the end of the dance, there were only two or three songs left, probably. But I’d needed all of that time to get up the courage to stand up and go over to ask her to dance. I finally did, playing the scene out in my head on the way there. When I got to her, I said, “Do you want to dance or something?” stupidly. But she didn’t care how I’d asked, she was just glad someone finally had. We walked on to the dance floor and I admitted that I couldn’t dance, but she said she was pretty good and would teach me. She was good, but I was horrible and she couldn’t make me any better, no matter what she tried. The last songs were all slow dances so we spent the time basically standing still and talking, and that was as good or better than anything else we might have done. Then the dance was over and we kept talking outside until our parents picked us up. The next day, we got to talking at her locker and I asked her if she wanted to “go see a movie or whatever”. She did, and we did stuff like that off and on the rest of the year, our parents giving us rides or carpooling with mutual friends. We had our first kiss together, an mutually awkward thing that would produce mutual giggles, later. In high school I got my driver’s license and we started going on real dates. We dated fairly regularly throughout high school, didn’t see anyone else if we didn’t see one another. I bought her flowers every Valentines day. Our junior year, we rented a hotel room after the prom and gave our virginity to one another. When we graduated, we knew it was over because we were going to different colleges and were too far away to continue a relationship. But after a semester apart, we realized that we couldn’t stand it and chose to get married. We decided to wait to have kids until we were both done with college, and a year after I finished, two years after she did, we had our son Jameson. Three years later we had our daughter Mary, who grew up looking just like her mother had when we’d first met. And every chance I got, I told my once-crush-now-wife with total honesty that she was the first and only woman I’d ever loved.
I’ve never been happier than I was in those fifteen seconds walking to her. Those events weren’t just my imagination, they were true. Tangible. I lived a lifetime worth of happiness in those fifteen seconds, and no matter what else I might lose, I would always have them.
Because then I did actually get to her and I opened my mouth to say the words, “Would you like to dance?” But even knowing the words I needed to say in order to make all of this happen, even seeing her look at me with the hope in her eyes, the hope that tonight she wouldn’t have to go home completely humiliated, feeling worthless because no one had wanted anything to do with her all night, that someone actually cared about her as a person. Even seeing that, even knowing what I had to do and what I wanted to do so goddamn much the weight of not doing it threatened to crush me, I closed my mouth and kept walking. Just watching me, it would have been tough to notice I’d even broken pace, my decision had been that quick. As if it had been my plan from the beginning, I just decided to keep walking.
And I kept walking out those doors, and down the hall, and out of the school, and down the street and then I broke in to a run, trying to run fast enough and far enough away that I could leave what hadn’t happened and what I couldn’t do behind me. I ran, screaming at myself, crying, because I was such a fucking idiot and a pussy and a faggot and I might as well just kill myself right now to save me the trouble later. Eventually I couldn’t run anymore, and I fell to the sidewalk and laid on the concrete sobbing and gasping for air, the most pitiful and wretched human being on the face of the earth.
I overreacted, obviously, but that really was the most miserable moment in my life up to that point, and at that instant I wanted nothing more than to die and that be the end of me forever. I hated the dance and my friends for dragging me to it, hated her for making me feel so useless, hated my life and every wasted moment up to that point and all that were sure to follow. I hated everyone and everything, but most of all, of course, I hated myself. That dance had been the climax of my life, and it was just a long denouement from now on. Death was my only option. Oh, the wonderful melodrama of it all.
Of course I didn’t blow my brains out or try to roll under a moving car. I stood up and dried my face off on my sleeve, wiped the dirt off my clothes, and kept walking until I finally made it home. I managed to make myself presentable enough that when I told my parents I’d decided to walk home from the dance early instead of waiting on them to get me, they bought it. Or at least I was presentable enough that they could pretend to buy it.
I went back to school the next day and things were back to normal. As significant as that event had been in my life, no one else had even noticed that I’d left early, maybe not even her. Life was normal for everyone else, so I figured I might as well pretend life was normal for me, too. I almost managed to convince myself that that whole night had never happened. Almost. I would have if it wasn’t for those fifteen seconds that always lingered and refused to go away. I cherished what they were and meant, but with them came the failure and miserable retreat home, both a thousand times as bad as the fifteen seconds had been good. But the fifteen seconds were good enough, and I clung to them, my only chance for salvation.
