The first boy who ever liked me would pinch his forearm when he talked to me. Pinch, pinch, pinch, over and over as if he were in a dream. I’d watch it out of the corner of my eye, curious and kind of terrified. His hair was the color of new car headlights. His eyes were blue like mine. It was ninth grade, and we’d been friends since the fifth grade, when we were part of a trio: James, Annie, and Jenny.
Now, at the age of eleven, it would never have occurred to me to befriend a boy: but Jenny said he was cool, and I was nothing if not a devotee of Jenny. Jenny burned incense. Jenny liked Pearl Jam. Logically, therefore, when Jenny remarked one day “you know, James is kind of cool” I eagerly welcomed him in, and after that the three of us made an occasional team. Mostly recess and lunch — Jenny and I would pretend to smoke invisible joints behind the swing set, or I would draw cats with hard chalk rocks on the black asphalt. None of us were particularly interested in the athletics going on around us.
At the end of the year, our sixth grade class had a picnic, and the three of us abandoned the noisy playground to lay in the grass under the trees, hidden in the long gauze of grey weeping willows. No one noticed our absence, and so it all felt secret somehow: magical and tucked away with the smell of sunshine and dirt. The day had the preemptive glow of nostalgia to it, as though we were already looking back on it, committing it to memory and remembering at the same time. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember it feeling important.
In junior high school our trio disbanded: Jenny started hating me in the random way that junior high girls do (also, let’s be honest, I was incredibly lame), and James . . . I actually don’t know what happened to James. I don’t think I ever saw him again, until our first year of high school, when he started sitting next to me in the cafeteria and pinching his arms.
I tried not to notice. It was easier this way. But one day, my new friend Anna effectively destroyed the whole charade.
“I think James . . . likes you . . .” she whispered conspiratorially.
Anna liked the Spice Girls about as much as Jenny had liked Pearl Jam, which is to say, too much, and the only thing we really shared was lack of respect for each other. (I would say that most of my ninth grade relationships were rough for this reason, but mostly it just taught me a kind of tolerance that would prove useful later in life.)
“Really?” I squeaked.
The crush was thusly acknowledged by two parties, and in accordance with common law at the time became public property. Looking back on it now, I suspect that this is truly what ruined it for me: suddenly action was expected. And what if one action followed another, and another, and another, and suddenly I was doing all kinds of actions I didn’t even want to do? I had a vague sense of unknown rules at the time, and I was constantly afraid of starting some chain of action. Actually, I still kind of believe in unknown rules.
“Are you going to the pep rally?” he shyly asked me one day. “We should . . . sit next to each other.”
Anna, sitting across the table, gave me a look that said “oooooo.”
I nodded because, since I clearly liked him, it was clearly required to nod, and realizing as I did so that the only escape now would be, well . . . physical escape.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins for the rest of the day. Between every class period I scanned the hallways for his face, and when our entire school was shuffled into the gymnasium for the pep rally, I found a group of kids I kind of knew from theater and stuck to them as if we’d been separated at birth. I squished my body between their chattering masses, conveniently placing myself smack dab in the middle of the bleacher. No one, I thought, could possibly sit next to me now. An imaginary referee in my mind called “safe!” and I heaved a sigh of relief.
“Annie!” James called, waving from the aisle. “Hey, uh, so . . . want to make some room over there?”
“Fuck,” I said under my breath.
Incidentally, this was the second time in now-recorded history that I had ever sworn out loud.
In junior high, our school published a directory of everyone’s phone numbers and addresses, and handed them out to everyone. I wound up having a complicated relationship with this little booklet over the years. It was highlighted, starred, full of hearts that were later crossed out, and messages to myself like “are you seriously going to call him? Then “No way!” Then “well good, don’t call him then, because he sucks.”
I assumed that everyone in my grade was equally obsessed with this incredible wealth of information, and that somewhere, perhaps, my name was highlighted, starred, spoken to. The horror. If James called me (which, clearly, he would — so let’s say When James called me) he would ask me out and if he asked me out I’d have to say yes because I liked him, and if we went out we’d have to kiss and all of this would end in me awkwardly and painfully losing my virginity, getting pregnant, and being the pariah of the entire school. Rules, people. You have to follow them.
So I simply made certain that I was never home to receive the phone call. From 3:30 to 9pm, I placed as much distance between myself and telephones as possible: that was five and a half hours to fill, on my own.
There was a swamp near my childhood home — undoubtedly private property of some kind — and I would traipse into it for hours and emerge covered in mosquito bites. I’d go on long bike rides, sit at the river, I’d wander aimlessly in the park, kicking the sand. I was too nervous to read, not focused enough to articulate and write. These were the days before I could afford Walkmans, CD players, before the iPod. I wouldn’t bring anything with me but my house keys, and I’d just leave.
“Where are you going?” my mom would ask.
“Uh, just out. For a walk,” I’d respond. “I just . . . need to, you know, think.”
Now I wonder, did she think I was avoiding her? Was she convinced this was all a part of some rebelling scheme? Note to mother, ten years later: it had nothing to do with you. I was just trying to avoid growing up.
James never called. This could very well be due to the fact that I started ignoring him completely, never looking his way even when he spoke to me. When I saw him coming, I ran. I guess eventually he got the hint.
When we friended one another on Facebook a couple years ago, I realized he’d moved to Boston. “Hey!” I wrote. “Another Minnesotan! We should hang out sometime; here’s my cell phone number.”
He said that’d be great, and never called. Touche.
And to this day, when I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed, I leave the house with nothing on me but my keys.