It’s really a numbers game.
When I was in high school, there was 1 guy I truly cared about; 3 guys I had genuine crushes on that at some point merged beyond mere flirtation; 4 guys I sometimes found myself lusting after from afar; and 1 particular guy whose death I liked to plot when I was bored. In my senior class there were 127 people I never thought twice about and 1 Valedictorian I had not met once in all of my years of schooling.
Who is our Valedictorian? I asked my friend Annemarie one day as our senior year headed into June and we started wearing tank tops every day and every night.
Scott, she responded, telling me his last name as well.
Who? I asked.
You know, she sighed, that guy Scott. And then she went on to describe what he looked like and which car was his and I just stared at her as not a word that she said sunk in or made any kind of headway.
You’ll know him when you see him, she finally said.
At Graduation, I sat with my friends in the second row and watched as the Principal introduced Scott, the Valedictorian. And when he walked towards the podium and then looked out nervously at the crowd before him, I leaned over my friend Sheila and lightly touched Annemarie on her knee.
I have never seen that kid before in my life, I told her.
I’m going to try very hard not to allow myself to make the connection that I struggled terribly with math in high school (and in college…and now) and how I kind of struggled with some boys back then too, but I have recently become fascinated by statistics – a sentence I never thought I would say – and so now, looking back, I see my former love/infatuation/crush scenarios as kind of a pie chart.
And I do, after all, love pie.
It was just two days ago when one of my seniors got up from the computer where he was working hard on his documentary script that explores the differences between Westerns from Italy and Japan and suddenly asked me if he could go to the bathroom. My students never ask me if they can go to the bathroom; the pass is in the back of the room, helpfully placed above the hand sanitizer dispenser that was nailed to the wall of every classroom during that year when we all were certain that we’d eventually die because of exposure to the Swine Flu, and I tell my students on the very first day of class that they do not need permission from me to go to the bathroom. They should get up, grab the pass, leave, and come back quickly enough that I won’t have to contemplate whether the kid is buying drugs in a stairwell, passed out in a hallway, or suffering from explosive diarrhea in a stall.
That this kid asked permission was odd and that his voice broke as he did it was obvious. He didn’t need to go to the bathroom; he needed to go emotionally break down anywhere but inside of a crowded classroom.
I couldn’t follow him because I had an entire room filled with kids, but I beckoned one of my girls over – someone who is good friends with the boy who left – and told her to go make sure he was okay and to get me if necessary and to tell him to take his time with whatever was going on in his life during 7th period that day. She came back into the room a few minutes later and said that he was okay but that he went to the nurse and I nodded, knowing he wasn’t sick but pleased that he’d found a quiet place to figure out how to get a handle of his whirling feelings.
He showed up back in my room during 8th period to pick up his backpack. I have a Study Hall then, and I think that maybe there are about sixty kids crammed into my room, but I motioned the boy into the hallway where he told me what was going on. The whole thing involved a girl and it was a situation he found both hurtful and confusing and something I’ve learned is that you never tell an eighteen-year-old who is experiencing his own – and maybe first – walk through the depths of emotional misery is that he will get over this and that none of it will matter in the long run. I mean, I’m always tempted to say that because I know that this terrible day will probably not matter in the long run, but kids don’t think in terms of the future; they think in terms of now. I told him to try to embrace that today was just a bad day but that there was a good chance that tomorrow would be better. I told him that it was okay to feel as destroyed as he did. I told him that if the girl asked for space, he should give her that space. And he thanked me and apologized for not meeting his screenplay deadline, to which I just laughed and then he finally smiled and asked if he could come by to talk if he needed to get some things out of his head.
Oh, how I remember those days, those high school days where we were expected to take and pass a Psychology test right after we had seen the guy we liked standing very close to another girl in the hallway, some sophomore. I remember how the early mornings were defined by the phone calls from the night before and how sometimes they were standard and almost brusque and they felt like they were happening due to habit or need instead of want, but how sometimes the conversations were almost whispered and full of the kind of excitement and longing that can only really exist in the days before you could get in the car and drive over to that person’s house and feel the kind of confidence it takes to sit on top of him while you pull your shirt over your head and then shake out your hair as he watches.
