nfortunately, along with the cast-iron coolness of adolescence comes the embarrassing romantic entanglement. The one you can’t justify, rationalize or defend. The one that gets you pity looks and pained laughter. The one you’d like to skip over. The one you hope won’t stand out in your memory.
I went to a middle school that sung melodies to unspoken words and painted stars on the toes of our shoes. They let us express ourselves through art. We were encouraged to be whoever we pleased. They told us relentlessly that we were special and then left us to fester in our specialness, never really telling us why or what to do with it. This produced some of the ugliest and most beautiful people I’ve ever met. In seventh grade, a robust, bronzed-skin boy with abnormally big lips got to know me through some associated friends. A few weeks later, on Halloween afternoon, his dubious boy-voice asked if I would go out with him.
This was Hey and he was a year older than me.
It was a bit of an ordeal to answer, because that year was a bit of an ordeal to answer and people were influencing my brain more than I cared to fight off. In the end I gave him a promising, “Sure,” and busied myself back into my locker.
It was a strange groove to slide into, but once I got used to it, things went on in agreeable patterns of sunshine and overcast. We had a handful of things in common, but he was a bit up in smoke. That’s probably the only thing that set us apart. He strummed me Jimi Hendrix over the telephone and skateboarded and held my waist and kissed my face. It was a good time, far less complicated than the other relationships around me. Because in those days, the philosophy was, “Drama, drama, drama! This is all we really have.” Because of this, everything was in a constant state of chaos. But not us.
We’d go to movie theaters and sneak into the dumb ones, hide in the back. We’d make out under stairwells and behind office buildings and in photo booths. Just because it was new and we could. In a basement on rainy days, we watched bad television and walked to get ice cream and steal plastic spoons. We talked about names and origins and people. He had a juicy brain, knew a lot about things and music and the world. I didn’t need to over-articulate for him to understand.
Sometimes we’d find ourselves at local shows, though I wasn’t really into all that yet. Sometimes band practice, sometimes sitting on high railings with Ducky and Slurp, watching all the other people mill around like dispirited ants. But I got nervous. All at once I was uncomfortable with the way things were. And my body. Or the new accent he added to my life. I writhed under his hands. His friends, with their skateboards and disproportioned and hormone-slapped faces told me I was prude and boring. And finally we started acting our age: “Drama, drama, drama. This is all we really have.”
We hissed into fights that you could call stupid and all I remember now is the constant sound of my voice, slack-jawed kind of tired, saying, “I don’t know Hey, we’ve been going out for a while, let’s take a break...” A constant of rainy, gray melodrama, most of which was caused by me not thinking for myself, of other people putting their fingers in my head and me just loosening my grip.
One of Hey’s best friends was Candy’s boyfriend, Kurt, and sometimes the four of us got together to sit awkwardly in dark rooms, listening to Nirvana. One time, while Hey and I were in a slump and I’d stopped returning his phone calls, I agreed to go with Candy to Kurt’s house as long as she didn’t make it uncomfortable for me. When we got there, Hey opened the door. I looked at Candy, exasperated. She just smiled. The four of us climbed onto a huge trampoline in the backyard and bounced. Knees bent and forearms flailing because we couldn’t think of anything to say. Candy wrapped herself around Kurt with sticky-gloss kisses and slippery rainbow legs. I sat opposite Hey and he stared at me shamelessly. I looked at a brown spot on the side of Kurt’s house. We started bouncing again. He playfully trapped me on the mesh rebound, but I withdrew with a sharp sneer. He retreated sheepishly.
I was thirteen. The rest of them were fourteen.
The entire school year was damp and marshy, like cold oatmeal. I felt weighed down. Everyone seemed to be growing up without me. I was surrounded by a halo of sickness and shifty older girls and my hand reaching back into the dark, searching for things I may have forgotten. Hey topped it off like heavy chocolate sauce. Or tar.
