26
Aug
08

Thanks for the Memories — I Think.

    Hand holding.
If only I actually had this much hair on my arms.

You never know who will track you down on Facebook. An old “girlfriend,” we’ll call her “Judy,” just found me today. “I’m pretty sure we had an official thing going on for at least a week in junior high,” she said. “Do I have the right Eric? Ah the memories of junior high!”

Lord, why did that memory have to be the one to bridge these (oh my god) 18 years? I much prefer to think about my abysmal performance as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in a production of My Fair Lady she staged with another girl in our 7th grade English class. It was a painful (but important) lesson in the need to project on stage. Sing out, Louise!

(Judy has video evidence of this staging — that none of you will ever see.)

“Official.” Heh. I “broke up” with her (oh god, I actually remember this) in biology class. It was eighth grade. My friend Paul talked me into it. She and I had never once done anything boyfriendy or girlfriendy, and it was kind of a joke for anyone to consider us to be “going out.” So I walked up to her during a break in class and told her “I don’t think either of us is taking this very seriously. So, why don’t we just stop it?”

She agreed, somewhat puzzled, “Um, OK,” and I spun on my heels and bee-lined back to my lab table.

It’s embarrassing to think of what passed for relationships in the eighth grade. At that age, I had a few very short-term girlfriends. My parents never knew, because they never lasted long enough to result in a chaperoned movie date or an invitation to a dance. I always went to dances with just friends. No need to kiss anyone or make out in the car afterward. Safe!

My record for shortest coupling is one day. It wasn’t even one day. It was barely overnight. I got a call one night from a group of friends (all girls). These things are always done in teams, aren’t they — one hand cupped over the receiver while nearly audible whispers are shared on the other end of the line. They told me roughly this: “So-and-so likes you. Do you want to go out with her?”

I stammered for a bit, and my back began to sweat. At first I didn’t believe them. This was a joke, I thought. But they assured me it was very real.

I had never considered going out with the girl. (We’ll call her “Sara.”) But there was nothing technically wrong with her. She was sort of unusual. She had unstylish, sort of frizzy hair. She made her own clothes (which I secretly and fiercely admired). But she was smart, and she was popular in my circle of friends. And I had no problem with her. Plus, I was flattered to think that she was even interested.

Well, I thought… why not?

When these arrangements are brokered through a third party, it’s always tricky to know how to behave the next day. A kiss? No, that would be absurd. Holding hands? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. So I played it cool, shyly saying hi to the girl I was supposedly “going out” with and hurriedly passing by.

Sara approached me a little later that morning in orchestra class, a little bravely, I thought. She set her violin down. I looked around me, not knowing what to expect, what do to. “Um, I’m not exactly sure what so-and-so said to you last night, but, just for the record, I didn’t ask them to ask you out for me.”

“Oh,” I said. “So…”

So, we’re not really going out then.”

“Oh, yeah. Sure,” I said.

“So, uh. No hard feelings, right? I hope you’re not embarrassed.”

It was sweet of her to say, because I could tell that she was embarrassed — not about turning me down but rather, it seemed, about having to say anything in the first place. The whole episode must have seemed absurd to her, and I was mortified for having made myself a part of it.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I, er… I guess I didn’t want to either.”

And the truth is I didn’t. But I felt like I was supposed to. And now I wasn’t sure if I was being rejected, or it hadn’t ever really gotten far enough for anything to be rejected. We hadn’t signed anything. She wasn’t exactly reneging. And yet, something was over.

My feelings weren’t hurt. In fact, I kind of felt as if I’d just made a narrow escape. A free man, I found myself back on the 8th-grade market, and I ventured meekly back into the fray. (Which is to say, as a teenage boy, I did nothing.)

When Judy Facebooked me today, she said she wasn’t sure if I’d remember her. The truth is, I do remember a great deal of people. Clearly. Her included. Mostly because I spent so much of middle school observing and not participating. I never carried much teen angst with me. But I do think I channeled what might have been outrage and arrogance and stubbornness into an even stronger sense of fear. Fear of embarrassment, mainly. Fear of failure. Mustn’t draw attention to myself. I felt so invisible in school that I was shocked when I won two of the mock elections in my high school senior year book. (“Teacher’s Pet” and “Most Dependable.”)

Judy and I were never close. (Despite our torrid affair, of course.) How close was I to any one of those middle school kids? How close were any of us? I kinda hated those two years. It was like a cruel social experiment. What a ridiculous proposition to take elementary school kids, shuffle them like playing cards into packs of other kids, some to one new school, some to another, and then two years later, to do it all over again for high school.

Things only got better from there. (What alternative was there?) And now life is pretty good.

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