There’s something kind of wonderful about being an adult– a good thing for me to try to remember on the day I have to go get my taxes done after work.
Back when I was fifteen, I found myself having a little crush. The guy was in my group of friends and he was cute and thin and he was kind of preppy – most of my guy friends were at that time, though none of my current friends are preppy in the slightest and now there’s just something that I find mildly tragic about a man who wears those J. Crew pants with mini sailboats or whales embroidered on them. But this guy was about sixteen then and he was one of those guys who just knew how to talk to girls. I didn’t know then that what he had was game; I thought he had sensitivity – which means he had a lot of game.
He was the third guy I liked at school. I wasn’t there in ninth grade because I’d spent a year living with my father in the city, but when my father died, I moved back to the suburbs and finished high school there. My district had two middle schools, so there were a ton of new guys to meet once we all landed in the same high school, and since I’d missed freshman year there, I had some catching up to do,
My father had died in August, so it’s clear to me now – to be honest, it was also clear to me then – that I looked for a crush just to take my mind off what could never again become unreal, and I settled first on the tallest guy I had ever seen besides my father, something that should make both Freud and my father roll their eyes at one another in the afterlife. But even though that guy kept coming up to me at parties and asking me to “go for a walk,” I couldn’t do it. I have never been good at diversionary or rebound relationships – I’m still not – and I’ve come to believe that it’s a real flaw of mine.
The next guy I found myself drawn to was blonde and floppy- haired and very handsome, and I really met him for the first time at a party at this girl Amy’s house. It was late September and there was something about the scent of the air that night and one of the songs that was played reminded me of my father in a way that made it impossible to just hold onto something cold for a moment to calm myself down and to remain in the present, and I felt something in my throat almost break and I couldn’t gulp it back down so I walked outside to the backyard – quickly and all alone – and I hunched underneath a tree and wept quietly in the darkness. I could hear the sounds of the party through the glass doors that led to the backyard and I wanted to compose myself fast because none of us drove back then and I had another three hours until someone’s mother came to pick us up and I didn’t want to have to answer any questions or have to say, “I’m fine,” to anyone.
But in the next moment, just as I thought I had fixed my mascara from proving that there had been recent tears, I realized that I wasn’t alone anymore, that sitting beneath the tree with me was the blonde guy who I didn’t really know.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I responded with a smile that I hoped would read as convincing.
“You’ve gone through a lot lately, huh?” he said kind of quietly, and I glanced over sharply at him then because I didn’t even know whether or not this guy knew my name and now it seemed that he knew all about my life.
“I have,” I said with a nod, “and it sucks.”
And that’s when he placed his hand gently on my bare knee that came through my jeans that had intentional holes and looked deep into my eyes and mumbled, “I know what you’re going through – my mom died a few years ago.”
“But your mom is a substitute at school,” I responded with surprise.
“That’s my stepmom,” he said sadly. “And I hate it when people talk about her and call her your mom, because she’s not my mom.”
We sat under that tree for a long while and he held my hand and I opened up about how hard it was just to wake up in the mornings and about how the pain of the loss was searing and unrelenting, but then it would kind of relent out of nowhere and I felt almost guilty about trying to have some fun, and I felt really close to this person who I was essentially speaking to for the first time.
“You’re very pretty,” I remember him saying suddenly, but it didn’t feel weird that he said it; it felt like a kind thing for someone to say to a girl crying under an oak tree during a party.
Just then, through the glass doors, came my best friend and I saw her scan the backyard and sigh with relief when she located me in the shadows. I was happy to see her, but I also found myself feeling a little bit annoyed because it felt like maybe this guy was about to kiss me and I was trying to mentally determine if it was gross or not to let him after we had just talked about our dead family members.
“There you are,” she said happily. “Are you okay?”
She sat down next to the two of us on the lawn and I nodded at her.
Then she looked over at the guy and told him that his mom had been her Spanish sub that day, and I looked over at him to make sure that he was okay after hearing that sentence and I saw him nodding kind of solemnly and I felt him meet my gaze and he smiled at me.
We all got up at that point and rejoined the party and I could feel myself experiencing this surge of happiness and hopefulness that this cute guy got me and who knew what would happen next.