A lot of people thought he was an asshole, but he was just a dumb, sad boy. And dumb, sad boys were often mistaken for assholes. There was a difference. Dumb, sad boys were perfect to lounge under blankets with and assholes were not. And despite the turmoil, I liked him. I liked his hands and his smile and his words and the ruffles of hair that crawled around his head. I liked his mindset. He was the only other person I knew that had to travel back and forth between two families. Finding someone I could relate this to was freeing. It made my experience seem more real. He claimed to have loved me, but during those times everyone seemed to be obligated to label their feelings hastily. Maybe this was because we needed at least one thing to be solid, because we were surrounded by so much inconsistency.
I remember during another in-between phase, sometime in February, it was raining hard and we were locked outside the back doors of the school at dusk. We hadn’t talked in a couple weeks and my heart was pickling in my throat. We didn’t say anything, just looked at the slate walls past each others heads, stooped under a doorway. I must’ve finally looked at him and slid my arms around his waist, and he must’ve done the same. We stood there behind a sheet of rain, a sincere attempt to save each other from all things unspoken. His earthy-boy-smell burned my throat. He kissed me and ran his hands along my arms.
“I don’t know how to stop liking you,” he whispered. But that wasn’t the problem. Our problem wasn’t each other. Life is hard when you don’t have any control over what happens to you. It’s easier to pretend the conflict has to do with the other people your age. We all pretended that. That’s why there was so much absurd drama. Only it wasn’t absurd, it was survival. It was ours, it belonged to us.
Our existence went on in scattered e-mails and shy back-togethers and messy French fries. Breaks with flings and smoke rings. All the while bombarded with paparazzi teenagers, killing my zest: “You deserve better.”
“He says stupid things in class.”
“I think him and Hanna have something going on.”
“I hate him.”
“He kind of looks like a fish.”
I couldn’t deny that one; it was widely known.
By the end of the school year, there was this girl that made things bad. But on the last day of school, in the back of 7th period, Hey lay his head on the desk and faced me. He took my hand, smoothed it and smiled. As the sky turned rosy with the evening he skated away in a flock of testosterone driven boys, kissing my cheek and disappearing with, “I love you, ok? I love youuuu.” He looked at me with one eye and then he was gone.
The summer ate us is a few short bites. The girl who made things bad, turned things worse. He canned me, or I canned him and then we didn’t talk and I think he unbuttoned her pants. To show everyone how much pride I had and how right they were about him, I went on pretending like I didn’t care. Not one bit. Because it was old or useless or something according to everyone else. And since I couldn’t get anyone’s comfort, I didn’t need them telling me what a large mistake I had made.
In July, as I was painting my front hallway white, he called. Things were mended by the toxic fumes and a stupid song that was stuck in my head. And he loved me. We found ourselves eating Crispy M&Ms in an air-conditioned movie theater. Fountain running and blues music on the waterfront. We laid in the grass, eyes closed toward the sun. Unzipped things and my shirt coming over my head. Later that summer we had a gap of time where our fingers didn’t touch. I was in California with Slurp and he slipped through the cracks he’d been teetering along. He was lost in drugs and different hands. When that gap finally closed, and rumor practically screamed, “Stay away from fish boys,” Candy, who had been sworn to secrecy, erupted about a girl who’d been coming through his window every night. A big, messy sexual scandal that felt like flying off a swing set and landing on my stomach. But, you know, I didn’t care. He was just. An. Asshole.
He picked up and moved on into the next world, dusting me off the collar of his soft, cotton shirt.
Summer hummed on with tendrils of rose-colored exhaust. I didn’t talk to him or see him. He blitzed me with negativity online, which I thought was normal. I thought this was what boys did.
Those sad, dumb boys.
One night he was going on about his happy-birthday fuck with Violet, the cyber-glory-dyke of everyone else’s life at the time. He blathered about his perfectly constructed life and how meaningless I was. And had been. I knew it must’ve been his own crass way of surviving, so I swallowed it all and cried a lot. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then, but Hey had been my friend, and now he was gone.
Adolescent love affairs are underrated. By us, by adults, by us because of adults. This causes people to denounce things like “true love” as early as thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. But if you get your feelings hurt in a way that leaves you gasping for air, waking your parents up in the middle of the night and failing to articulate exactly which direction the punch came from, it doesn’t matter if you’re in middle school or nursing school or a retirement home. Maybe we’ll make the same mistakes over and over again, until we learn how to overcome circumstance.