In ninth grade we had a class together again and I sat behind her, even though we could pick where we wanted to sit. It was an elective, a blow-off class no one needed except for the credit, so the two of us got tons of time to talk and we’d always been pretty good friends. It was pleasant. She’d gotten her braces off and lost all of the weight she’d put on in seventh and eighth grade. She still had a little bit of her acne, but that had almost disappeared, too. She was pretty, maybe for the first time in her life she was actually pretty. A little later, she was more than pretty and then I wasn’t the only one watching her.
It made me happy talking to her like this and seeing her so happy. But it hurt. It was painful to be around her. To talk with her and to laugh with her. It was so close to being what I wanted, but it wasn’t the fifteen seconds and by that time, I’d realized that I could never admit any of this to her or even have them. The fact that I really did love her and had as long as I’d had memories was just too much. The confession was too heavy to even lift off my shoulders, much less share with her. So it had to sit where it was and bear down on me alone.
Then one day she surprised me. She and her friend Rebecca were talking about the big dance and the theme of it this year and who they were going with. I can’t remember the name of it, or any of the details, but it was the junior high’s pseudo-prom, the one where a king and queen get crowned and stuff. Like, the only serious one we had. Anyway, they got to talking and Rebecca asked her if she had a date yet, and my heart started pounding because I was still jealous of anyone she liked or might have a relationship with. But she said no, and Rebecca shrugged and went back to her desk across the room as the bell for the end of the class rang. There was something too convenient about the conversation, that it had been phrased as it had in front of me, and I sensed a trap.
As we started picking up our stuff to leave, she asked me who I was going with and I said nobody, nonchalantly as I could. Then she asked if I wanted to go with her. I said no because I thought it was some kind of joke or trick and I didn’t want to be made a fool of.
She asked me why I’d said no if I didn’t have anyone and I told her I just wasn’t going, which was true. But it was just another bad excuse trying to cover up my fear, and I think she saw through it that time, if she always hadn’t before. The look of utter disdain in her eyes is indescribable, but I won’t pretend I didn’t deserve it. That was my last chance with her and I realized it immediately. But I didn’t cry or want to kill myself that day. Maybe I’d just matured and become more rational, or maybe I just had shorter to fall. I was an instant away from asking her to dance in seventh grade, and if I had another chance, I think I would have stopped at the door and asked her. I know I would have. But given a hundred chances to say, “yes,” two years later, I would have said, “no,” a hundred times.
She ended up asking someone else smart enough not to turn her down, or someone with a pair of balls and head full of sense asked her. She dated a lot of people in high school, and we didn’t have any classes together and I just stopped keeping up with her. There were other girls out there, and I dated some of them. I didn’t care if they rejected me, and I didn’t care what happened to us. My first time with a girl was with a chick named Bethany in the backseat of my car after a party. Maybe I got my first kiss before I unzipped my pants, maybe after, maybe from a different girl later on. I don’t know, we were both pretty drunk at the time, and I can’t remember much else besides that. I might as well have been drunk with the rest of them. There were never any serious relationships, nothing came of any of them. Most of them broke up with me pretty quickly after they realized I had nothing to give. I don’t blame them and I don’t remember much about them, to be honest.
My senior year I heard she was pregnant from one of my friends who happened to be dating her. It was a big deal for a while because a little after everyone found out she was pregnant, all of a sudden she wasn’t anymore. Some people said she’d had a miscarriage, other people said she’d gotten an abortion, and my friend said she’d just made it up so he wouldn’t break up with her, that she’d done it before to him and other guys. I don’t know which is the truth. I don’t want to.
When we graduated, a guy sat between us during the ceremony, which was nice because I couldn’t have talked to her without it being awkward, anyway. I went to the local university my first semester of college because I wasn’t ready to leave my town yet, and I saw her there a few of times, said, “hi” a couple times, talked to her once. It was awkward. I transferred to TCU the next semester and didn’t see her again for a long time. And that was fine because I met a nice girl there and dated her through most of college, started living together the last two years. We got married, and about a year later we got divorced. Probably for the best. It was a clean break since we hadn’t had kids yet and most of our stuff was separated, anyway. She kept the apartment and I kept the car, which was fine because I didn’t want to live there anymore either.
I’m really not sad, though. It may have only lasted for fifteen seconds, but I had a happy life, once. Most people don’t even get that. Whatever else happens, I know how lucky I am, and I’ll never take what I have for granted. Maybe it was a bunch of years ago, but every time I remember it, those fifteen seconds become just as beautiful as they were then, perfect and eternal. I know we were always meant for each other. In that place, we’re together, and she’s happy, too. It’s heaven, and as long as I remember it, it’s true.
I’m glad I kept walking. For both our sakes, I’m glad.