A story in a series of many future stories about how being completely humiliated can actually be good for your character.
So, beginning probably around 5th grade, each year of public school was punctuated by some new crush I had on a particular guy. When I am asked to recall moments from my academic career — say, my older son wants to know what subject I liked least in junior high, or a book club discussion on next month’s selection includes an informal poll of who among us read Lord of the Flies in 10th grade — I instinctively do a mental image grab of “the boy I liked” at that time before proceeding into more relevant territory.
To this day, I cannot form my imagination around any experience from 1989 to 1995 without a phantom bouquet of Drakkar under my nose. My memories of school are literally ushered in on the arm of an infatuation.
In order to set this story up properly, you needed to know this about me.
You needed to know that my many crushes were crucial to my entire experience as a whole person — as a human being.
I’m not particularly proud of this, but it was my truth at that time. And yes, I have completely evolved since then.
So, it couldn’t have been more than one week into 9th grade — my very first year of high school — when I recognized the guy who would be “it,” at least for the foreseeable future.
Two years older — a Junior (!) — he was tall and had these amazing blue eyes that were framed out by the rim of a methodically sculpted baseball cap.
He was just the right mix of disengaged (he was cool!) but not totally aloof (he wasn’t disturbed!).
He wore a braided gold chain around his neck (yes!)
He played football (double-yes!)
We were in the same Spanish class, and I sat right behind him. Most of first period was spent staring at the back of his perfectly tanned neck, breathing in generous wafts of Drakkar and wondering if it would be too forward of me to reach over and tuck in the shirt tag that was always flipped up and out of his collar.
I decided maybe it was too forward, and settled instead for resting my feet on the bottom rungs of his chair. Close enough.
I don’t think we said more than three words to each other, usually mumbled when he turned around to pass assignment sheets down our row.
“Here,” he’d say.
“Oh — thanks,” I’d reply.
See? Three words exactly.
There was the occasional prolonged eye contact, but at 14 years old, what was I to really make of that?
Sometime around the end of September, the whole “does-he-like-me-maybe-too-or-at-least-perhaps-notice-me” tension broke in a scene worthy of a teen-aged TV dramedy. Think: My So Called Life. It was that good.
Our teacher was calling on students to stand up and say something — anything — in Spanish. Unable to hold our attention throughout a rote lesson on conjugating verbs, it was now necessary for her to shake things up and put us on the spot.
“[Guy’s assigned “Spanish name”],” the teacher called. “Up. Up. You’re next”
The Guy I Liked stood slowly from his seat. He stuffed one hand in the pocket of his Cargo shorts, while the other hand cupped the back of his head as he took a long cool moment to consider his words.
Please let him think of something that doesn’t sound stupid I secretly begged, wanting at all costs to avoid witnessing a falter from the pedestal I had set him on. This crush was just warming up, and I needed for it to continue.
Twisting himself slightly toward me, he released the hand that was touching his head and swung it in my direction, as he said:
“Lorena (my Spanish name) es muy bonita.”
And there it was.
When I was finally able to recover from the exhilarating shock of this very public confirmation that the feeling was mutual, I emerged slightly less hesitant about how to handle careless shirt tags and the accepting of assignment sheets being passed back.
In the days that followed, the two of us continued to nurture this growing affection, he, making smart-ass remarks aimed at entertaining me during class, I, relaying my approval with stifled giggles and playful swats to his back.
By early October, it was assumed that he would turn around and shove his desk against mine to partner up whenever group work was given. It was also assumed that we would spend most of that time socializing or scribbling nonsense profanities on each other’s worksheets, feigning disapproval as we worked to erase the offending marks and then prod each other to do it again.
From what I could tell, all signs seemed to point in an encouraging direction.
Now, amidst all this intoxicatingly delicious encouragement, and most likely precisely because of it, my best friend began to plant within my impressionable young mind the seed of a possible Homecoming invite. The big dance — arguably on par with or even slightly above Prom in social significance — was scheduled for the end of the month.
“Laur, I’m sure he’s going to ask you,” she’d say during our near-daily after-school phone calls.
“I mean, duh — he’s totally gonna ask you.”
“No…. I really don’t think so,” I’d respond, halfway meaning it.
“I’m just a Freshman. No way. Besides, like, it’s already October. And he hasn’t really said anything to me, or hinted, or anything.”
“Want me to talk to him?” she would ask. “He lives in my freakin’ neighborhood — I can ask him about you if you want.”
Anxiously pacing the perimeter of my kitchen table, I allowed the telephone cord to criss-cross in a tangled web around my core. A makeshift lasso to help wrangle my nerves as I worked out a coherent plan.
“No! God, no — don’t do that. No!” I’d beg, insisting I would just about die if she were to tip our hand like that.
“Our” hand. Camaraderie is priceless, no?
“Well….I don’t know. What would you say, exactly?”
