Biomythography - Note 27.4
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection
In the late fall when I was fourteen, my neighbor Jeannie moved away to Michigan. Her father meant to retire there. Jean and I had a quiet goodbye next to her house in the woods, where she kissed me. Startled, I kissed back.
"I wish we had done that more," she said.
"Yeah." It was another lesson in social bravery. I mean, I'd been constantly aware that I should have done more than to hold hands with her. I had thought about it every day that the weather was good enough for us to meet outside.
Regardless, Jeannie was gone and I had passed up chance after chance to make both of us happier. The next family to move across the street had a teenager in it, a boy who turned out to become a friend. Soon I was sharing complaints about life with him or we were skipping stones in the creek or exploring ruined buildings and half-finished construction sites. That summer, I got to swim in a league where I never lost a single race. To make it even better, I met a couple of girls who liked to put their hands on me a lot. It was nice. It all felt a lot like I had imagined being human could feel.
Minimum wage that year was $2.50/hour, so that was the rate at which I made my money as a lifeguard in August and September, when the college kids left. My parents had taken my savings to pay their bills, so I started plotting my financial freedom from them. My wages got deposited into a joint account, though. I couldn't really stop them from taking it all, not yet.
My job had social benefits, not just financial ones. Although I was fifteen, I could buy mildly alcoholic drinks on the strength of my marching into convenience stores with a wad of cash and walking out with beer and wine. There were no questions asked of big spenders, I'd noticed. I always got as much as I could share or hide. Even though I relied on an older teenage driver, I never took anyone else into the store with me. I pretended to be the driver myself.
"A whole case?" The older teenagers in the housing development couldn't believe their luck in having me as their beer-toting lifeguard.
"Hide some for me." I didn't really want any. What I wanted was friends.
"Done. My parents never look at the closed shelf above my bed."
Also on my job, I met a girlfriend of sorts. Her name was Mary. She had been banished from Iowa for bad behavior, apparently. Well, that was how she told it. Her parents didn't want to bring her back during the summer. Of course, I still wasn't able to build up the courage to ask her out. That would have meant getting rides from my parents or from her brother.
"We're not taking my brother with us on a fucking date," she told me.
Instead, Mary found ways to get me alone. When I was working, she closed the pool to lock out other guests and stay with me. Sometimes I protested because I worried that I would get fired. Sometimes she convinced me to help her close the doors and lock them.
Fifteen was a pretty good summer.
That fall, though, Mary returned to her parents. She wrote me love letters from Iowa and I wrote some back. Soon enough, the dreariness of winter set in. I knew I would have no more chances to flirt or experiment with girls. I asked my parents and neighbors for Jeannie's address but we only exchanged a single set of letters. She said it was hard for her to write.
On the winter swim team, the coaches separated us into men's lanes and women's lanes. Although it took me a few months to realize it, that put an end to my motivation. I coasted all year. At school, I felt the physical distance from my friends even more. Once or twice, I managed visits to their houses outside of school but it always took an hour to get there plus an hour back. I protested the lack of rides from my parents. I protested the need to ask for rides. But my parents usually told me no anyway. More often, I hiked through the woods alone, or with my brothers, or with my best friend Tucker.
One day, Tucker marched straight to my door. He didn't hang around asking if I could come out.
"My father says he got a message for you," he announced.
That didn't make sense. No one was going to call a neighboring house to reach a kid like me. Then I realized it could be his father's way of saying he was mad about something I did, which seemed possible. His father was mad a lot. And I did things.
Tucker didn't seem worried, though, and he usually was. That made the prospect of parental anger less likely but also more puzzling. When his father was upset the whole neighborhood heard it. I hadn't noticed any yelling. So what else could it be?
"From who?" I asked.
"The guy who used to live here before us."
"Mr. Fisher?" It couldn't be anyone else. My hopes of getting a message from Jeannie rose.
I started bouncing on my feet as I waited for more news. Tucker didn't smile. He put his hands in his coat pockets to keep them warm. He bowed his head.
"My father says you should come over to hear it."
I looked at my jacket but I didn't have the four seconds required to put it on. That would have delayed the message. On the way to Tucker‘s house, I started to regret it. It was nice for a winter day but still, it was February.
Tucker‘s father met us outside the back door of his house.
"I got a call from Bob Fisher. He told me his daughter died." He gave me a long, penetrating look that seemed simultaneously pitying and blaming. He stood tall with an almost formal bearing. His gestures were stiff and uncomfortable as he leaned in and lowered his voice. "He said he wanted you to know."
It took me a few seconds. "How?"
"It was her first drive in the snow." Oddly, he seemed to relax as he said that. With the perspective of time, I realize that Mr. Mostrom was a man who was more comfortable with delivering a safety lecture than he was with the prospect of someone like me breaking down in tears. I'm sure he wanted to avoid any displays of emotion. "She hit the brakes. Her car slid off the road and into a tree."
Then he launched into his safety lecture. He wanted to make sure that his son and I understood about pumping the brakes and other rules of safe driving. His gaze locked on Tucker, then me, then Tucker. He warned us about the dangers of driving and how everyone needed to learn to drive in the snow specifically. He was right about that. It’s a separate skill. But I didn’t know that.
While he lectured, I thought about Jeannie and her last minutes of life in the car, dying.
When he was done, I said something, I don’t know what, but I was struggling to be polite. We talked. He seemed impatient with me. I excused myself and wandered back to my house. There, I avoided everyone and took the stairs down into the basement. I closed my bedroom door and laid down on the floor.
Jeannie’s father had sent a message. That was good, wasn’t it? He knew about my feelings somehow. He knew about his daughter's feelings.
But she had died alone, at night, cold and in pain. Died on the scene, Mr. Mostrom had said.
And I had never spoken up. Had been many times too late. Had worried about what others would think. Had been vain. Had failed even in my moments of courage. Had tried to avoid embarrassment. I had tried to avoid having my heart broken.
She wasn't just injured. She was dead. It seemed ridiculous. And completely unfair. Of all of the stupid things that teenagers do, this was one of the least evil, the most excusable. But for some reason, that didn't matter. And she was dead.
I started to wonder why her father made sure to pass the word to me. It was an odd thing for an adult to do - to be aware of some kind of love between his daughter and me. And for him to act.
It felt like he was trying to tell me something, not just to mourn but not to fail as spectacularly again as I already had. I should have let myself fall for her, completely and utterly. Holding back had been a mistake. If I had ever thought of repairing that, and I had often, it was too late. She was dead. We get one life. Hers was over.
It was my failure to take a risk and get hurt that kept us from being a little happier.