Hesitation and Fear of Rejection
In the spring after I turned sixteen, one of my plans began to pay off.
Back when I was twelve and thirteen, my father announced repeatedly that he was never going to allow me to drive a car. It hadn't entered my mind until he ruled it out. His steady opposition led me, at the age of fourteen, to start a campaign to get my license. For two years, I made my parents drive me everywhere.
I kept my membership with the national training group at RMSC in order to make my father drive me to their practices at four o’clock in the morning. I trained in the evening, too, to make him take me as late as possible. I asked for rides to the mall. Rides to DC. Rides to Baltimore. To swim meets in other states. To friends at odd times or at inconvenient places. I encouraged my brothers to ask for rides.
Within a year, my mother wore down. She started talking about me driving myself. Not my father. It took more than two years before he relented and allowed me to take a drivers education class.
The course took place in the county school system. Since I normally traveled thirty-five miles to school, I'd never been in my public high school. (My only other public high school class had been typing, which I took it in a different building.) The class started in June on the first day of summer school. I might have been the most excited student who answered 'present' although the others were plenty ready to drive.
I didn't know anyone. There were a few threats in a typical high school way. They didn't matter. I got along with the students well enough. One or two of the guys got as far as being happy to see me. And I found another student who was new, Debi, who was smart-mouthed and liable to punch my shoulder, and we became pals - friends with flirting, really. My mother had gotten me a bicycle two years before as I began my campaign for a drivers license. Now Tucker across the street had gotten a bicycle from his parents, too, and we took rides, seven miles each way, to visit Debi. In contrast to every other parent, including Debi's mother, her father was always delighted to see us and gave us cold beers. I still have a fondness for them because those summer bike rides were hot. And the beer was cold. And the atmosphere was friendly. And Debi.
In the middle of summer when I was sixteen, a lot of things seemed to happen at once. My scholarship money to Sidwell Friends didn't increase to keep up with the tuition. That was the third year in a row. This time, the banks refused to loan my parents anything to supplement the scholarship. My parents took me with them from bank to bank, trying to get me to look bright and angelic, but the financial picture became clear. I needed to enroll in public school, where I had just finished my drivers education class.
My parents didn't let me drive to my school enrollment. But a few days later, I took myself to my first lifeguarding job of the summer. I started to make money again. And this time I wasn't going to give it to my parents. I had a plan.
"I need to cash my paycheck," I said as I walked into a branch office of Maryland Federal Savings and Loan. Inside, the space was narrow, about as big as a double-wide trailer.
"Are you an account holder?" the teller asked me.
"No. How does it work?" For one thing, I genuinely didn't know. For another, I wanted to put the staff in the position of selling me into getting an account with them. I knew that it wasn't strictly legal for minors. (I'd learned it from my previous attempt at a bank.) I also knew that I wanted my own account. I didn't smile. I remained friendly but skeptical as she waved her manager over to talk with me.
He sat down behind his desk, buddy to buddy in his suit and tie. He gave me free matches, a free pen, and he made his pitch. In five minutes, he sold me on depositing my paycheck. He gave me a free book of checks and explained how that worked, too. Now I was sixteen; I had my learner's permit; and I had found a way to keep my money.
But I had to go to public school. It was Jeannie's old school, the one that had scared her. Tucker's school, too. He didn't always like it. As much as I was looking forward to being someplace different, I knew I would have to bluff through. My new summer lifeguard friend, Adam, wasn't in a position to help. He went to our rival school.
"You're here!" Debi yelled when she spotted me in the hallway on the first day. She ran up and gave me a hug. It felt weird to have anyone recognize me. I hadn't thought of it, but I realized then it must have been a relief for her to know someone. We were partners in outsider-ness and she had it tougher. At least I knew Tucker and a handful of teenagers from swim teams. Debi only recognized fellow students from her driving class.
Since she was a junior and I was a senior, I figured we would have no classes together. But we had one, my only elective, Theater.
