There is only one real choice I have as for the first anecdote I present. I would not be doing it - or any readers, or certainly myself - any justice otherwise. This is something very few people know about me, a tale I do not tell frequently. Many would likely believe I am lying, or at least exaggerating, but I insist it is all true. It is my greatest memory and my greatest curse. It will be virtually impossible to tell this without my crying, but I know that it is something I must do regardless. I apologize in advance for its length; this will likely be my longest entry by far, but certainly the most important.
Like most great tales men tell, a woman is involved. Or, more correctly, a girl. The year was 1989 - I was twelve years old when I first met her. Not that 'met' is really the correct term; we were never formally introduced. She was a new arrival at my middle school, in the eighth grade like myself; it was about the mid-point of the third quarter. I don't know the exact date. I wish I did.
Now Portsmouth Middle School, at least at the time, had each of its grades of students arbitrarily divided into two "learning centers", each of which had a distinct set of teachers for basic study topics, which meant that the only time students from different learning centers saw each other at school were special functions; classes such as music, technical drawing, and "physical education"; passing each other in the hallways travelling to such classes; and, most pertinently to this tale, waiting for the school buses to arrive at the end of the school day. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that she was not placed in my learning center.
Maybe I had caught a quick glance - less than a second long - at her the morning of her first day there. I seem to recall a passing blur that didn't look familiar. I wasn't sure what it was I saw then, but later that day during PE there was no doubt as to who I was looking at. As the rest of the class sat down on the gymnasium floor in plain t-shirts and shorts, she stood in front and off to the side without having changed her clothes. It was a different sort of class that day: it was obstacle course time, and that class was spent solely in preparation for it, sitting in front of one obstacle, listening to directions, moving to the next one, and so on. She wasn't actually in that class at that time per se - she was only there to hear the obstacle course lecture. Maybe she had some other first-day-at-the-school issue that prevented her from attending her own PE class that day, or perhaps her PE class had had the lecture the day before. At any rate, that was how it came to be that we were there, myself sitting in a small crowd in a large, reasonably quiet room, and her standing up just a few feet from me.
I had seen pretty girls before - there was honestly no shortage of them at my school - but at that time, when I first had an opportunity to properly look at her, I just stared at her. I was absolutely stunned. Somewhere in the back of my mind I still heard the "teacher" describing the obstacles, and I could have repeated something back if I was asked to, but my ears and short-term memory were on autopilot. All of the conciousness I could simultaneously muster as a twelve-year old was focused on her. There was no one thing in particular I was focusing on; I simply studied the girl as a whole. It's not that she was pulchritudinously overwhelming - there were certainly more physically attractive girls there. I didn't know what it was about her that compelled me, but I had to keep looking, as if determined to find it. I saw her face, her hair, her clothes, her little handbag, the look in her eyes, the way she stood - I kept staring and kept studying, but I found no answers. Sure enough, she soon saw me looking at her, and I did something that, at the time, I had no explanation for.
I kept staring.
I could not help myself. She was looking right at me staring at her, her eyes gazing right into mine, and I couldn't look away. However, she expressed no particular emotion on her face - she seemed not angry, nor beckoning, nor even curious... she just stared right back at me, as blankly as I figure I was staring at her. She looked away after what was probably just a few moments but felt like an eternity.
After she looked away, I felt a little self-conscious, and I looked away myself - but not for long. I found myself drawn to look at her again. Everything I may have ever been told about staring at someone seemed inconsequential - in retrospect, it seemed so natural to look at her. But something happened: I found her looking at me... and she didn't turn away, either.
We ended up playing Stare Tag for the rest of the class. At one point, when I was looking away, I was determined to look at her again and promptly look away when she saw me - you know, like most people are expected to. Well, it just so happens that we chose that moment to look at each other simultaneously, and we both instantaneously recoiled. If I were to watch a movie where that happened, it would make me burst out laughing. Everyone moving as a group from one obstacle to the next broke it up occasionally, but it quickly resumed after.
My sense of timing may be off on this one, but I seem to recall that it was the very next day that I saw her in the hallways, our eyes met, and she presented me with the most beautiful gift I have ever received: her smile. I wish I could remember if I smiled back - I may have been in shock! - but from that point on, whenever we saw each other, we both smiled. Well, with one exception, but again I'm getting ahead of myself.
As noted, we didn't have PE together after that day, but we did have music, technical drawing, and home economics classes in common - classes I very much looked forward to. In technical drawing we had seats facing each other - albeit from opposite sides of the room. We didn't play Stare Tag during class - maybe we had had our fill of it already - but I certainly spent time looking at her. And listening to her, for that matter. She was not very talkative at all, answering questions with as few words as possible, and speaking them slowly. I found her voice as intriguing as the rest of her. It was a rare pleasure, one I was no more able to explain than anything else about her I found so engrossing.
