When I was in the fourth grade, I had a terrible crush on a guy named Aaron.
Aaron was the realization of all of my preconceptions about what a good boy should be. He was tall and blond and blue eyed and played basketball and read Stephen King novels. My stomach twisted and my heart pounded every time I saw him. Sometimes, I couldn’t even breathe. I’d see him and try and leave the room. I’d go out of my way not to look at him. But sitting there on the other side of the classroom, seeing him out of the corner of my eye, I wanted desperately for him to want me. I wanted him to see me even though I never looked at him. I think some part of me believed that if this socially perfect person wanted me, it meant I was worth loving. It meant I was worth something.
In fact, Aaron seemed to “date” every girl in the fourth grade but me. There was a new girl he was out hand-holding with every couple of weeks. I’d go home and try and figure out what, exactly, it was about these girls that drew him to them. God knows I knew what drew them to him. What I realized is that these were perky, fun-loving, sociable girls; you know, the sort who actually *talked* to him and *looked* at him.
I was filled with a sense of despair. I would never get this guy’s attention. He didn’t even know I breathed air.
Which was why it was so strange when we were put in the same desk grouping and… he started talking to me.
We talked about Stephen King novels, which he brought to school and which were subsequently confiscated by the teacher. When he saw that the notebook I worked in all day was a writing notebook, he started talking to me about my writing. Mostly, I still did not look at him. I feared that this interest was his attempt to gain more information about me so he could use it against me in some kind of cruel playground joke. I figured he was trying to figure out if I liked him so he could shame me in front of the class.
My experiences of playground harassment primarily centered on jokes about my weight and the fact that I read too many books. I tried to avoid all of this by becoming invisible. By not looking at anyone or talking to anyone but “safe” people like my friend Matt, who also read too many books. This did not eliminate the harassment all together, but it did reduce it.
Maybe some part of me believed that if this beautiful boy wanted me, it meant people wouldn’t tease me anymore. He would wave a magic wand and cool status would magically wash over me and people would leave me alone.
Eventually, we talked even outside of class, mostly, again, about writing. I was still really confused about the attention, because he didn’t try and date me. He was still dating every other girl in the fourth grade. He showed no romantic interest at all. It was like I was invisible in some other way.
And so I pined for him, and by some stroke of fate, his mother ended up working at the same place my parents worked, and our parents became friends.
By some miraculous miracle, his family went on a vacation to Disneyworld with my family sometime later – sixth grade? When I was still hopelessly pining after him (years and years – I didn’t like anybody else until eighth grade).
But this was not the great, magical vacation I’d imagined in my romantic brain. Aaron spent most of the time talking to my younger, blond sister, and there was no deepening of conversation or talk of intimate liking. No, it was all buddy buddy ha ha stuff, and while he ran around thinking we were great buddies, I felt like I was dying.
When his parents bought a plot of land out in Camas, WA my family bid on a house just down the road from them. The owner ended up refusing our offer, and once again, my pre-adoloscent fantasy of living down the road from this guy who was my friend, who would one day just magically grow to love me because we’d live down the street and hang out all the time and go exploring the woods together and read books… that didn’t turn out either.
I switched schools in the sixth grade, and then his mother got another job, and so I didn’t see him anymore. I’d hear a thing or two, but mostly, I got wrapped up in my new life at the new school where the teasing was a lot more brutal than the school before and I had no friends, not even bookish ones like Matt, to act as buffer to the gangs of asshole boys looking for people to harass.
The funny thing is, I didn’t forget about Aaron. I wrote what amounted to Aaron fan fiction, where I had these characters based on him, and he was this stable boy and married this scullery maid who turned out to be a princess, and she was much prettier and smaller and skinnier and much more likable than me, and in that universe, everything was as it should be.
I found some other hopeless crush to pine after in the eighth grade, another physically perfect, too-popular boy, one who really didn’t know I breathed air, and I spent my time until high school pretending he was really great. It’s easy to pretend people are really great when you don’t actually know them or spend any time with them.
And still, you know, I’d listen for news of Aaron, and once we got AOL, I’d do an online search for him on occasion.
So life moved on, and I battled through highschool and my first relationship and staggered home from my attempt at living away from home in Bellingham. I dropped the weight I’d gained during my long pill-and-relationship depression and gained some self-esteem. I’d applied to the U of Alaska in Fairbanks and been accepted. I would buy my one way ticket at the end of the summer.
I was working 30-40 hours a week at the local movie theater by now, saving up for the move. It was a good job for me. I liked it. I could clean that fucking popcorn popper like nobody’s business. I worked during the midnight showings of Star Wars.
And one day I’m working at the concession stand and there’s somebody three people back in the line. I’m doing my best to concentrate on my customer, but I’d spent so many years seeing Aaron by not looking directly at him that I knew him even before someone in a shorter line called to him and said, “This line’s shorter!”
“Oh,” he said, “that’s all right. There’s an old friend here I want to talk to.”
The voice clinched it. I knew him. It was Aaron. And after, what, six, seven years, my body reacted in exactly the same way. Sick terror. Pounding heart, breathless, knees weak. I composed myself. I would not look at him. Prepare yourself, I thought. Prepare for this. Be strong and confident. Don’t let him see it.
Because if he knew, if he had any idea of my need, my desire, it meant he would know he had power over me. I hated that need. I hated wanting him to want me, especially after all this time. How could I want that? How could I want that sort of validation from somebody I didn’t even know?
