Biomythography - Note 27
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection
For two years, I had gotten so self-conscious about my failures and rejections that I couldn't act on anything. It took three teenage crushes and a few flirting affairs for me recognize the pattern for what it was and that I couldn't excuse myself for it. I had to fix it.
I burrowed into a pile of leaves. The scent of them, damp from a fresh rain, smelled like every other fun evening to me, clear and quiet. There weren't many kids in my rural neighborhood. When we could meet up on any summer day, we played hide and seek games in the woods.
"Hi," my neighbor, Jeannie, wriggled down on the ground next to me. She wore her denim jacket.
"Hi." She smelled clean and human, a little like flowers but also a little like her home and her family dog, who she loved and took with her on walks. She had to shut the dog in her house in order to play games like this.
We were both thirteen.
For a minute, we lay next to each other in the dark. The moon shone through the tree boughs. My eyes had adjusted to the night, so I could see Jeannie as clearly as in the day. There were a couple leaf fragments in her curly hair. Her blue eyes blinked up at me, wide.
“Is this it?” she whispered. “Did I walk right by you while you were lying here and I didn't see you?”
“Right.” I smiled. “It’s the flashlight. When you point it at the tree, it casts a deep shadow.”
“And you’re in it.”
Jeannie gave me the biggest smile. She leaned close and murmured more to me about her school. She had too many acquaintances for me to remember. Her experiences sounded great in a way. She knew the other students well. But her time between classes sounded kind of frantic. Something about other girls made her tense. While she was telling me more about them, the kid who was 'it' came up to us with a flashlight. We fell silent. The boy pointed the light at the tree. We moved closer together, shoulder to shoulder in the leaves at the base of the tree.
The other kid gave an exasperated sigh and trudged onward, pointing the flashlight at the trees and hedges.
"You’re pretty good looking," she said out of nowhere. "Are you popular at school?"
"No." I grunted with exasperation. She was being way too nice to me. I knew I wasn’t good-looking.
"Do you have friends there?" she asked.
"Oh, yeah. There are some good ones. I really like them." My heart went out to my closest companions. They were scruffy, sort of, although when I thought about it I knew they were not as bad as I was. Maybe I was the only one so disheveled. Christ, and I hung around them about every second that I could. "They’re good.”
My friends were better than I was but I didn’t know how to say that. It sounded dumb. I always sounded dumb. Just thinking about the stupid things I'd said that day or that week sent me into prolonged fits of paralysis. As we waited in the leaves and grass, I folded my arms.
"Do you like me?" Jeannie asked.
"Are you kidding? You're fantastic.”
It didn't take any thought for me to reply. But as soon as I did, I started second-guessing my words. She was going to crush my heart.
Even as I write about this moment forty years later, I find myself turning away from trying to describe how much she meant. The intensity is embarrassing. On some basic level, seeing her presence on the horizon thrilled me. I was super-conscious of the way she moved, breathed, and leaned in to talk even when I wasn't facing in her direction. Part of me, however, was intensely self-conscious of every awkward and dumb thing I said or did, which in my opinion was every time I did more than breathe. Actually, I couldn't get the breathing right. I was an asthmatic for half of the year.
I wished I were cooler. Taller. More handsome. Then Jeannie could admire me.
"Do you ..." she hesitated. "Do you have a girlfriend at school?"
I had a girl who I liked at school. And although she was thirty miles away and beyond me in all other ways, she seemed to like me. At least, she didn’t sneer at me as much as some others. She didn’t laugh at my JCPenny clothes. I was so terribly class conscious of the richer kids at my school and how much lower on the social ladder I was when compared with them.
I so wanted to be cool enough. Enough for what, I wasn't sure.
“Sure,” I said. Even as I said it, I knew it was wrong. I wanted to be cool, not a liar. Besides, I was replaying Jeannie's question in my head. Something was different about it than I'd thought.
"Oh." Her face turned sad. It was too much to look at. For a moment, I turned away.
I'd done something awful. Again. I could feel Jeannie throwing up a barrier between us. She had been relaxing with me and now she was frightened. She was fragile somehow and I didn't understand how. But right then I understood that I needed to watch myself. I had to look out for Jeannie. I had to care for her no matter what she thought of me and no matter how many stupid things I said or did.
Our shoulders had been touching. Jeannie scooted away.
She started talking about school again. But I could barely hear her words. She had grown quieter and anyway, I wasn't quite listening to what she was saying. It was the change in how she said it. She was on her guard with me like she was with other kids. There was a distance between us that hadn't been there a moment ago. And I couldn't just rush in to close the distance. I was pretty sure that wouldn't work. I had to figure out what was going on. I had to understand how to make us close again.
In retrospect, I should have let Jeannie break my heart. And also in retrospect, it happened anyway and it always would in any circumstance.