So what happened next? Here’s what happened:
A few days later, back in school, I walked over to him between periods when I saw him standing alone near his locker.
“Hey,” I said with a smile.
“Hey,” he said back.
“I just want to thank you for the other night at Amy’s,” I said. “It was a really shitty night, but you made me feel a lot better and I want you to know how much I appreciate you opening up and telling me about your mom. It’s not like I ever want anyone to know what this feels like, but there’s a part of me that is glad that someone does.”
And then he leaned in and hugged me and told me he had to get to class and I watched him hurry away and I felt kind of puzzled, but I chalked it up to the fact that maybe he was embarrassed about having been so truthful.
He and I never ended up getting together, but we did become good friends. And over a year later, we sat together one night on the beach during a party and we were the only sober people there and he asked me if I remembered that day at the lockers when he had scurried away from me. When I told him that I did, he looked down for a second and then blurted out that he’d all but run away because he had been lying the entire time. His mother? Completely alive. His stepmother who taught Spanish to my best friend? She didn’t exist – that was his mom. The reason he had lied to me without provocation in the first place? He figured that coming up with something we had in common would make me want to hook-up with him more easily.
I don’t even know that his admission caused me to get mad because I was just so stunned that someone would say that he had lost a parent to maybe get a handjob under a tree and I remember that my eyes widened under that moonlit sky and that I heard someone behind us screaming for the funnel and that I just stared at him for a while and then I burst into laughter.
“We both love James Taylor,” I said to him. “Maybe you could have tried to connect with me through that.”
Then we leaned back onto our elbows and looked at the stars and listened to the waves in the distance and he apologized to me and I accepted his apology but I also told him that I would never let him forget that he had done that to me and that I was making a declaration right there on the sand: I would graduate from that school and be the only girl he would never hook-up with. I told him that I’d wear that distinction as a fucking badge of honor and he laughed and said something like, “We’ll see,” because he had been blessed with a certain confidence and swagger that I think might be as important as natural intelligence.
But see, I was blessed with a little something called resolve, and I got through high school without so much as kissing him. It was never a serious thing, but he’d climb on top of me on a bed somewhere or he’d randomly roll on top of me when were all lying down someplace and I’d laugh and push him off.
“It’s gotten to the point that even if I fall desperately in love with you, I will not kiss you,” I’d tell him and he’d laugh. “I like being somehow different from all the other girls.”
When we were seniors, he started dating a girl who was a junior I didn’t know. But one night we all met up at a pool hall – it was a moment – and he walked in with the junior and I smiled at her and introduced myself and she kind of just stared hard at me and then walked away and I had no idea what just happened or why this stranger hated me, and I looked over at my friend next to me.
“Did a girl I’ve never met just give me the nastiest look ever?” I asked Carrie.
“Yup,” she responded.
Months later, that girl was no longer dating him and we both ended up in the same Living Theatre presentation and slowly and surely she began to talk to me and we became good friends.
“I feel like I should tell you why I was so mean when I first met you,” she said to me one day as we sat cross-legged on the floor of the theatre, waiting for the stage crew to sort out the props. “I’d been with him that night before we went to the pool hall and we were at his house and in his bed and he was lying on top of me. And then he literally stopped kissing me and looked right into my face and just stared at me and I thought he was going to say something really sweet and instead he told me, ‘You look just like Nell when you’re laying there like that,’ and decided that I had to hate you.”
I burst into laughter so real and so hard that I can still feel it today and I told her that what was so funny about that comment is that I was probably the only person in the entire school he had never really been on top of, except as a joke. And even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I apologized for having my name invoked in an intimate moment that resulted in her becoming upset.
I haven’t seen that guy in at least ten years, but I think of him every once in a while and I smile at his sheer audacity and the terribleness of his lie and the pathetic nature of his reasoning, but I’m also kind of certain that he would never tell that lie today. And it’s still a great story to tell, so maybe I should thank him.
It was just last week when I spent some time with the other guy I had a real crush on while I’d been in high school. He and I saw each other at the reunion, and we spent a bunch of time that night together talking and he was just one of those people I hadn’t seen in forever but it immediately felt comfortable being together again.
