I’ve been told I’m a hopeless romantic. Forever on the quest for that movie-quality moment of soft, faded lights and soft, sultry songs, when you get the feeling in your stomach of excited foreshadowing and just can’t wait to see what happens. Where you’re almost looking at yourself from afar, because the moment itself is so vast and real that it almost envelops you in the nearness of your own destiny.
In my graduation speech, I talked about High School and the times that we had, and asked when we knew we were growing up. Would it be when our first friend gets married? Or has their first baby? Or was it when we learn to take care of our parents as they did for us so many years before? I remember saying that those days of high school were the good old days, and we should cherish and savor them.
I meant it all. I honestly and truly did. And for a 17-year old who still didn’t know the path ahead, including which college I was going to, it was a somewhat remarkable insight, since now, looking back, those moments of stomach flutters and innocent, honest excited anticipation are all the more sweet and all the more poignant.
It’s the summer nights. It’s the moments of mini-rebellion, when you attempt to purchase beer from the shady old man who clearly knows that you’re a mere 17 but is too drunk or smitten with you to refuse to sell it to you or when you take your beat-up gold Chrysler Caravelle (mine) to the High School parking lot and do intentional donuts on a snow day or when you even just drive around, windows down, in the summer of a small-ish town, scoping for something to do, people to find, and forever the Rusted Root song “Send me on my way” will make you think of that exact moment. It’s the times that you feel alive. And this was one of those times.
It was the summer after my junior year in High School, and I was giddy with the knowledge that there was something bigger out there. Many of my friends were a year older, were heading to college, and I had already made plans to ‘escape’ the high school drudgery as much as I could and join them in the ‘grown-up’ college revelry. They were free — I was as near as I was going to be, and a Cleveland summer thankfully awaited me.
I was blessed. I had dear, true friends who understood things about me that I didn’t like to talk about. Who, without needing to mention it, knew that I had a deeper, more serious side that I didn’t let on to many people and who were privy to my deepest and darkest secrets that not everything was nearly perfect in my world. It was the code of youth — you were there for each other and it’s in retrospect that you finally realize the true value of it.
But, despite anything of the contrary, I was happy. I had a crush. Not just a “tingle-down-your-spine-when-you-see-him” sort of giddiness, more of a “I-want-to-marry-him-one-day” sort of quasi lust-love obsession. He was the golden child — the local star who was not only good looking but was smart, not only talented academically but athletically, and above it all, he was kind. And in a “sign from the Gods” sort of moment, he moved down the street from me.
As suburbs go, ours was of the mid-size variety, with a good school system and houses that seemed to forever get larger, more ornate and (of course), more expensive. It was a “one-up-the Joneses” kind of society — people moved not to change schools, but to have a bigger, newer, better house in a bigger, newer, better development. There weren’t so much as neighborhoods as subdivisions, each with prestigious sounding names like “Balmoral” and “Biltmore Estate” and the like. You traded your older model in for your newer, and, like most things in our town, it was all about status. And that is why the story turned into a fairy tale.
You see, the boy of my 16-year old dreams was a mini-superstar in my eyes. He went to the private, Catholic school known for its football success and, I assure you, every red-blooded gal in town knew who he was. And as for me, I was a peon, a plebian, a pauper in the land o’ high school fame and fortune. It was the relationship version of David and Goliath and, sad to say, I had about the same chances of getting him to notice me as Cinderella had of getting her prince. To say it was a pipe dream is a scathing underestimate.
But, somehow, I did. I was invited to a mutual friends’ Graduation party and, more nervous than ever, I somehow managed to keep my composure (or at least I think I did) and even show up in a noticeable yet respectable outfit. (Trust me on this one — even in my most extreme self-critical moments I would say I think I looked pretty good.) And, by God, it worked. I chatted with him, and, as luck would have it, he was as charming as he was good-looking. I was a goner.
The crush continued.
Days past, and I was getting ready to head off to a summer program at UNC — a 3-week deal where you get to take college classes and live in dorms and basically pretend you’re not just a 16-year old poseur but, in fact, a tried and true pseudo-freshman and should act accordingly. (or at least that’s how I took it.) In one of my typical short-lived fitness efforts, I was going for a jog (or was it a bike ride?) when I received the invitation. Not to the ball, mind you, but something nearly as good and all-the-more monumental and exciting: to the Graduation party, HIS Graduation party.
