I remember very vividly this particular moment in fourth grade that I have never once told anyone about because it's both embarrassing and pathetic, but which I honestly recall at least once every few weeks, today being one of those days. I had a horrible crush in this kid named Brian, who was the first person ever to pass me a note during class.
[It said something about feeding a subsitute teacher to a dinosaur, and poor Ms. Burkenblit, I apologize for that now. You were actually very kind and to this day I enjoy saying your last name. Though you never saw it, my response about you being so old you probably knew dinosaurs personally was unwarranted, and reveals an unsavory side of my character that might cheerfully throw a senior citizen down a well in the pursuit of love.]
Anyway, I really liked Brian a lot for a few months, which is saying a lot for being, I don’t know, ten years old? At the apex of my crush my class took an overnight field trip to some kind of outdoor education center farm complex, where we learned orienteering and slept in a big lodge with snakes in glass cages, all in the name of character-building.
My teachers were a couple of wonderful aging hippies, so there was some mandatory fireside singing before bed. I was sitting near Brian, which was really a stroke of luck considering the fifty kids in my class, and the ten or so parent chaperones who sat like pillars among us and easily could have obstructed my view. We were singing Bob Dylan (see, hippies) and I remember taking off my enormous brown plastic eyeglasses and hiding them in my fist. I refolded the collar of my red plaid flannel, which I had ordered straight from the LL Bean men’s collection, and I tightened my low, nerdy ponytail. I looked at the fire and sang earnestly and loudly and did my best not to lisp around teeth that had not yet been realigned by years of orthodontic work.
It’s at that point that I actually remember thinking to myself “Well, this is it. I’m lit by firelight, I’ve got my glasses off, I’m wearing my best shirt, I have a huge crush on Brian, and he’s right there. He’s going to look at me. This is the most romantic moment of my entire life.” I tried to gaze beautifully into the fire for the duration of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and for those three minutes completely reveled in the feeling of my all time number one crush to date admiring me in the middle of a big barn in the woods, in October, surrounded by trees shedding orange leaves down past the windows.
Of course, when the song was over, I looked up and he had been joking with his friend Brendan the entire time. My fantastic romantic moment had been a completely solitary one, and I felt like an absolute jerk.
Since then, I’ve mostly filled that same role as my own unwitting target audience and admirer for similar efforts--haircuts, painted nails, days when I bother to put on eyeliner before leaving the house, perfume, leg-shaving. Brian moved to another country at the end of the school year, and there’s an endless string of boys after him who I would get sick at the thought of, though none of them ever seem to think anything of how hard I’m trying by the fire, or how very much I would like them to come sit next to me while we sing “Heal the World.” Maybe it’s a good, humbling lesson to learn when you’re a kid--that you can’t assume someone’s thinking about you, and that you can’t presume your liking a boy means anything at all for the boy.
It sounds insane to be able to trace all this back to one instant, but I swear it’s true. A chaperone flipped the fluorescent lights back on, they started to snuff out the fire, Brian chattered with Brendan, and I realized (in not so many words) how discrete people are from each other. Thinking about it still makes me feel like a soap bubble caught in a different updraft than the ones blown before it, whole, and solitary, and drifting off.
I see a lot of couples day-to-day now, many of them the dog walkers in my neighborhood. There are also the married co-workers, the happy boys, the many girls I know who move casually between guys and, like the elements at the end of the periodic table, exist in couple state for only a brief time. These are people with gravity, and knowing so many makes me feel acutely more alone in space when eating sesame chicken on the floor of my apartment, flipping through channels, checking my e-mail, checking my e-mail, checking my e-mail, looking at my phone, and realizing, when I look at the time, that I haven’t had a reason to say anything out loud in hours.