Back in the teenage days, this guy and I had gotten together a few times. (He says it was twice. I say it happened three times, which he swears it did not, and that means that I have no idea who that guy was that I hooked-up with on the night I had been so sure it was this guy.) One time we were on the floor of my sister’s bedroom (she was away at college and it’s a very long story as to why we weren’t in my own bed) and once we were in my bed. I still maintain that we also kissed at Annemarie’s house, but maybe I just dreamed it.
I liked this guy off and on for about a year. The problem was that a bunch of my friends liked him too, and those were the days when “calling” a guy meant that he was off-limits to everyone else and I used to faithfully follow the rules of the game until I finally realized that it was way more fun to make up my own rules. So there ended up being a lot of flirting and a lot of deep conversations and a few times where we rolled around together – one of which was kept completely between us – and many a night where we slept in the same bed and spooned but did nothing else. The night I lost my virginity to another guy, I slept in a bed with this guy. I was mildly freaked out and he was really sweet and comforting and it didn’t feel weird or wrong to cuddle with another guy at that time, though it would feel all but insane to do such a thing today and I would castrate a guy if he did it to me.
Many years later, I found some journal entries I’d written about that night and I texted the guy I’d first slept with and told him what the entries said and we howled with laughter about it all until I got to the part where I mentioned sleeping in a bed with the other guy.
“You hooked up with him?” he asked me, and he sounded genuinely surprised.
“Not that night!” I wrote back, which then opened up a mini can of worms that would have caused total destruction to ensue back in the high school days but only caused giggles now.
Last week, my snuggle buddy from eleventh grade came over. Besides the reunion, we have not seen each other since high school, though we text each other now and then and it’s always good to hear from him. He planned to come over to take me to lunch and that sounded good to me because I had dinner plans at 8:30 that night, so getting together around 1:00 worked.
As I straightened up my house and made sure that there was water in my Keurig, I found myself smiling with the realization that this guy was coming over to my house. He wasn’t coming over to my mother’s house. Nobody would be coming home any time soon. We didn’t have to hide any bottles. And the whole thing felt weird but kind of great, and I sent a text to one of my guy friends from high school who lives in L.A. and told him that I was having lunch with that guy today:
I figured I’d let you know that it’s the mid-nineties today in case you want to blast some R.E.M., pack a bowl, or go wash your jeep.
Send me a picture of you two! he responded – and we did.
He arrived on a day that might very well have been the coldest day of the entire year, so we decided to forgo leaving the house and instead we drank coffee and then iced tea and then a bottle of wine and we ordered in a pizza and we never stopped talking and I looked at the clock and realized it was almost 8:00 so I cancelled my dinner plans and he cancelled his and, when he finally left late that night, we hugged and he told me that his throat actually hurt from talking for so long and I laughed and made sure he was in his car before I turned off the outside light.
There’s something sweet about going back to the past for a little while, and there’s a lot that can be revealed after so many years have passed. I told him the Dead Mother story. He told me the terribly mean nicknames a few of my girl friends were christened with in those days. He called up a guy he is still good friends with – one of my favorite high school boys who I haven’t seen since Graduation – and I got to speak to him after all that time.
“Hey Danny,” I asked, still unable to call him anything than what I called him when we were Muppet Baby versions of ourselves, “do you by any chance know who I hooked up with at Annemarie’s one night? It was definitely during the summer and I was wearing a black dress with bike shorts underneath – stop laughing, it was the style then! – and I was in the back room with Chris, but I definitely kissed someone else a little later that night. Was it you?”
“It was not me,” he said with a laugh, and I’ve come to realize that it must have been nobody because I was never a get-blackout-drunk kind of girl and it seems that kind of scenario, had it actually happened, would have become one for which I would have been loudly judged for – and I wasn’t.
And now I find myself in a present where I look out at a room filled with students. They sit in desks that are in a horseshoe shape because I cannot imagine teaching in a room where the desks are placed into rows and I watch them take tests that some of them pass and some of them fail and I find myself wondering about the percentage of those who will go to college and how many of them have become embroiled in a conflict because they liked the same guy or the same girl and – even today – it’s all still kind of just a numbers game.