And so it would go, round and round, back-and-forth, the two of us negotiating the terms of the deal. I don’t think we ever came to an acceptable conclusion, but playing out imaginary scenarios was almost better than playing out real ones, so these conferences were not exactly wasted efforts.
And then one day, she called me completely frantic.
“Laur — I talked to him. I was out walking my dog, and he was driving in to the neighborhood, and, like, he stopped, and we talked and he asked about you!”
Finding it hard to draw a substantial breath, I could barely get the words out.
Oh my God. Oh my God! My mind was racing.
I pushed the phone against my ear, not wanting to miss even one voice inflection as I instructed her to articulate every last detail of the exchange.
What I got in return was proof positive that I was, in fact, (most likely) going to be asked to Homecoming. He had mentioned me. He had asked if I was going to Homecoming with anybody. It was then insinuated, somehow, that he might want to ask me.
Oh my God. Oh my God!
In the days that followed, I may have mentioned the possibility of having perhaps secured a Homecoming date to a few friends. I may have declined an invite or two from other guys, fully anticipating being asked by “my” guy. I may have also told my mother, who then asked if we should start looking for a dress.
“Not yet,” I said. “Maybe this week, but not yet.”
It was two weeks from Homecoming when I got the phone call.
I was in my room, blasting “More Than Words” on repeat, likely dramatizing the advent of our first sexy problem in my mind, when my mother cracked open the door and poked her head inside.
“You have a phone call,” she said with that kind of expectant look that, upon further investigation, seems to be the harbinger of impending disappointment.
Parents too eager to share in the development of your good fortune almost beg fate to hand you an embarrassing blow to the collective ego.
I ran downstairs to the den and picked up the phone. My mother retreated to the laundry room — adjacent to the den — where the walls are thin and she could listen in while pretending to fold clean clothes.
“Hello?” I said as calmly as I could.
“Um….yeah. Hey, it’s [The Guy I Liked’s name].”
“Oh, yeah. Hey. What’s up?”
“Um……yeah. Like, I’ve kind of um…..heard from a few people that, um…..you think I’m taking you to Homecoming?”
….you think I’m taking you…. ….heard from a few people….
Those words — along with the punctuating question mark that begged a response — they were a completely unexpected force with which I had no fortitude to reckon.
Oh, God. This is so…..bad
My heart dropped to my gut, where the acid went to work, pulling apart its sinewy fibers one at a time.
My cheeks burned so hot that my face went numb.
I tried to attempt a save:
“What? Uh….no. I don’t think you’re asking me to Homecoming.”
I heard the mild rustling of laundry cease, as my mother undoubtedly felt the need to listen harder.
“Yeah, well, I heard from some people at school that you were going around saying we were going to Homecoming together. I just need you to know that we’re not. I’m taking [Name Of Girl He Was Taking Instead Of Me].”
….you were going around saying….. ….I need you to know we’re not….
In my mind’s eye, I saw myself, sketched out by an artist instructed to draw “pathetic” personified. This ugly little version of me was “going around saying” like a fly jumping from one rotten picnic sandwich to another.
I froze — just completely froze — stuck in this yucky, awful, humiliating moment with yucky, awful, humiliating images of me imprinted on my imagination.
But I had no choice. It had to finish playing out. And I was going to have to feel the entire weight of it happening.
“Muy bonita” my ass.
I was being officially not invited to something. Is that even possible? Even the sentence construction looks wrong.
Regardless, I was being officially not invited to something, and I had to participate in my own diss. I had to acknowledge it and then respond. While my head was spinning and my gut was eating away at my heart, and while my mother listened in to the whole thing, I had to come up with something to say that would provide at least a marginally graceful exit to this conversation.
I wanted nothing more than to retreat to my bedroom, scream into a pillow, and avoid looking at my reflection in the mirror for at least the rest of the day.
But I managed one last denial before he reluctantly hung up, at least somewhat convinced that I would not, in fact, be running up to Masters Tuxedo to rent him a vest and bow tie that would match my dress.
And no, thank the Lord, I did not have a dress.
I can’t remember exactly what happened next. I know I reviewed all the sordid details with my friend, while I did not review any of the sordid details with my mother. Upon my return to school, I executed a strategically pleasant avoidance of The Guy I Used To Like — you know, acting “not pressed,” without looking like I was trying too hard to act “not pressed.”
Days turned to weeks, which turned to months that brought new crushes on better guys.
Life moved on.
While this humiliation is a 20-year-old memory, softened by time and wisdom and the fact that I quickly went on to much bigger and way better things (and that, two years later, after kissing this guy in the bleachers during a football game, I could sum up the entirety of what I thought I had missed two years prior in one word: yawn), it was an important teachable moment with unexpected value.
This was the first in a series of life lessons on not taking yourself too seriously, on not living on assumptions alone, on not idealizing men beyond realistic capacities (which calls for limited expectations, by the way)….
And — perhaps most importantly — how it is, in fact, very possible to be officially not invited to something.