I helped the next customer, and then there he was, standing in front of me after all this time. Still tall, blond, blue-eyed, beautiful.
And, I noted, now wearing glasses.
Which made him so much more incredibly hot that I nearly lost my feet right there.
Instead, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Hey there. I see you managed to acquire some dork glasses.”
This was the greeting I gave to the one guy who could make my knees weak after an absence of seven years.
He laughed and touched them, a little self-consciously. “Yeah, it was getting to be about that time.”
“I like them,” I said.
He invited me to lunch to “catch up.” He gave me his phone number.
I thought I was going to die.
We met for lunch at Shari’s, a local diner chain, and talked and caught up. He was, of course, engaged, which I noted immediately when I sat down, because he was wearing a ring (this had completely escaped me during the hasty theater meeting). He and his fiancée were going to be going to school at Washington State University in the fall. I told him I was going to Alaska. He looked wisful.
“And you still write?” he asked.
“Of course. I’ve sort of published a few things, but no books yet.”
His father had wanted him to major in engineering, but he’d decided he wanted to be an English major.
“Where the hell did that idea come from?” I asked.
“I just had this epiphany,” he said. “I looked at my life and realized what I really wanted to do was be a teacher, teach English. I’ve always loved writing. I always admired your writing. I mean, you were always really committed to doing what you loved. I admired that.”
I raised my brows. “Wow,” I said, “you’ve learned a lot since the last time I saw you. You just used a word I don’t know.”
“Epiphany,” I said.
He grinned. “You don’t know what epiphany means? It’s like a profound realization, like when you find God or something.”
Epiphany. God I could take or leave, but epiphanies, yes, I figured I’d had a few of those.
We ended up going out to dinner a few days later, and I remember how proud I felt to walk into the restaurant next to this guy, this beautiful guy, and ask for a table for two. Yes, I wanted to holler to everyone in the whole restaurant, yes, I’m with HIM! And he’s going to be an English major! And he likes me!
And, Kameron, he’s engaged, and he thinks you’re his “old friend.”
I knew that, knew all of it, of course, but those old scenerios were playing out in my head, all those old fantasies. We would sit down and get to know each other and he would realize how wonderful I was. He’d realize what a mistake he made in never dating me. He would want me. And when he wanted me, I’d be able to tell him I’d think about it, I’d…
If he ever did want me, what *would* I do?
Did I *really* want him to want me? Once he wanted me, what then?
We talked over dinner, and had one more lunch date a week later, when I purposefully dressed down and started getting pretty snarky. I don’t remember what I said, but I was starting to get a little mean, I think.
And at one point he said, “You know, during gradeschool, I always thought you put me on some kind of pedastel. I’m not this person you think I am. Sports? Sure, I played sometimes with some guys at recess, but mostly I hung out with Ned or talked to you. I wasn’t popular. I was the new kid. Didn’t you know that?”
I had to admit that I didn’t.
“I always thought of us as friends, and I always found you attractive, and maybe we would have dated, but if never happened, you know?”
No, it didn’t. But it wasn’t until later, when he had to call and cancel what would be our final scheduled lunch date because he needed to do something with his fiancee and I felt this huge wave of jealousy and anger that I realized that what I was doing to myself with this whole “let’s pretend I feel merely friendly toward you” thing was really just a big clusterfuck horrorshow.
It was like I was some kind of masochist.
I had spent the entirety of my time wanting men who didn’t want me and pushing away the ones who did want me, and even the ones who wanted me? If Aaron had broken everything off and come crawling up to me and said I was always the one, the love of his life? I would have pushed him away too. I would have pushed him away for all that unrequited bullshit playground crushing I did, all those perceived hurts I caused myself because I wouldn’t look at him, I wouldn’t talk to him, I wouldn’t wise up and find somebody worth my own love instead of sitting around waiting for somebody to find me worthy of theirs.
It wasn’t until years later, when I actually fell in love with someone and went through the whole process of desire, realization, terror, need, and finally, acceptance that I realized that this wasn’t actually what love was, this need for approval and worth paired with desire. No, that was just need and desire.
Love was something else entirely, some kind of acceptance of feeling: yours and theirs, whether or not it was requited. The first time I fell in love, it most definitely wasn’t requited, and the process of me coming to terms with that felt a hell of lot more like love than the twisted clusterfuck that was “Oh why won’t my gradeschool crush please like me for realz!”
It’s a funny thing, that terrified need. I think it’s the first step toward realizing that I’m in deep trouble. In some cases, all there’s going to be is that terrified need thing, for ever and ever – seven years and more. I’m sure if I saw Aaron today, my body would react in exactly the same way. But I no longer have that need for him to find me worthy, to desire me, because I know that even if he did, there was no future in it. There was and never will be an “us.”
There’s an episode of “Rome” where one of the soldiers says he wants his wife to love him not because he loves her but because if he loves her and she does not love him, it makes him her slave.
I think sometimes it can feel like that.
That unrequited crush of mine? He and I are still friends. I still care deeply about him. The feelings don’t go away; they’re just warm and cozy now; no longer needful or terrified. I learned to accept it a long time ago.
It’s the terrified need you get when you’re about to fall. It’s up to you to decide if you want to continue to stay needy and terrified, avoid the object of your affection entirely, or fall.
It’s your call.
Today, I had an epiphany.