It was about four months all told before the school year ended. The final day, of course, had a special function, with all the eighth graders in the auditorium for a retrospective presentation. After all, it was also the last day of middle school as a whole - after the summer, we'd be high school freshmen. The assembly ended just as our school day did, and all the students left the auditorium through outside doors and made lines at the curb for getting on the buses. She and I were in adjacent lines, and we were each first. I turned to look at her just before she turned to look at me. I smiled. But she didn't. She stared at me, blankly, much the same we did the day we met. I was standing instead of sitting, but other than that it felt much the same - we were about the same distance apart. Then she did something that to this day I have not been able to explain.
She looked down at my feet. Then, she slowly raised her gaze, crawling up my body, until her eyes met mine again.
There they remained for only a few seconds - the longest seconds of my life, during which I'm fairly sure my smile faded. Her bus then pulled up. She turned toward the bus, looked up the stairs, and boarded... and I haven't seen her since.
Not once in the months we saw each other and shared smiles did we ever speak so much as a single word to each other. There was one day, after a "home ek" class, that in leaving I found myself directly behind her in line for the door, and I desperately wanted to say "hello", but didn't bring myself to do so. I was determined to fix that. I spent much of the summer preparing myself for talking to her in high school, but she wasn't there. I found out soon after that she had apparently moved away. I was devastated. Perhaps even my best friends will think me exaggerating, but I am telling the honest truth that I cried in bed each following night for two straight years.
It was only after I learned she left that I was able to figure out what had happened to me - I had fallen in love with her.
So many have tried to explain love. So many words, so many songs, so much speculation. But I know the truth. I know exactly what love is. It is ineffability. It is being rendered unable to explain. When you can't find the words for how you feel about someone, that's love. It took me far too long to figure that out. I had no opportunity to know it before then, but I cannot help but wonder how very different my life may be right now if I knew it when I was twelve years old. Parents often claim to love their children, and for all I know, many do. But kids don't love their parents, no matter how much they may say they do. They have no clue what love really means. True love is love at first sight. There is no other kind.
I want to make two things absolutely clear about my opinion of love:
- it is an incredibly painful disease,
- and having it be reciprocated is its best, if not only, cure.
These are not inconsistent. Two people that love each other, as has often been reported, can grow out of love if they allow themselves to. Of course, what's really important is taking the opportunity to build a friendship. Friendship is a stronger force since it is a conscious one. I have come to value friendship more than love - or at least, that is what I would like to believe. After all, love is capricious, as I've demonstrated. I strongly value justice - love need not be. But there, buried deeply within me, is the glaring truth that has plagued me every day for over half of my life: I have experienced love, in its true, pure form, and I miss it dearly.
Perhaps most painful is that I've fallen in love more than once since then. It happened to me most recently a little over a year ago. I came to learn that rejection doesn't need to be as painful as I'd have generally thought it to be, but other than that, nothing came of it. It just happens. I've gotten rather used to it in my own way; I've come to recognize it when it happens, and I do my best to not be a burden. I accept that there is little chance for a future in it, and I try to suppress the inevitable endless pain it will bring. But I figure it is just as well... as I yet retain hope regarding my first love.
Only one was first. Only one affected me the deepest. Only one, perhaps most importantly, was I unable to look away from. Only one, ultimately, was left unresolved. To this day I have no idea how she felt about me. I have no idea if she ever thinks of me as I think of her. I have no idea if she loved me, nor can I assume if she did or did not. When I think of her, I think of questions: Why no smile that last day? Why smile at all to begin with? Why did she look at my feet? Was she scanning my whole body? Could she possibly have loved me? Could she possibly even remember me? Could she still love me as I still love her?
But what am I to do? How can ANYONE humanly get those questions answered? Even if I were able to locate her, how could I possibly contact her? What can one say after nearly sixteen years? How could I possibly explain all this to her without seeming insane?
All of those are also questions. All these questions will likely haunt me until I lose my life or sanity, unless serendipity strikes. Call me foolish, but I haven't given up. Who knows - maybe this message will reach her some day. Maybe she'll even read it. And maybe, just maybe, she'll recognize it as her own story. Maybe she'll even remember me. And maybe she'll even find herself in the same situation, asking herself questions, wanting to know answers, wanting to know if I'd still recognize her, still be able to look at her without looking away... and wonder if there would be any sense in contacting me, if I would think her crazy for her to try. Well, let me crush that Catch-22 right now once and forever: I'd love to hear from her. No matter how happy or how painful the truth may be, I want to hear it. I'm ready for it, and I welcome any level of contact she would want with open arms.
I withhold her name for obvious privacy purposes. I have told very few, and I'm guessing they've forgotten. I'm pretty sure I never gave them a surname, either. Her name is rare enough that if someone were to give it to me, it would be like Cinderella's glass slipper.
For all that have managed to get this far, reading all of this, I deeply thank you, and I hope you're feeling okay, but I have one last question, and it's for you: Although they were certainly welling up, I haven't cried any tears typing this. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Much like all the other questions I've asked here, I don't dare pretend to know the answer, but maybe you do. Feel free to drop a comment, answering or not, positive or negative, no matter how you feel. Perhaps we shall seek the truth together. - ZM