The teachers were good in most of my subjects. But the theater group was special. We didn't hold the classes in lecture format. We spoke lines from famous plays. We acted in improvs. We got to know each other. The process affected my attitudes towards the other students, some of whom felt bullied elsewhere in school, and I started to feel protective of them. Whatever happened, I was on their side.
"She likes you, maybe," Tucker said after seeing one of the theater girls come over to my locker for a talk.
"Not sure." But I was sure. It was starting to make me panic. I hadn't expected the weird soap opera of trying to decide who liked me best, who I would be able to help, or who would be good for me. Beyond all that I had to wade through the environment of ever-changing packs of girls together, sometimes friends, sometimes suddenly not, laughing with me or laughing at me.
I remembered what had gone wrong before. I'd resolved not only to look for the moment but to make the moment. It couldn't be a matter of waiting for the least embarrassing time to talk to a girl. It had to be talking to her. Making this thing happen. Embarrassing us both. Her turning red with the hideousness of being asked out by me. My voice cracking with courage, shame, and fear. It was going to have to be that way. I had made up my mind. It would take place in front of all our friends and our sneering enemies.
Yet my resolution was weighed down by my habits. I'd known two girls in this school who would have gone out with me after the first week if I'd dared to ask. But I didn't. I was casing the joint as usual, following my careful methods that had experienced no success, waiting for girls to ask me out instead.
After three weeks, I was getting smiles from a few more girls in my classes. After five weeks, I had the sense that I was once again taking too long. Other students were starting to give me puzzled looks.
"So are you going to take out Laura?" Tucker asked as we hiked through a stream behind his house.
"Maybe." My stride took me across a rivulet filled with leaves. "I do like her."
"She's cute. She used to have a boyfriend." He paused before hopping over the leaf-filled rivulet. Five steps later, he reached the larger stream. He looked like he was considering the social scene from a different perspective, as if he had been watching people swimming but now found himself making up his mind about whether or not to put a toe into the water. "Hey, frog eggs."
I'd seen them. When he pointed at the clear lumps, I nodded. They looked like a gelatin spill in the algae on bank of the stream.
"We ought to come back when there's tadpoles."
"Why not Debi?" he wondered after a minute. "She's really fun."
"I don't know. I'm thinking." That was probably the problem, I thought.
"That blonde-haired girl from your theater class likes you. More than the others, I think. Or maybe she just laughs at your jokes a whole lot."
It was a problem. I tried to be funny and to make myself someone girls would like. But maybe that made it easier for me to fool myself. As soon as I said something sincere like, "I really like you," I would be found out.
I knelt to sift through the wet stones along the stream. It had become a conditioned reflex to push them around and take out whatever seemed interesting. Aside from bits of jasper, there was nothing much, just clay, dirt, quartz, and shale. Minnows darted away from my shadow.
"You think she likes me?" I asked. My eyes followed the minnows but my ears were tuned for Tucker. I was relying on him more, lately. He had become my sanity check at school. If he thought girls liked me and he was wrong, well, of course he still could be fooling himself. But he had lesson reason for it than I did.
"She stops by your locker enough."
"Yeah." It was past time to do something. I would never be sure of myself, so I couldn't wait for that. This year I had a car available to me. I didn’t have to badger one of my parents to drive me on a date like I had when I was fifteen. I didn't have to take her on a stroll through the woods. Not that walking with girls sounded bad. Holding hands and kissing in the forest had a certain appeal.
Jeannie came to mind, dying in her car. If I sulked, if I hesitated and missed a chance, I would never get up my courage fast enough.
"She laughed so hard that one time," Tucker continued, "she tripped."
"Oh yeah." Thinking of her face made me smile. She was smart and she thought I was falling-down funny, sort of. She hadn't been hurt the one time she'd tripped. I'd caught her.
"It was cute."
"Yeah." It was. And when I had touched her wrist, I'd been close. She had smelled nice.