Now, let me take a minute to discuss the significance of Graduation parties in Northeast Ohio. As we don’t typically have the haute couture and high society-inspired Debutante Balls, and, by the nature of middle-class-Suburbanites to one-up their friends, Ohio’s alternative was graduation parties. Thousands upon thousands were shelled out to ensure that their child’s was the best, the one that would be remembered for days and years to come. The best ones, of course, had alcohol. (Mine had boxes of Wine Coolers AND a band AND a tent AND a torrential thunderstorm so to this day I feel pretty cool.) But I digress…
Giddy with excitement, I had to make the most of this opportunity. It was to be a lavish affair, complete with food, drink (for the elders, of course) and all 138478 members of his family. I was excited, I was nervous, and, above all, I hadn’t the slightest idea what to wear. (Some things never change.) And, as scheduling would have it, the party was on the same night as my good friends’, so I was going to have to go to both. His would be first.
I remember walking to his house, as I have done so many times afterwards, with all my limbs nearly shaking with nerves, willing my feet not to turn around and head home. The night was warm — balmy even — and the clouds threatened rain (which would completely sabotage my tediously straightened hair) and I had gone for the casual look. Attending by myself, I felt both a fraud and a pariah, since I would know few at the party and many there would know of my unfortunately well-publicized crush.
I walked in the door, looking around to find a familiar face, and, amazingly, I found it. He looked up as I entered, smiling, putting my frantic nerves at ease. The party itself was a blur ? I suppose I mingled, I chatted, I smiled the requisite smile, said my goodbyes, and departed for my friends’ other party. It was, in essence, a perfectly lovely, perfectly innocent party. If the story had ended there, it would be a nice, uneventful conclusion to a nice, uneventful happening.
But, if it had ended there, it wouldn’t be complete.
Thus the story continues. Upon leaving, I was told to stop back if there were still people around and, since I was puppy-dog-crushing like no other, I did just that. By the time I returned, the party was dying down. A small group of kids (well, I suppose that’s what we were at 17!) were sitting in the back patio, smoking cigars (that’s Ohio bravery for ya) and even a few beers were being passed around. It was far from rowdy — no chugging, no shots, merely a semi-mature, probably pseudo-intellectual discussion on college plans, current crushes, and our collectively unknown futures.
There was dew on the grass — I don’t know why I remember that — and the night had gotten a little colder, with a slight chill when the wind blew. This was unusual for July in Ohio, but nothing so out of the ordinary that it would necessarily cause me to remember this. But I do. I remember the wetness of the grass when we all decided to part for the night and take the chairs back around into the garage. I remember feeling a little out of place, a little uneasy, since though I had been invited to return, this group wasn’t my own. I knew only one other person, and it was he. And now it was time for me to leave.
As I began to turn towards home, I realized that he was going to walk me there. A few — or perhaps more than a few — drinks under his belt but his manners remained, and for this I was both grateful and surprised. I’m not sure if he even, at that point, knew which house was mine, I was that much of a stranger. I was the girl that he didn’t really know but knew had a crush on him. I realized this all at once, a moment of clarity and insight that made my blush with acknowledgement of my folly, of my overly-romanticized tendencies, of my helpless, lovelorn nature that was sure to be a farce. I had watched one too many fairy tales in my day, and from what I knew of life so far, I’d never seen one come to play. It was pure naivete my part, and I was ashamed. How could I have been so foolish to believe in the happily ever after and the prince on the white stead? Childish.
And then he kissed me.
It was on my front porch, I was completely taken by surprise, and it was as close to magical as anything I had ever experienced in my 17 years on Earth. He said goodbye, and I, like a discombobulated heroine in a typical teen-angst movie, sank into the door, all aflutter with emotion and the perfectness of it all.
For one moment, the stars had aligned and I again believed in Fairy Godmothers and magic wands.
This lends the question “Why now? Why bring this up today? What happened next?”
I’ll start with the last of the three.
What happened next was nothing extraordinary by any means. He went to Football Camp, I went to Carolina Summer, and, save a humorous event including feeding some fish and hot dogs, the romance of one kiss was never rekindled. The “HE” is one of my dearest friends to this day, who I love like nobody else, who is engaged to be married in July. He knows this story (though I doubt he remembers as many details), knows of my all-pervasive, years-spanning crush, and doesn’t seem to stress out about it too much in our nine year friendship ever since. He has listened to me sob like a baby over some dumb guy and assured me that I deserved more, he comes to my family events and I come to his, and he is, for all respective purposes, part of my family and part of my life. At 17, I don’t think I could have envisioned how lucky I would be.
As for the “why now?”, it’s the feeling behind it that I wanted to communicate, the feeling behind it all that I miss. This was just an example of truly living, of feeling alive, of being everything that you were and everything that you are for one true minute. Of understanding human nature and being in the midst of the daily chaos and little moments that make up your life. Of noticing the wet dew on your feet, of looking up and seeing Orion’s Belt, and of being a teenager with nary a care in the world and everything, everything to look forward to. It’s a romanticized view of the past, present, and future, but above all, it was real. It is real. And it’s what living, and life, and love, should be.